The Rev. Drew Phoenix is many things to many people
To congregants of St. John's of Baltimore, he's the
fun-loving pastor who counsels them, takes their children hiking,
explains Scripture and plunges into worthy causes. To conservative
Methodists, Phoenix embodies another front in the culture wars: a
rebel who has defied God and nature and should be removed from
ministry. To mainstream society, Phoenix is an enigma who transcends
traditional sexual boundaries, provoking uncomfortable questions about
the interplay between body, mind and soul. To the Judicial Council of
the United Methodist Church, he's number IV on the docket for its Oct.
24-27 session: "A Review of Bishop's Decision . . . Whether
Transgendered Persons Are Eligible for Appointment in The United
The issue of transgenderism seems too hot to touch
for religious Americans already bitterly divided over sexual
orientation. A number of Methodist theologians and ethicists asked to
comment for this article declined. But as scientific advances and
changing sexual mores allow transgender people to slowly move into the
mainstream, religious leaders will soon have to grapple with the
theological implications of sexual identity, scholars say. In
practical terms, they have to consider Phoenix and whether he should
remain in ministry. The judicial hearing of the United Methodist
Church, one of the largest Christian bodies in the United States, may
be a high-water mark for transgender awareness in the pews. "The
theological issues here are very important," said Mark Jordan, a
professor of Christian ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's
not just an issue of church discipline, and it's not just a freak
About 18 months ago, after 46 years of feeling
trapped in the wrong body, the Methodist minister had sexual
reassignment surgery, at last aligning psyche and sex. The Rev.
Ann Gordon became the Rev. Drew Phoenix.
Phoenix, now 48, describes the transition from
female to male as a homecoming. "For me, now it's very much about
being embodied. My spirit is in a body now," Phoenix said. As a
female, "my spirit was just, like, homeless." The 40 or so
members of St. John's, who say they pride themselves on being the most
accepting and inclusive Methodist church in Baltimore, said their
minister's sex change was no big deal. They had some questions, which
Phoenix answered in individual meetings, but no large theological
"It was like, 'Okay, great, congratulations.
You're living as God intended now. How wonderful,' " said Kara
Ker, 33, a social worker and lifelong Methodist. "Every now and
then, people struggle with the pronouns. That's the biggest
challenge." But to some Methodists, Phoenix's ministry posed
larger problems. At a meeting of the Baltimore-Washington
Conference in May, several pastors questioned whether the
ministry should be open to transgendered people.
Baltimore-Washington Bishop John Schol reappointed Phoenix,
reasoning that the Methodists' Book of Discipline has no rule
forbidding transgender pastors. Now the nine-member Judicial
Council -- the United Methodist Church's supreme court -- will
rule on Schol's decision in San Francisco this month. James
Holsinger Jr., President Bush's nominee for U.S. surgeon
general, heads the council. Senate Democrats have stalled
Holsinger's appointment in part because he has described gay sex
as abnormal and unhealthy. Conservatives have promised to pass a
ban on transgendered pastors at the Methodists' next General
Conference in 2008.
"Most church people instinctively recognize
there are problems with the church affirming a gender change but
haven't really thought through all the implications," said Mark
Tooley of UMAction, a branch of the conservative Institute on
Religion and Democracy. Christians and Jews have traditionally
derived fixed notions of sex from the Hebrew Bible, in which God
creates Adam and Eve. To mess with that, some argue, is to mess
with God's plan for creation. Other conservatives point to
Deuteronomy, which says, "The woman shall not wear that which
pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's
garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy
"There's the issue of what's God's intention
for us," said the Rev. David Simpson, a United Methodist pastor
from Ellicott City who challenged Phoenix's reappointment. "Is
that something that we get to choose?"
On the other hand, some medical professionals and
transgendered people say sexual identity and sexual orientation are
separate things. "It's not about whom I love," Phoenix said. "It's
about who I am." Moreover, they argue, science is demonstrating that
sexual identity is fluid and not fixed into binary categories. And
it's innate, not a choice. Finally, those who argue the "God doesn't
make mistakes" and "Don't mess with creation" points of view readily
make use of medical procedures to change their bodies, Phoenix said.
"Think of all the vaccinations, medications and pharmaceuticals we
take," he said. "We completely alter our bodies."
But to many Christians, there's a fundamental
difference between taking a vaccine and changing something as basic as
sex. In 2003, the Vatican said transsexuals suffer from "mental
pathologies" and barred them from Roman Catholic religious orders.
Last year, a Christian college in Michigan fired a transgendered
professor for failing to live up to Christian "ideals." Other
mainline Protestant churches haven't banned transgender pastors, but
they haven't exactly welcomed them, either. The Rev. Erin K.
Swenson, a Presbyterian pastor who transitioned from male to female in
1996, has written that "transgendered individuals are modern lepers in
a culture that worships at the altar of sexual stereotypes."
What are your thoughts on this article?