A hand grasped the supplicator’s shoulder and pulled him upright in the middle of his “Our Father.” Absalom Jones, a regular parishioner at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, along with Richard Allen, prayed at their usual space in the lower pews at St. George’s, but this particular Sunday was different. The leaders at St. George’s decided that on this Sunday, there were too many black parishioners and banished them to the gallery of the church; they interrupted their most intimate spiritual practice, prayer, to appease their skittishness of worshipping with someone of a different skin color.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones decided their dignity to worship was too important. Jones said, “we will trouble you no more” and walked out that day, signaling an end to their relationship with religious leaders who preach a gospel of welcome and social service but deny fellow parishioners the dignity of praying as everyone else does.
Allen and Jones went on to found what was to become the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a church that I’ve been a member of almost all of my life. The AME church is governed by a set of guidelines, The Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which dictates how bishops and other church administrators are elected and appointed, who qualifies as a member, the duties of pastors, elders, deacons and board members in AME churches across the world.
The following text appeared in the Doctrine and Discipline of the AME Church, 2016: “the AME Church strictly prohibits an AME Church clergyperson, licensed and/or ordained, from performing or participating in, or giving any blessing to any ceremony designed to result in any pairing between persons of the same-sex gender, including, but not limited to, marriage and civil unions.” The statement appeared first in the 2004 Discipline after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
This ban is tantamount to the white hand pulling Absalom Jones from his spiritual practice and denying members of the AME community a sacrament that heterosexual couples participate in freely.
With this decree, the AME Church declares that it only allows certain people to participate in the most sacred forms of worship and participation in the church. For the members of St. George in around 1791, black people could enter the church, and sit in the gallery, but never get close enough to others to pray. For LGBTQ members of the AME church today, they are allowed to attend and sit quietly, but their love, relationships, and community will never be acknowledged.
Ravi Perry is trying to change that. A lifelong AME member and chair of the Howard University political science department, Perry recently submitted a proposal to strike the aforementioned section that denies AME clergy the right to perform same-sex marriages or civil unions.
“By deleting this section, we would remove the consequences [for] pastors and other members who do decide to fully welcome LGBT[Q] people,” he said. According to the discipline, pastors who perform the sacrament of marriage to LGBTQ people face revocation of ordination duties, including preaching and blessing sacraments.
Perry attended the Legislative Committee of the Second Episcopal District meeting in Richmond, Va., in October, where they would vote on his proposal. The Legislative Committee is a group of clergy and laity, established by the bishop, who gather and decide what will go forth to vote at the General Conference, scheduled for July 2020.
Perry took his proposal to the Legislative Task Force. They discussed it briefly and took a voice vote of ayes and nays.
The vote failed.
Perry believes that if the ballot were secret, more people would have voted to support the changes to the Discipline.
Perry himself was active in generally moderate, welcoming AME churches his whole life. Neither church he attended—Warren AME Church in Toledo, Ohio, as a child, and Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., as a student at the University of Michigan—directly discriminated against him, but neither provided spaces of complete embrace either.
Perry began to realize this when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2003.
“Now that I was positive and gay I began to see my space in the church differently,” Perry said. “Why can’t I bring my partner to church? I see the church offering prayers and support to [heterosexual] people.”
Yes, they are allowed to come worship, but they cannot hear about their particular health issues from the pulpit or the altar. Yes, they can sit in the pews, but they cannot bring their partners and sit next to them, and acknowledge to others that they are in a same-sex partnership. Yes, they can lead worship as musical directors, but they cannot ask their spouse to stand up in acknowledgment. This is the type of shame we teach LGBTQ people, and people who are not LGBTQ, which suppresses their lives into secrecy.
Soon after his diagnosis in 2003, Perry wrote a letter to the AME’s Board of Bishops asking what steps they were going to take to fully welcome LGBTQ congregants to our church. The letter went unanswered.
“If you care about black folks you gotta care about all of them. Not just the ones who agree with you or vote like you, or who love the same way you love…and we’ve never done that, and we only learn that from the testimony of others,” said Perry. In this instance, caring for LGBTQ people in the AME church must go beyond them walking in worship services and having a seat, but must include hearing their issues from the pulpit and other public religious arenas.
While Perry’s proposal is the first documented legislative action towards LGBTQ equality in the AME Church, organizing for LGBTQ equality has a relatively long history in our church. Our discipline prohibits same-sex marriage ceremonies. Some pastors in the church perform them anyway.
“Though we pretend otherwise, it is clear that there is not agreement within the AME Church when it comes to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity,” wrote Jennifer Leath, pastor of Campbell Chapel AME Church Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Justice at Iliff School of Theology in Denver for the Christian Recorder, an AME publication. For years, there has been a movement of clergy, scholars, and laity to address fully welcoming LGBTQ people in our congregations.
Despite the words of the Discipline, LGBTQ people serve on steward boards as musical directors. Some pastors, like William H. Lamar IV of Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., are vehemently opposed to the exclusion. In this moment, we are trying to draw attention to the written polity to match the values of many of our members and clergy.
Many AME Church members are generally accepting of LGBTQ people. About 61 percent of AME Church members believe that homosexuality should be accepted, and 41 percent believe in same-sex marriage. Silence and passive acceptance are not welcome.
Just like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones needed to worship freely and with dignity, our LGBTQ members need to do the same. A change in our policy is a step in the right direction.
“As a pastor, the core mission is not of the governance and maintenance of the building, or the steward board, no, the primary job is the care for your flock,” Perry said. “And you can’t do that if you don’t know their issues and you don’t know who they are.”
After the proposal was read and considered by the Legislative Committee of the Second District in October, Perry has been in dialogue with several bishops of the AME church resulting in a conversation at the Council of Bishops in December. The bishops decided to place the resolution to strike on the agenda for the General Conference in 2020, resulting in a small victory in this huge fight.
Emma Akpan is a wayward church girl, taco enthusiast, and the best in the group chat. Absolutely her mother’s daughter. Emma lives in D.C.