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Dividing the house of God: Ordained Iowa Methodist recounts why the church made them leave

Ten percent of Iowa's congregations are leaving the United Methodist Church over the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the clergy. Rev. Anna Blaedel is an ordained clergy member and a queer person. In 2019, the church made them leave their ministry.
Zachary Oren Smith
/
IPR News
Ten percent of Iowa's congregations are leaving the United Methodist Church over the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the clergy. Rev. Anna Blaedel is an ordained clergy member and a queer person. In 2019, the church made them leave their ministry in the church.

Ten percent of Iowa’s Methodist congregations are leaving the church. The denomination is wrestling over the future of LGBTQ members and whether they can be clergy.

The Reverend Anna Blaedel didn’t look the part of a small-town pastor: Hair buzzed and fresh out of progressive Berkeley seminary, many were surprised when Blaedel accepted an appointment at a Methodist church in Osage.

“I was surprised by it,” Blaedel admitted. “I think the conference was surprised by it. And I can only imagine how surprised the congregation was when I showed up.”

Blaedel was baptized into the denomination as a five-year-old. Their family was the kind that would search out a Methodist congregation even while on vacation. And so, when Blaedel first felt the call to ministry, it was – of course – rooted in Methodism.

“It was my place of spiritual belonging. My religious home,” they said. “It was my faith community. My place of tradition.”

It wasn’t easy joining the fabric of Osage. Blaedel had openly identified as a queer person for years. They remember the fitful pounding on the door late at night, the veiled threats. But also the kindness they unpacked from a brown paper sack of tomatoes with a note that read, "We figured you could use some extras."

“There was the sense that we, just by our being are divisive. That there is something scary about who we are. That we by our very being threaten the unity of our church.”

And Blaedel remembers Palm Sunday 2009. It’s one of Christianity’s high holy days. Just two days prior, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage. Blaedel was set to give the Palm Sunday sermon.

“I knew that there was no way I could enter that pulpit and stay silent about it,” Blaedel said. “And I knew that I would be explicit about something in the pulpit that would be a point of division within the congregation.”

Since middle school, Blaedel can remember queerness — their own and its perception in the world — more commonly referred to as a “point of division.”

“There was the sense that we — just by our being — are divisive,” Blaedel said. “That there is something scary about who we are. That we — by our very being — threaten the unity of our church.”

Rev. Anna Blaedel leads a ministry at the Iowa City Wesley Center.
Zachary Oren Smith
/
IPR News
Rev. Anna Blaedel leads a ministry at the Iowa City Wesley Center.

After preaching on that Palm Sunday, Blaedel led communion, distributing consecrated bread from the altar: some were visibly moved, others not. And afterward, Blaedel hid in their office, wondering what consequences were on their way.

That’s when a high-schooler approached, telling Blaedel they had a gay friend at school. Blaedel said the student told them "I know they're not a sinner, but I don’t know what else to believe." The student asked for a Bible study.

“It was one of those beautiful times where we all leaned into (the) honest, courageous, transformational relationship rather than letting fear or fear of division kind of keep us from one another,” Blaedel said. “And it was beautiful.”

“Many of them are happy with the decision they’ve made and I get home and I cry. ... So much good is just forgotten. And it hurts my spirit.”

Since leaving Osage, Blaedel has watched the Methodist Church enter the final throes of a messy schism. The church says 10% of Iowa’s congregations are leaving.

The Iowa Conference’s District Superintendent Rev. Ron Carlson says these days he’s spending a lot of time among congregations with more than a century of history within the church. A long relationship culminating in a divorce: a vote to leave.

“Many of them are happy with the decision they’ve made and I get home and I cry,” Carlson said. “… So much good is just forgotten. And it hurts my spirit.”

Not every heart is broken. Albia Newspaper’s Dave Paxton wrote about a Monroe County church splintering from the UMC. Ninety-four percent of the congregants at Trinity Methodist Church voted to disaffiliate. Paxton wrote that “a chasm” had emerged between liberal and conservative congregations; that liberal “bishops and clergy began to question” the very firmaments of the religion.

The rub, Paxton explains, is a foundational text that forbids LGBTQ people like Anna Blaedel from being clergy. Not the Bible, but the denomination’s rule book.

“The rift is over adherence to the Book of Discipline,” he told IPR News.

The book plainly forbids “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy. But from the dioceses of California to the dioceses of Mississippi, adherence has ranged. In 2016, Blaedel was among more than 100 United Methodists who signed a letter about being LGBTQ and clergy.

In his story, Paxton wrote that the Iowa Conference had “moved away from traditional church orthodoxy” despite the Book of Discipline’s clear messages on “homosexual marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals." The schism was the outcome of institutional infidelity.

He chose not to include his name in the article but did confirm that he wrote it. He similarly didn’t mention that he was a member of the church. And in fact, when it came time to explain the church’s road ahead, he quoted Trinity’s Administrative Council Chairman: himself.

“We felt this was critical, not only because we wanted to ensure we would call a pastor that shared our traditional Wesleyan views," Paxton told himself, "but in fairness to a new pastor who might move here in January and be gone in June.”

The future of Iowa congregations like Trinity, Paxton explains, will range. Some will choose to affiliate with upstart groups like The Global Methodist Church picking up defectors with its assurance that they’d uphold prohibitions of LGBTQ clergy and marriages. Others may remain independent, choosing autonomy after decades of connection through the UMC.

While the inclusion of LGBTQ Methodists has ranged, the Iowa Conference did take action against Anna Blaedel following three complaints that began in 2016. The first complaint was about Blaedel being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” but it was dismissed by an outgoing bishop. The second was for marrying a same-sex couple. It was eventually resolved. It was a third, again about Blaedel’s queerness, which led the Iowa Conference to question whether there was room for Blaedel in its ministry.

“Yes, those are the rules,” Blaedel said. “Those are the denominational rules and I was never pretending to be anything but guilty as charged and to say these rules are not faithful to the best of our tradition and are not serving our church or ourselves.”

It was on the road to Des Moines for one of many meetings with church leaders that Blaedel began to think about how one leaves their spiritual home.

And finally, make no mistake about it: ... I remain a self-avowed, practicing queersexual. Thanks be to God.”

In a video documenting the Church’s final resolution of the complaint against them, Bladel's hair is smoothed to the side, bangs falling across their eyeglasses. Their shirt bears the words: “unrepentant queer.” It’s the last moment of the resolution process and they’re wearing funeral blacks:

And finally, make no mistake about it: I continue to delight in my queerness, and the practice of it. I’m so grateful for queerness, and queer connections. I remain a self-avowed, practicing queersexual. Thanks be to God.”

The church had Blaedel agree to an “indefinite leave of absence.” And while it hurt, Blaedel says the cost of staying was too great.

Today, Blaedel’s ministry continues at the Iowa City Wesley Center which itself disaffiliated from the Methodist Church on Pentecost Sunday of 2022. They say they miss the clarity of the Church’s call. But in the communion of shared pots of soup and bars of chocolate, Blaedel is listening for a new call.

“In the end, I did lose my place of religious belonging,” Blaedel said. “I am finding my way but have lost something that has been really sacred and central to my life.”

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa