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Gender Benders

Should members of the clergy be permitted to change their sexual identity?

By 5.25.07

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Should members of the clergy be permitted to change their sexual identity?

The issue is now coming up for the SECOND time among United Methodists in Maryland. A United Methodist minister in Baltimore has informed the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Conference that she has morphed from the Rev. Ann Gordon into the Rev. Drew Phoenix.

A closed session of the clergy will discuss the issue during the regional body's annual conference, now under way in Washington, D.C. The minister's name change is already reflected on her church's website. The former Rev. Ann Gordon now reportedly professes a male identity as Rev. Drew Phoenix.

According to the congregation's website, St. John's United Methodist Church embraces a "diversity" that "reflects the many facets of God's creation in our age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, work and educational experience, physical and mental abilities, and spiritual needs."

Rev. Phoenix's case is not unique. In 2002, the Baltimore-Washington Conference had a similar controversy, when Rev. Richard Zamostny had a sex change operation and became Rebecca Steen. That minister's request to return to the active pastorate was ultimately sidetracked and Zamostny/Steen left the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church.

Like most denominations, the United Methodist Church has no explicitly stated, official policies regarding gender identity issues or sex change operations. And like nearly all churches, the denomination does officially disapprove of homosexual behavior and expects traditional Christian sexual ethics of its clergy. Rev. Phoenix's congregation supports the "Reconciling" movement within United Methodism, which campaigns to overturn the church's official teachings on marriage and sexual ethics.

Unlike with Rev. Zamostny, it is not clear whether Rev. Phoenix has had any gender reassignment surgery. A recent visit to her Baltimore congregation found the petite pastor wearing khaki slacks and a blue blazer. During the social hour after the service, congregants referred to their pastor in the masculine sense. Models of butterflies were prominently featured in the church, perhaps metaphorically illustrating the pastor's metamorphosis. The name "Phoenix" also conjures up images of birthing a new identity.

Five years ago, then Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington region of United Methodism responded with uncertainty to Rev. Zamostny's request to return to the pastorate after a leave of absence, during which sexual reassignment surgery had changed him into Rebecca Steen. In 1999, while pastoring a Rockville church, he had informed Bishop May that he was leaving his wife of 24 years, with whom he had three children, to pursue a new gender identity as Rebecca Steen. According to Zamostny/Steen, in a later Washington Post interview, he and the bishop agreed to keep his plans secret.

After having his sex change operation in Thailand, Zamostny/Steen requested a return to church service. Bishop May hesitated, at one point offering to send the transsexual pastor to Angola as a missionary. Steen declined. "Angola is not a good place for a transgendered woman to be," Steen recounted to the Washington Post.

The Baltimore-Washington's board of ordained ministry, dominated by theological liberals, quietly voted to accept Steen's return to service, though now as a professed woman. But a prominent layman in Maryland Methodism publicized the situation, which eventually got into the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. newspapers in 2002. At the last minute, Bishop May put Steen's request on hold, pending investigation of complaints filed against Steen, including one by Steen's former church secretary. Steen gave up on returning to United Methodism as a pastor.

Bishop May has since retired. Rev. Phoenix, during a sermon last Sunday, recounted that she had recently met with current Bishop John Schol and that he, like the Roman Centurion in the Gospels, was under authority and would comply with church law. Since there is no official United Methodist Church policy on gender change, what the bishop's comments mean is unclear.

Authoritative Christian resources on the theological implications of gender reassignment are rare. One publication is Transsexuality, published in 2000 by the Evangelical Alliance of Great Britain. It calls transsexuality a "form of addiction" that often begins with cross-dressing and ultimately culminates in an "all-consuming desire to change gender as a result of compulsive behavior."

According to the British evangelicals, ""A Christian response that emphasizes both psychological and physical wholeness, rather than concentrating exclusively on artificial and cosmetic physical changes in the hope that they will of themselves produce the desired psychosomatic unity, more truly reflects a biblical view of holistic health." It criticizes sex change operations and the lifelong regime of hormone treatments as merely "managing the symptoms" of gender confusion.

Calling the modern Western preoccupation with self-identity a form of Gnosticism, the British report notes that transsexuality is concerned with a state of mind rather than concrete facts. In contrast, the Christian and Jewish doctrine of creation, with its insistence that "male and female He created them," shows that sexual identity is not selected but given.

The British evangelicals advised against appointing transsexuals to church leadership positions. Noting that post-operative transsexuals often report high levels of depression, with some wanting a return to their original gender, the report urged a "wise pastoral response [that] will seek gently to restore the skewed perceptions of a transsexual person to a Biblical view of maleness and femaleness."

Unfortunately, what is spiritually and therapeutically best for transsexuals is not necessarily the chief concern for many liberal Protestants. Preoccupied with self-identity politics, they are eager to embrace transsexuality as still one more beautiful shade of the endlessly expanding diversity rainbow.

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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.