FIRST UM MARKS 30TH ANNIVERSARY
By JENNIFER HILL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – It will be a bittersweet celebration.
On Sunday, May 5, Oneonta’s First United Methodist Church will celebrate its 30th anniversary as a “Reconciling congregation,” sanctioning same-sex weddings and gay clergy.
But the milestone comes right as the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council, the church’s legal arm, has agreed April 26 to mostly uphold a “Traditional Plan” approved by the church’s General Conference Feb. 26 in St. Louis, which banned same-sex weddings and gay clergy.
The local church plans anniversary events each Sunday in May and, as urged by the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), will explore ways “to rise and resist.”
“We have a strong legacy here, and we want to have it strengthen and deepen,” said the pastor, Rev. Marti Swords-Horrell.
The church’s first event aims to do just that: J.J. Warren, an openly gay, almost-college graduate, and a candidate for the Methodist ministry, will deliver a speech entitled, “Forward Together: Reclaiming Our Church Through Radical Love,” at the 10 a.m. Sunday, May 5, service.
“J.J. gave an amazing speech at the February General Conference in St. Louis before they voted on the Traditional Plan,” Rev. Marti said. “You’re not supposed to applaud at the General Conference, but in the middle of his speech, all the bishops on the balcony stood up and started clapping.”
She said Warren’s appearance this Sunday will be the first stop of a summer-long speaking tour of Northeast Conference churches, especially those thinking of joining the RMN.
“The General Conference’s vote for the Traditional Plan brought out the churches leaning toward Reconciliation,” said Irene Morrissey, who was involved in the 1989 discussion that led to the Reconciling Congregation here. “They’re the ones who may join RMN because of it.”
In response to the budding Reconciling Congregation Program in 1984, the UMC General Conference amended the Book of Discipline, which spells out UMC’s law and doctrine, to state that “no self-avowed, practicing homosexual shall be ordained or appointed in the United Methodist Church.”
That amendment angered church members, especially those with gay and AIDS-stricken relatives.
“The language in the Book of Discipline was offensive to the whole church,” said Morrissey, whose daughter was openly gay at the time.
In the following years, Irene and other people in a Sunday class “on Methodist issues” worked “a study” of the issue, including information from “God Loves Everyone,” a publication by Reconciling leaders Beth Richardson and Mark Bowman.
“It showed how conservative Methodist leaders took minor Biblical passages out of context to justify their ban on gay clergy in the Book of Discipline,” Rev. Marti said.
The group submitted its report to local church’s administrative board, which met at the end of May 1989.
“The room was packed,” Irene recalled. “The board voted to become a Reconciling church. We were probably the fifth congregation to become one.”
She said that almost everyone at the church supported the decision, and it gained many more members than it lost because of it.
Margaret Parish was one who joined the church, in 1994, when she found out it was a Reconciling Church.
“I was searching all over for one,” said Margaret, a lesbian and lifelong Methodist. “I moved to Oneonta when I found this church. I knew I was in the right place.”
She, Rev. Marti, Irene and other church members have been planning the 30th anniversary events. On Sunday, May 12, which is Mother’s Day, the theme will be “Women of Faith.”
The next Sunday, May 19, the congregation will its music director Ray Paradise, who died 10 years ago, “a big proponent of the ministry here,” the pastor said.
And May 26 will feature the Shower of Stoles. “A stole is made in remembrance and recognition of a person who could not fulfill their call for whatever reason,” Margaret said.
“And there are thousands of them,” Irene added.
“That Sunday, we will also be dedicating the one hundred stoles people in the church are making for the next General Conference,” Rev. Marti said. “If you are a Reconciling member, you wear one at the General Conference.”
Wearing the stoles at the General Conference will be just one of the ways FUMC and other Reconciling churches Rev. Marti calls “Biblical obedience.”
“The other side feels we’re disobeying,” she said. “But we feel we’re obeying Jesus’ teachings, which has to do with loving your neighbor.”