Transgendered Minister in Line To Be a Pastor
Decision of Bishop Divides United Methodist Clergy
[WASHINGTON, DC] - United Methodist Bishop Felton May said he intends to assign a minister who recently had a sex-change operation to a pastoral position, the first such appointment in the local church and one of the few in any mainline denomination in the country.
Some Methodists oppose the appointment for moral and theological reasons and are trying to derail it on procedural grounds. They believe that changing gender is saying to God, "You made a mistake," said Morris Hawkins, conference president of United Methodist Men.
The transgendered pastor, the Rev. Rebecca Ann Steen, formerly was known as the Rev. Richard A. Zomastny and served churches in Thurmont, Rockville and Edgewater. Zomastny requested a leave of absence in October 1999 and had a sex-change operation.
Steen, a divorced parent of three teenagers, decided this year to return to work by entering the pool of candidates for a variety of pastoral positions in the more than 700 churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. According to church law, the bishop must appoint all qualified active clergy to a position by July 1.
Steen, 47, "has voluntarily returned to active service after being on leave of absence," May said in a statement Thursday night during the annual meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church in Washington. "She is therefore available for appointment by July 1."
The bishop said the matter is not completely closed. "Certain questions of law" were raised in a meeting of about 350 clergy Thursday, he said in his statement, and he will rule on them today. Church officials said the meeting was confidential and would not disclose the contents of the session.
But Hawkins, of United Methodist Men, said he understood that a substantial number of the clergy -- perhaps 40 percent to 45 percent -- wanted to vote on whether Steen should be allowed to return to ministry. Those individuals wanted that vote, if it went against Steen, to overrule the Board of Ordained Ministry, which decides on such matters as leaves of absence and retirement.
The Rev. Dean Snyder, communications director for the conference, said Steen automatically returned to the pool of pastoral candidates by not requesting another year's leave. Church bylaws do not allow clergy to overrule the ordination board, he said.
"My reading is that there's nothing the annual conference can do about the status of a clergyperson," he said. "If there's any action [in this direction], the bishop could rule it out of order."
Opponents challenge Snyder's interpretation of the law. If May's ruling allows the appointment to go forward, opposing clergy said they could appeal the issue to the conference's judicial council, which might not meet for several months.
Although most denominations have debated the ordination of non-celibate lesbians and gay men, the status of transgendered clergy has not been a major issue, said the Rev. Justin Tanis, director of clergy development for Metropolitan Community Churches, an international association of churches for gay men, lesbians and transgendered.
Tanis, who underwent a female-to-male sex change, knows of four transgendered clergy in mainline U.S. denominations and one in England. Five Metropolitan pastors are transgendered.
Society allows a range of physical adjustments that allow people to feel good about themselves, including nose jobs, body building and corrective surgery, Tanis said. Why not allow sex changes for people "who have a sense of alienation and discomfort with the gender they've been assigned?"
One answer to that question, some opponents say, is that God created people male or female and they should remain that way. "I think it's a sin, a violation of the creation of God," Hawkins said.
Other opponents say the matter of right and wrong is not so clear.
"I don't think the issue is that Rebecca is beyond God's grace," said the Rev. Kevin Baker, pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in Deale. "God loves Rebecca. I think she's living a lie about herself, that Richard was a man trapped in a woman's body. . . . I feel sorry for her in that regard."
"Is it sinful? I'm not sure I know," Baker said. "There's no place in the Bible you can point to to say that."
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