NEW YORK (AP) — The Rev. Craig Duke was a Methodist minister for over 30 years, earning a solid reputation as an advocate for LGBTQ inclusion. His pastoral duties have now been terminated — the result of a bitter rift surfacing in his Indiana church after he sought to demonstrate solidarity by appearing in drag alongside prominent drag queens in the HBO reality series “We’re Here.”
Duke (62), stated that he believed most of the 400 members at Newburgh United Methodist Church agreed with his inclusive views. He was shocked when an influential member circulated email attacks against him. Soon, other churchgoers supported Duke.
“You have thrown NUMC under the bus to elevate a minority of individuals,” said one of the emails. Duke claims that another said Satan should be happy with all the conflict over LGBTQ rights.
Duke, who declined to identify his chief critics, told The Associated Press that the attacks “felt very personal,” causing him to worry about his mental health.
“It was a matter of sadness and disappointment and heartbreak on my part … realizing I was losing the ability to lead,” he said.
According to United Methodist Church protocol, pastors cannot resign. However, Duke stated that he informed his immediate supervisor, Mitch Gieselman of the need to step down.
On Nov. 26, Gieselman — who had been hearing from the pastor’s critics and supporters — sent a letter to the NUMC congregation announcing that Duke “is being relieved of his pastoral duties.”
Duke indicated that his wife and he will be allowed to remain in the NUMC parsonage over the three-month period, while he takes a pay cut of 40%. Gieselman stated that they must move by February 28 or his salary will be stopped.
While Gieselman noted in his letter than Duke’s actions had “polarized” the congregation, he said none of those actions constituted formal violations of UMC’s Book of Discipline, which functions as a legal code for Methodist clergy.
“I was bullied out,” Duke said.
The episode of “We’re Here” featuring Duke — at one point shown in a dress, high-heeled boots, a pink wig and heavy make-up — was taped in July but did not air until Nov. 8.
A nearby LGBTQ Pride group invited Duke to take part in the show. He accepted because he wanted to show support to his 23-year old daughter Tiffany who identified as pansexual.
The premise of “We’re Here,” an Emmy-nominated series now in its second season, is that three renowned drag performers travel to towns and small cities across the U.S., recruiting a few locals to join them as drag queens.
Even before the episode was broadcast, some congregation members complained that Duke hadn’t given them advance notice of his decision to be in the show, which included scenes filmed at the church. Duke replied to the congregation by writing in August saying that he regrets having damaged trust in his leadership.
But he defended his motives, saying, “I was willing and excited to share God’s love with the LGBTQ community on a national level.”
Mid-November saw the spread of emails against him, and any hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict vanished.
The rift within Duke’s congregation reflects broader divisions within the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States.
The UMC’s conservative leaders have announced plans to create a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church. It will not accept same-sex marriage. This could accelerate the much-anticipated breakup of UMC due to differences in approaches to LGBTQ inclusion. It also may impact whether LGBTQ persons should be ordained clergy.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC’s General Conference — at which the schism would be debated — has been postponed for two consecutive years and is now scheduled for August 2022 in Minneapolis.
According to Duke, one of the reasons he was invited to appear on “We’re Here” was because of the divisions in both his own church and the UMC.
“My only hope and goal was and is to bring the message of God’s unconditional love to a community that has been greatly marginalized,” Duke wrote to his congregation.
The decision to terminate Duke’s duties already has had ripple effects. Linda, Duke’s wife and youth pastor, also resigned. Erin Sexton was also the church’s administrative assistant. She, along with Chris Sexton, set up a GoFundMe campaign for the Dukes.
On Wednesday morning, over 900 people had already pledged $52,000, with scores adding comments to thank Duke for his LGBTQ advocacy.
Chris Sexton said he had been a member of Newburgh United Methodist since childhood and described Duke as “one of the most captivating and genuine” of the many pastors who served over the years. But the Sextons said many congregants shied away from the conflict over “We’re Here,” allowing Duke’s critics to dominate the debate.
Duke is unsure what his next step will be, though he doesn’t plan to return to pastoring. One possibility, he said, would be for him and his wife to establish “an inclusive camp” for youths and young adults.
“My heart is moving in a new direction,” he said. “There are so many people who have been hurt by religion, felt rejection, who are reaching out, who are hopeful this will spark me to do something different on their behalf.”