For the Rev. Sid Hall, the pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin for nearly a quarter-century, it is not enough to quietly work for inclusion.
“It’s important to state it,” Hall says.
In that vein, Hall says, he will lead a special worship service tonight at 6 at the church at 4001 Speedway to protest United Methodist Church policies excluding lesbian and gay couples from sharing in holy unions.
The service is a celebration of recommitment for gay, straight and transgender parishioners who have shared in a holy union or marriage. It is intended to show support for all in the church’s flock and to serve “as a public witness” to what Hall says is the harm done by church policies regarding homosexuality.
Like a number of mainline Christian denominations, the United Methodist Church has debated same-sex marriage and homosexuality for years, with some congregations splintering amid the fallout. The Methodist Book of Discipline, which contains church doctrine, has prohibited since 1996 the ordination of self-avowed homosexuals and forbids ministers from conducting gay marriage ceremonies or blessing same-sex unions. In Tampa last month, a vote by the general assembly of the United Methodist Church determined that the Book of Discipline would continue to call the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The church policy is harmful to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Hall said, and is at odds with Christian teachings advocating monogamy, fidelity, life commitments and building families together.
“It’s almost like, ‘But, oh, not for homosexuals. That’s only for straight people,’ ” Hall said.
In a statement, Jim Dorff, bishop of the San Antonio Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes Austin, reiterated that same-sex unions or weddings may not be conducted by a United Methodist pastor or in a United Methodist church.
“It is my understanding that neither of these events will be taking place at Trinity UMC,” Dorff said. “I have been told that a service will be held during which thanks will be given for all loving relationships. Further, persons may reaffirm those existing relationships if they choose to do so.”
Trinity United Methodist had conducted holy unions in its sanctuary since 1992 after voting to become a “reconciling congregation,” joining a network of hundreds of Methodist churches across the country that welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It stopped conducting the unions after the church prohibition in 1996. Hall said the congregation decided that if the unions were banned, it would also stop holding weddings for heterosexuals.
Three other metro area churches — University United Methodist Church and Grace United Methodist in Austin and Journey of Faith United Methodist in Round Rock — have since become reconciling congregations, Hall said. There are 60 churches in the Austin district of the United Methodist Church, a church conference spokesman said.
Trinity United Methodist has about 450 members, Hall said. A third of the congregation is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, he estimated.
Paige Schilt, a 41-year-old freelance writer who with her partner, Katy Koonce, and their son, Waylon, attends Trinity United Methodist, said tonight’s service is the answer to the questions many church members had in the days after the national conference decision to let positions on homosexuality stand.
“We were just feeling discouraged, wondering what can we do now and where can we go from here,” Schilt recalled. Together for 12 years, she and Koonce identify as a lesbian couple, though Koonce also identifies as transgender, Schilt said. They were legally married in California in 2008.
The couple first started attending Trinity in 2005, about a week after Texas voters and the state Legislature approved a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. One of the first things that attracted them to the church, Schilt said, was that “everyone there was as sad (about the vote) as I was. Regardless of their sexuality.”
Hall and Schilt said they had heard of no opposition within the church to the recommitment ceremony.
About 35 people left the church when it voted to become a reconciling congregation in 1992, Hall said. Since then, the congregation has grown considerably, and Hall said the church has been clear about its position on welcoming everyone.
“The people who come through the doors and stay are those who are supportive of that decision,” Hall said.