The Rev. Greg Renstrom has big plans for the reopened Wesley United Methodist Church. Plans that could potentially get him defrocked.
He wants to hold ceremonies to bless same-sex unions at the historic downtown Minneapolis church, even though they would conflict with Methodist policy.
"Somebody has to do it," Renstrom said. "I cannot imagine that Jesus would ever refuse to bless a responsible, mutually respectful and reverent relationship."
Wesley's move comes at a time when Methodists and other Protestant faiths are grappling with gay marriage, gay clergy and related issues. Only a few denominations allow same-sex union ceremonies.
For Wesley, the move is part of its revival, which is tied to attracting people from the Twin Cities' large gay community.
Declining membership forced Wesley, one of the first megachurches in the Twin Cities, to disband in 2008 after nearly 150 years of existence. The towering Romanesque Revival-style building next to the Convention Center is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nearly a year ago, representatives with the state's United Methodist Annual Conference expressed "considerable concern" over the cost of the building's upkeep, Renstrom said.
Methodist leaders agreed to Renstrom's suggestion that Wesley deserved another chance and that it was suited to welcome the gay community in the nearby Loring Park area.
Renstrom came out of retirement at age 64 to lead the congregation, for an annual salary of $1.
Worship services started up in February, with close to 30 people attending on Sundays.
Harold Anderson, of Richfield, is one of the worshippers. He had been going to Wesley since 1971 and was saddened to see it close. As a gay man, he has always felt welcome.
"I think that this community maybe didn't look at the labels so much as people. After I'd been here a while, I realized there were gays and lesbians in the community. In the last 150-plus years, this community has always reinvented itself from time to time. This is one of those times."
To get the word out to the gay community, Renstrom said the congregation placed ads in Lavender magazine and church representatives recently attended a GLBT wedding show in Bloomington.
No blessings yet
Renstrom said he hasn't blessed any same-sex unions yet. Until then, it's unclear how church officials will react.
Some people will be "madder than the dickens," he said, but the move is worth the censure that may arise.
"I have so many friends who are gay and lesbian," Renstrom said. "I've seen the absolute anguish they've been placed in because of the refusal of most churches to bless what is a basic relationship. I see this as something we will try to provide in our small way."
The United Methodist Church, the third-largest denomination in the United States, considers homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," according to its Book of Discipline. "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Methodists also do not allow clergy in openly gay relationships to serve congregations.
Bishop Sally Dyck, of the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, declined to comment about Renstrom's plans. "She prefers not to speculate on something that's a hypothetical," said Victoria Rebeck, director of communications.
At least two Methodist churches have come out in favor of blessing same-sex unions in Washington, D.C., where gay marriage is legal.
But in Wisconsin, a lesbian Methodist pastor will face a church trial in April on charges that she conducted ceremonies celebrating gay unions. She could face possible defrocking or suspension.
Dawne Moon, a sociology professor at Marquette University and author of "God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies," said some clergy are willing to take such risks as a "type of civil disobedience in the church in the name of social justice and in the name of God's laws."
This isn't the first time Wesley has challenged the status quo. In 1986 it became the first United Methodist Church in Minnesota to become a "reconciling congregation," committed to a ministry regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation.
Some pastors are blessing same-sex unions, but few are as open as Renstrom, said Rachel Harvey, a director at the Chicago-based Reconciling Ministries Network.
"Many pastors and congregations fly under the radar of the UMC and some don't even tell Reconciling Ministries Network for fear of being found out," she said.
Rose French • 612-673-4352