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Transgender clergywoman raises new issue for church

6/12/2002

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - The Rev. Rebecca Ann Steen just wanted to return to pastoral ministry, but her efforts have landed her at the center of a new debate for the United Methodist Church regarding the status of transgender clergy.

Steen, a clergy member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, wants to end her voluntary leave and receive a pastoral appointment for the year that begins July 1. Others in the conference have said they do not believe a transgender person should be a pastor. Although the church's rulebook, the Book of Discipline, forbids ordination or assignment of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals," it is silent on the issue of transgender clergy.

The clergywoman's efforts have been blocked, at least for the time being. A complaint was filed against her during the conference's annual gathering, June 6-9. The complaint's content is confidential, but Bishop Felton Edwin May said on June 8 that it could affect Steen's availability for appointment. In addition, a hearing will be held later this month on whether Steen should be placed on involuntary leave.

Steen, 47, said she has no agenda "but to do the ministry that God has called and ordained me to do." Formerly the Rev. Richard A. Zamostny, she has three grown children and three grandchildren. She has been on voluntary leave since October 1999, when she underwent what she terms "gender reassignment."

Calling what she did a sex-change operation is wrong because it is so much more than that, she told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview. It is a long process that involves many steps, she said.

"It's not something that someone undertakes lightly," she said. "It's never done without extensive counseling." It also is "not done without necessity. It's very critical in the lives of the people who do it."

The need comes from an understanding at an early age that one's spiritual and mental gender do not match one's physical gender, she said. Not everyone in that situation resolves it in the same way, she noted. Some people undergo the counseling and decide not to have medical procedures.

Morris Hawkins, president of the conference United Methodist Men, objects to the procedure, not the condition. "When you take that to the ultimate conclusion of having sexual reassignment surgery, you're saying to God, 'You are making a mistake that I can correct.'"

He views the surgery and attendant procedures as "the ultimate sin of selfishness." The sin occurs when one alters the physical form, an act that amounts to saying "we're not willing to accept the will of God in our life," he said.

Hawkins said he agreed with a two-page statement issued by eight conference clergy on June 8. The Renaissance Affirmation, named for the hotel where the conference was held June 6-9, states, "We expect to bring legislation before our annual conference in the next year that will provide biblical, ethical, theological and psychological reasons as to why someone suffering from gender identity disorder does not fit the necessary criteria for the ordained ministry."

The affirmation expresses the belief that "a transgendered person is and always will be a child of God and a person of sacred worth." It goes on to say, "We do not believe that such a person is able to fulfill the necessary requirements, gifts and graces to serve as a United Methodist clergy person." It affirms "that Christ desires wholeness for all people, in every aspect of life," while it objects to gender reassignment surgery as the proper medical treatment for gender identity disorder.

The document's preamble also addresses those people who might consider leaving the church because of concerns about transgender clergy. "To those persons, we are asking them to pause and give our Book of Discipline the chance to catch up with this issue." The Rev. Barry E. Hidey of Bel Air, Md., led the writing group, comprising two female and six male ministers.

May said the complaint against Steen would be handled by the procedures outlined in the Book of Discipline. Steen's "availability for appointment may be affected by this prayerful process," he said.

The bishop noted that matters discussed in the conference's clergy session should be treated confidentially. He said that his ruling on questions of law arising in that session will be published later - an apparent reference to the conference journal, which is expected out in October. In addition, all bishops' decisions of law are automatically reviewed by the church's Judicial Council, which will meet in late October, and its decisions are made public.

The Rev. Robert Kohler, with the denomination's Division of Ordained Ministry, said that Steen has a right to a hearing before involuntary leave can be imposed. The Book of Discipline gives the bishop, district superintendents and executive committee of the conference board of ministry the authority to assign an interim leave of absence. An administrative review committee scrutinizes the process. If involuntary leave is assigned, it must be ratified or nullified by the conference clergy session, which isn't scheduled to meet again until June 2003.

In determining the appropriate supervisory response, the bishop can choose to pursue mediation between the complainant and Steen, according to procedures set forth in the Book of Discipline.

If the complaint is resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, that is the end of it. If it is not resolved, the bishop may dismiss it or allow it to proceed along one of two paths. One path could lead to a church trial. The other path often leads to remedial action related to ministerial effectiveness. The bishop decides whether a matter is a "judicial complaint" or an "administrative complaint." In either case, there are points in the process at which an appropriate body may decide the complaint is invalid.

As of late June 10, Steen was waiting to receive a copy of the complaint and to be informed of what the bishop is going to do.

The most difficult part of being on leave is the inability to participate in ministry, Steen said. "I cannot be faithful to my call." She has served congregations in three Maryland communities during her 17-year career.

She sought to return to active status last year but was asked to wait while study and discussion took place, she said. Last fall, a 12-member committee of conference clergy began a process that culminated in four one-time discussions that were open to the clergy and laity of the conference. These were facilitated by JUSTPEACE, a United Methodist mediation service.

"I am the first transgendered United Methodist clergy by circumstance, not by desire," Steen said. Transgender people serve as clergy in other mainline denominations, she said.

People take for granted the right to correct other congenital conditions such as hydrocephalus or heart defects, she said. "I think a whole lot of this (controversy) has to do with our fears around gender and sexuality."

She wants people to understand that the process has been difficult for everyone involved, "and that my brothers and sisters in the faith are compassionate and caring. I am sorry for any distress this has caused anyone, and I'm praying for everyone for God's guidance and grace."

"I love the church, and I love my work," Steen said. She believes God wants her to continue ministry through the United Methodist Church, and she said she does not have the courage to face this issue without God's leadership.

*Purdue is the news writer in United Methodist News Service's Washington office.

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