116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Following a directive from denomination leaders allowing Iowa United Methodist churches to “follow their conscience” in permitting same-sex marriage, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids has become the first United Methodist church in the state to put the issue to a congregational vote — which was overwhelmingly approved.
The motion, passed Sunday with 84 percent approval from 195 voting church members, will permit same-sex couples to marry at one of the largest United Methodist churches in the Cedar Rapids metro area. Though other Methodist churches in the state have permitted same-sex marriage policies through their governing church councils, St. Paul’s chose to approve it through a largely symbolic gesture that some members have described as a watershed moment after years of tension for the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination.
“We were at the point now where St. Paul’s either had to make history or become history. I think we’re at a watershed moment,” said Gary Lindsay, chairman of St. Paul’s church council and member since the mid- 1980s.
A directive from the Iowa Appointive Cabinet of the church permitted congregations like St. Paul’s to take such action after it took effect Jan. 1. The change came after the church’s 2019 General Conference, the highest legislative body of the United Methodist Church, doubled down on discriminatory language in church bylaws, devastating LGBTQ members, clergy and allies within the church who had hoped to turn a corner.
With repeated delays to holding the next General Conference, which in March was delayed again until 2024, church leaders were not hopeful the issue would be revisited again any time soon.
“Our statement was not a directive to do or not do anything, it was a permission to do the ministry God is calling us to do,” said Ron Carlson, dean of the Appointive Cabinet. “We want our congregations and members to live out their call to ministry.”
Even for St. Paul’s in Cedar Rapids, described by its members as progressive, the high approval rate of the vote surprised members. Years after it put out a welcome statement to counteract the anti-LGBTQ messaging of the 2019 General Conference’s stance, parishioners and leaders said the gesture was an opportunity to match their policy with the message they’ve been displaying for years.
“The church council could have done it, but we wanted to have ownership of all people in the congregation to understand and honor who we are,” said the Rev. Sherrie Ilg, lead pastor of St. Paul’s. “I think it’s just sorting out our identity to who we feel we’re called to be in the body of Christ.”
Ilg said that while the church has a tendency sometimes to avoid conflict and discussion of uncomfortable topics, this was an opportunity to have the conversation publicly.
The motion’s discussion, held for about 30 minutes Sunday before being put to a vote on ballots in English, Swahili and Kirundi, elicited mostly supportive comments from the congregation.
And after years of being across the street from a Presbyterian Church and down the street from a Lutheran Church that have been able to fully embrace LGBTQ members, including same-sex marriages, the pastor said St. Paul’s will finally be able to embrace LGBTQ members as fully as they’ve wanted.
For Anna Ridnour, a parishioner since childhood and director of the church’s contemporary music, the moment was a surprising relief. Ridnour started coming out as a lesbian to her colleagues and friends at St. Paul’s in 2016 after spending most of her childhood at the church.
"Not only did it feel like I’m in a church where people can accept me, it really felt like I was being treated as an equal,“ she said after the vote. ”I have this right, and I could have a marriage in front of God and be treated as the same.“
Ilg said for some members who attended the church as children back in 1961, the decision Sunday paralleled the church’s historic vote to allow Percy Harris, a Black physician, to purchase land owned by the church in a majority-white neighborhood.
“I’m hoping this will be some sort of beacon of light, maybe an example for other churches to follow,” Lindsay said.
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