Transgender Pastor Raises Issues Among Methodists
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For four years, every Sunday, Pastor Ann Gordon would give a sermon and offer sacrament to her United Methodist Congregation. This Sunday, it will be the same; there'll be there sermon and communion, but Pastor Ann Gordon is now Pastor Drew Phoenix. His story is sparking a new conversation about gender and God within the United Methodist community.
NPR's Chana Joffe-Walt reports.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: So here's a question, how do you tell your congregation you're now going to be a man?
Mr. DREW PHOENIX (Pastor, United Methodist Congregation): I am found here at the church office and he said oh, you know, I have something to talk to you about.
JOFFE-WALT: Pastor Phoenix, then Ann Gordon, decided it's best to sit down with each and every family individually.
Church member Kerry Frios(ph) was one of the first.
Ms. KERRY FRIOS (Church member, United Methodist Congregation): And he said I'm transitioning. And I thought he meant he was going to be an Episcopalian or something. I had no idea. I didn't know the word. You know, I didn't have the vocabulary.
JOFFE-WALT: Over the past year, St. John's has watched its pastor's shoulders widen and listened to his deepening voice preach. Phoenix says he know it's been an adjustment for his congregation, but it's not like this was an easy decision. It's been a long struggle to accept a gender that never felt like it fit. It started early in life.
Pastor DREW PHOENIX (Baltimore United Methodist Church): Hit puberty and the announcement - I will never forget it. It was so traumatic -the moment my mother announced to me, you're a woman now. Now, you have to act like a woman.
JOFFE-WALT: It took decades, but at 47 years old, Ann Gordon decided to become Drew Phoenix. Carrie Frias loves Drew Phoenix, but sometimes, she misses her old pastor, Ann.
Ms. FRIAS: There's a grieving period before you feel like, oh, this person that is really part of my life that I'm really close to is leaving.
JOFFE-WALT: There was a sense of loss and lots of questions about the hormones, the surgeries, but the dozen or so people I spoke to at one Sunday service say, overtime, they've come to love and support this new-slash-old pastor. The transition hasn't been as smooth in the larger United Methodist Church. Last spring, Phoenix told a Conference of Baltimore-Washington clergy that God intended him to be male.
Pastor Kevin Baker of Olney, Maryland says his ears buzzed at that.
Pastor KEVIN BAKER (United Methodist Church, Olney, Maryland): I have lots of theological questions about that.
JOFFE-WALT: Baker wonders, isn't the body supposed to be a temple of the Holy Spirit?
Pastor BAKER: The Bible seems to express that masculinity and femininity are gifts of God. To take hormones and to have some of your plumbing rearranged doesn't seem to me to be the answer to whatever struggle is going on and does imply, it seems to me, that, somehow, God makes mistakes, but we now have the medical technology to correct that.
JOFFE-WALT: Concerned clergy asked the church's judicial council for answers. The council ruled that Drew Phoenix is a church elder in good standing. But here's the thing, there's nothing in the United Methodist Book of Discipline about transgendered clergy, no precedent, so the council didn't really speak to this specific question: Can a pastor be transgendered? That leaves the door open at St. John's.
Pastor PHOENIX: So today, we're talking about Zacharias, and did you know there are lots of rogues and rascals in the family church tree? Did you know that?
JOFFE-WALT: The community nods and smile as Phoenix preaches on the gospel of Luke. In the back, a girl hula-hoops; a mother is nursing on a pillow on the floor. People in this unusually casual church say they're used to the unconventional nature of their leader. Just listen to what happens when Phoenix closes the service with a prayer for a sick church member. He slips up with the hims and the hers.
Pastor PHOENIX: So Vince's(ph) going to be away from us and Glen(ph) will be joining her when he needs him. Huh? Joining him, yeah, not her. I'm sorry, Glen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pastor PHOENIX: You know, my pronouns these days...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pastor PHOENIX: ...they just go back and forth. They just slide back and forth.
JOFFE-WALT: Whether it is politically and theologically appropriate for hers and hims to slide is still a question in the national church. Just a few weeks after the judicial council affirmed Phoenix's position, a group of clergy filed a petition for legislation to ban transgendered ministers. I spoke with several United Methodist Bishops and there was no consensus, just many more questions.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.
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