NPR logo Methodists Vote to Keep Transgender Pastor

Methodists Vote to Keep Transgender Pastor

In a potentially landmark decision, the United Methodist Church has ruled that a transgender pastor who applied for a name change can remain in the ministry. The decision in case of the Rev. Drew Phoenix was released on Tuesday by the church's Judicial Council.

The United Methodist Church, or UMC, bans gay people from serving as clergy, but its Book of Discipline makes no mention of transsexual people. "Essentially, they said that I'm a pastor in good standing and therefore I'm appointable," says Phoenix, who leads St. John's in Baltimore.

In affirming Phoenix as an ordained minister, the council left aside the specific question of whether transgender people can serve. What mattered here was that Phoenix faced no "administrative or judicial action" beyond the question of the name change itself. "The Judicial Council does not reach the question of whether gender change is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards established by the General Conference," council members wrote.

Phoenix says he always felt male. As a girl, the Methodist minister says, he was known as "Dave Gordon's son." Even when he was preaching as Ann Gordon, Phoenix says, people related to the pastor as a man. But it wasn't until last year, at the age of 47, that Gordon decided to undergo surgery and hormone therapy — to formally become male.

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After the then-Rev. Gordon was reappointed as Drew Phoenix at the Baltimore-Washington Methodist Conference in May, members of the UMC petitioned to ban transsexuals from serving. Now, with the Judicial Council's ruling, Phoenix plans to continue at his church.

Phoenix says he knows he's something of a test case, but calls his transition a gift to the church. The ruling "is outstanding," he says. "It's historic."

UMC members have been wrestling with issues of gender and sexuality, as have other branches of the wider Protestant church. The Phoenix case was one of several on the Judicial Council docket that dealt with such matters, including one from northern Illinois for an initiative called "Affirming All Familes" and another from the California-Nevada conference about plans to "Welcome and Include LGBT" people in church leadership.

The church could take up the issue of transgender clergy again at its general conference in April. Questions concerning sexual minorities have become regular a feature of national UMC gatherings. "It has come up at every general conference in recent years," says spokesperson Diane Denton, "so I would expect it would be an issue again."