Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Unspoken Vow

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Unspoken Vow

Article excerpt

A gay Methodist minister is defrocked when he refuses to remain celibate

As the Rev. Phil Hart looked at the hundreds of assembled church leaders sitting in judgment, he felt calm, even confident. "I told them that growing up I had always felt a desire to preach and to serve the church," he says of his testimony before the Clergy Session of the United Methodist Church's West Ohio Conference on May 31. "When I was 8 I practiced by preaching in the barn, and all the cows and chickens came to hear me. Nothing had changed since I came out as a gay man. I was still the same person they had ordained--I was simply being honest."

By the time he made this statement, Hart already had become something of a cause celebre in the United Methodist Church. A year and a half ago he told church elders not only that he was gay but that he refused to promise to remain celibate. Church doctrine states that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Despite his impassioned plea May 31, the body voted overwhelmingly that same day to dismiss Hart as a deacon. Had he not renounced celibacy, Hart, who was ordained in 1997, would be on his way to becoming a full minister with his own congregation, a lifelong goal for the 30-year-old.

"I think Phil may have been naive about what his coming-out would unleash," says Bishop Judith Craig, who ordained Hart. "But he's become an exemplary role model for gays in the church. I hope that someday we will be able to retain talented openly gay ministers like Phil, but we are just not there yet."

Indeed, Hart's case is just one of dozens of gay rights skirmishes in the United Methodist Church, a mainline denomination with more than 8 million members nationwide. At its quadrennial general conference in Cleveland May 11, the church voted to retain its policies prohibiting "practicing homosexuals" from ordination and barring ministers from blessing same-sex unions.

But the votes did not come without dissent. More than 200 protesters, including some prominent church officials, were arrested after expressing their displeasure with the antigay policies. And despite the ban on blessing same-sex unions, dozens of Methodist ministers have flouted church policy by conducting the ceremonies anyway.

"Phil puts a human face on what for many has been little more than a political battle," says the Rev. Grayson Atha, pastor of the King Avenue Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, and an ally of Hart's. "That's what God had in mind when he sent what we call a `real human being' into the world to teach us what God is like. A few years ago about 40 members of my church decided that they were tired of asking about other people's families and not being able to talk about their own. It changed the entire church, and we are all the better for it. This is driving the progress in the church."

Hart says he subscribed to church teaching about homosexuality for most of his life. When he realized he was gay, it set off a long struggle for his soul. "God and my sexual orientation were the two dominant themes of my life," he says. "I just couldn't figure out how to reconcile them, so I simply repressed my desires. I kept telling myself that if the right woman would come along, I would straighten out."

After graduating from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. …

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