Forgotten Word Ministries

Aligning Psyche and Sex

Methodists Meet to Evaluate Transgenderism, Starting With Baltimore Pastor

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 As reported by the Washington Post October 20, 2007

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 Methodist Church."

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 show."

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 hang-ups.

"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 God."

"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."
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