Remembering a local activist

As I visited with Dr. W. Astor Kirk in his hospital room on August 11, he was very ill and … Continued

As I visited with Dr. W. Astor Kirk in his hospital room on
August 11, he was very ill and having a hard time speaking, but he
asked his granddaughter to find his briefcase so he could show me
something. He wanted to share his latest work to end discrimination
against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United
Methodist Church.

Dr. Kirk, 88, had already prepared an omnibus resolution for
the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our
denomination’s highest legislative body, which will meet next April
and May in Tampa. His resolution calls upon The United Methodist
Church “to abolish ecclesiastical institutional discrimination
against members of The United Methodist Church … commonly referred
to as ‘homosexuals.'”

 Last December he had published a book, his sixth, titled “Ending
Institutional Discrimination within United Methodism – A Brief
Interpretative History,” which applies the lessons from past efforts to end discrimination
in the church to the current debate about the full inclusion of
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

 The latest work he wanted to show me included his notes for
a workshop he was scheduled to lead at a national conference later
this month. But Dr. Kirk died the day after my visit with him.

His work, though, lives on.

 Part of what made us sit up and pay attention when Dr. Kirk
spoke about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender people was the historic role he played in ending
institutional racial segregation in The United Methodist Church.

 The Methodist Church split over slavery into two separate
denominations, northern and southern, in 1844. When the churches
negotiated a reunification in 1939, it was with the condition that
African-American Methodists be segregated into a separate
organizational structure called the Central Jurisdiction. This way
no African-American bishop could ever have authority over a white
pastor and no African-American pastor could be assigned to lead a
white congregation.

 In 1960, a Committee of Five was named by the Central
Jurisdiction to negotiate an end to segregation within the
denomination. It would not be an easy task.

 As a layperson teaching political science at a Methodist
college, Dr. Kirk was asked to serve as secretary to the committee.
He developed many of the strategies the committee used to try to
change the church.

 Eventually, it was Dr. Kirk who made the motion to the 1964
General Conference of the Methodist Church that committed the
denomination to eradicating the Central Jurisdiction. His motion
was an amendment to a plan for the Methodist Church to merge with
another denomination, the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The
motion, which became known throughout our church as the Kirk
Amendment, stated that the new merged denomination would not be
segregated.

 After the 1964 General Conference, Dr. Kirk was named chair
of the Committee of Five. His work was not finished. Southern
church leaders filed a petition to the denomination’s supreme court
arguing that Jurisdictional Conferences, rather than the General
Conference, had the authority to determine the make up of Annual
Conferences. It was the church equivalent of a states’ rights
argument.

Dr. Kirk took a three month leave of absence from his job to
prepare a counter argument which ultimately convinced the court to
uphold its original decision.

 Opponents of integration also argued that the Kirk
Amendment was only advisory and not binding. Dr. Kirk developed a
strategy for the committee to meet with leaders of the Evangelical
United Brethren Church who made it known that they would be
hesitant to merge with a denomination that practiced segregation.

 Dr. Kirk’s work to end racial discrimination in the church
was often frustrating and tedious. In his autobiography he admits
to times when “my emotions ranged from deep anger to almost
uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow.”

 So he understood that ending discrimination against
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people would not be easy
either. He devoted the final years of his life to the effort
because he believed, as he wrote in his resolution to the 2012
General Conference, “when denominations within Christian
faith-traditions discriminate against any person, they deny the
essential nature of the Church as a fellowship in Christ.”

 Dr. Kirk and his wife Vivian, who died last year, had been members
of Foundry United Methodist Church since 1984. It has been my honor
to be his pastor and friend this past decade. I am convinced his
struggle for a truly inclusive United Methodist Church will
prevail.


Reverend Dean Snyder is senior pastor at
Foundry United Methodist Church
in Washington, D.C.

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