Hours after a new law permitting homosexual marriage took effect in Washington, D.C., the oldest United Methodist church in the District issued a news release stating its intent to “celebrate same-sex weddings,” defying General Conference actions and Judicial Council rulings that expressly prohibit such ceremonies.
The offer to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples came from Dumbarton UMC, a Georgetown congregation described in the 1998 book, Many Witnesses: A History of Dumbarton United Methodist Church, as having a “well-earned reputation for radicalism.”
The church has identified itself as a homosexuality-approving “Reconciling Congregation” since 1987. In 1990, UM Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel, then bishop of the Washington Area, intervened to stop a homosexual wedding scheduled at Dumbarton.
According to United Methodist Book of Discipline (¶341.6), “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” That language, approved by the 1996 General Conference, was retained by 2008 General Conference by an almost two-thirds vote (65%-35%). In 2004, the General Conference made clear that conducting such ceremonies is a chargeable offense.
Just last year, the UM Judicial Council ruled that United Methodist clergy, even if retired, may not perform wedding ceremonies uniting two people of the same sex, even in states or jurisdictions where such unions have been declared legal.
Dumbarton’s public pledge to violate United Methodist rules barring same-sex unions followed a unanimous vote last month by the congregation’s church council. As the likely date for legalization of homosexual marriage in D.C. drew near, the Dumbarton council voted 28-0 “to honor and celebrate the wedding of any couple, licensed in the District of Columbia, who seek to commit their lives to one another in marriage.”
The Rev. Mary Kay Totty, pastor of Dumbarton UMC, and “12 other ordained clergy who attend Dumbarton” will make themselves available to conduct same-sex weddings, according the news release issued by the church. The 12 other clergy were not named.
“We celebrate love and loyalty wherever it is found,” Totty said in the release.
A convener for the Baltimore-Washington Chapter of the liberal Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), Mary Kay Totty was appointed to Dumbarton last year after serving several UM churches in Maryland.
MFSA, an unofficial network of clergy and laity founded in 1907, urges its members to “be involved in the transformation of the social order.”
According to the Baltimore-Washington Conference web site, Dumbarton UMC has an average worship attendance of about 90.
In a post on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog, Anne Thompson Cook, a Dumbarton member and a founding board member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, echoed the church’s commitment to act counter to denominational policy.
As DC’s law granting marriage equality goes into effect…Dumbarton UMC is ready…. Our new [Marriage Equality Statement] (PDF) updates a statement we created nearly 20 years ago on holy unions. Then, as now, we deplored legal and church condemnations of same-sex committed relationships and declared that we would treat all couples equally.
At that time, when [Bishop Yeakel] read of our intentions in a Washington Post article, he was furious and called the entire church council into his office. Of all the things that were said that day, I will never forget him saying this: Same-sex marriage isn’t recognized in civil law! You can’t participate in something that’s not recognized in civil law!
Well, today — in the District of Columbia — same-sex marriage is recognized in civil law, and we celebrate this new step on the long road to full justice and equality for all.
Legalization of homosexual marriage in the District of Columbia was approved by the D.C. City Council late last year after the council rebuffed citizen demands for a referendum on the issue. Local courts also turned back calls for a voter referendum.
A Washington Post poll conducted in late January found that 59 percent of D.C. voters, including 70 percent of black voters, wanted the same-sex marriage issue put to a city-wide vote, rather than being decided by the City Council.
In 2009, Dumbarton UMC was one of seven churches that sponsored a resolution on human sexuality that was approved by the Baltimore-Washington Conference but was later overturned by the United Methodist Judicial Council.
The Council ruled that the resolution, which said United Methodists are “divided regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality,” effectively “negated the church’s clearly stated position.”
All seven congregations that sponsored the resolution are affiliated with Baltimore-Washington Area Reconciling United Methodists, a group that “seek[s] to affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and ensure the full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the ministry and life of the United Methodist Church, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.”
In 2008, one of the seven churches, D.C.’s Foundry UMC, began “recogniz[ing] same-sex unions in special ceremonies that fall just short of an official wedding,” according to a United Methodist News Service report.
Timeline: The UMC and homosexual unions
- 1972— The General Conference amends the Social Principles in the UM Book of Discipline to include the following: “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.”
- 1976 — The General Conference strengthens its opposition to homosexual marriage, again in the Social Principles, with this language: “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”
- 1980 — The General Conference alters the Social Principles statement to read: “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant, which is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”
- 1996 — The General Conference adopts a statement prohibiting UM clergy participation in homosexual-union ceremonies: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
- 1998 — The UM Judicial Council rules that clergy who conduct homosexual-union ceremonies can be brought to church trial.
- 2000 — In the California-Nevada Conference, a conference Committee on Investigation for Clergy Members decides that a group of 67 clergy members will not be brought to trial for their role in celebrating a same-sex union service.
- 2000 — Delegates to the General Conference vote overwhelmingly (69%-31%) to move the sentence prohibiting UM clergy from conducting homosexual unions from the Social Principles section of the Discipline to a section on the Ministry of the Ordained (¶341).
- 2004 — The General Conference amends ¶2702 in the Book of Discipline to clarify language related to chargeable clergy offenses, adding that “conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” and “performing same-sex wedding ceremonies” are both chargeable offenses.
- 2008 — The General Conference votes to retain the ¶2702 language adopted in 2004.
- 2009 — The UM Judicial Council rules that United Methodist clergy, even if retired, may not perform wedding ceremonies uniting two people of the same sex, even in states or jurisdictions where such unions have been declared legal.