The bishop spoke the traditional words as she placed her hands on the new deacon named M with just a slight difference from the way those words have always been spoken before.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit upon M,” the bishop said. “Send them now to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God and to equip the church for ministry.”
Not “send him now” or “send her now.” “Send them now.”
That’s what M Barclay has been working for 12 years to finally hear.
Barclay, a transgender person who identifies as neither male nor female and thus uses the pronoun “they,” was commissioned on Sunday as the first non-binary member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church is one of the largest denominations in America, falling behind only the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. The mainline Protestant denomination has been bitterly divided over sexuality and gender identity: Its official rules say clergy must either be celibate or in heterosexual marriages, and can perform only such marriages, but American bishops have ordained gay and transgender clergy before, and clergy have conducted same-sex marriages.
In the Northern Illinois Conference, where Barclay was commissioned Sunday, Bishop Sally Dyck said in a statement, “While M’s journey over the last few years has included gender identity, all of those who were commissioned or ordained on Sunday have been on some kind of journey that has brought them to new places of faith, life and relationships. Likewise, I hope the church will find itself at a new place in the near future when it comes to full inclusion.”
It was a long journey before Barclay got the chance to be ordained. Raised in a conservative community in Pensacola, Fla., Barclay said they identified as a straight woman when deciding to enter ministry. As a young woman, Barclay enrolled at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas in 2005.
A year or so of reading theology — feminist theology and queer theology included — helped Barclay realize that they weren’t straight after all. Barclay came out, initially as a lesbian woman.
“I really struggled for the next year about whether I was going to stay in the church at all. I struggled with how much harm the church had done, not only to LGBT people but to other marginalized people. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of that,” Barclay said. “My faith was still there. It was just really hard to imagine the church living out what I think God is trying to do in the world right now.”
Barclay finished seminary and went to work as the youth director at a United Methodist church in Austin. Giving sermons and participating in worship there persuaded Barclay: They still wanted to be ordained.
“I understand the rules of the church,” Barclay said. “But here’s the truth: I’m queer, and I’m called to this. I tried to walk away.”
In 2012, Barclay pursued ordination in Texas. At that time Barclay was identifying as a woman and was in a relationship with another woman. Barclay thought that would mean disqualification off the bat and so was shocked to get approved for the next round of interviews. But the next board refused to even meet with Barclay at all, sparking a heated and public debate.
“There was a conversation of 400 clergy in Texas about whether or not they could prove I was having sex,” Barclay said. “It was terrible. It was terrible.”
After a prolonged fight — Barclay eventually got the interview but didn’t get approved — Barclay moved from Austin to Chicago and took a job at Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization that promotes inclusion of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the United Methodist Church.
There, Barclay felt safe coming out as not just queer but transgender. And there, after another procedural delay, they eventually met with a local board that enthusiastically approved their candidacy for the clergy. Barclay was commissioned as a deacon in Sunday’s ceremony and, after a two-year provisional period that all new deacons go through, expects to be ordained in 2019. Deacons in the United Methodist Church are ordained clergy who lead the church through preaching and leading ministries.
“Every step of the way, I still wasn’t sure if this would ever happen,” Barclay said. “Even until the day of the service on Sunday. I was thinking, ‘Is somebody going to run into the room and find a way to put a stop to it?’ ”
Barclay is not in a romantic relationship now, so is not violating the church’s rule that clergy can have sexual relationships only in heterosexual marriages. The church does not have any rule banning transgender clergy.
Still, Barclay’s gender identity is a cause of concern for some in the church. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, general manager of the United Methodist group Good News, which advocates against allowing same-sex marriage or gay clergy, told United Methodist News Service that most people in Good News believe people should live as the gender they are assigned at birth, though transgender people should be welcome in churches.
“We would probably draw the line at leadership, seeing transgender persons as not qualified for leadership,” Lambrecht said. “It is premature for the Northern Illinois Annual Conference to move ahead to commission M Barclay, given the present state of knowledge and the questions her commissioning will raise in the minds of many faithful United Methodists.”
Barclay said they have received many messages from people opposed to their leadership in the church because of their gender identity. But Barclay has also heard from LGBT Christians, from the parents of LGBT youth and from supportive churches that seek Barclay’s input about a theology that embraces Christian teaching and queer inclusion.
“How do I theologically and scripturally advocate for trans people? I’m invited a lot to preach on that question,” Barclay said.
Now, as a member of the clergy, Barclay will continue the ministry at Reconciling Ministries Network and will give more sermons and workshops at Methodist churches, with one noticeable change: Barclay will be wearing a collar. Most Methodist clergy don’t wear their collar every day, but Barclay wants to.
“I feel very called to do that,” they said. “A visibly trans person who is an extension of the church — queer and trans people need to see that. They need to see themselves reflected in the life of faith.”
So each morning this week, Barclay got dressed and looked in the mirror. In the reflection, the new United Methodist deacon saw what Barclay had been struggling to see for so long: a face true to their identity, with an emblem of faith around their neck.
This piece has been updated to reflect a statement from the Northern Illinois Conference.