Methodist minister could be sanctioned for marrying same-sex couple
Methodist Pastor Larry Sonner married a lesbian couple He tells why he decided to perform the wedding as an act of civil disobedience within the church and what he hopes to accomplish for his faith.
The Rev. Larry Sonner knew it would be trouble the moment the couple asked him to marry them.
In fact, that was part of the reason the 78-year-old retired United Methodist minister agreed to perform the ceremony for the two women.
Gay marriage remains a tricky subject for Methodists, a religion that prohibits its churches from being used for same-sex ceremonies and its clergy from performing such ceremonies. The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline — the rulebook for the Christian denomination — says same-sex pairings are "incompatible with Christian teaching."
"We talk about being an inclusive church, but somehow we exclude LGBTQ people," Sonner said. "I think that's wrong, and I wanted to demonstrate why it is wrong by marrying this lesbian couple."
It was a decision that could have wide-ranging implications for Sonner. His credentials as a Methodist minister could be yanked. He could lose part of his pension, health insurance and other benefits.
But it may not come to that.
Before marrying them, Sonner gave the couple — who asked not to be identified in this column — premarital counseling, as he would for any would-be newlyweds.
He officiated their ceremony on Oct. 18, a Saturday, in West Des Moines.
The next week, Sonner called the office of Methodist Bishop Julius Trimble in Des Moines and reported himself.
"I know several Methodist ministers have performed these ceremonies and kept it quiet, but I told the bishop I didn't want him to hear about it secondhand," Sonner said. "I wanted this to begin a discussion."
And so it did.
Iowa is home to about 169,000 Methodists. The church is organized into eight districts, each led by a superintendent. One of the duties of superintendents is to keep watch over the ministry and assure all actions are aligned with the denomination's values.
All eight district superintendents were informed that Sonner married a same-sex couple. All eight filed charges against him.
Sonner knew it would happen and wanted it to happen — even though it represents significant risk to him and his wife, Sue.
If the charges are taken to a church trial and he is found guilty, which he almost certainly would be, Sonner's standing as a minister and benefits would be in jeopardy.
But again, it may not come to that.
First, one shouldn't interpret the filing of charges against Sonner as a statement of each superintendent's beliefs on same-sex marriage. They're simply following the rules of the church, and sometimes, the duties of the office don't align with personal values.
I wouldn't presume to speak for the bishop or his superintendents on the matter of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion, but this much I know: This is not a story about raised voices and prognostications of hellfire and damnation. It's a story of a civil disagreement and the move by one brave man to try to change his church.
Sonner has company in his disagreement with the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ. Methodists are greatly divided on the issue. Many American branches of the church support same-sex unions and LGBTQ clergy as part of the church's general policy of inclusion and grace for all.
In fact, the church offers ministry to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and questioning people. Methodists believe all people are sacred in the eyes of God.
The sticking point is Methodists may only change their Book of Discipline at a General Conference, which occurs once every four years. It next happens in 2016.
There are about 12.5 million Methodists worldwide, but the church's membership is declining in the United States, falling 1 percent from 7.5 million in 2012 to 7.4 million in 2013. However, the church is booming in Africa and the Philippines, where membership is greater than 4.5 million and acceptance of LGBTQ people is scarce.
"We are divided in parts of this country on the issue of same-sex marriage, and there is great opposition to homosexuality in our growth areas, particularly in Africa," said Bill Poland, assistant to Bishop Trimble in Des Moines. "Changing the Book of Discipline is a matter that involves agreement of the majority of the whole church."
Some Methodist activists in the U.S. have suggested a "local option" for same-sex marriages, but that hasn't yet gained enough support to become church law.
Change is slow and begins simply with an act of quiet, dignified rebellion by a silver-haired septuagenarian from Urbandale who spent most of his career not as a minister in front of a church but as a counselor to Methodist clergy.
Sonner has been retired 14 years, but attends Grace United Methodist Church on Cottage Grove near Drake University. When word of the charges against him reached the congregation, some of his fellow parishioners were surprised to learn same-sex marriages weren't allowed by their church.
"Some people were really taken aback," Sonner said. "They had no idea."
Kirby Gull, a retired Methodist minister, wrote a passionate defense of Sonner in a letter to the Register.
Methodist church founder "John Wesley admonished pastors to do good and avoid harm," Gull wrote. "Where is the good in prosecuting Dr. Sonner, who unfailingly has served his church, salvaged pastors and their families and offered his counsel and wisdom to those who required it?"
Still, it may not come to that.
Bishop Trimble has proposed a process called "just resolution." Essentially, Sonner meets with the bishop and the superintendents to seek a solution satisfactory to both parties.
They've already had two meetings. Sonner said the conversation was as thoughtful and graceful as he could have hoped.
It should be noted that the discussion of this issue on both sides is remarkably calm, kind and unfailingly polite.
Poland, the bishop's spokesman, spoke highly of Sonner and patiently explained the intricacies of church administration and discipline. There's no fist-shaking or condemnation.
"We wouldn't be very good witnesses to God's grace if there were," Poland said.
Sonner is passionate, but serene and thoughtful — the way one would expect a man preaching the gospel to be. He talked of sharing laughs and smiles with Trimble in their meeting.
The talks provide powerful contrast against the ugly fear-mongering and demagoguery practiced by politicians who invoke religion as they seek power. It's an important reminder of the scores of people who practice their faith each day with quiet dignity rather than condemnation.
Though born of ideological conflict, the earnest and humane nature of the process is beautiful to behold.
Sonner and the Iowa Methodist leadership haven't reached a resolution yet.
But they're still talking, thinking, praying and, hopefully, moving forward together.
DANIEL P. FINNEY, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter:@newsmanone.
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