OCEAN PARK ‚Äî The Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen defied the United Methodist Church rule book in July of 2008 and performed marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples at the Church in Ocean Park.
In doing so, she put herself out on a limb, risking charges from lay people or other clergy that could have resulted in the loss of her ordination.
Back then, McKeithen‚Äôs decision was one of only a handful of other clergy made, and at their own peril.
As of last Friday, the entire Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church signaled that it had her back.
The Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses the western United States from Colorado to the coast, passed what‚Äôs called a “statement of gospel obedience,” taking the position that the wider church‚Äôs position on homosexuality is fundamentally wrong.
The Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church dictates that homosexuality is fundamentally incompatible with Christian teaching, and that “self-avowed practicing homosexual persons” cannot be wed or ordained within the church.
The leadership of the Western Jurisdiction called on its bishops, clergy, local churches and ministry to go on with their work as though that mandate did not exist, “creating a church where all people are truly welcome.”
The move was a reaction to the position taken at the United Methodist Church‚Äôs General Conference just a few months before, which reaffirmed the international church‚Äôs more conservative position.
The General Conference includes the international community of Methodists and happens once every four years. It‚Äôs the only place that the rules binding the entire Methodist congregation can be changed.
“Many people came into that conference wanting something dramatic to happen,” McKeithen said.
It was the opposite.
Almost 60 percent of those present stood for the traditional beliefs, said Tom Lambrecht. Lambrecht is vice president of the Good News magazine, a conservative Methodist publication.
“The General Conference sets the rules for how we are to live together,” Lambrecht said.
Although the church has a commitment to reach out to gays and lesbians, it does not condone the lifestyle and it won‚Äôt in the foreseeable future, Lambrecht said.
Melvin Talbert, a retired bishop of the Methodist Church, was disappointed.
He stood before the General Conference and, for the first time, went public with his concept of “biblical obedience,” an idea based on passages from the Bible that emphasize love and inclusivity that he feels trumps the church‚Äôs law.
Talbert used to hold traditional views on homosexuality, but changed his mind after a weekend retreat in the 1970s where homosexuals and heterosexuals mingled without revealing their preferences.
“As I met all these fine people, we began to reveal whether we were straight or gay. I was blown away,” Talbert said. “I said to myself and to God that never again would I allow myself to be prejudice against someone because of sexual orientation.”
Although he failed to sway the General Conference, Talbert‚Äôs ideas gained purchase in the west, and the conference affirmed its belief that the act of the General Conference was immoral and unjust.
“We are going to be responsible to a higher law than the law of the church: The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Talbert said.
Other bishops gave Talbert the responsibility to supervise the new movement, called “radical inclusivity,” in defiance of the law.
He will support clergy and lay people, answer questions and dialogue with other members of the church. He will also have to pass along charges if any are laid against the more liberal priests who decide to put their words into practice and marry or ordain homosexuals.
If they are found guilty in a church trial, they can lose their ministry.
“It‚Äôs not something they can take lightly,” Talbert said. “Their future is at stake. They have to ask if they‚Äôre prepared to take that risk for the cause of the Gospel.”
McKeithen knew that when she made the decision to perform gay marriages.
“I was never worried before because I believe I should do what I should do,” McKeithen said.
And now that she can move forward with her ideals with the support of the Western Jurisdiction behind her she said, “It feels great. It was a really good conference.”