By Becca Clark
There are times when you fight for all you’re worth to make change happen. There are times when you bang your head against the wall until it hurts. There are times when you nurse your wounds and pray for strength to pick up the struggle another day.
And then there are the times when you ignore the status quo, ignore the lack of progress, ignore the laundry list of what separates the now from the should-be and could-be and must-be, and you act as if we were already living as the community of radical, inclusive love we are called to be.
That’s what I did on Sunday, with about 300 other people.
We gathered in Baltimore in Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, a place steeped in United Methodist history, and just about a mile from the church where the first Conference of the American Methodists was held. We sang new songs and spoke original liturgy. We heard the prophetic words of Jesus and Isaiah (read through tears), that the Spirit of the Lord declares good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, liberation for the captives, and the year of the Lord, and heard the preacher, Rev. Dr. Traci West echo Christ in her sermon, proclaiming that “today, this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing.” Rev. Dr. West reminded us that in the beginning of the Methodist movement, a group of people gathered together, and “just decided that they would BE the church,” and that we stood on their shoulders as we too gathered, and decided.
And so we did.
Two retired United Methodist bishops, sponsors, partners, family members, friends, and members of the assembled congregation came forward and laid hands upon two women who had been denied ordination previously. We ordained them.
The ordination was truly extraordinary, in that it was outside the rules of the UMC, and in that the women ordained were themselves most extraordinary.
The Rev. Jenna Zirbel had her candidacy process terminated in her conference, despite the unanimous support of her district committee, because of her support for the full inclusion of glbt persons and other marginalized people. The Rev. Annie Britton, who is a dear friend of mine and a classmate, and one of the most perfectly loving, pastoral people I’ve met, was removed from both her church and her candidacy when she shared with her congregation that she and her wife Terry were legally married in Massachusetts.
Jenna seems like a lovely woman, and a grace-filled pastor, and I don’t want her to be a footnote, but I was there, with my friend M, for Annie. As the candidates were asked a variation of the historic questions before us, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, how her chin trembled and her eyes shone with tears as she responded to each question. When they asked the congregation to respond, I looked straight into her eyes and practically yelled, “Let us ordain them!” When they called us forward, I bulldozed a line through the crowd, and M and I placed our hands on Annie’s back, alongside those of her parents and her wife and her sponsor, and with Bishop Susan Morrison (another one of the most wonderful and gifted and inspiring women I am blessed to call a colleague), spoke words of ordination.
As she and Jenna consecrated communion, Annie’s face was alight with joy. Had she been the leader of a rag-tag band of refugees fleeing Egypt, they’d have made her veil her face; she shone with the presence of the living God, the love of God radiating from her pores.
Of course, part of her shimmer may have been the tears in my eyes as well.
Moments like that make me proud to be a Methodist, and a pastor, and call myself a Christian. I have, in moments like those, hope that the Spirit of inclusion, a spirit I see as fully Biblical and fully blessed, will eventually win out. I believe in those moments that the arc of history, as Rev. Dr. King reminds us, is long but bends toward justice.
What the reaction will be in the days and weeks ahead is beyond me. Will these ordinations be ignored? Will they be repealed? Will they be grudgingly accepted (I doubt that latter)? Will those involved be sanctioned or slapped on their proverbial wrists, or celebrated as visionaries? These are the questions, when we stand at moments that define change, moments when folks refuse to look back or count the odds, but instead live as if the vision were already realized, live tomorrow today.