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Bishop rules lesbian clergy candidate can stay on ordination track

By Heather Hahn and Sam Hodges*
December 12, 2013

San Antonio Area Bishop James E. Dorff on Dec. 12 reversed the removal of a lesbian clergy candidate, Mary Ann Barclay, from the ordination track.

Dorff said in his ruling that Barclay “remains a candidate for ministry and is due full examination, including an interview, by the (Southwest Texas Conference) Board of Ordained Ministry.”

Reached by phone, Barclay said, “I’m really pleased. I find hope in the fact that we can always correct the wrongs that we do. I hope The United Methodist Church will continue to move in that direction.”

In October, the Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court —decided that the bishop must rule within 60 days “on the merits” of a process-related question raised in the case.

The case stems from Barclay’s removal from the ordination process on the recommendation of her conference’s board of ordained ministry. Barclay — formerly Mary Ann Kaiser —is youth director and justice associate at University United Methodist Church in Austin and had been pursuing ordination as a United Methodist deacon.

The question before Dorff dealt with whether the board followed proper procedure, but comes at a time of increasingly public contention regarding the denomination’s teachings on homosexuality. Barclay and her supporters say due process was not followed in her case.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from “being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

But paragraph 635.2 (h) of the Book of Discipline requires boards of ordained ministry “to examine all applicants as to their fitness for the ordained ministry….” Paragraph 635.2 (j) also mandates that the boards “interview and report recommendation concerning … certified candidates for ordination as deacon.”

At a district committee meeting in April, Barclay told the committee she is gay. She also said she was in a committed partnership. Later she told UMNS that the district committee never asked her whether she is “practicing” homosexuality.

By a 6-2 vote, the district committee recommended to the board of ordained ministry that she continue in the ordination process. But during a closed clergy session on June 6 ­part of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference’s yearly meetingthe board of ordained ministry recommended her certification be revoked.

The Rev. John Elford, senior pastor at the church where Kaiser works, then made a motion that she be reinstated. Clergyvoted against his motion 119 to 124, essentially accepting the board’s recommendation.

Elford next asked Dorff to rule on whether “a board of ordained ministry can discontinue the candidacy of a certified candidate for ordained ministry who has been appropriately recommended by a district committee on ordained ministry without an interview and examination by that board of ordained ministry.”

Dorff ruled in June the question “as presented, moot and hypothetical. Therefore, the request is improper and no decision on the substance of the request will be given.”

But the Judicial Council in Decision 1244 reversed Dorff’s ruling that the question “had nothing to do with the discussion, consideration or business of the annual conference.”

The council said, “The removal of a candidate’s name from the list of candidates proceeding forward in the ordination process is clearly a matter that falls within the purview of the business of the annual conference regarding the ordination of clergy.”

Dorff, in his Dec. 12 ruling, found that the Board of Ordained Ministry had not fulfilled its responsibility for giving Barclay a full examination, as required by the Book of Discipline.

“Therefore, the action of the Board in effectively discontinuing the candidacy of Mary Ann Kaiser (Barclay) was not appropriate according to the Discipline and is of no effect,” he wrote.

Dorff noted that the Judicial Council will be reviewing his Dec. 12 ruling when it meets in April.

Barclay said that given the certainty of the council’s review, she doesn’t expect to go before the Southwest Texas Conference Board of Ordained Ministry any time soon.

But she said she hopes the board will be open to her candidacy as was the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry.

“I’m really excited for the Board of Ordained Ministry to have the same opportunity to encourage a relational ordination process,” she said.

(Barclay also released a written statement through Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus within the denomination that works to change its stands on homosexuality.)

The Rev. Suzanne Isaacs is chair the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry. She said its executive committee is discussing procedures for examining and interviewing Barclay, though she offered no time frame.

“I told the bishop and I told the executive committee that I’m at peace with what he decided and we’re going to fully embrace his decision,” she said. “I think he made the right decision.”

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist caucus that supports the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, offered support for Dorff’s decision. But he said the Board of Ordained Ministry must ultimately reject Barclay.

“We are grateful that The United Methodist Church has fair processes in place that offer protection to clergy and lay members of the church from arbitrary or capricious actions,” Lambrecht said. “It is appropriate that the Southwest Texas Annual Conference follow these processes in examining the candidacy of Mary Ann Barclay for ordained ministry.

“At the same time, the fact that Ms. Barclay is an openly avowed lesbian and has ‘married’ another woman means that she fits the definition of a `self-avowed practicing homosexual.’ This makes her ineligible to continue as a candidate or be ordained as a clergyperson in The United Methodist Church. We trust that the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and the clergy session of the annual conference will faithfully apply the relevant qualifications set by General Conference in determining Barclay’s continued eligibility for candidacy.”

Barclay, 28, was certified in 2008 as a candidate for deacon by the Pensacola District Committee on Ordained Ministry in the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. At that time, she later told United Methodist News Service, “I was not even out to myself yet.”

Since then, she has moved to the Southwest Texas Conference, completed a Master of Divinity at United Methodist-approved Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and started working with the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry.

She also has recently married her partner, Annanda Barclay, in a service in Maryland, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Barclay had expected to be commissioned as a deacon next year at the earliest.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for UMNS and can be contacted at the same number and email address.