After 25 years of ministry within the United Methodist Church, Rev Cynthia Meyer made a huge announcement last Sunday. During a sermon at her church in Edgerton, Kansas, she came out as gay.
"The Lord has led me here to share my deep truth with you. It's time," Meyer told her congregation on January 3. "I have been an ordained UMC pastor for 25 years. At last, I am choosing to serve in that role with full authenticity, as my genuine self, as a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman."
Meyer explained that she had remained single for 20 years of ministry, but a few years ago fell in love with her partner, Mary. "In the midst of much prayer, at long last Mary and I decided that the Holy Spirit had whirled us around and brought us together; that our relationship is a holy part of God's calling on our lives."
The UMC currently does not allow "self-avowed practicing" gay people to be ordained, or same-sex marriages, and Meyer said her relationship "will seem to some to challenge church policy".
"Certainly, many in both ordained and lay leadership in the UMC see those restrictions to be unjust, discriminatory, and not to exemplify the loving, inclusive way of Jesus. Yet there are discriminatory restrictions in place in the Book of Discipline. It's a 'don't ask, don't tell' system, so my openness with you, my desire to live authentically in every facet of my life, serves as an act of civil disobedience."
Speaking to Christian Today, Meyer said deciding to come out wasn't an easy decision, not least because of the repercussions it may have on her vocation as a minister. "I've been thinking, reflecting and praying about my role in the Church and what it means to be who I am and ways to resolve the conflict between parts of my identity. A few months ago, this became clearer, and I see it as a sort of calling on my life to speak publicly about the two: about who I am as an ordained minister, and who I am as a woman in a loving, committed relationship with another woman."
Her congregation has been incredibly supportive of her decision, Meyer said. After the service, she received numerous hugs and words of affirmation. "The thing I heard most frequently was, 'We hope you continue to be our pastor. We want to be with you in this'."
But despite the warm reception she received from her congregants, at the time of interview Meyer was still waiting to hear from her superiors in the Church – who she expected would be far less approving. She said the experience had so far been "very freeing and affirming," and now felt that she could be "fully honest and fully myself in any setting", but she could face disciplinary action, and even be removed from Church leadership.
"I'm still waiting to hear from the bishop, the Methodist Conference or my district superintendent, I haven't been contacted yet," she said. "I'm still the pastor of my congregation and serving in that role – and I'm very happy to keep doing that – but there's the possibility that I might be suspended, and then as the process moves along, there might be a Church trial."
A statement sent to Christian Today on January 8 from Bishop Scott Jones, who oversees Meyer, said that her coming out as "a self-avowed, practicing homosexual" is a chargeable offence for clergy in the UMC, and that a "supervisory response process" began on January 7. Meyer did, however, preach at church yesterday and has not yet faced any disciplinary action.
"While many persons within The United Methodist Church disagree with the rule that says persons who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals may not be ordained and may not be appointed as pastors, the rule is currently in effect," the statement added.
"Rev Meyer's sermon has prompted the complaint, and the review of her situation will follow."
There may well be significant consequences for Meyer's honesty. So why now?
Her coming out was in partnership with Reconciling Ministries Network's (RNM) 'It's Time' campaign, which is gearing up to promote the advancement of LGBTQ rights at the UMC's General Conference in May. Activists want what they consider "discriminatory language" in the Book of Discipline – the law and doctrine of the UMC updated every four years – to be removed, for gay and lesbian ministers to be ordained, and for same-sex weddings to be performed in UMC churches.
"Many of us have held on to hope for years that the policies would charge at each General Conference, and they haven't. As we approach yet another conference in May, I thought I'd like to use my story and experience and whatever I can offer to join in with a lot of others in changing the outcome," Meyer explained.
In a statement, she added: "It's well past time for the denomination to change, and it's my time to speak out as a part of that change coming to fruition.
"It's soul-crushing to speak to my congregation each week about God's love for them as they are, while being unable to speak of my own God-given identity, my loving relationship, and much of my day-to-day life. I do this not only for myself, but for my partner, for my daughter, for all those who are excluded and for the good of the church."
It's this sense of exclusion Meyer believes many LGBT Christians to experience that has prompted her to share her story. She believes it's vital that the Church becomes more welcoming to people of all sexualities if it wants to be relevant within wider culture.
"I have always understood the gospel to be primarily stories of love and care, justice and inclusion – it seems to me that's what Jesus' life and ministry was about, and that's the lens I filter everything through," she said.
"The gospel is about love; we're all created in God's image as beloved children and our sexuality does not make a difference in that. All are called, and all are able to serve."
Churches and faith groups "that have clung to policies of exclusion really are making themselves irrelevant," she added.
Matt Berryman, executive director of RNM, said it's a crucial time for the Church. "The lack of teaching on sexuality and gender that is informed, wise, and spiritual is a major obstruction to full participation of so many persons in the life of the church," he told Christian Today.
"We need a proper construal of human sexuality and gender that is not 'already interpreted' as is so much of Christian theology, through a white, western, male, heterosexist, and cisgender lens. So much of our trouble in theology is caused by a failure to see that the interpretive lens applied to the scriptures, to the tradition, and to the whole Christian enterprise has been totalitarian, inappropriate, exclusivist, and power-driven."
Through what he describes as "anti-gay policies", Berryman said the UMC is "seen to be contributing to the harm committed against marginalized persons in society – the very folks Christ called the church to be in ministry with."
"We hope that folks will see and hear Cynthia's story and be moved by the sheer inanity of removing effective clergy from theological leadership based on their sexual orientation or gender identity," he added. "It is hard to believe that the church, in light of the world's desperate cries for authenticity, vulnerability, honesty, and peace, would spend its time policing the self-giving love that flows between persons – regardless of their sexual orientation."
He insisted it's only a matter of time before the UMC fuly embraces LGBTQ clergy like Meyer. "We know how this story ends. God has already settled this matter," he said.
"Peace, justice, and love always win in God's cosmos."
Todd Seifert, communications director for the Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church – which has authority over clergy in Meyer's area – told Christian Today that "there is no way to know how the General Conference will vote" in May, but that it is the only body that can change the worldwide Church's stance on whether openly gay people can serve as ordained clergy.
Meyer's future as a minister, therefore, is uncertain – but her faith remains unshaken.
"I've had many hard reflections about remaining in the UMC, and thus far I've chosen to stay and now to do everything I can to work for meaningful change from within, but I'm also called both to be fully open about who I am, and to serve in ministry. I may not be allowed to do that in the United Methodist Church, so I may begin to look for opportunities elsewhere," she said.
"My primary faith is not in the Church, it's in Jesus."