[“NANCY” HORN FLAIR INTRO MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: Tobin, do you know what piece of advice I really do not like?
KATHY: When you are about to go on stage, and give a public speech —
KATHY: — public speaking —
KATHY: — people always say, like, “Just pretend everyone is naked in the audience.”
TOBIN: I don’t get that advice either.
KATHY: No! It’s so distracting that I get more nervous!
TOBIN: Yeah! It’s like, you’re looking out there and you’re like, “I wonder what their torso looks like. I wonder what the nipple hair pattern is.”
TOBIN: “Are there any sun spots?”
KATHY: Where’s this going?
TOBIN: “Is there any, like, loose skin happening?”
[HORN MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: You know what, though? I’m distracted, I’m not nervous. I get it now. [KATHY CRACKS UP LAUGHING]
VOX 1: Okay. Um, from WNYC Studios, this is “Nancy.”
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu!
[THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: So, Kath.
KATHY: Yes, Tobin?
TOBIN: So, I wanna rewind the clock a bit to February of this year. That’s when this thing happened that rocked a big part of the queer religious community.
[PIPE ORGAN FLAIR PLAYS]
UMC SPEAKER: Alright, if you will take your seat …
TOBIN: It happened at the general conference of the United Methodist Church, which is the third-largest Christian denomination in the US. And the general conference is where a bunch of the church’s delegates from all over the world meet to vote on proposals that could change church policy. At their most recent meeting, they had a big decision to make. The church had to decide if it would continue to oppose same-sex marriage, and also ban queer people from being part of the clergy.
UMC SPEAKER: You will get your voting devices ready. [PAUSE] You may vote now.
TOBIN: The votes were in. The church had made its decision.
[SAD REPORTING MUSIC STARTS]
[NEWS CLIP PLAYS]
REPORTER 1: A decision from the United Methodist Church sent shock waves through the LGBTQ community.
REPORTER 2: One of the largest Christian denominations in the country has rejected a plan to allow openly …
REPORTER 3: They upheld church policy opposing same-sex marriages.
REPORTER 1: The church also added harsher penalties to clergy who officiate them.
[NEWS CLIP ENDS]
[MUSIC FADES OUT SLOWLY AS TOBIN TALKS]
TOBIN: The church has been wrestling with this debate for 40-plus years, and the conference was an opportunity to take the church in a different direction. They did not take that opportunity. And for a lot of people — specifically queer people in the church — it felt like a moment of reckoning. In the months since that vote, a lot of clergy and parishioners have been debating how to move forward. What do you do when the church — your community — rejects you? Do you stay and try to fight, or do you leave? That was a decision Cynthia Meyer faced three years ago. It was January 3rd, 2016. The Day of Epiphany, which is the celebration of the revelation of God as Jesus Christ. TL;DR: the day Jesus was recognized as, well, Jesus. Cynthia was preparing to give a sermon, and she was nervous. Which might seem odd, for someone who had been a pastor for 25 years. But this sermon was different. Cynthia knew that what she was about to share could result in sanctions from the church — and possibly her defrocking. So she had to be sure about what she had to say. Like, really sure.
CYNTHIA: I moved recently, I went through lots of my files and cleaned things out and all of that, and I found, I think, eight versions of the sermon as I had worked through it again and again.
TOBIN: Did you practice giving the sermon before the actual day?
CYNTHIA: Sure. [BOTH LAUGH] I did, you know, as — as I would write, I would, of course, be going through it in my head, and I practiced it out loud a good bit, um, and trying to work on how to make sure important things were emphasized and [BREATH] — and things like that.
TOBIN: The biggest thing that Cynthia had to emphasize was that she was gay. And the sermon she had been practicing over and over again was her coming out.
[CLIP OF CYNTHIA’S SERMON STARTS]
CYNTHIA: Those wise sages from another land, they have seen an unusual star, shining over the desert …
TOBIN: The beginning of the sermon seems like any other Epiphany Day sermon. But a couple minutes in, she starts to hint at something bigger.
CYNTHIA: This year, I resolve to give my most valuable gift to Jesus. [PAUSE] Do you know what your most valuable gift is?
TOBIN: She starts talking about what her congregation can offer to Jesus, what she can offer to Jesus.
CYNTHIA: It started for me when I was about 13, when I first really got to know about Jesus.
[CLIP OF CYNTHIA’S SERMON FADES OUT]
TOBIN: Watching that sermon, the thing that strikes me is that you really sort of go back and tell your whole story. Why was it important for you to do that?
CYNTHIA: I think it was really important for them to understand that, you know, I've always been fully who I am, regardless of my awareness of pieces — various things at various times, and all of that. So, you know, I wasn't a different pastor that day than I had been the Sunday before, [PAUSE] other than that I was being more open.
TOBIN: Being open — even with herself — about her sexual orientation was a long journey for Cynthia. She grew up in Kansas in the ‘70s, and she describes her childhood as being a pretty classic small town upbringing.
CYNTHIA: People would have described me as shy. I didn't talk a lot in public situations, or even in school, and, uh, spent a lot of time on my own.
TOBIN: Her parents weren’t churchgoers, but as a teenager, she started attending a local United Methodist Church as a way to spend time with her friends.
CYNTHIA: I just gradually became more involved and, as I got into high school, one of my friends and I started singing in the choir. And, um, if I wasn't with the choir, I would go to worship and, uh, there were people that would invite me to sit with them and just felt accepted and welcome to be a part of things and to take on whatever roles I might like. And then I began to get involved in the church at some of its larger levels in the annual conference, and there, I would hear a lot more about the church's work for justice, and issues of equality, and changing legal systems, and those kinds of things, uh, were often topics at those larger meetings.
TOBIN: So this would have been while you were in high school —
TOBIN: — and you're getting very involved in the church. And I'm wondering, was there a specific moment when you realize that you wanted to take the step — or the next step — to become a clergyperson?
CYNTHIA: I don't really recall a specific moment, um … But more just a growing sense of that call to that, and beginning to consider it. One of the leaders of youth programming in our annual conference was a woman pastor.
CYNTHIA: So that was my first experience of kind of seeing that women could do that. And then, once it felt pretty clear to me that I was experiencing that kind of call, I spoke to the pastor of the church, and he was really excited about that, so he jumped up from his desk and ran around and picked me up and swung me around in a circle. [BOTH LAUGH] So that was really encouraging, and confirmation of a sense that he could see that. He could see me possibly filling that role in the future.
[SOFT ACOUSTIC GUITAR PLAYS]
TOBIN: Cynthia imagined herself continuing the kind of service and social justice work she had grown to love about the church. But it was also complicated, because of the UMC’s policy banning queer clergy.
TOBIN: Was there a moment that you realized that you might be attracted to women?
CYNTHIA: [LAUGHS, THEN TOBIN LAUGHS] You know, I think there were various moments that different in different parts of my life where I had some awareness of that.
CYNTHIA: Um. But again, not like a moment great moment of revelation, or — or …
TOBIN: Right. [CHUCKLES] It’s funny now, to ask you that question, because as someone who is not religious, I think I do imagine that somebody who decides to become a pastor must have, like, a single “AHA!” moment [CYNTHIA LAUGHS] of, like, “Oh, yes, this is me,” or, “I'm going to do this.” But as someone who is gay, I would never say to someone, “Well, there's a moment where you just know you're gay and that's it.” [LAUGHS] So I know this is a weird question. But is there something similar to the process of realizing you might want to be a pastor, to, like, realizing you might be gay, or have some sort of LGBTQ identity?
CYNTHIA: Yeah, I think there can be a real similarity in that. You know, you're going about living your life, and having the experiences you have, and meeting people, and continually coming to know yourself better, hopefully —
CYNTHIA: — and I think that encompasses many parts of our — of our life and our identity.
TOBIN: When you did start to realize that you might be gay, how did you feel about it at the time?
CYNTHIA: I was [PAUSE] conflicted about it in some ways. Just first, I think, recognizing that it made life more complicated. And trying to figure out what it meant for me, and, uh, if it was a necessary part of my identity or something of a choice. I — I knew on the local level and the conference level, things like that. That there were people who were open and would be supportive. It was still quite necessary for folks who identified as LGBT to be hidden, even if many of them were — were and are — kind of hidden in plain sight, but, um — but it was not a place where anybody could be publicly out and serve as clergy. Um, I would say that I had some awareness that, uh, perhaps I was attracted to women, or not to men only, earlier in my life. And when I was figuring things out. And then I made some different choices. So I was married to a man when I started seminary, and began the ordination process and all of that, so was not seeing that as — you know, as a personal issue for me as I began moving into service in the church. I didn't experience that conflict or, you know, fear of exposure or anything at — at that time.
[MORE SOFT ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC]
TOBIN: At the time, Cynthia felt like it wasn’t a necessary part of her identity. Before entering seminary, she married a man, and even though her marriage eventually ended, she spent years avoiding the questions she had about her sexuality.
CYNTHIA: I was single, not — not in a relationship for a long time after my marriage ended and … so didn't feel a real need to to be known by any particular identity. So I was always, uh, concerned about the policies — um, I spent a good bit of my career working with seminary students, many of whom were having to make their own decisions about who they were and, uh, how they would live their lives and whether they could do that in — in the denomination that they were in when they came to seminary. Or, you know, how they would live out their ministry and be true to themselves and all of that. So I had a lot of those conversations —
CYNTHIA: — and was always aware of how difficult it was, but didn’t face it on too personal of a level, until more recently.
TOBIN: At that point in time, were you ever having conversations about, you know, “Should I come out? Should I not come out?” Or was it more like, “This is a thing I feel like I can never talk about.”
CYNTHIA: You know, I had some of those conversations with people close to me, and I knew that it was not safe to be really public unless I was ready to engage whatever might come from that.
[SOFT ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC]
TOBIN: So, for two decades Cynthia stayed quiet about her sexual orientation. She focused on her work leading her congregation. Then, something unexpected happened — she met someone she really liked! But it was really complicated for both of them.
CYNTHIA: She lived in the same community. And, um … At that time she was a Benedictine nun, and she chaired our local ministerial alliance. So we got to know each other through our work in our respective churches and organizations —
CYNTHIA: — and — and became friends.
TOBIN: What did you like about her as you got to know her?
CYNTHIA: [CHUCKLES] Well, all kinds of things, of course. She was great fun to be around. But we shared many understandings of, you know, what it meant to follow Jesus and — and what that was about. Commitments to justice and care for people, and inclusion of the outcasts and all of those kinds of things. And we worked together around those kind of things on the local level, where we both were.
TOBIN: Mhm. And when did you realize that this was more than just [PAUSE] being colleagues?
CYNTHIA: Well, I think, uh, we both were kind of silently fighting against that for — for a while and — and then, you know, finally there came moments where we had to begin to have that discussion. And some of that was really hard because it meant really big decisions for both of us, and changing our lives in really significant ways.
TOBIN: Yeah. And, um, how long were you together before you decided that you couldn't hide the relationship any longer?
CYNTHIA: You know, once it became more than a friendship, we began addressing what we would need to do. We didn't want to be hiding and trying to have that relationship in secret and doing things that were contrary to, you know, the — those bodies that that we had made vows to! That's not who we are. And, uh, [BREATH] so we began to address all of that fairly quickly.
TOBIN: That’s when Cynthia decided she needed to come out to her congregation. But she didn’t want it to be just about her. She wanted to send a message to the United Methodist Church leadership that queer clergy should be part of the church. So, she made plans for her Epiphany Day sermon to be filmed and put online. She knew it was a huge risk, and that there would be consequences. But until she actually did it, she didn’t know exactly what those consequences would be.
KATHY: “Nancy” will be back in a minute.
[SOFT, MELANCHOLY PIANO MUSIC]
KATHY: We’re back!
TOBIN: Yeah! So, it’s the Day of Epiphany, and Cynthia is delivering her sermon. She’s coming out to her congregation. And she’s ready for this moment. She’s ready to be open. But she also knows that it’s going to forever change her relationship with the church that’s been her community since she was a teenager.
TOBIN: How did it feel when you were finally standing there delivering the sermon?
CYNTHIA: You know, I felt good that day. I really felt ready. And I’m a fairly practical person. So, you know, there I was, with the — the camera trained on me, I had to be ready. [TOBIN LAUGHS] So it was good, and there were supportive faces in the congregation. My daughter was there, and my partner was there, of course, and, um, so it was — it was great to look out and see those folks.
TOBIN: About eight minutes into her sermon — after telling the story of the wise men following the light to the manger, after telling her story of finding her own way into religion, after talking about offering her most authentic self — Cynthia finally said what she needed to say.
CYNTHIA [IN THE SERMON]: The Lord has led me here to share my deep truth with you. It’s time. I’ve been an ordained United Methodist pastor for 25 years. At last, I am choosing to serve in that role with full authenticity, as my genuine self — as a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman.
[SINGING] Lead me …
TOBIN: You also sing in the middle of the sermon. [CYNTHIA LAUGHS]
CYNTHIA [IN THE SERMON, SINGING]: … along the way. Lord, if you lead me, I cannot stray …
TOBIN: I … think singing in front of people is terrifying. [LAUGHS]
CYNTHIA: It is terrifying! That was the most terrifying part. [LAUGHS]
CYNTHIA [IN THE SERMON, SINGING]: Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.
TOBIN: Do you typically sing in the middle of a sermon, or what was the choice to do that?
CYNTHIA: Well, I — you know, music — music reaches people in a different way, and I thought it was maybe a good piece of that sermon. You know, it was also written to be true to that day in the liturgical calendar. It was Epiphany, and we were talking about following the light, and how this being open and true to yourself and living fully into that is part of following the light and sharing your light.
CYNTHIA: So — so it fit, I think.
CYNTHIA [IN THE SERMON]: The light shines on each of us. See? The light shines through each of us. Be radiant. It’s time. It’s time.
TOBIN: And, so then, how did you feel afterwards?
CYNTHIA: You know, it took an enormous amount of energy. But I felt good about it. Folks in the congregation and others who were there were really supportive. Umm. So I felt good. And anxious, because, you know, I knew that the — probably, the thing that would happen fairly immediately is that a charge would be brought against me for violating the book of discipline.
TOBIN: So, obviously, that’s what ended up happening. How did it feel when the actual complaint was filed against you?
CYNTHIA: Well, you know, it's at the same time sort of one of those things that takes your breath away. Like, “This is really happening.”
CYNTHIA: “We’re into this now.” But, you know, it was inevitable. We knew the charge would come. The bishop was someone who had been really clear that in any case of violating the discipline — around this particular issue — there a lot of other ways to violate the discipline that are ignored, but around this particular issue charges would be filed.
CYNTHIA: And if — if there needed to be a hundred trials, there would be a hundred trials.
[SOFT PIANO AND ACOUSTIC GUITAR DUET]
TOBIN: In the United Methodist Church, complaints against a pastor can be adjudicated through a church trial. But before that step, there’s often an attempt to reach a settlement. The church calls it a “just resolution.” Those meetings went on for months, and Cynthia says it really didn’t feel like the people from the church in those meetings were trying to hear her out.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
CYNTHIA: You know, the beginning of that process seemed like it was really an effort to, uh, kind of … make it all go away. [LAUGHS] And, of course, I was not willing to do that. And there was a lot of talking past each other, I think, in the first meetings. Uh, there’s a meeting with a — a committee, which, in this particular case, the bishop put the committee together after the charge was filed and had, uh, you know, complete control over that, who would be on the committee, and things like that.
CYNTHIA: That committee — that meeting was particularly difficult, pretty hostile in some ways. So, you know, those things are hard.
CYNTHIA: They're hard, hard conversations.
TOBIN: I want to go back to a thing you said about the early meetings, where you said there was sort of an effort to make it go away. And I don't even know what that would look like. [CYNTHIA LAUGHS] Were they — were they asking you, like, “Can you take it back?” Or … ? [BOTH LAUGH]
CYNTHIA: Well, I — yeah, I don't know, that it — that it was possible in any way, but there’s a little bit of … it was maybe more of an effort to make me go away, quietly, than to make the situation go away, you know?
TOBIN: I see.
CYNTHIA: That instead of pursuing this, I would have the option of, you know, simply giving up my orders and not making a scene anymore.
TOBIN: Wow. That seems like a huge thing to ask someone. To just give up their orders and — and leave.
CYNTHIA: It is a huge thing.
TOBIN: Were you were you surprised that that was sort of, like, the first thing brought to the table?
CYNTHIA: We anticipated that.
TOBIN: So, you ended up going to these meetings for eight months, and eventually the committee offered a two-year suspension with no pay, and no guarantee that you could rejoin the ministry. Why did you ultimately agree to that punishment
CYNTHIA: Uh, we were moving very close to going to trial — a church trial. And in that system is quite slanted in that again, you know, the local bishop chooses the bishop who will preside over the trial, and things like that. And … my sense was that there was really nothing to be gained by the ordeal of the trial, and all that that would entail.
[GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Cynthia had a lot to consider. She could wait out the two-year suspension, then take a job in a more liberal part of the country, where the local bishop might look the other way about her sexuality. She even had job offers within the church to move elsewhere. But then there was the question of the 2019 general conference. She knew the church would likely make a decision about whether or not they would continue to ban queer clergy, and the more she thought about it, the more certain she was that it wouldn’t go her way. So when she got an job offer to be a pastor for a church of a different denomination — the United Church of Christ — she decided to take the job, and turn in her ordination papers for the United Methodist Church.
CYNTHIA: Because I think it really matters what the denomination says. And it felt disingenuous to me to continue to serve in a denomination that said something about me, uh, makes me unqualified for ordination, or to have my marriage performed in the church, or those kinds of things. That matters to me.
TOBIN: I wanted to hear about the actual experience of canceling your ordination.
CYNTHIA: Well, um … the process, evidently, requires actually turning in the papers that acknowledge your ordination. And I had big certificates in frames on the wall, and I had to take those down and out of the frames and deliver them to an office. Um. And that's what it means to give up your credentials.
TOBIN: I guess I'm also curious about the moment of removing them from the frames because that feels very, you know [PAUSE] … They’re so official in the frames. They're sort of, like, untouchable. And then to remove them —
TOBIN: — and to hold them in your hands … I'm wondering what that felt like.
CYNTHIA: Yeah, it … you know, it was a moment of recognition of the finality of it, and of really breaking those ties. You know? It was just a quiet moment — by myself, but it was meaningful.
TOBIN: So, what was it like to actually turn in your credentials? Like, what was that day like?
CYNTHIA: I think it was a Tuesday. I'm not sure. I just — [LAUGHS] I lived in the same town where my district superintendent's office was. So I just drove them over and laid them on the desk and left. Uh, the office assistant happened to not be up at the desk when I came in, but she heard the door and so she did kind of come running out and, you know, called out to me and was very kind. And it was a Bittersweet moment. Of course. I've been connected to the denomination in formal ways since I was 13. So, you know, it was hard. And — and at the same time, really freeing.
TOBIN: Were you — were you sad about it?
CYNTHIA: You know, I'm sad about all of it, but I'm most sad that the denomination continues to discriminate and exclude.
TOBIN: Hmm. [PAUSE] You know, earlier this year, there was the vote. The United Methodist General Congress reaffirmed the ban on LGBTQ clergy-people. I'm wondering, when and how did you hear about that vote? And how did it make you feel?
CYNTHIA: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, I heard plenty about it in months leading up to it [BOTH CHUCKLE] and through the — through the conference itself. And — and, of course, as the votes were taken. So, uh … I — you know, I was sad and disappointed about that. I was not in the least bit surprised. It would have been … it's what I anticipated would happen.
And I think most people who have been involved [BREATH] very deeply at all, were pretty aware that — that was likely. And a lot of folks who considered themselves, perhaps, supporters of full inclusion, but weren't very involved and aware, seem to have been quite surprised. But, you know, I’m — I'm stuck in that place of, “How did you not really recognize where the church was? And the … deep level of the discrimination and exclusion?”
TOBIN: Do you think the church will ever change its policies?
CYNTHIA: I think the church is going to undergo some really significant changes in the future. I think, in some sense, there will be a church split, whether that's official or sort of by attrition.
TOBIN: Well, I was going to ask — in those conversations or speculations about the church breaking apart, does that bum you out at all? [CYNTHIA LAUGHS] The idea of the church, you know breaking apart, as opposed to, like, having the difficult conversation about acceptance?
CYNTHIA: [LONG PAUSE] Well, there have been lots of difficult conversations over many, many years —
CYNTHIA: — and I'm not sure this is a divide that can be bridged and I think maybe that's okay. You know? Maybe it's time for this significant of a change.
TOBIN: Do you miss being part of the Methodist church?
CYNTHIA: You know, I miss part of my ideal of the United Methodist Church, I think.
CYNTHIA: You know, I miss the various gatherings where I would see people who are my closest friends, and, uh, I miss what I would hope the church could be, so I miss all of that.
CYNTHIA: But I — I don't miss being a part of a denomination that will call me a person of sacred worth, and then forbid me to take part in the life of the church in some ways.
TOBIN: Well, so, you've been an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ for a year and a half now. I'm wondering what your life is like today.
CYNTHIA: Uh, well, I've had some really big changes in my life. Have, uh, in the last six months or so, moved to the Seattle area and my partner and I got married before we moved, and then we moved here. And I am serving a UCC congregation outside of Seattle.
[ATMOSPHERIC, DISCOVERY MUSIC PLAYS]
CYNTHIA: And, you know, my ministry is better now because I'm not hiding things and I’m more fully myself and more fully able to engage and moving forward.
[ATMOSPHERIC MUSIC PLAYS, THEN FADES OUT, TO BE REPLACED WITH CREDITS MUSIC]
KATHY: Alright, that’s our show. It’s credits time!
TOBIN: Producer —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons.
TOBIN: Production fellow —
KATHY: Temi Fagbenle.
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom and Anya Grzesik.
TOBIN: Editor —
KATHY: Stephanie Joyce.
TOBIN: Executive producer —
KATHY: Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And “Nancy” is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: This one’s a bit of a tongue twister. Are you ready?
TOBIN: Just — okay. You’re gonna hear me say it, and then I need you to repeat it back to me. Okay. Ready? I need you to say, “And, we’re back!” [KATHY LAUGHS]