A transgender minister is allowed to remain pastor of a Baltimore congregation, the United Methodist Church's highest council announced Tuesday.
The Judicial Council's ruling affirmed a decision by Baltimore-Washington Bishop John R. Schol last spring who reappointed the Rev. Drew Phoenix to St. John's of Baltimore City after the transgender minister underwent surgery and hormone therapy to become a male. Phoenix was formerly the Rev. Ann Gordon who had led the church for five years.
Phoenix was "happily surprised" upon hearing the decision.
Local clergy in the Baltimore-Washington Conference had appealed Schol's decision to the United Methodist Judicial Council amid opposition. While the United Methodist Church bars self-avowed practicing clergy from ordination and does not support gay unions, according to the denomination's Book of Discipline, it says nothing about transgender clergy.
After considering whether to remove Phoenix from leadership, the Judicial Council decided to allow the transgender minister to stay on the job, referring to a church policy stating that a clergyperson in good standing can't be terminated without administrative or judicial action.
"The adjective placed in front of the noun 'clergyperson' does not matter," the council ruled. "What matters is that clergypersons, once ordained and admitted to membership in full connection, cannot have that standing changed without being accorded fair process."
Phoenix learned of the decision Tuesday morning.
"I am elated that the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church has affirmed Bishop Schol's ruling of law – that transgender pastors in good standing shall be appointed to serve in United Methodists churches," said Phoenix in a statement. "I celebrate this historic day in our denomination. The Judicial Council's decision is a very important first step in opening the doors of our churches to the transgender community."
St. John's congregants who have backed their pastor lauded the decision.
"We at St. John's UMC have a long history of supporting people through various life transitions," said the congregation, which boasts "inclusion" and "diversity," in a statement. "We love and support our pastor. Rev. Phoenix is an effective, professional pastor who has our deep and abiding respect."
According to the statement, church authorities were informed of Phoenix's decision to transition but did not seek permission or endorsement of the decision.
Religious groups are struggling with the issue of transgender people as the transgender community begins to rise into the public square.
The Rev. Kevin M. Baker, who had raised questions about Phoenix's name change earlier this year, said more discussion is needed on the issue.
"We need a chance to talk about the implications of it," said Baker, pastor of Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney, Md., according to The Baltimore Sun.
"This just is, in my opinion, another chink in a long fence of issues that we're not dealing well with in the church," such as pornography and divorce, he added.
The Judicial Council's ruling stopped short of stating whether a change of gender violates the denomination's rules.
Mark Tooley of United Methodist Action, a branch of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, was not surprised but expects the upcoming General Conference in 2008 "to respond with legislation that upholds traditional Christian teachings about the sacredness of the human body."
"Christianity's traditions strongly argue against any affirmation of transsexuality or sex change procedures," he said.
Representatives from the United Methodist Church meet in April for the General Conference, an international legislative session that meets every four years. The General Conference is the top policy-making body of the denomination.