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Seating of Lesbian Pastor on Ministers Council Challenged

A lesbian pastor recently married under Massachusetts law allowing gay couples to wed will keep her seat on an American Baptist minister’s council, at least for now.

Cynthia Maybeck, pastor of Trinity Church of Northborough, Mass., a congregation dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ, was elected president of the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts Conference of Baptist Ministers.

That qualifies her for a seat on the senate of the ABC/USA Ministers Council, a 69-year-old fellowship and resource-producing body that is separate from the organizational structure of the denomination based in Valley Forge, Pa.

A request was made that the council senate refuse to seat Maybeck, a lesbian who married her partner, Elaine Fadden, July 22. Meeting by conference call Aug. 2, the Ministers Council executive committee determined that the group’s bylaws do not allow for removal of a senator, because membership is defined only as representatives elected by constituent councils.

Ministers council leaders in the American Baptist Churches in the Pacific Southwest responded by recommending an amendment to the bylaws. It would require that senators “maintain sexual integrity consistent with the teaching of Scripture that sexual intimacy is to be experienced between a man and a woman committed to each other in marriage.”

Council bylaws require that any bylaw amendment carrying at least 15 signatures be presented at the senate meeting and voted on at the following senate. That means the amendment, presented at the senate meeting Aug. 20-24 at Green Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin, will be up for a vote when the senate meets next August. It must pass by a two-thirds vote to be ratified.

Meanwhile, the senate is embarking on a “Jerusalem Council” process modeled in the spirit of one used to resolve conflicts in the early church as described in Acts 15.

The proposed amendment “provides an overdue opportunity to respectfully discuss the theological convictions of all members of the Ministers Council regarding homosexuality,” said a statement by the senate’s denominational relationships committee, which proposed the process.

A team of facilitators skilled in mediation and group process will be selected to convene regional councils to discuss homosexuality and how people holding strong differences over the issue can remain in fellowship.

Regional ministers’ councils will invite their members to respond in writing and discuss how they desire their senator to vote on the amendment. While parliamentary process may alter the amendment, each senator’s responsibility will be to respond in a way that best represents his or her region’s view.

“Many ABC regions are somewhat homogeneous in their biblical interpretation as it relates to homosexuality, but many are not and none are uniformly of one opinion,” said Kate Harvey, who has been executive director of the Ministers Council for nine years. “The Jerusalem Council process proposed will offer the opportunity for conversation within constituent councils informed by Scripture, Spirit and testimony. Such discernment will equip the 2005 senators as they prepare to vote, as will the collection and analysis of written responses.”

Responses will not be accepted from non-members of the Ministers Council. However, the council is also sending a letter to the president and general secretary of the ABC/USA asking that other denominational stakeholders follow a similar model.

Such a process, Harvey said, “would acknowledge that deep division on the issue is a reality of our common life and not just the Ministers Council. It also would allow the exploration of the possibility of our going on together despite the deep division on this issue.”

American Baptists have discussed homosexuality before. In 1992 the denomination’s General Board adopted a resolution by a vote of 110-64 affirming “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

A year later, however, another resolution adopted 96-69 acknowledged “there exists a variety of understandings throughout our denomination” on homosexuality and encouraged respect and dialogue among those with conflicting views.

But Harvey said earlier debate on the subject was often antagonistic and everyone who took part went away angry. “The Ministers Council is better than that,” she said in a report to the senate. “We believe that the mission of Jesus Christ is lost if all the world sees in us is just another bunch of squabblers.”

About 50 American Baptist churches are members of the gay friendly Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Some American Baptist regions have excluded such churches from membership, and others have embraced them. The national denomination leaves determining membership up to the regions.

“Inevitably within an autonomy-based denomination of 1.5 million people there are dissenting opinions raised on any issue affecting church and society,” said Richard Schramm, deputy general secretary for communication at the ABC/USA, “but there is no question that the overwhelming majority of American Baptists hold a very traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexual expression.”

While Maybeck will be seated as a senator in 2004, she will step back from serving as an unelected substitute chairperson for an elected chair who will be absent from the senate this year. She could not be reached for comment.

Maybeck was one of a number of gay couples to exchange vows after Massachusetts on May 17 became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Massachusetts entered the debate over gay marriage when the state’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in November that the state constitution permits gays to wed.

Opponents to gay marriage are attempting to amend the constitution to ban the practice, but even if adopted by voters it would not take effect before 2006.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.