I have been associated, though not closely or recently, with St. Elmo and St. Marks United Methodist Churches in Chattanooga, TN. I sang in the sanctuary of the former church with the Emory and Henry Concert Choir while I was in college, fifty years ago, and I attended Holston Conference youth planning meetings there while I was in high school. It seemed like a good church. Later I preached at St. Marks every other week at the Sunday night service while I was pastor of Forrest Avenue UMC, which stood up the hill from the Walnut Street Bridge.

I served my denomination beyond the local church as a pastoral therapist appointed to the Chattanooga District for over thirty years as a provider of care and counseling to persons coming from inside and outside the church community. It was a ministry of healing without the usual borders of church doctrine or practice. I gave my life and energy to it until retirement and I am grateful for that calling. Thanks be to God.

As a pastoral therapist, gay and lesbian couples were welcomed into my office, and I hope the therapy experience was helpful in some small way as they learned to negotiate their unsanctioned relationships. Gay marriage was not legal then. While the church has always pointed toward being “holy” (sanctus), we have also made the same-sex bond “unholy” by our attitudes and actions. I look back and think, “we could have sanctioned or encouraged healthy relationships among those of a different sexual orientation.” However, we often punished and restricted these relationships as invalid.

I pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

Occasionally there were opportunities for leading classes, integrating the psychological theory and theology exploration. Sometimes I was invited to share perspectives on marriage and family life. I always told folks, while marriages are made in heaven, they are assembled on earth. Perhaps that is why we pray “on earth as it is in heaven.” We can all imagine more closely aligning our lives with the generous love of God.

I once led a series of classes for gay and lesbian couples at St. Elmo UMC. It seemed so natural to help other human beings face the joys and struggles of loving relationships. We all stand before this mystery and gift of being human. It seemed like a good thing.

I remember when the St. Elmo church burned–it was such a sad day.

The sanctuary had burned and a local reporter mistakenly suggested that the church had a ministry to the LGBTQ community, failing to realize that it was these gay and straight Christians who together had a shared ministry to the world. 

I was invited to help the church members process the event. We met in a park to share our grief, which seemed symbolic of a congregation that had worked so hard to bring down walls of division. I used two questions to get the conversation rolling. I asked: “When were you at your worst and when were you at your best?” There were emotional reflections on all the cultural changes Chattanooga had undergone and an open acknowledgment of an ugly racial past and the church’s complicity. But there was also such joy and celebration for the dawning of a new day in which neither color, gender, or sexual orientation–especially sexual orientation–were barriers to the loving God found in the Christian faith.

Their building had just been destroyed by fire but there we were burning bright with justice and hope. God’s way inspired us. 

I recently got word of the firing of a Licensed Local Pastor associated with both the St. Elmo and St. Marks congregations. I dont know her personally but learned she lost her position for doing what the church has failed to do: be a blessing in the lives of people. She was following the example of Jesus, gracing a wedding. I can only assume she was there to bless those present.

The United Methodist Church does not allow its pastors to perform same-sex weddings. The rule of church law and the authority of those charged with upholding the church’s highly debated position has spoken, but it does not seem right or good or healing or just. What was the urgency? I found myself asking, “Why now?” Could we not wait until the report on the way forward is released in August? Why could we not suspend judgment until then?

My beloved United Methodist Church, which may collapse under the weight of this conflict, has often placed warm hearts over theological correctness. But now we find ourselves restrictively bound to the letter of the law while struggling with the absence of the spirit of love. It is a sad day in the church. 

I am sure much has changed through the years with these two congregations. Former pastors and old-time members might not recognize the faces of the congregants or their mission and ministry, but both churches seem to be lively, faithful remnants of a people seeking to serve God in these reactionary times.

I belong to the Living Questions Sunday School class at Buda UMC near my new home down in Texas. We support the Reconciling Ministries Network, which reminds the church of just how long we have stigmatized and wounded people whose only crime was being born at a different point along the human sexual orientation spectrum. God help us!


Dr. James L. Philpott

Dr. Philpott is a retired Elder from the Holston Annual Conference where he served the Chattanooga District of The UMC providing a community counseling service. He now lives in Texas where he enjoys the benefits of family, friends, and wood art. He was a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a Licensed Clinical Pastoral Therapist and Marital and Family Therapist in the State of Tennessee before ending his career.

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