Two Methodist pastors from Portland are among the leaders of a national movement to officiate marriages for same-sex couples, despite the denomination’s longstanding prohibition that condemns those unions and homosexuality in general.
The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill and his wife, the Rev. Sara Ewing-Merrill, pastors at the Hope.Gate.Way Church on High Street, signed a statement this month in support of marriage equality.
About 30 other Methodist clergy members in Maine signed the statement this month, and more than 800 have signed nationwide. If pastors follow through on the pledge in such large numbers, they could force the United Methodist Church to change its rules when delegates gather at a worldwide conference next summer.
It’s an issue that has divided several mainline Protestant denominations over the past three decades as the gay rights movement has grown.
While Maine is among the 45 states that do not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples — voters in November 2009 repealed a state law that would have made it legal here — civil ceremonies hold great meaning for the participants.
“It’s about love and including all,” said Allen Ewing-Merrill. “Gay and lesbian persons, no less than heterosexual people, fall in love and desire to make life commitments to one another. They should have the same opportunity the rest of us have.”
Ewing-Merrill said Methodists have long debated whether to accept gay pastors, and whether to endorse same-sex marriages. Some pastors around the country have quietly been officiating such ceremonies for many years, he said.
In Maine, a small number of retired Methodist pastors have officiated the ceremonies on behalf of active pastors, who worry about breaking the church laws that are collected in The Book of Discipline.
“There are people who stand firmly on each side of the issue,” Ewing-Merrill said.
The current movement among Methodist pastors was spurred in part by the church’s action against a pastor in Wisconsin who officiated a same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Amy DeLong was charged under church law for officiating, and charged for violating the church law that bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the clergy. DeLong broke her silence about her sexuality in 2009, the year she officiated a wedding for a lesbian couple.
Last week, a jury of Methodist clergy members suspended DeLong for 20 days beginning July 1.
Ewing-Merrill said the ruling has been embraced as a victory for DeLong and her supporters. In past church trials for such offenses, pastors had been defrocked.
On June 1, about 70 Methodist clergy members in Minnesota became the first to sign the statement affirming their intention “to offer the grace of the church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage.”
Allen Ewing-Merrill heard about the statement in the days before the New England Annual Conference, held in the second week of June in Wenham, Mass.
“We used the exact same statement they used in Minnesota, and we invited like-minded colleagues to sign with us” during the conference, he said.
He hoped for 12 people to stand with them. Fifty signed the statement on the first day.
That number grew to 90 by the end of the conference, and it now stands at 123, about one in nine clergy members in the New England Conference.
Michael Gray, pastor at the Methodist Church in Old Orchard Beach, signed the statement.
In the 1990s, Gray staunchly opposed same-sex marriage. But his opinions gradually shifted, and by his first year in the seminary, in the fall of 2003, Gray had become an advocate for gay rights.
“It really came down to making relationships with people who were of a different sexual orientation to me. That was when I saw the light,” Gray said.
He is excited to see the momentum generated by the statement that is circulating.
“Everybody knows General Conference is next year,” Gray said. “Ten or 15 percent of the clergy here in New England are taking a very contradictory stand to our discipline, so that is a big deal.”
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