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This week, the Baltimore-Washington annual conference of the United Methodist Church voted in favor of ordaining the Reverend Joey Heath-Mason.
This result was surprising to the openly gay and married United Methodist college chaplain at American University.
Just last year, the local subsection of the denomination passed over Heath-Mason for ordination because of his sexuality. While he had graduated from Wesley Theological Seminary in 2012, completed years of ministry service after graduating, and been recommended by a Board of Ordained Ministry, his name—along with that of T.C. Morrow,a married lesbian candidate—was removed from consideration for an approval vote on the grounds that their recommendations were “out of order.”
And then in February, a special session of the UMC’s General Conference voted to retain and enforce denomination-wide restrictions against the officiation of same-sex marriages as well as against “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy, expanding the definition to include those in same-sex marriages.
A cradle United Methodist who grew up in the conservative Deep South, Heath-Mason is no stranger to the conflict between his denomination and his sexuality. It was in this setting, where he says the relatively progressive UMC could have been interchangeable with the famously conservative Southern Baptist denomination, that he took ownership of both his faith and his sexuality.
He was a college student in southern Georgia in the early aughts when, he says, “I went through about two years of really wrestling with [my sexuality] and had some folks that were helping me to ‘pray it away.’ When I say that, I mean it wasn’t anything traumatic, they were just praying with me and encouraging me to resist my desires.”
But his prayer ultimately led him to conclude that God loved him anyway, and he eventually found his way to a comparatively more affirming home in D.C. by way of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization that advocates for queer inclusion in the UMC. After discerning a call to ministry, Heath-Mason attended seminary at Wesley, where he met his close friend and fellow pastor, Dustin Burrow.
Burrow graduated one year after Heath-Mason, but is already ordained and practicing ministry in New Mexico.
“Baltimore-Washington kind of practices a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, and Joey being openly married, he’s been overlooked because of that,” Burrow explains. “I’ve believed in his call to ministry longer than sometimes my own. It’s hard to see that I’ve gone through the program and become ordained in a relatively easy manner in comparison to Joey.”
The UMC first debated its official stance on homosexuality more than a decade before 36-year-old Heath-Mason was born. In 1972, the General Conference of the UMC resolved to include a provision stating that basic human rights and civil liberties were due to all people “regardless of their sexuality” in their doctrinal Book of Discipline, while stipulating elsewhere in the text that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”; the denomination later specified that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” were not to be ordained.
Those words have been a source of turmoil for United Methodists ever since.
The hypocrisy is obvious: A person could be in the closet and having sex outside of marriage, but still be ordained if no one in the church officially knows about it, because they would not be considered “self-avowed” or “practicing.”
“I don’t mean anything against my colleagues,” says Heath-Mason, “but I do know of colleagues who are still in the closet, as far as the clergy, and who are not married who are ordained. In a way, it’s sanctioning what we’re not in favor of. Theoretically, for all of us, if you’re not married, you should not be engaged in a sexual relationship.”
Laurel Capesius, Heath-Mason’s intern at American University and a Wesley graduate as of this May, says that the setbacks have never hampered Heath-Mason’s ministry. Under his care the United Methodist campus ministry at American, which is a UMC-affiliated university, has been welcoming to queer parishioners. They host services for Coming Out Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance, and Heath-Mason gave a sermon series on “Queering the Christian Faith” in the liturgical season of Lent leading up to Easter.
“I think students have felt like they can be who they are because Joey has been who he is,” says Capesius, reporting that several new students who have attended services since the General Conference ruling have come out to Capesius and Heath-Mason, saying they feel they have a spiritual home in the campus ministry, if not the larger denomination.
Anna Lackey stopped into the Kay Spiritual Life Center at American and listened to Heath-Mason give a sermon on adoption one Sunday evening in April. The lesbian graduate student and practicing Presbyterian had been on her way to return a library book, but found herself drawn in. Lackey says she “spilled [her] guts” to Heath-Mason during the ministry’s fellowship dinner following the service.
“Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me because I’ve been a Christian as long as I have,” she says, “but I’m still surprised the way that the Spirit can move you sometimes and just have things fall into place like that. I was very grateful that that happened.”
Heath-Mason’s sermon that night was simultaneously an invitation to queer Christians and an indictment of those in the church who might exclude them. He argued that the way the LGBTQ acronym continuously expands to add more letters might serve as a model for how churches should welcome different types of people into their communities.
“We should not be setting up the church to say that, ‘If you’re not in 100 percent alignment with me, then I cannot abide in a church body with you,’” Heath-Mason preached. “Instead, we should be matching God’s invitation, and saying to all, ‘You are welcome, and we are actually not complete unless you are here with us.’”
Following the February General Conference vote, Heath-Mason hosted a late-night healing service on campus. Capesius was personally inspired by the “prophetic witness” he gave, and later referenced that service in her own clergy candidacy interviews.
Heath-Mason had gotten a tattoo—a cross filled in with the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag—earlier in the day. The scripture reading for the service was Psalm 137, a lamentation over the Israelites’ exile after their captivity in Babylon. That night, he preached about prophetic lamentation that draws attention to injustice. While he claimed that he did not set out to do something prophetic by getting a tattoo, he felt that now that his church had voted, it took on extra meaning.
He preached: “It’s a sign that I am saying to the world and to the church, ‘Not only am I a Christian, but I’m also gay. And I’m going to carry these two identities together forever, and no matter what you say, no matter what you do, no matter what votes you take, you can’t take that away. You can kick me out of the church, you can take my clergy credentials, you can tell me I’m a sinner going to hell, and I will still be a Christian and I will still be gay.’”
The Baltimore-Washington conference of the UMC got a second shot at its 2018 vote over Heath-Mason’s ordination when the UMC’s Judicial Council, which is analogous to the U.S. Supreme Court, found that the removal of Heath-Mason’s and Morrow’s names from consideration for voting was an executive overreach. In April, the Judicial Council also upheld most of the articles from February’s denomination-wide decision, called the “Traditional Plan”; among other measures effective January 2020, it is a potentially punishable offense to be a UMC minister in a same-sex marriage.
It is within that conflicting framework that the Baltimore-Washington conference of the UMC made its most recent decision on Heath-Mason.
He spent the weeks leading up to this second chance trying to “get out the vote” with younger, more progressive members of the regional conference, which also encompasses parts of West Virginia. He needed a three-fourths majority of all active and retired clergy in the conference present.
On Wednesday afternoon, they voted to ordain him. “Initially I was shocked,” says Heath-Mason. “I wasn’t expecting this to actually work out. I’m excited. ‘Overjoyed’ is the word I’ve been using a lot. I’m excited now that I get to go back into my ministry with the security that I basically now have tenure in the church.”
Yesterday evening at a ceremony in Baltimore, Heath-Mason was ordained with tears in his eyes. Half an hour after the ceremony’s conclusion, he joined as the annual conference reconvened to continue a plenary session late into the night, this time as an ordained Elder in the church.