As we continue our “Where Love Lives: Fair and Equal Ordination for All” storytelling project as part of the Western Jurisdiction campaign for a fully inclusive church, we hear from Amory Peck, a lay member of the Pacific Northwest Conference and former Conference Lay Leader and lay delegate to General Conference. In addition to that, she spent time serving on the PNW Board of Ordained Ministry, helping to evaluate provisional candidates for ministry.
For more than 20 years, Peck has been advocating for an LGBTQ+ inclusive United Methodist Church. But as you’ll read her perspective, it’s been a long, arduous journey:
In 2004, as a group of PNW Reconciling Ministries activists were getting ready for a demonstration, a young woman, quite new to our band of advocates, said to us, “How do you people do it? I’ve been doing this work for three months already, and nothing has changed.” While her passion was admirable, her impatience was naïve. At that point, I was eight years “out” in The United Methodist Church, and still a relative newbie to the struggle for full LGBTQ+ inclusion in our denomination.
At the 1996 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, then Rev. Elaine JW Stanovsky, one of our clergy delegates to the just-concluded General Conference in Denver, was giving her report. Her comments raised questions, and people kept asking for clarification about “the issue.” That phrase propelled me out of my seat to explain that, as a lesbian, it was not “an issue.” It was my life. Most of my memories of that day are a mishmash, but I do remember one response. A man I’d worked beside for years said, “I’ve never liked homosexuals … but I like Amory.” He shook his head and repeated, “I’ve never liked homosexuals, but I really like Amory.” That afternoon I learned, first-hand, the power of letting my life speak.
By the time General Conference 2000 came about, I had run for and been elected as a reserve delegate. In all I’ve attended four General Conferences as a member of the delegation, then two more as a visitor. When I stepped into the fray in 2000, I was joining a conversation on homosexuality that had been going on since 1972.
General Conference 1972 amended the Social Principles by adding, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”. Since the definition of incompatible is “two things so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together,” the effect of the incompatibility clause was chilling. From that premise hung the rest of the prohibitions that followed. Over the next years, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church was changed to prohibit gay clergy, same-sex marriage, clergy performing same-sex marriages, or allowing those marriages to be held in UM churches. Defying those regulations became a chargeable offense.
I entered into the discord in the 28th year of the struggle. Once I was able to see and participate in the rule making process of our denomination, I saw firsthand the bravery of people letting their life speak. I joined the ranks of those protesting: singing, standing, and performing acts of disruption. We were rainbow bedecked, forcing everyone to acknowledge we were there. We were rejected by some, tolerated by a large number, and gratefully appreciated by a growing number.
Over the years, I observed a stunning progression in the witness of gay clergy. In 2000, they were represented by The Shower of Stoles, a collection of stoles donated by LGTBQ+ clergy unable to serve because the unjust policies of the denomination. We, as demonstrators, wore the stoles while standing before the session. Sixteen years later, one hundred LGBTQ+ clergy published their names in a statement to the General Conference, and many of them attended General Conference in Portland to make themselves known as they stood in solidarity for all to see.
I have been blessed by the Conference experiences I’ve had. I have met, worked with, cried, shouted, prayed and protested with marvelous people I would never have met otherwise – people who became my friends as well as my heroes.
But each session was a wrenching experience—a life-draining, emotionally violent battering. It hurts to be rejected, year after year. It causes deep pain to be found “less than” over and over. By 2016, when the delegates called on the bishops for an intercession, it had become frightening, as well. The sight and sound of hundreds of delegates from the opposition winding themselves through the plenary floor singing “ … marching as to war … “ was unnerving. The bishops intervened, ended all discussion of the LGBTQ+ legislation, and pledged to form a Commission on the Way Forward which would report at a special session. That session ended up being held in 2019, in St. Louis.
I was bolstered during those years by the warmth of the church in the West. As the global church became more and more entrenched in exclusionary ways, our Western Jurisdiction became more and more welcoming. The Jurisdiction became reconciling, my Annual Conference did as well, and then, my local church. My personal life flourished. My wife and I had a Holy Union ceremony in 1998, with a retired pastor officiating and seven pastors attending. We married legally in 2013, in our home church, with our pastor officiating, two bishops attending, and, as was said, “enough clergy in attendance to hold an annual conference.”
But, as the special 2019 session ended, I realized my energy for attending General Conference had been exhausted. I am no longer healthy or resilient enough to be a physical witness to the process. Then, COVID-19 arrived, we settled ourselves for what became a long haul, and my resolve became even more clear.
As a high-risk, over seventy-five-year-old, I took the directive to stay home seriously. As a result, I had time to indulge my CNN/MSNBC watching. Glued to the screen, the wrenching politics of 2020 became intermixed in my mind with the politics of General Conference. The machinations of both were so distasteful. The scope and fervor of the opposition was startling. I’d known that, but seen up-close, it was daunting.
Through all the dismay, what became so clear to me was the distinction between living, loving, serving God and the rigid following of rules and regulations to control the people of God.
The query “How do you people do it?” came back to me. This time, seventeen years after that question was raised, I respond, “I don’t, not any longer.”
But, praise the Lord, many still do. I give thanks for the WJ College of bishops and their bold stands, including, particularly, this Where Love Lives emphasis. I give thanks for allies throughout the country, and throughout the world. For RMN and its continuing justice work. And, in particular, with special admiration, I thank God for the new clergy entering into this frayed system
I served on the PNW Board of Ordained Ministry from 2012-2020, tumultuous years in the UMC. The issue of homosexuality, bubbling for almost fifty years, was to spill over in 2016. The very future of the UMC was on the line. However, each year, for those eight years, the provisional committee, of which I was a member, learned to know the gifts and graces of eager, passionate candidates, placing their lives into service to the church. I was filled with awe at the strength of their call despite—or, perhaps, because of—the turmoil in the denomination.
What moved me most deeply was knowing that a number of the candidates we were interviewing were, quite likely, LGBTQ+ candidates. As a committee, we wanted to provide the most safe, confidential, supportive environment we could. There was one small thing I could do. The first evening of our multi-day gatherings together, the interviewers and the candidates would meet for a get-acquainted time. I always made a point to mention something about “my wife and I,” signaling an ally in the room. The PNW was known for its inclusive stand, yet every clergy candidate coming before us knew there were risks. Every LGBTQ+ clergy candidate knew of the turmoil and eruptions ahead. How could they put themselves forward into such a toxic atmosphere? I was in awe of their commitment to letting their life speak.
Because of The Book of Discipline’s policy denying LGBTQ persons into membership, the PNW had traditionally followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the interviews. During the years I was involved, that approach evolved into a more inclusive atmosphere Our questions spoke of our commitment to diversity, and queried the candidates on how they would, themselves, work towards such an end. We were delighted when one candidate, when asked whether he would follow the rules of The Book of Discipline said, “I will follow it, until I can’t.” Just days before General Conference 2016, to be held in Portland, we released our video statement “making explicit what we had been doing implicitly.”
I lifted the title for this piece from Parker Palmer’s book, “Let Your Life Speak”. In it, Palmer describes the beauty we offer to the world when we live out our authentic selves. In talking about social justice heroes, he says: “… the people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside.” And, even when there are negative consequences, they understand that, “no punishment anyone might inflict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment they inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment.”
When General Conference meets in 2022, it will mark fifty years of ecclesiastical turmoil. It will, most likely, also mark the time when the denomination officially splits. I pray that all my LGBTQ+ siblings find a spiritual home where they can let their lives speak.
Amory Peck lives in Bellingham, Wash., with her wife. You can read more of her writing and reflections at www.amorypeck.com.