A major American church has appointed a transgender deacon for the first time, in a move praised by LGBT advocates.
The United Methodist Church – one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States – made Reverend M Barclay a deacon earlier this week at the church’s Northern Illinois Annual Conference.
Deacon, who identifies as non-binary, urged the church to move toward “full inclusion”.
The United Methodist Church falls behind the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention in size, and has been bitterly divided over sexuality and gender identity in recent years.
Official church rules say that gay clergy must remain celibate to keep their positions.
Barclay is not currently in a relationship, so is not violating the church’s rule that clergy can have sexual relationships only in heterosexual marriages.
The church does not have any rule banning transgender clergy.
Barclay initially identified as a straight woman, but after a year of reading theology – including queer and feminist theology – at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, they came out as a lesbian woman.
In 2012, Barclay pursued ordination by the church in Texas, despite identifying as a lesbian woman and being in a relationship with another woman.
A church board refused to even meet with Barclay, sparking a brutal public debate.
Deep blessings to the Rev. M Barclay (@mxbarclay) on their deaconship in the United Methodist Church! May light continue to shine on you, M! pic.twitter.com/6bHmOn6AtZ
— Many Voices (@ManyVoicesOrg) June 8, 2017
“There was a conversation of 400 clergy in Texas about whether or not they could prove I was having sex,” Barclay told The Washington Post.
“It was terrible. It was terrible.”
Barclay said: ““Every step of the way, I still wasn’t sure if this would ever happen.
“Even until the day of the service on Sunday [when Barclay was elevated to Deacon]. I was thinking, ‘Is somebody going to run into the room and find a way to put a stop to it?’ ”
“I hope the church will find itself at a new place in the near future when it comes to full inclusion,” they added.
Barclay said they have received encouraging messages from a number of LGBT Christians and other supportive churches.
Not all members of the church welcomed the decision, however.
The United Methodist Church has seen bitter debates in recent years over sexuality and gender identity
Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, general manager of the church’s Good News group, which advocates against allowing same-sex marriage or gay clergy, told a church newspaper that the church should “draw the line” at allowing transgender members into positions of leadership.
Lambrecht said the decision is “premature”, and that most members of his church group believe that people should live by the gender they were assigned at birth.
He added, however, that transgender Christians should be welcome at churches.