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By Daniel Burke
c. 2008 Religion News Service

FORT WORTH, Texas — Efforts to remove a transgender pastor from ministry in the United Methodist Church died quietly here this week at the denomination’s General Conference.
The failure to enact a ban most likely means the Rev. Drew Phoenix, a pastor in Baltimore who entered the ministry as the Rev. Ann Gordon, cannot be defrocked solely because he is a transgender man before the next General Conference in 2012.
Conservative Methodists had proposed a handful of resolutions that would bar transgender men and women from the pulpit.
But none of those bans was even debated by the full body of nearly 1,000 delegates gathered here for the church’s quadrennial assembly.
Rather, the proposals were defeated in smaller legislative committees.
As the nation’s second largest Protestant church, Methodists are often viewed as a bellwether in mainstream Christianity. The debate over transgender pastors here was expected to create a flashpoint in the 11.5 million-member church and bring the issue a new prominence in the public square.
But amid daylong debates on homosexuality and church structure, Methodists showed little appetite for digging into another controversial and divisive issue, conservative and liberal activists said.
“Homosexuality took so much time and energy I guess people didn’t want to get into the even trickier issue of transgenderism,” said Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist activist from Washington, D.C.
Phoenix, 49, transitioned from female to male about two years ago.
Last October, the Methodists’ highest court said he could stay in ministry, since the church has no rules on the books against transgender pastors.
Phoenix could not be reached for comment.
Delegates here even soundly defeated a resolution stating that transgenderism denies “the sacred integrity of God’s good creation.” It failed by a tally of 699 to 175.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who chairs the church’s conservative “renewal and reform” coalition, said passing the ban on transgender pastors was not high on his agenda.
“We didn’t make it one of our significant priorities,” he said, adding that transgenderism affects just a small percentage of the church. “I think it got overshadowed by all of the other controversial issues.”
Instead, conservatives here focused their efforts on maintaining the church’s status quo on homosexuality: that homosexual acts are “incompatible with Christian teaching,” same-sex unions and gay clergy are banned, and pastors have the right to refuse people — including gays and lesbians — membership in the church.
Gay rights groups’ failure to move the denomination on those fronts led about 300 gay and lesbian people and their supporters to stage an emotional protest on the convention floor Thursday (May 1).
Dressed in black, with some wearing veils, they sang the spiritual “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and draped a Communion altar in black cloth.
“We have chosen to leave (gay and lesbian Methodists) out rather than invite them in to work on our relationships,” said retired Bishop Melvin Talbert at the protest. “I can do no other than to say what’s on my heart. General Conference, General Conference, this is wrong.”
Lambrecht said the relative lack of knowledge about transgenderism contributed to the church’s failure to take much action on the issue.
“It’s a fairly new thing. We’ve been studying homosexuality for 35 years, but we’ve not really looked at transgenderism,” said Lambrecht.
Sean Delmore, 31, a transgender Methodist and a student at Boston University, said the transgender bans — and their defeat — slipped beneath the radar at the General Conference. It was a welcome development for the half-dozen transgender Methodists gathered with Delmore here this week.
“That’s probably been the most surprisingly thing about this — that it wasn’t more central. The church was so consumed with the inclusion of gay and lesbian people,” he said.
Conservatives’ efforts were hampered by a lack of traditional Christian teachings addressing transgenderism, said Diane DeLap, a transgender Massachusetts woman monitoring the bans here this week.
“If you try to use the Bible arguments, like they do for sexual orientation, they’re really left without a leg to stand on,” she said.
While the transgender ban failed this year, conservatives like Tooley said the matter is far from finished.
“This is an issue that will continue to be with us and inevitably the church is going to have to deal with it directly,” he said.

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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