TACOMA -- Delegates at the Northwest conference of the United Methodist Church wept yesterday as they watched a popular young pastor risk his career by admitting he is gay.
Pastor Mark Edward Williams of Woodland Park United Methodist Church in Seattle told about 650 church leaders and delegates he is no longer willing to live his life in secrecy.
"I'm proudly as much a practicing gay man as I am a practicing United Methodist," he said tearfully to a surprised audience that began to stand in empathy. "I realize that the church is prepared to accept me as a pastor only as long as I remain closeted and silent. It makes me sad to think that I may face rejection and the denial of my call to ministry from the community that's nurtured me all my life."
It was the second stunning announcement this year for the denomination, already torn over its official rejection of homosexual ministers, and for the Woodland Park church. Earlier this year, the Rev. Karen Dammann, a United Methodist minister who is on a leave of absence, told Northwest Bishop Elias Galvan that she is living in a homosexual relationship and requested a pastoral appointment.
Williams succeeded Dammann at Woodland Park, taking over a congregation wounded by her departure. Parishioners were divided over the issue of homosexual clergy, Dammann's decision to take her story public and her performance as pastor.
Yesterday, in pronouncing himself a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual," Williams placed himself firmly outside the bounds of the denomination's Book of Discipline, which prohibits the ordination or pastoral appointment of gays and lesbians.
Earlier this week, Northwest conference participants adopted a resolution supporting Dammann and put the question of gay and lesbian clergy to the church's Judicial Council, the Methodist high court.
Williams' situation will be added to the case, said Galvan, who heads the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes 70,000 members in Washington and Northern Idaho.
Once Williams finished his statement, Galvan immediately called the applauding congregation to prayer, asking blessings for "one of your children who is in pain."
Williams, like all Methodist pastors, is appointed for one year at time. He was to receive his annual reappointment tomorrow.
But with Williams' announcement that he is gay, church policy prohibits the bishop from reappointing Williams to the church on Greenwood Avenue North and North 78th Street that he has tended for two years.
The pastor is not willing to leave silently.
"To pretend that if we don't talk about homosexuality we'll be able to maintain unity -- as if those people haven't been pushed out the back door all this time -- that's injustice to me," Williams said before his announcement.
Like many denominations, the United Methodist Church has been debating its stand on homosexual clergy for years.
At last year's churchwide General Conference in Cleveland, the church retained its bans on homosexual ordination and same-sex unions. More than 200 people were arrested during a protest of the policy.
Others continue to struggle with the contentious issue.
Yesterday, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to recommend lifting a ban on ordaining homosexual clergy.
The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in November rejected a proposal to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers.
The Episcopal Church officially bans the ordination of gays and lesbians, but some dioceses, including the archdiocese of Olympia, have ordained homosexuals. The issue will likely come up again at the church's next General Convention. Two years ago, St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill became the first cathedral in the country to name a dean who is openly gay.
In Williams' situation, Galvan has to deal with a well-liked pastor leading a congregation that may put up a fight.
"He has been a significant healing influence on that church," said Maggie Brown, the chairwoman for staff-parish relations at Woodland Park. "I don't know what avenues the congregation can pursue, but I find it very hard to believe that a majority of the parishioners are simply going to say, 'OK, goodbye, Mark.'"
Williams, though, is assuming he'll never return.
Earlier this year he prepared a calendar that outlines, month by month, step by step, what he needed to do to prepare for this moment. He noted when he would prepare his resume, when he would pack the guest room in the parish house.
Williams, 31, is the youngest of four boys, born to a United Methodist family in West Virginia that could be found in the pews every Sunday and spent most of their social time with fellow Methodists.
When the family moved to Longview, Wash., 22 years ago, "The first thing we did was go to the Methodist Church," Williams said.
At around 10 or 11 years old, Williams started to have feelings for boys. He checked out books from the library, hoping they would tell him what those feelings meant, and decided that since sexuality wasn't really formed until adolescence he could just wait it out.
Looking toward college, he harbored the hope that by going to school far from home he could become someone different.
He headed back east to Kentucky Wesleyan College, which is where he felt the call to the ministry through his courses and work as the youth director at a rural church nearby.
"It was exciting, it was fun, it felt meaningful," Williams said. "And, I was good at it."
From college he went on to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In that community of theologians and scholars he also discovered a community of students who weren't afraid to talk about being gay.
Williams approached his ordination believing he could compartmentalize his world, segregating his church work from his personal life.
"I thought, 'That's a reasonable thing: I won't tell, and I'm sure they won't ask,'" he said.
He was ordained in June 1995.
In his first appointment, as associate pastor at First United Methodist in Vancouver, Wash., Williams was viewed as a thoughtful preacher who could relate to younger people.
"You could have a friendship there as well as being a parishioner," said Mark Newman, a parishioner in Vancouver who is Williams' age.
In 1999, Williams was appointed pastor of Woodland Park.
Williams said he has enjoyed his work, but in recent months has felt torn by what he views as a contradiction between his intimate pastoral relationship with his parishioners and the secrecy surrounding his sexual orientation. He is on the Northwest conference's Board of Ordained Ministry, which is responsible for credentialing and discipline of clergy.
"I can't be in this situation much longer," he said recently. "I feel more bitter about my denomination every day .... I don't want to get to a place where I'm bitter when I go to church, and I'm bitter when I'm preaching, and I'm bitter when I'm doing my pastoral work."
In his view, the prohibition on homosexuality is based on five "isolated and poorly translated" passages from the Bible.
Included in his meticulously planned calendar are appointments with a few parishioners he hopes can help the congregation.
"I think it's going to be painful," said Pat Dougherty, who attends the church. "I think it's going to be painful to the congregation. I think it's going to be painful for everyone."