Two lesbians who were not allowed to wed in their own Methodist church had the religious ceremony last weekend in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church in Washington.
The couple exchanged vows May 25 at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The 30-minute "holy union" service was conducted by a lay member of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown, where the two women are members.
The couple moved the ceremony from Dumbarton after the Washington region's Methodist bishop, Joseph H. Yeakel, warned the Dumbarton congregation that their pastor might be in violation of church law if the service were held in the Methodist church building. The pastor, the Rev. Man-King Tso, had intended to allow a Methodist lay member to perform the service.
The United Methodist Church, like most mainline denominations, does not officially recognize holy unions for gay people, which are the equivalent of a heterosexual wedding without the state marriage license.
The denomination considers gay practices incompatible with Christian teaching, though it makes no explicit reference to holy unions of gay people in the laws that govern the church, the Book of Discipline.
The two women, who asked to be identified only as Donna and Ann, were to be the first couple to exchange vows at Dumbarton under an unusual congregational policy to openly bless same-sex religious unions.
That policy is now on hold while Dumbarton representatives discuss with Yeakel "differences in interpretation of United Methodist polity as set forth in the Book of Discipline," according to a statement released by the Dumbarton congregation.
Yeakel could not be reached for comment this week.
The couple's attempt to be wed in a church within their denomination has become a rallying cry among some religious groups that advocate full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.
One organization has called for dialogue with the church's bishop on the issue of same-sex unions.
"This is the first public indication we have heard from a United Methodist bishop that such a congregation policy is contrary to church law," said the Rev. Kim A. Smith, who heads the Reconciling Congregation Program.
The organization, a nationwide movement within the United Methodist Church to encourage membership policies that include gay people, has the allegiance of 44 of the church's approximately 37,000 congregations nationwide.
Another organization, an independent caucus of social activists in the United Methodist Church, has announced that it will link lesbian and gay couples with congregations and pastors willing to provide them with "full pastoral services."
George McClain, a spokesman for the Methodist Federation for Social Action, told the Dumbarton congregation last month that his organization's action was inspired by the public witness of the church to assist gay and bisexual United Methodists.
At Dumbarton, the lesbian couple expressed disappointment about the canceled ceremony at their church, but vowed to continue fighting religious bias against gay men and lesbians. Some people "don't understand that a person who is gay can be as much a Christian as someone who is straight," said Donna, a secretary in the District.
"I hope we might be able to change some of that, maybe by talking, by showing them through our relationship that it really is a relationship of love and commitment and with a basis in Christian service," she said.
More than 50 people, including about 20 from the Dumbarton congregation, attended the ceremony at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has policies that welcome gay men and lesbians.
Donna and Ann, wearing white linen pantsuits, exchanged gold bands with diamond insets. Scripture passages were read. Ushers stood at the church door to ensure that only invited guests entered.
The Presbyterian church, brightened with pink and white carnations, was decorated simply to resemble the Dumbarton sanctuary.
"It was tremendous," Donna said. "It made it feel comfortable."