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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Baltimore – The Rev. Drew Phoenix is many things to many people.
To St. John’s of Baltimore City, he’s the fun-loving pastor who
counsels them, takes their kids hiking, explains Scripture, and plunges
into worthy causes.
To conservative Methodists, Phoenix embodies another front in the
“culture wars,” a rebel who has defied God and nature and should be
removed from ministry.
To mainstream society, Phoenix is an enigma who transcends
traditional sexual boundaries, provoking uncomfortable questions about
the interplay between body, mind and soul.
To the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church he’s number
IV on the docket for their Oct. 24-27 session: “A Review of Bishop’s
Decision … Whether Transgendered Persons Are Eligible for Appointment
in The United Methodist Church.”
The issue of transgenderism seems too hot to touch for religious
Americans already bitterly divided over sexual orientation. A number of
Methodist theologians and ethicists, asked to comment for this article,
declined.
But as scientific advances and changing sexual mores allow
transgender people to slowly move into the mainstream, religious leaders
will soon have to grapple with theological implications of gender
identity, scholars say.
In practical terms, they have to deal with Phoenix and whether he
should remain in ministry. The judicial hearing of the United Methodist
Church, one of the largest Christian bodies in the U.S., may be a
high-water mark for transgender awareness in the pews.
“The theological issues here are very important,” said Mark Jordan,
a professor of Christian ethics at Atlanta’s Emory University. “It’s not
just an issue of church discipline and it’s not just a freak show.”
About 18 months ago, after 46 years of feeling like a soul trapped
in the wrong body, a Methodist minister had sexual reassignment surgery,
at last aligning psyche and sex.
The Rev. Ann Gordon became the Rev. Drew Phoenix.
Phoenix, now 48, describes the transition from female to male as a
homecoming.
“For me, now it’s very much about being embodied, my spirit is in a
body now,” Phoenix said in an interview. As a female, “my spirit was
just, like, homeless.”
The 40-odd members of St. John’s, who say they pride themselves in
being the most accepting and inclusive Methodist church in Baltimore,
said their minister’s sex change was no big deal. They had some
questions, which Phoenix answered in individual meetings, but no large
theological hang-ups.
“It was like, `Ok, great, congratulations. You’re living as God
intended now, how wonderful,”‘ said Kara Ker, 33, a social worker and
lifelong Methodist. “Every now and then people struggle with the
pronouns, that’s the biggest challenge.”
But to some Methodists, Phoenix’s ministry posed larger problems.
At a meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Conference last May,
several pastors questioned whether the ministry should be open to
transgendered people.
Baltimore-Washington Bishop John Schol reappointed Phoenix,
reasoning that the Methodist’s Book of Discipline has no rule forbidding
transgender pastors. Now the nine-member Judicial Council — the United
Methodist Church’s supreme court — will rule on Schol’s decision in San
Francisco later this month.
Dr. James Holsinger Jr., President Bush’s nominee for U.S. surgeon
general,heads the council. Senate Democrats have stalled Holsinger’s
appointment in part because he has described gay sex as abnormal and
unhealthy.
Conservatives have already promised to pass a ban on transgendered
pastors at the Methodists’ next General Conference in 2008.
“Most church people instinctively recognize there are problems with
the church affirming a gender change but haven’t really thought through
all the implications,” said Mark Tooley of UMAction, a branch of the
conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.
If some theological types are troubled by the implications of
transgenderism, scientists seem to be equally mystified by its origins.
The American Psychiatric Association labels transgenderism a
“disorder” but notes that “many transgender people do not experience
their transgender feelings and traits to be distressing or disabling,
which implies that being transgender does not constitute a mental
disorder per se.”
Moreover, the APA says, “there is no generally accepted explanation
for why some people are transgender,” listing genetics, prenatal
hormones and early-life experiences as possible influences.
The absence of a concrete explanation for transgenderism, as well as
the cultural norms it upsets, can alarm those accustomed to dealing with
fixed gender categories.
“What’s the first question people ask when a baby is born?” said
Melissa Wilcox, an assistant professor of religion and director of the
gender studies program at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. “They
need to know whether it’s a girl or a boy.”
Conservative Christians tend to treat transgenderism as an extreme
form of homosexuality. It’s a disorder to be overcome, a cross to be
borne.
Christians and Jews have traditionally derived fixed notions of
gender from the Hebrew Bible, when God creates Adam and Eve. To mess
with that, some argue, is to mess with God’s plan for creation.
Other conservatives point to Deuteronomy, which says, “The woman
shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put
on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord
thy God.”
“There’s the issue of what’s God’s intention for us,” said the Rev.
David Simpson, a United Methodist pastor from the Baltimore suburb of
Ellicott City, who challenged Phoenix’s reappointment. “Is that
something that we get to choose?”
On the other hand, some medical professionals and transgendered
people say gender identity and sexual orientation are separate things.
“It’s not about whom I love,” Phoenix said. “It’s about who I am.”
Moreover, they argue, science is demonstrating that gender identity
is fluid — not fixed into binary categories. And it’s innate, not a
choice.
Finally, those who argue the “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “Don’t
mess with creation” lines readily make use of medical procedures to
change their bodies, Phoenix said.
“Think of all the vaccinations, medications and pharmaceuticals we
take,” he said. “We completely alter our bodies.”
But to many Christians, there’s a fundamental difference between
taking a vaccine and changing something as basic as gender.
In 2003, the Vatican said transsexuals suffer from “mental
pathologies” and barred them from Roman Catholic religious orders. Last
year, a Christian college in Michigan fired a transgender professor for
failing to live up to Christian “ideals.”
On the other hand, the United Church of Christ, traditionally the
country’s most liberal Christian denomination, ordained its first
transsexual pastor, Bran Scott, in 1999.
Other mainline Protestant churches haven’t banned transgender
pastors, but haven’t exactly welcomed them either.
The Rev. Erin K. Swenson, a Presbyterian pastor who transitioned
from male to female in 1996, has written that “transgendered individuals
are modern lepers in a culture that worships at the altar of sexual
stereotypes.”
In 2002, the Methodists’ Baltimore-Washington Conference was home to
a similar dispute, when the Rev. Richard A. Zomastny had a sex change
and became Rebecca Ann Steen. Steen withdrew her reapplication for
ministry under pressure from fellow Methodists.
Simpson, of Ellicott City, said it’s about time his church had a
discussion of the issue, with all of the theological and scientific
implications brought to bear.
“This is our second case in five years, and we’re no closer to
answers then we ever were,” Simpson said.
Emory’s Jordan said it’s not surprising many churches haven’t drawn
up rules to deal with transgender pastors.
“Why did it take so long to get explicit rules against ordaining
lesbian and gay people?” he said. “Churches expected these kinds of
people just to disappear and go away. They expected the same with
transsexuals — that if you went that way you were going to leave the
ministry or leave the church.”
Conservatives tried unsuccessfully to pass a resolution banning
transgender pastors at the church’s last General Conference in 2004,
said Diane DeLapp, a transsexual from Massachusetts who heads
Affirmation, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender Methodists.
“We seem to be the target now,” DeLapp said.
The congregation at St. John’s say they would be devastated if they
lost Phoenix, whom they describe as the beating heart at the center of
their growing church. When Phoenix started five years ago, eight people
showed up for Sunday worship; now 40 do.
But the pastor said he’s prepared for whatever happens.
As Phoenix began to preach on a recent Sunday, beneath the huge
cross and beside the posters proclaiming “This Ain’t Your Daddy’s
Church,” he told the Gospel story about Jesus and the 10 lepers.
After Jesus heals the lepers, he tells them to visit the priests and
get certified for temple life. One, a Samaritan, realizes he’s been
healed and turns back to thank Jesus.
“The Samaritan realizes he’s already recovered what most matters,”
Phoenix told his church, “not certification, but his own healing.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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