Around the time the Rev. Michael Tupper found himself chasing his windblown tent across half a mile of Iowa grain fields, he might have started questioning his mission from God.
God called him, he believes, to sleep in a tent for 175 days to protest the fact that his church does not allow him to perform gay marriages.
The temperatures outside his tent – and the reactions from his fellow Methodists – have ranged from warm to sub-freezing. And now, with less than 50 days to go in his sleep-out, his end is in sight: the global conference at which the United Methodist Church will soon vote whether to change its stance on gay marriage.
Next month, the United States’ second-largest Protestant denomination will consider legislation at its General Conference that would allow all clergy members to perform same-sex weddings if they choose and would allow openly gay men and women to serve as clergy members themselves. That legislation would reverse the long-held positions that have led the church to discipline and even defrock ministers in the past for performing gay weddings and for coming out as gay.
The General Conference, held every four years, sets policy for all churches in this mainline denomination worldwide. The topic of homosexuality first came up in 1972.
“That whole ‘40 years in the wilderness’? Really, it’s been 44 years,” Tupper says. “And hopefully, this is the end. Hopefully, we’re close to the promised land.”
And then he breaks off, mid-sentence, and turns to his daughter. The tent he has been sleeping in for 122 nights, in states scattered across the country, is threatening to blow away again, this time in the patch of grass where he has staked it in front of the office of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of his church.
“Sarah, could you get the tent?” he asks.
She’s joining him in his campout tonight for the first time since he began his protest, but in some sense she has been there all along. She was the inspiration for his activism – and the first lesbian bride he married.
After he officiated at his daughter’s wedding two years ago – after the wedding party’s pre-ceremony hiking trip, and the two brides’ coordinated wedding outfits, and the friends who came from as far New Zealand and South Africa to be there, and the 100 guests who all read a line of the service – after all that, the church charged him with violating its rules for its ministers.
Tupper reached a sort of out-of-court settlement in the United Methodist Church’s judicial system. He knew when he agreed to officiate that he might be defrocked for it – Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania was barred from ministry by the church after officiating at his gay son’s wedding, then reinstated on appeal. But Tupper was cleared to continue ministry at his church near Kalamazoo, Mich.
Then he performed his second gay wedding, that of a fellow United Methodist minister who was banned from his pulpit when he came out as gay. Tupper expected, after he helped officiate Benjamin Hutchison’s wedding, that he would face a church trial.
But the trial never came. And Tupper, 57, started praying on the subject, thinking perhaps he should demonstrate in some other way that he thinks the church’s position needs to change.
That’s where the idea of the tent came in. The church, Tupper says, has left gay Christians “out in the cold.”
Inside the Baltimore-Washington Conference headquarters, Erik Alsgaard, the managing editor of the church’s official publications, looks out on Tupper’s tent pitched on the office’s lawn for the night and employs the same metaphor, to different effect.
“I’m sure there are people who agree with Mike. There are people who disagree with Mike. And that’s one of the nice things about the United Methodist Church,” Alsgaard says. “We are the church of the big tent. There’s room for everyone.”
Sarah Tupper, 29, objects to that characterization. She has felt, time and again, that Christian churches do not make room for her.
She and her wife met at the preeminent evangelical university Wheaton College — despite the fact that Tupper, suspecting that his teenage daughter was lesbian, told her that if she were lesbian she should not go to Wheaton.
They started dating during their freshman year, and Sarah says that both of them lost friends who stopped associating with them once they found out they were lesbian, and faced pressure from deans who said they would kick them out of the school if they could prove they were in a homosexual relationship.
But both kept their evangelical faith. They joined a conservative church in Baltimore, where they now live.
When members found out they were married, suddenly the pastor was praying weekly about the sin of homosexuality. Sarah’s wife was no longer welcome to teach Sunday school. The couple left the church.
Sarah sent emails to 30 pastors at similarly conservative churches near their home. “There are definitely denominations that are welcoming. We would be giving up something in our own theology and how we want to raise our children to believe,” she said. “That’s the trickiness of being someone who’s conservative and evangelical and gay.”
She did not get a single response from those 30 pastors. “It made me cry. I was shocked, really. There’s no space for us.”
Tupper hopes the General Conference will make space in the United Methodist Church. The conference votes on hundreds of proposals sent in by members worldwide. This year, many of them relate to homosexuality.
Some want to open the church to allowing gay marriages and gay ministers. Others want to enforce the current prohibitions even more strictly, such as automatically defrocking any minister who performs two gay marriages.
A central committee has proposed allowing United Methodist ministers to perform gay marriages if they personally choose to do so.
Ministers say that representatives of the United Methodists in Africa, who will make up 30 percent of the voters at the global conference, are most likely to block the proposal.
Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Kansas pastor, has been leading the push for that compromise position, but fears it will not pass. More than half the American delegates will vote for it, he expects, but most likely not enough to get it through.
“When you add the African delegations, you end up with gridlock. It will be interesting to see where there will be enough votes to allow the compromise to go forward or not,” Hamilton said. “It will be close, I think. I don’t have a clear prediction.”
Hamilton said the issue is contentious enough that it could split the church. He believes 10 to 15 percent of the church’s 32,000 American congregations would leave the United Methodists if the denomination sanctioned gay marriage in any way.
When the proposal comes up for a vote in May, Tupper will end his sleepout. He will also prepare for retirement; he says that the bitter opposition of some in his church in Michigan has pushed him toward early retirement from being their pastor.
After months of bundling up against the cold, kissing his wife goodnight, and heading outdoors to sleep in his Michigan yard in the snow, he’ll come inside.
Regardless of the outcome, he thinks his demonstration has been worthwhile. “My little bit of discomfort doesn’t compare to what Sarah’s had to experience in her life,” he says.
Sarah points out that others have had far worse experiences than she has had. While she was at Wheaton, she says, two students believed to be gay committed suicide.
Tupper, sitting outside his tent, goes quiet. He murmurs, “Lord help us.”
This post has been updated.