After about seven years of enrollment in the process to become an ordained minister, Mary Ann Kaiser of the University United Methodist Church was suddenly removed from candidacy because of her sexual orientation.
“I was very surprised when I found out that the board met and decided to remove me from the ordination process, even though they had not yet interviewed me or otherwise met me, solely on the basis of my identity as a lesbian,” said Kaiser, a youth director and justice associate at the church on UT’s campus.
The Board of Ordained Ministry decided at the Southwest Texas Annual Conference earlier in June to remove Kaiser from the ordination process. Kaiser had previously been voted and recommended for ordination in full acknowledgement that she is gay. The decision to remove Kaiser from the ordination process wasn’t made locally, but instead by church leaders who oversee multiple churches in Texas.
United Methodist Church‘s policy that does not allow openly gay clergy to be ordained was met with opposition from Austin churches. In addition, the board has been accused of mishandling Kaiser’s process of removal from ordination. The final decision could have a lasting impact on the church’s relations with the LGBT community and it could cause greater divisions among the liberal and conservative elements within the church.
Rev. John Elford, the pastor at University United Methodist Church, spoke on behalf of Kaiser and argued that Kaiser should be ordained. He said the board failed to follow proper procedures that are outlined by United Methodist Church’s own rulebook, the Book of Discipline. Elford said the Book of Discipline requires the board to interview all candidates before denying the ordination process.
“On what grounds can [Kaiser] be removed from candidacy if she has not been interviewed?” Elford asked.
Kaiser was voted and recommended for ordination by the District Committee on Ordained Ministry in April 2013. This committee, among other responsibilities, recommends and votes for candidates to be ordinated. Her meeting and interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry was scheduled for January 2014, although she was removed in early June.
Kaiser said she has been deeply disappointed by the board’s decision and their handling of it.
“I was shocked at the Board’s decision to act preemptively,” Kaiser said. “I didn’t expect anything at all to happen with my ordination process until my next scheduled interview.”
Bishop James Dorff, the area provost of the North Texas Annual Conference, has 30 days to investigate the matter and revise his previous decision to remove Kaiser. The denomination’s judicial council will automatically review the decision.
“My decision will be based on my understanding of the Book of Discipline, which I have pledged to uphold,” Dorff said in a statement.
After the 30 period, Dorff’s ruling will be posted on UMC’s Annual Conference website, www.umcswtx.org.
“The ordination of gay clergy members is a really hot topic that has fractured the church,” said Eileen Flynn DeLaO, a former journalism professor who taught religious reporting at UT and a former religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.
The UMC Book of Discipline has a few lines declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” cannot be ordained.
“These are the declarations that are guiding the board’s decision to remove Kaiser,” DeLaO said.
Back in April, the Reconciling Ministries Network announced that Kaiser would be married to her lesbian partner, Annanda Barclay, in August at the network’s convocation. The network, a supporter of Kaiser’s ordination, is a pro-LGBT Methodist organization that mobilizes United Methodists to create full inclusion of all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“A woman who privately identifies as a lesbian but does not pursue a same-sex relationship would likely be eligible for ordination, according to church policy,” DeLaO said.
Because of her public relationship, Kaiser is not subject to the exception anymore, hence the removal from the ordination process.
According to DeLaO, the ordination of gay clergy has divided other Christian dominations as well, and she believes it is highly likely that it would have the effect of causing great disruption within the United Methodist Church.
“While many liberal Methodists are working to overturn the ban on gay clergy, other Methodists would feel betrayed because they believe the Bible is clear in its teaching on homosexuality,” DeLaO said. “And many conservative Methodists might leave the church and form a new denomination.”
Supporters of gay ordination have a different biblical interpretation, as they believe that if a person feels called by God to the ministry then that call should be answered, DeLaO said.
“I think the tide is turning in favor of openly gay clergy,” DeLaO said.
Kaiser also believes the general sense of acceptance for the LGBT community in the church has shifted greatly over the years.
“There is still a long way to go but the fact that conversations are happening and that so many churches are standing in opposition to the United Methodist Church laws hostile to the LGBT community reveals how much things have changed and must continue to do so” Kaiser said.
Kaiser is not the only one who is happy about this issue being discussed publically and raising awareness. She said she has received emails and Facebook messages from LGBT members in the United Methodist Church from all over the country who have been rejected from the ordination process because of their sexual orientation.
The board’s decision also resulted in a call for action by Kaiser’s supporters. According to the Reconciling Ministries Network’s website, Southwest Texas Annual Conference’s meeting was preceded by a Twitter blast with more than 240 participants defending Kaiser. This was in addition to emails and letters written to Dorff.
Kaiser and the LGBT community are currently awaiting Dorff’s decision.
“It is hard to imagine, if this decision is upheld by the bishop and the judicial council and made final, the vocation I have spent years, money, school and passion working toward being thwarted,” Kaiser said. “I can still work in churches as someone who is not ordained (as I do now) but it is limiting — both vocationally and theologically.”