A spring wedding at a Durham United Methodist Church confronted the denomination’s stance against same-sex marriages.
Heather Rodrigues knew she was putting her ministry career at risk by agreeing to officiate at the wedding of Caleb Parker and Thomas Phillips.
But the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church pastor still stood at the altar on Feb. 29, alongside 11 other active and retired UMC pastors. Together, in a show of both unity and defiance, all 12 pastors pronounced the couple married, the first time a same-sex couple had been married in the sanctuary of the 112-year-old downtown Durham church.
As the lead pastor of the Durham church where the wedding took place, Rodrigues took the biggest risk that day. She’s now facing disciplinary action from the UMC, the U.S.’ largest mainline Protestant denomination, for performing a same-sex marriage, a violation of the church’s Book of Discipline.
“It’s been a hard journey of facing fears and uncertainty,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues and the couple she married, Caleb Parker and Thomas Phillips, spoke with Cardinal & Pine about their joint decision to confront the denominational ban on UMC pastors performing same-sex weddings and spark change.
Religion split over LGBTQ marriages
Although the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in a landmark 2015 decision, churches are not obligated to sanction or perform these weddings. The laws and doctrines of the United Methodist Church strictly forbid clergy from performing “homosexual unions.” Methodist pastors who officiate same-sex weddings face one-year suspensions without pay or the loss of their ministry credentials.
In February 2019, a year before Rodrigues officiated Parker and Phillip’s wedding at the Durham church, United Methodist delegates from around the world gathered at a conference in St. Louis to decide whether or not to uphold the denomination’s “Traditional Plan,” which bans same-sex weddings as well as the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ clergy.
After three days of contentious debate, delegates voted to uphold the Traditional Plan broadening a split between progressive and conservative branches of the church. Although many of the U.S -based delegates hoped to overturn the ban on same-sex marriages, delegates from outside the U.S. with more conservative views on sexuality voted in larger numbers to support it.
The decision was met with vocal opposition from congregations throughout the US, where the majority supported an alternate plan that would have given local churches the discretion to ordain LGBTQ ministers or perform same-sex marriages.
Just hours after the vote, Duke Memorial UMC’s council met at their church in Durham and voted unanimously to publicly voice opposition. That night, the church council purchased swaths of rainbow-colored fabric to decorate the outside of the church.
The church posted pictures of the banners on their Facebook page, calling the banners “a symbol of our support and welcome to beloved LGBTQ+ persons.”
Not everyone in the congregation was comfortable with the rainbow banners, Rodrigues said. “People have said, ‘Why do we have to put those out? People know we are welcoming,’” said Rodrigues. “My answer is: ‘No, they don’t, especially when our sign says United Methodist and our denomination is saying something very different.’”
A welcome back to the church
Those rainbow banners set in motion a series of events leading to Parker and Phillips’ wedding.
In February 2019, the banners caught the attention of 37-year-old Caleb Parker, who lived a few miles from the church with his fiancé, Thomas Phillips. A lifelong United Methodist, Parker had spent the previous three days watching a livestream of the entire UMC conference in St. Louis. A gay man, he was devastated by the outcome.
“It was really a bunch of straight people voting on the rights and worth of LGBTQ people.”– Caleb Parker, groom
Parker walked away from the church six years earlier due to his frustration over the UMC’s lack of LGBTQ inclusion. He had considered returning and found a reason when he saw the rainbow banners outside Duke Memorial.
Parker attended his first service at Duke Memorial in March 2019, and listened to Rodrigues deliver a sermon directly addressing the conference vote in St. Louis. She told LGBTQ individuals in the sanctuary: “I see you. I love you, beloved children of God.” And she referred to the vote as punitive, exclusionary and harmful.
“I just sat there and I cried the entire service,” said Parker. “That was really a pivotal moment for me. It was like there was finally a way for me to connect with my faith again. This is what it took — this extremely hateful legislation — to finally push people to go out on a limb for queer folks.”
Just five months later, Duke Memorial’s church council voted to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings. They also agreed to provide financial support to their pastor for a period of one year if the pastor was suspended for officiating a same-sex wedding.
“I didn’t think they would say ‘yes’ to me doing a same-gender wedding. I didn’t think we were there yet,” said Rodrigues. “I was so surprised and excited and grateful.”
Wedding plans and call to action take shape
Rodrigues was not the only one excited by the news. Parker had never considered the possibility that he and Phillips could get married in a Methodist Church.
The two met when Phillips, an Alabama native, moved to North Carolina to pursue a Ph.D in Spanish at UNC-Chapel Hill. Parker, a native of Elizabeth City, holds a masters in cultural geography from East Carolina University and moved to Durham to begin his career in public health.
They were engaged in 2015 but put off their wedding for years because they hoped their families would become more supportive of their decision to marry.
“All of sudden, here was my opportunity to be married in a Methodist church. I said, ‘Why do we have to keep waiting for people to come around? Why can’t we just be married and celebrate that with people who want to celebrate with us?’” said Parker. “As queer people, we need to put ourselves in vulnerable positions like this in order to fight for our rights. But, you also have to give people the opportunity to support you. How else are things ever going to change? Why does hate get to have the loudest voice?”
Although his fiancé, 38-year-old Thomas Phillips, envisioned their wedding “in a field with a bunch of flowers,” he agreed to have it take place at Duke Memorial UMC. Phillips, who was raised in the Church of Christ, left his own faith community in 2007 over vocal condemnation of homosexuality.
“My immediate thought was that if my wedding could be a protest or in a way a middle finger to bigotry and exclusion and injustice, then so be it. I would be honored,” said Phillips. “I would be honored for my own life’s difficulties to be something meaningful for someone else.”
In August 2019, just weeks after Duke UMC voted to allow same-sex weddings, Parker asked Rodrigues to officiate. She admits she was surprised by how quickly things were moving.
“It’s one thing to vote something in. It’s a whole other thing to do it,” she said.
Having a financial safety net provided by her congregation made it easier for Rodrigues to agree to officiate.
“I stood in the pulpit on March 3, 2019, and said we supported full inclusion,” Rodrigues said. “In that moment, without ever having met Caleb, I was already saying ‘yes’ to his wedding.”
Rodrigues acknowledges she would have turned down Parker if he’d asked earlier in her ministry career. She was raised in the Mennonite Church and was taught to believe homosexuality was a sin. The now 47-year-old pastor didn’t question these beliefs until entering seminary at Duke Divinity School, which she graduated from in 2009. She served seven years as an associate pastor at a Raleigh church and was still struggling with her stance on LGBTQ issues when appointed lead pastor at Duke Memorial UMC in 2014.
“It’s been my own personal journey over the past five years,” said Rodrigues. “I came along to a place theologically where saying yes to the wedding was the right answer to give.”
Although Parker was excited that Rodrigues agreed to officiate his wedding, he was concerned about the personal risk she was taking. As a result, he asked other pastors to participate in the ceremony. It might help protect Rodrigues, as well as give others pastors the opportunity to take a stand against injustice.
“For him, it was a priority of solidarity for me. He was really worried for me and wanted to build protection around me. As that number grew, we recognized that the light was growing,” Rodrigues said. The opportunity to shine this light brighter and further had gotten greater.”
One of the pastors Parker asked to be an officiant at his wedding was retired UMC pastor, Charlie Lancaster. Parker met 90-year-old Lancaster in Sunday school class at Duke Memorial. Lancaster’s son Paul, died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 34. When Paul came out as gay to his parents years earlier at the age of 19, they did not react well to the news.
“We went through a period of blaming ourselves and wondering if we caused it,” said Lancaster. “At some point, we realized it wasn’t something we could cause, and we came to terms with it.”
In a letter that Lancaster wrote to Paul not long before his death, the pastor wrote, “I now believe God made you the way you are for a purpose—and I accept and admire you for being open and honest with us. I believe the church has made a grave mistake in rejecting you and others.”
A couple’s union, and ‘holy disobedience‘
In total, twelve pastors—including Parker’s college pastor from East Carolina University — took part in officiating the marriage ceremony at Duke Memorial. The church’s sanctuary was overflowing with 125 invited guests as well as approximately 100 members of the Duke Memorial congregation who came to witness the historic union. Absent were some of Parker and Phillip’s family members ;Parker’s mother was the only parent to attend.
After Rodrigues and the other pastors pronounced the couple married, the sanctuary erupted in applause and everyone rose to their feet. It was a moment she said she will never forget.
“It was about Thomas and Caleb, but I knew it was also about us as clergy because we were breaking the rules—holy disobedience,” Rodrigues said.– Duke Memorial UMC Pastor Heather Rodrigues
“It was also about a much bigger story than any of us,” she said. “For me, it’s the call of Christians for inclusivity especially of those on the margins who have been marginalized.”
Although the day was bittersweet for Phillips due to the absence of his parents, being married at Duke Memorial proved to be more meaningful than he had anticipated.
“I realized it wasn’t really a protest,” he said. “It was a call to action. It was a moment when so many people went out on a limb for us. People put their livelihoods at risk. This was so much bigger than us.”
Not long after performing the wedding, Rodrigues received a letter from the bishop of the North Carolina Conference. She was informed that several complaints had been filed against her in the church body that oversees UMC parishes in the state. The 11 other clergy members present that day were not included in the complaint, because Rodrigues was the only pastor to sign the marriage license.
Resolution of the matter is at the discretion of the bishop, and Rodrigues expects the complaints to be resolved through mediation though unsure of when that will be given the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of what happens, she is at peace with her decision to officiate the wedding. In the unlikely event that she is suspended or stripped of her orders, she said she will have no regrets.
“It’s not that it wouldn’t be hard or scary,” she said. “But, for me, you either do it or you don’t. Once we said we are a church for full inclusion, for me, there was no going back.”