Millsaps College

Wedding Officiants Face Loss of Ministerial Credentials in Another Symptom of Friction within the United Methodist Church

It was a storybook wedding in every way—a loving couple, flowers, friends and two officiating ministers who had mentored the couple and were well aware that this was indeed a marriage made in heaven, or as one of the ministers, Reverend Paige Swaim-Presley, commented, “Their faith is such an integral part of who they are in their relationship, and their love really does carve a path—create a channel—for grace to be shared with other people in their lives and in their community…It’s an image of what Christian marriage, I think, is meant to be.”

The wedding was celebrated in January.

The complaint came in February.

Reverend Davidson and Reverend Swaim-Presley had performed a wedding ceremony for a nonbinary couple—Matty Cafiero and their partner, Myles Cafiero.

The formal complaint alleged that the two Jackson, Mississippi, ministers had officiated a same-sex marriage. They were further directed to surrender their clergy credentials or face a church trial in the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).

The complaint and its ensuing ripples represent another crack in the UMC’s edifice. The nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination has lost over 2,000 churches through disaffiliation since taking a stiffer stance against same-sex weddings.

But the complaint is in error. Matty and Myles are nonbinary, not same-sex. Reverends Swaim-Presley and Davidson point out that the UMC’s Book of Discipline—a rulebook outlining the denomination’s law, doctrine, administration and procedures—says nothing about weddings between two nonbinary people. At the same time, on other matters, it directs deacons and elders to act according to their consciences.

It further recognizes “the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience.” 

Swaim-Presley, an elder in the church—Davidson is a deacon—also noted that, in addition to the right to follow their conscience, the rulebook dictates that elders must provide pastoral care and counsel. “I am not living into my ministry as an ordained person if I’m not offering these things to the people God has entrusted to my care,” she said.

Swaim-Presley came to know the couple several years earlier from her work as director of the Wesley Connexion, a Methodist student ministry at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. 

The following semester, Reverend Elizabeth Davidson became co-director of the Wesley Connexion and also came to know and spiritually guide the couple. Many students under the ministers’ care at Millsaps had upsetting experiences when they came out in their faith communities and sought a spiritual path back. Matty and Myles were raised evangelical but felt the connection they sought in the Millsaps group. 

“Just from the first day I was there, I was met with nothing but kindness and people who were exploring just as much as me and trying to figure it all out, so it just felt like a safe place to bring all of the questions and all of the doubt and still have that core faith,” said Matty.

“We were just really blessed,” Swaim-Presley said, “because our ministry ended up being with the kind of deep, thoughtful, searching, authentic human beings that every minister dreams of getting to pastor, and they happened to belong to the LGBTQ community on campus and in the wider Jackson area.”

When Matty and Myles asked them to officiate their wedding, she said, “it honestly never crossed my mind to even consider saying no. They were our students. They were our kids. And now they’re wonderful young adults.”

The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), a group of United Methodist congregations and individuals supporting the inclusion of LGBTQ United Methodists, expressed its support for Davidson and Swaim-Presley, as well as the Cafieros, issuing a statement: “RMN honors God’s calling, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the pastoral ministry shown by Rev. Swaim-Presley and Rev. Davidson in their decision to care for this couple. Through their participation in this wedding, they have aligned themselves with the truth that LGBTQ+ people are fully human, fully beloved by God.”

In addition to supporting the ministers, the Reconciling Ministers Network is collecting donations to support their defense through its Clergy Defense Fund.

Faith in Women — an organization concerned with “reproductive health, rights, and justice,” where Davidson is executive director — also released a statement standing with Davidson: “It is the view of Faith in Women that discrimination harms people and families. From birth through adulthood, each of us grows spiritually into who we seek to be, physically into who we were born to become, and we seek romantic love in those whom we were born to love. The two people, in love, that Rev. Davidson helped to marry, walked a path no more or less holy than that. It is our common path.”