Rev'd Jason McMahon-Riley reflects on the journey of the Church and himself regarding same-sex marriage.   

The Methodist Church has been on a journey over the last three decades. The dawn of Same-Sex marriage within the Methodist Church was a decision that was reached after a ‘pilgrimage of faith’ over many years of consultations, conversations, and Conferences stemming back to at least the resolutions of the Conference in 1993 which, amongst other things, declared that …

Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church. Conference calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.

Whilst Same-Sex marriage is a reality in many Methodist Churches and Chapels across the Connexion, it is by no means a universal reality. In this regard, I feel there is still a long way to go…

As an individual, I have been on quite some journey too. I am now serving as a probationer presbyter (minister) in the Nottingham North East Circuit. I have been on my own ‘pilgrimage of faith’ as I have wrestled with my own sexuality and the teaching of the Church. I also have experienced the many conversations and debates that the Church has had – throughout my life. But now I am happy to be married to my husband, Ben, after we waited thirteen years to be married in a Methodist Church. Now, approaching our 2nd wedding anniversary I am in a position to be able to reflect not only on my own transformation, but that of the wider Church. 

As part of my theological study at The Queen’s Foundation, and in conjunction with Probationer Studies as required by the Methodist Church, this year I am completing my MA in Theology, Ministry and Mission. As part of that, I am tasked with writing a dissertation. What better opportunity to seize the moment and to write about the pilgrimage of faith that has led to where we are now as a Church seeking to be justice-seeking and inclusive. My focus is on the journey from those 1993 resolutions of the Methodist Conference which affirmed the ministry of lesbians and gay men, and particularly those who felt called to ordained ministry. Whilst in the process of that, I have been tracing that journey, with thanks to help from Dignity & Worth and share it now as a reminder of where we are, and where we have come from.

The 1993 resolutions did not appear from nowhere. They were in response to a much longer conversation. It was the Methodist Conference of 1979 that produced its first report on Marriage and Sexuality with a reference, for the first time, to same-sex couples. In 1992, the Conference agreed “A Methodist Statement on a Christian understanding of Family Life, the Single Person and Marriage.” 1993 saw the Conference debate on the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Church and passed resolutions on human sexuality including the one that I shared earlier.

The journey continued including a 1998 report “Preparing for Marriage” which included ‘recognising marriage as mutual between equals.’ In addition, the Methodist Church produces a report called “A Lamp to my Feet and Light to my Path: The Nature of Authority and the place of the Bible in the Methodist Church” which was prompted by the 1993 debate. This began a conversation around biblical interpretation.

A group was set up by the Conference 10 years after the 1993 resolutions to assess the Church’s progress on the pilgrimage of faith it set out upon. This report came to the Conference of 2005 and concluded that the pilgrimage was in fact yet to begin in some areas of the Connexion, but that the 1993 resolutions should not be revisited.

2006 saw a report on what it meant to live with ‘contradictory convictions’ which was an attempt to outline the disagreements in the Church surrounding human sexuality and to offer ways in which we could seek to live together with those tensions. In the same year, there was an additional report on the ‘pilgrimage of faith’ which focussed on civil partnerships. The Conference agreed that members and ministers of the Methodist Church could enter civil partnerships but services of blessing on Methodist premises would not be permitted. In a similar vein, the report also stated that civil partnerships were not to be conducted in Methodist churches.

Then came a report in 2014 in response to the change in the law to permit Same-Sex marriage. The Conference report of the Working Party on Marriage and Civil Partnerships agreed that nothing prevented Methodists from entering same-sex marriages but would not ‘opt in’ to conduct them on Methodist premises: much in the same way to the conversation around civil partnerships. However, at this stage the Church offered guidelines on prayers and services for couples after same-sex marriages and civil partnerships, now allowing them to be held on Methodist premises. This was a major step forward.

In 2016 the Marriage and Relationships Task Group recommended to the Conference that the 1992 statement should be updated and a group be set up to assess whether the definition of marriage should be reviewed. This led to a process which consulted the whole church on whether the definition of marriage should be updated. In 2018 the Marriage and Relationships Task Group offered the Church some possibilities and potential decisions it could make. It set out a timeline for 2019 up to the Conference of 2020.

In 2019 the report ‘God in Love Unites Us’ was published and so the Connexion had a chance to confer about its recommendations. District synods voted on its resolutions to report back to the Conference of 2020. Sadly, Covid intervened and that was postponed to the Conference of 2021 when finally, after such a long and sometimes painful journey, the Church voted to revisit its definition of marriage, making provision for two understandings.

On a personal level, this journey has been a deeply significant one for my husband, Ben, and me who have been directly affected by it. But finally, after much pain, uncertainty and anxiety, the time came for Methodist Conference 2021. We watched from home on the live stream and our hearts leapt for joy when the decision was made to permit same-sex marriage in Methodist buildings. Awestruck, we looked at the television and then to each other and cried. After a journey of thirteen years together as committed partners, and for me twelve years as a committed church attender who would have described himself as a Methodist, of which the latter 6 of those were as a member of the Methodist Church, we were finally able to look ahead to plan a wedding. I think it was at this moment that I finally realised that I could serve Christ and the Methodist Church as authentically me. I had come out some time before this, and it seemed to me in that moment, that now the Church was doing the same.

This pilgrimage of faith has been a prayerful one at each and every stage. But this LGBT history month we need to be reminded that the journey was long and the impact on LGBTQ+ lives a huge one. May we remember that we are still on that pilgrimage of faith, and we still need to work to be a fully justice-seeking and inclusive church for all.