This past January 3, the Rev. Cynthia Meyer stood in the pulpit of the Edgerton United Methodist Church ready to share a word with her congregation. It was the Sunday when the church celebrated the Epiphany, the revelation of God to the world traditionally associated with the visit of the magi, that is, strangers from another land. But this sermon would be no traditional Epiphany sermon about the wise men. Instead Meyer shared her own personal story, and after 25 years in active ministry throughout the United Methodist Church, came out as a lesbian — something that is prohibited in The United Methodist Church. This sermon would be shared and put Meyer in the public spotlight as the latest church leader to challenge United Methodist rules and doctrine regarding same-sex relationships.
Recently The United Methodist Reporter reached out to Rev. Meyer to talk about her story, her challenging of church teaching, and her experience thus far.
Based on your sermon and other writings it’s pretty clear that you have had a pretty good sense of your sexual identity for a some time. Can you share a bit about your story in understanding who you are as a lesbian?
My somewhat sheltered upbringing contributed, I think, to a rather slow understanding of what some attractions in my younger life might have indicated. That said, I shared a romantic relationship with a woman in my late teens, but considered it a unique experience. I dated young men both before and after this time. A growing maturity, wider reading and broadening friendships helped me to clarify my identity a bit later in my life.
Did you have a sense of your sexual identity as you were going through the ordination process? What were you thinking as you went through the process and were asked about your sexuality?
I was not clear about my sexuality during my time in the candidacy process and towards ordination. During the latter part of this time, I was married to a man. (Our marriage was brief, about four years, and we have remained in cordial relationship since.) The United Methodist Church I came to know in my youth and young adulthood seemed to always act on the side of social justice, inclusion and equality. I trusted that the UMC would continue to lead the way in extending Jesus’ love, including to the LGBTQ community. Sadly, the denomination has instead held a discriminatory stance for forty years.
You came out to your congregation on January 3, the Sunday that many churches recognize Epiphany. How was your coming out a personal Epiphany, and how do you think your congregation experienced it as an Epiphany?
That day was certainly a celebration of Epiphany in the congregation where I serve, and that was the theme of our worship. I had several epiphany experiences leading me to speak out and found Epiphany Sunday particularly appropriate for offering my full self in ministry. My epiphany on that Epiphany Sunday itself came in finally experiencing the freedom to be myself, to speak openly, to be fully authentic in my relationships with individuals, with the congregation, with everyone. I hear from some members of the church, that they too experienced an Epiphany in witnessing this. Such honesty and authenticity can draw others toward the acceptance of their own sacred worth as beloved children of God and full (not second class, separate and unequal) members of the UMC.
There will be those in the church who say that you should be punished because you have broken the vows of the church and undermined the covenant made at your ordination. How do you respond to those accusations?
I have lived out my vows and fulfilled the covenant. I quietly cooperated for a time with the church’s unstated but well-known “don’t ask; don’t tell” practice regarding homosexuality, as many others have and continue to do. Drawing attention to this practice and to the Book of Discipline’s contradictory policies regarding “persons of sacred worth,” who are yet given unequal treatment and restricted opportunity, does not equal a breaking of the covenant, but rather conforms to the General Rule, to “do good”.
Your decision to come out puts both you AND your congregation in the public spotlight, likely leading them to experience persecution and uncomfortable responses. Did you have any conversation with your congregational leaders prior to your coming out? How have they responded in the wake of your action?
I consulted with a small group of leaders in the congregation for one month prior to Epiphany Sunday. We were prayerfully intentional in planning and preparing for that Sunday and for responses we might anticipate both within and toward the church. On January 3rd, we invited all in attendance to a conversation immediately following the worship service, addressing anticipated topics and answering other questions.
This leadership group continues to respond to concerns as they are raised. We are in frequent communication regarding the health of the church family and needs of members. As one would anticipate in nearly any UMC, members have responded in a variety of ways and for a range of reasons. We continue to encourage everyone to come together in worship and in all the ministries and missions of the church. The spirit in worship has been energetic, loving and inspired in the subsequent weeks. The church’s weekly meal open to anyone in the community and management of the Community Food Pantry continue.
Why now? You have lived in the closet for many years. Why was it so important to come out now? What are your hopes for your action?
During most of my ministry I was single and celibate. I supported many LGBTQ seminarians and clergy, but rarely spoke of my own identity beyond a small circle of friends. I regret that I was not more involved with activism to bring equality in the UMC during these years. More recently, I fell in love and entered into a committed relationship. This has changed my experience and understanding of the incredible costs, to individuals and to the church, of the denomination’s discriminatory policies and practices.
My hopes for my action are multifaceted. I hope that those struggling with their own sexuality and/or with their connection to the church will find comfort, support, encouragement, hope and courage through my action (and that of others). I hope that more clergy who are closeted will also speak out. I hope that other clergy will engage in thoughtful acts of civil disobedience to these discriminatory policies, speak out about their own truth, perform same-sex weddings, and that LGBTQ laity and both clergy and lay allies will visibly, vocally support those who take these actions. I hope that many will join and support the work of the Reconciling Ministries Network and the “It’s Time” campaign as General Conference approaches. (rmnetwork.org) I hope to be one among many contributing to the greater good, via the removal of discriminatory language, policies and practices from the Book of Discipline at the 2016 General Conference.
I know that you have recently met with Bishop Jones to begin the review/reconciliation process. Is there anything that you can share about your meeting with him at this time?
We have had one meeting. Our discussion focused on the details of the supervisory response process, with some focus on expectations for confidentiality. Our next meeting has not yet been scheduled.
A wonderful group of supporters gathered outside during that first meeting, singing and praying in the cold throughout. Many were clergy in the Great Plains Conference, along with laity from a number of churches. I’m very appreciative of these and the many individuals and congregations who have reached out with care and encouragement. There is a great movement for justice in the UMC!
The UM General Conference will be meeting again in May, and the issue of the church’s stance on sexuality will be considered. Given the rise of the African delegations (which are traditionally anti-homosexual) do you really think that the General Conference will change the position of the church? Given what we are seeing in the Anglican communion, is it possible to change the UM position without schism, and if not, how do we deal with the disunity in the body of Christ?
I am not an expert able to offer informed insight into these important concerns, but as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, I strive to maintain faith and hope! Epiphany calls us to follow, to live in the Light. While some fear that change in this UM position may lead to schism, I think it is equally likely that retaining discriminatory policies will lead to a great decline of the denomination, as many members choose to leave for church bodies that do offer love, justice and all the promises of baptism, membership and service to all, and as many choose to join other groups, or abandon organized religion because of the discrimination UM chooses to affirm yet again.
What is the most important thing that you would want the world to know about Cynthia Meyer?
In recent years I’ve reclaimed the name of my birth and baptism, Cynthia. And Cynthia Meyer loves the United Methodist Church! I pray that we, as a part of the body of Christ, may recognize that ALL are created as God’s beloved children, ALL are called to Jesus’ welcome table, and ALL should be treated equally in the life of the church. I act in civil disobedience, as a conscientious objector to discrimination, out of my deep faith in a loving God, and because of my care for and commitment to the United Methodist Church and ALL the people of the United Methodist Church.
Editor’s Note: The author of this story worked with Rev. Meyer in the late 1990’s while at the Candler School of Theology