Methodist Church suspends retired Dallas minister for performing same-sex wedding

The Rev. Bill McElvaney marries Jack Evans and George Harris at Midway Hills Christian Church on March 1. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The Rev. Bill McElvaney marries Jack Evans and George Harris at Midway Hills Christian Church on March 1. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The Rev. Bill McElvaney, emeritus pastor of Dallas’ Northaven’s United Methodist Church, has been suspended for marrying longtime couple Jack Evans and George Harris.

McElvaney married the couple of 53 years on March 1 at nearby Midway Hills Christian Church after announcing in January that he was taking a stand for marriage equality and “would consider it a privilege to officiate at a same-sex wedding.” Northaven’s current pastor decided not to have the ceremony take place at the church becasue of possible repercussions by the Methodist Church.

He received notice a week later from Dallas Bishop Michael McKee, notifying him of a complaint filed by the Rev. Camille Gaston.

“The UM Discipline calls for a supervisory response from the bishop,” McElvaney wrote in a post on Northaven’s website, where he announced the news. “This response is intended to be pastoral and administrative, directed toward a just resolution between the parties.”

McElvaney is not on trial for the wedding yet, but the meeting is the first step in determining how to move forward. He is suspended from clergy duties as the process unfolds. Other ministers who’ve violated the Methodist discipline and presided over same-sex weddings have been defrocked.

But McElvaney told Dallas Voice earlier this year that at 85, and who has recently undergone chemotherapy, he had nothing to lose by standing on the right side of history.

“I owe the Methodist church a lot, but what I do not owe the Methodist Church is my soul,” he said.

Read McElvaney’s statement below.

—  Dallasvoice

After 53 years, Evans and Harris pack the church for their wedding

Methodist ministers from around the Meteroplex and as far away as Austin attended the wedding of Jack Evans and George Harris at Midway Hills Christian Church.

Harris and Evans are members of Northaven United Methodist Church. The denomination does not allow same-sex weddings to be performed in their churches or Methodist ministers to perform those ceremonies.

The Rev. Bill McElvaney, who is retired, announced at Northaven on Jan. 15 that he would perform same-sex weddings.

On Saturday afternoon, McElvaney walked down the aisle but sat as he officiated, because he had a round of chemotherapy just days before. He sounded strong and brought the crowd of several hundred to their feet several times as he blessed the couple who has been together 53 years.

The issue of same-sex marriage is dividing the United Methodist Church and has heated up since the Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked last fall for performing his son’s wedding.

“It’s not my intent to politicize this marriage,” McElvaney said during the wedding. “But…”

With news cameras from most local stations at the church and four stories about the wedding in the Dallas Morning News, there was little doubt the wedding was political.

“Jack and George are challenging the United Methodist Church to become a fully inclusive church,” McElvaney said.

He said he wanted to correct any news reports that said he was a willing participant.

“I’m privileged to be part of it,” he said.

The Rev. Arthur Stewart, pastor of Midway Hills, said he got calls from other pastors of his denomination as news broke about the wedding at his church. He was told that what he was doing was a disgrace to the denomination. He answered that it would be a disgrace if he didn’t welcome the couple to his church. Midway Hill is a member of The Chistian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“When it comes to justice, our doors are always open,” Stewart said.

The Rev. Sid Hall is the pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin. He said he performed a number of same weddings at his church between 1992, when his church because a reconciling congregation, and 1996, when the United Methodist Church outlawed the practice. Since then, his church has performed no weddings, gay or straight.

Since then, he said, a number of same-sex weddings have been performed in churches around Texas, just nothing as open and public as this event.

Hall speculated what his and every other congregation would be without their LGBT members, gay music directors and organists.”

“Worship would suck,” Hall said.

He wouldn’t speculate on whether charges would be brought against McElvaney or not. Anyone within the denomination may file a complaint, he explained, and the local bishop may decide to elevate the complaint to charges.

Hall, however, thought there couldn’t be a worse case than this one for the church to use as an example — a pastor in his 80s undergoing chemotherapy celebrating the lives of a couple that’s been together longer than most straight couples.

McElvaney said he wouldn’t speculate about whether charges will be filed.

“It’s their business what they do,” McElvaney said. “And I’ll deal with it.”

At the reception, held at Northaven United Methodist Church, McElvaney had one wish for Harris and Evans.

“Continued joy, health and happiness,” he said.

Evans and Harris don’t think things will be much different now that they’re married. Harris said they’re not planning to have kids.

“Hell, he won’t even let me have a dog,” Harris said.

—  David Taffet

Disciples of Christ church in OKC follows path of Dallas’ Midway Hills, becomes open and affirming

Roger Wedell

Roger Wedell

The Edmond Trinity Christian Church in Oklahoma City became the second Disciples of Christ Church in the state to become open and affirming, according to the Daily Oklahoman. There are 170 churches in the denomination within the state.

It’s curious why this story has been all over the gay blogs, however. Midway Hills Christian Church in Dallas is a member of the denomination as well. According to member Roger Wedell, his church joined the Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples (GLAD) Alliance in 1992. And they were fairly late in actually aligning themselves with GLAD.

“Well, that’s when we took the vote,” he said.

The movement in the denomination began about 1976 but Midway Hills has welcomed everyone since its founding in the 1950s.

“Gays and lesbians have been in leadership throughout our history,” Wedell said.

The church was one of the few places that welcomed Turtle Creek Chorale to rehearse when the group organized 32 years ago and P-FLAG Dallas formed there in the early ’90s.

So what took so long for the church to officially become open and affirming, Wedell said, was simply taking the vote. There wasn’t a need before that, he said, but finally, the church decided to become a witness to the community and to make sure anyone looking for an open and affirming church would find Midway Hills more easily.

The history of Edmund Trinity appears to be similar. The vote to become GLAD-affiliated followed a history of welcoming a diverse community that included two years of study of the treatment of gays and lesbians in the church.

Wedell said things in the Christian Church, as it’s known, are done on a congregational level. Midway Hills was and apparently remains at the forefront in the denomination on the subject of LGBT inclusion. Only about 100 of the denomination’s 3,600 churches nationwide are open and affirming through the GLAD alliance.

—  David Taffet

Midway Hills hosts forum on intolerance

The Rev. Terry Zimmerman

Speakers focus on the impact of prejudice on the LGBT community

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

The more that members of Midway Hills Christian Church talked about bullying, the more they realized how frequently the issue of religious intolerance came up, usually as the root of bullying.

“We saw it impacting people’s lives across the spectrum,” said Roger Wedell, an openly gay Midway Hills member.

And as the discussions continued, the more adamant the church members became about the necessity of finding ways to combat intolerance and bullying.

Out of those discussions was born the church’s new Tolerance Task Force.

The task force has since issued a Statement on Religious Intolerance and on June 12 hosted its first town hall on the subject. A second meeting will be held on Monday, June 20, and the public is invited to share their personal experiences.

The Rev. Terry Zimmerman, the senior minister at Midway Hills, called the statement “a call to solidarity of faith groups which present an alternative voice to the ones that speak the loudest and provide the most inflammatory sound bites for the media.”

But Zimmerman hopes the meetings result in more than just preaching to the choir.

“We’re hoping there are other groups out there as interested as we are, to form an alliance and share information,” he said.

Zimmerman said it’s the bad news that always makes headlines. But he recently attended a conference of clergy sponsored by Human Rights Campaign where he learned that studies show a majority of people want equal rights for everyone.

“That says to me they want tolerance,” Zimmerman said.

He said that recent events such as passage of anti-bullying legislation have helped bring his traditionally liberal congregation alive again.

“So much damage has been done in the name of religion,” Zimmerman said. “So many people have given up on church when it doesn’t stand up for what it knows is right.”

He and members of his congregation want to make sure, through the Tolerance Task Force, that people know Midway Hills does stand up for what they know is right.

“We’re hoping through this to let a broader spectrum of the community know there are other voices out there,” Wedell said.

Midway Hills has been an open and affirming congregation since the 1970s. When the AIDS crisis hit, they were one of the original churches that worked with AIDS Interfaith Network. Beginning in the early ’90s, they hosted P-FLAG, which met at the church for more than a decade. The church is a member of Disciples of Christ.

Just because there are louder voices that are intolerant, he said, doesn’t mean those are the only voice.

The first panel included two people who discussed the impact of intolerance.

One is Becky Holmes, a candidate for ordination at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She spoke about the impact intolerance has had on her, first as woman dealing with leadership of the Southern Baptist Church and then as a lesbian.

The other is Jeremy Liebbe, a volunteer with Youth First Texas who spoke on the struggle youth have with their sexual orientation and gender identity.

After surviving several suicide attempts, he assists other youth deal with the intolerance they face.

The upcoming panel includes three speakers. One is a counselor who works with Youth First Texas and will talk about youth issues.

In addition, Betsy Winter will discuss the journey of the Presbyterian Church to reach its new position on the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and Melissa Weaver, a staff attorney with Human Rights Initiative, will speak about the impact on immigrants seeking asylum.

Zimmerman said that at the first meeting, he felt a sense of helplessness that feeds on itself.

“We need to break that chain so people can be empowered,” he said. “We’re helping people find their voice.”

Midway Hills Christian Church, 11001 Midway Road, Monday, June 20 at 7 p.m.

—  John Wright

Midway Hills begins capital campaign

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Roger Wedell
Roger Wedell

Midway Hills Christian Church has kicked off a capital campaign to raise $400,000 to renovate and update the facility. Spokesman Tom Peck called it an “express campaign” to raise the money in August.

Campaign co-chair Roger Wedell said the total goal was $900,000 and the improvements would help the church better serve the community.
The church has a long history of welcoming the LGBT community. In the 1970s, Midway Hills was one of only four Dallas congregations to co-host a program on churches and homosexuality.

Midway Hills was one of the original rehearsal spaces for the Turtle Creek Chorale, and fFor more than 15 years, the church hosted P-FLAG.

Early in the AIDS crisis, Midway Hills met the challenge when other churches shunned people with AIDS or ignored the problem. It was one of the first churches to form an AIDS Interfaith Network care team.

Wedell said the renovations to the building would create more flexible spaces.

“We hope to accommodate a wider variety of groups in the community,” he said. “And a wider variety of worship and contemporary expressions.”
Rather than fixed pews, the main sanctuary would have modular seating and the chancel would be moveable

“We have a long tradition of incorporating music,” said Wedell. The new configuration would make it easier to incorporate those elements, he said.

“The current entrance to the sanctuary will converted into a new chapel,” he said.

Also in the plans is reconfiguring the entrance.

“Right now, it’s difficult to know what door you should use,” Wedell said.

He said the new main entrance would be handicap accessible. The current front entrance does not meet federal standards.
That entrance will open to a large gathering space for displays, small group use and fellowship.

Wedell said the building is already booked four nights a week. He said the church hosts English as a second language classes, 12-step programs and a square dance group, among others. He said he couldn’t think of a group affiliated with the church that didn’t include LGBT members.

The church had its start in the 1950s and has always been located at its current Midway Road location just north of Royal Lane. At the time, there was lots of open space in the area and large tracts of land were just being developed for housing.

The church is a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination. Wedell explained that congregations in the denomination have a national affiliation but strong local control. He called it the oldest indigenous U.S. Protestant denomination, formed in the 1800s from a merger of several smaller movements.
“As a small denomination, we’ve been involved far beyond our numbers in ecumenical work,” he said.

The congregation has about 200 active members.

“It all goes back to the vision our original members had for the church,” Peck said, “to make an impact far beyond the walls of the church.”

When Dallas first desegregated its school, members of Midway Hills voted to bus their own children. During the Vietnam War, the church became a Shalom or “peace” Congregation, and it was involved with resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Midway helped settle Afghan refugees.

“We helped them with housing and getting stabilized in the community,” Peck said.

In addition to its own congregation, a Peace Mennonite church hold services in the building early on Sunday morning and a new Latino congregation is also using the facility.

To raise the initial $400,000 and eventual $900,000 for additional renovations including resurfacing the parking lot, redesign of the peace garden, remodeling the restrooms and retrofitting the fire protection system, church leaders hope to reach out to the broader community.

“We’re contacting people and organizations we consider to be friends,” Wedell said. And over the years, the church has developed lots of friends.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens