Last April, Mary Ann Barclay met with the United Methodist Church’s Austin district leadership after years of preparing to become an ordained minister. She’d begun the process in Florida in 2006, then moved to Austin in 2009 to pursue her seminary degree. But since then, Barclay’s path to ordination has been difficult.
During seminary, Barclay came out as a lesbian.
“I wanted to continue with the process,” Barclay says. “I certainly was not going back in the closet, so I decided it was up to the committee to say no to me, rather than for me to say no to me.”
Today, Barclay is a youth director and mission and justice associate at University United Methodist Church on the University of Texas campus.
“I do feel a connection to the younger LGBTQ growing up in the church,” she says. “I learned not to like myself until my mid-20s because I was a ‘good Christian,’ and I don’t want that for anybody. I feel responsible to them and, equally, I strongly believe that the church does both deep harm and deep healing in the world.”
She married her partner in 2013, in a ceremony neither her denomination nor the state of Texas recognized. Her meeting with her church’s district leaders came just a few months later.
“I came out to them in the interview, and it floored them,” Barclay says. “They struggled with what to do and ultimately decided to pass me anyway, which is unprecedented.”
That decision set off a months-long battle over Barclay’s future. Members of a group called United Methodist Men filed complaints, the church’s regional board of ministry removed Barclay from candidacy, and Barclay appealed to her local bishop in San Antonio. The bishop sent the decision to the church’s judicial council—a sort of Methodist Supreme Court—but the council kicked the decision back to the bishop, who let Barclay proceed.
Barclay wouldn’t be the first gay Methodist minister. The church is officially against it, but there are ministers who are out and practicing in some parts of the United States, though they could have their ordination removed if complaints are filed against them. In other words, Barclay says, “Where people are in the country determines how out they can be.”
Since the church is a global organization, change around social issues is complicated. But Barclay wants to work within the system to bring change to the whole denomination.
“It’s important to have the whole denomination become LGBT-friendly,” she says. “It’s great that certain pockets don’t condemn, but the church shouldn’t do that to anybody. Spirituality is about wholeness.”
In May 2014, Barclay went to Kerrville for the next stop on the path to ordination: three interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. She was asked about her call to ministry, theology, doctrine, preaching and worship, but never specifically about her sexual orientation.
Yet her orientation “was absolutely a primary factor in the way everything occurred in every interview,” she says. “I was terrified to sit in a room with people who prematurely removed me from the process and were doing everything possible to make sure I didn’t pass.” Given the uproar around her case, she expected direct questions, but instead got hints about the moral standards in the church’s Book of Discipline.
About 45 minutes after her last interview, Barclay learned she wouldn’t move on in the ordination process.
Barclay’s church has supported her throughout the process, and she’s received encouragement from people both in and outside the church. “I wish every queer person in the Methodist church could experience the love that I’ve been experiencing,” she says.
She’s also faced accusations that her ordination bid is just a publicity stunt—an allegation she denies.
Barclay is still pursuing ordination—the Austin district could vote next April to recommend her for another interview—but recognition from the church isn’t her ultimate goal. “I see ordination as a complement to my faith call,” which she says is to speak out for marginalized groups that have been discriminated against or dehumanized in the church.
“I tried to leave numerous times, but the goodness and potential goodness of theology, of what is good in the Bible, lives in my bones, and I just believe in it,” Barclay says. “When the church does this other ugly discriminating stuff, I think it’s a distortion of what is true. So I’m not willing to hand it over to those that are distorting it.”