North side church one of few to offer Methodist marriage ceremonies to gays

  • Medill News Service
  • January 30, 2006 @ 6:34 AM
A North Side congregation is challenging United Methodist Church policy and offering full acceptance to gays and lesbians -- and a loophole in the rules makes the Methodists powerless to stop it.

Church of Three Crosses, 333 W. Wisconsin St., is a dual-denomination church at which members come from the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. The congregation recently declared Three Crosses to be "open and affirming," which under Church of Christ rules means homosexuals receive access to all sacraments, including marriage.

"All members of this faith community," the Three Crosses official declaration states, "will have access to the blessings and rights of the church."

When two denominations share a church, each is expected to observe the other's rules, but conflicts over policy often arise. The pastor's denomination determines which side prevails. Since Three Crosses pastor the Rev. John Hobbs has Church of Christ credentials, his church's rules apply.

"We saw this not only in terms of gay and lesbian issues, but also how we are open to anyone who may come through the door," Hobbs said. "You will never hear language of condemnation from me and, I hope, any others at this church."

Methodists have a similar, though less open, policy for accepting homosexuals, which is known as "reconciling." Three Crosses has taken on that designation as well. But while Methodist churches cannot perform same-sex marriages, Three Crosses can.

United Methodist Church policy prohibits same-sex weddings inside their buildings, according to Rev. Gregory Dell, but Three Crosses is not owned by the Methodists. The church is therefore free to wed gays and lesbians.

The issue of gay marriage in the Methodist church brought Dell national attention in 1999, when he was suspended for marrying a homosexual couple at Broadway United Methodist Church in Lakeview. He has since been reinstated but said that his church's policy toward gay and lesbian members can be seen by worshippers as abusive.

"One of the things we do at Broadway is allow people to be part of the congregation without joining the denomination," Dell said. "I think because of the church's bigotry it's placed a lot of sincere and faithful people into a difficult situation."

A spokeswoman for the United Methodist Church said questions about church policy are best left to the church's local bishops. The Northern Illinois Chapter's Methodist Bishop and his spokeswoman were both away on a peace delegation to Palestine and Israel, and unable to comment on church policy toward gays and lesbians.

The members of Three Crosses had long felt they would welcome anyone, but Hobbs pointed out that many gays and lesbians expect to be shunned by churches. He understood this feeling all too well. After serving as the pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Northern Georgia for eight and a half years, Hobbes was removed in 1996 when he revealed that he was homosexual.

"It's a challenge for me to see how my people, how gay and lesbian people, are so wounded by the church's historical rhetoric," Hobbs said. "That's a very painful place to be, and that's my story. That's every gay and lesbian's story -- trying to find a place that's open and affirming."

Hobbs joined the Church of Christ, which ordained its first openly homosexual minister in 1972, and came to Three Crosses as an interim pastor in 2004. Church members later offered him the full-time job. During the summer of 2004 Hobbs asked the congregation to clarify its stand on the issue of homosexuality.

"You may think you're welcoming, but unless you state that, people aren't going to know and they aren't going to come in the door," Karen Schneider said. "We needed to make this definite. We needed to make this permanent. It matters."

The members of Three Crosses, which has been a dual denomination church since 1966, discussed the open and affirming policy for more than a year.

"There was a concern because we didn't want this to become just a GLBT church," 26-year-old worshipper Brian Parker said. "We wanted to add a piece to our puzzle, but we didn't want to make a whole new puzzle."

Members of other Chicago area churches told Three Crosses about their experiences allowing gay and lesbians to worship. Since Chicago Epiphany Church of Christ declared itself open and affirming in 2000, the Rev. Matthew Fitzgerald said weekly attendance has increased to 150 people from about 50.

"One thing I can say about being an open and affirming church -? our congregation has been absolutely revitalized," Fitzgerald said. "We've experienced a lot of growth and a lot of new energy."

A recent influx of young families to the nearby neighborhood and a stronger evangelism effort, Fitzgerald said, also helped boost attendance. Hobbs said that many churches thrive after they choose to include gays and lesbians.

"What lots of people don't realize is that when gay and lesbian people feel attacked and excluded, a wider group of people feel that impact," Hobbs said. "We want to make this a safe place."

Three Crosses made its open and affirming statement official on Jan. 15, but the people who attended last Sunday's service didn't see any change in their church or its members.

"The fact is that whether you have a different sexual [orientation], or if you just prefer to play a kazoo over an organ, we've always been open," said Mary Morony, a member of Three Crosses since 1995. "This is a label on something that already was."