Special Report

Lost and Foundry

Will the United Methodists discipline this famously liberal D.C. church for its wink at gay marriage?

By 3.18.08

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The Methodist church in Washington D.C. that Bill and Hillary Clinton famously attended during Bill's presidency has returned to the limelight with its new plans to "honor" same-sex couples with special worship services. The 7.9 million member United Methodist denomination officially prohibits its congregations from hosting same-sex rites. Not very persuasively, Foundry claims its policy will not violate the letter of church law because the same-sex couples will have conducted their initial "wedding" outside the church.

"Starting February 1 [2008], gay and lesbian couples in a committed relationship can have their relationships and their love recognized and honored at Foundry," the congregation's "Foundry Forge" newsletter declared earlier this year. Only same sex couples who have gone through Foundry's "Pre-Cana" marriage preparation weekend will be able to participate.

The church's senior pastor, Dean Snyder, first announced the new policy in November. He argued that this "ministry" to homosexuals was necessary because, "[o]ur failure to recognize and honor the committed relationships of our lesbian and gay members does harm to them and to the larger society by failing to provide spiritual and communal support for commitment and stability within gay and lesbian relationships."

Foundry's estrangement from its denomination's stance on homosexuality first strongly arose under the previous minister, J. Philip Wogaman, who was pastor and counselor to Bill and Hillary Clinton. In January, 2001, Bill Clinton gave a farewell speech to the congregation, thanking the church for its "kindness and courage [toward] gay and lesbian Christians, people who should not feel outside the family of God."

Foundry has had a long and circuitous history in the nation's capital. Abraham Lincoln once attended, and Rutherford Hayes was a member. Franklin Roosevelt took Winston Churchill there to sing Methodist hymns on Christmas Day 1941. Harry Truman once dropped by, but he didn't like the pastor's effusive attentions.

A lifelong United Methodist, Hillary took her Baptist husband there for eight years, no doubt because they appreciated the church's increasingly liberal theology under Dr. Wogaman. Bob and Elizabeth Dole had been Foundry regulars but stopped attending in 1995. Bob Dole later explained that Foundry had become "quite liberal." Senator George McGovern has been another long-time member.

LIKE OTHER URBAN churches, Foundry's demographic started changing during the 1960s, when many middle class whites left the city for the suburbs. It has fared better than many other urban mainline congregations, many of which are left with little more than beautiful shrines with few actual congregants. Once the older congregants got too old to keep commuting from the suburbs, these churches often declined into dwindling social societies, sustained by the endowments.

Ethnic populations rarely are attracted to traditional, liberal Mainline Protestantism. So, many of the old churches are commonly populated by a few gray heads and growing numbers of homosexuals, who appreciate the beautiful architecture and liturgy of traditional churches, not to mention the liberal theology.

Foundry's membership and attendance have declined since Dr. Wogaman first persuaded the church, by a narrow margin of its administrative board, officially to adopt a "reconciling" stance towards homosexuality at odds with the United Methodist Church. Even the regular worship of the President and First Lady did not enhance the numbers.

Unlike many similarly urban Mainline Protestant churches, Foundry continues to attract hundreds of congregants. However, theological traditionalists seem to have left Foundry, because Rev. Snyder got unanimous backing early this year for his new policy of "honoring" same sex couples.

Dr. Wogaman had never openly violated the United Methodist official stance, which prohibits "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" from being "conducted by our ministers and... in our churches," but the retired pastor praised the church's new policy as "courageous and insightful."

IT MAY ALSO be against church law. The denomination declares that "conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions" are a chargeable offense for which United Methodist clergy may be tried before a church court and defrocked.

Foundry's newsletter explained that the proposal "is designed to stay within rules outlined in the UMC Book of Discipline while at the same time allowing him [Snyder] to minister to Foundry members." Although Snyder will not "conduct vows at same-sex ceremonies," he "may provide worship leadership."

The newsletter admitted: "There is some chance that charges could be brought against Snyder by those who object to Foundry’s program." It is not clear whether Foundry expected its new policy to become widely reported, but that's what happened. But both the Washington Post and the Washington Times announced it, followed by United Methodist denominational press.

Forced to react, the local United Methodist Bishop asserted that Foundry's policy did not violate church law but largely avoided substantive comment. "I have recognized that they face a difficult question of how in the name of Jesus Christ to minister to all of their members given our denominational policies about homosexuality," Bishop John Schol said.

But reportedly Foundry's new policy to honor same sex couple will be on the agenda of the denomination's biannual meeting Council of Bishops next month. Late in April, the quadrennial governing General Conference also will meet. Thanks to the growing numbers of delegates from Africa, where United Methodism is growing, and fewer delegates from shrinking liberal regions in the U.S., the denomination almost certainly will reaffirm its official disapproval of same-sex rites and perhaps will tighten the rules even further.

In the now firmly liberal Episcopal Church, conservative congregations are departing, many of them seeking affiliation with overseas orthodox Anglicans. The opposite may become true in The United Methodist Church, 30 percent of whose membership is now outside the U.S.

Will liberal congregations like Foundry Church want to remain in an increasingly conservative denomination more and more governed by traditionalist Nigerians and Congolese and U.S. southerners? Like conservative Episcopalians, the convictions of liberal United Methodists eventually may lead them elsewhere.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.