The Rev. Roger Lynn, who officiated at one of the earliest gay weddings in the U.S., was raised in a liberal Methodist family in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Lynn family was active at Hamline Methodist Church there. Roger became interested in becoming a minister in his youth. He graduate high school in 1956 and enrolled in Hamline University where he dove into reading Freud. Freud seemed to make more sense to Roger than the Bible did. After the first year he transferred to the University of Minnesota where he became acquainted with B.F. Skinner and logical positivism. These disciplines were not what he was looking for. Toward the end of his time in college he had a real experience of God’s love and returned to his earlier interest in ministry. Throughout his life Roger’s religious quest has been driven by experience. Abstract ideas interest and engage him, but his Wesleyan roots and connection brings religious experience to the forefront.
After graduating college in 1960, Roger married and started seminary at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He loved his time there. His studies focused on pastoral psychology. He spent his last term doing clinical training at the University of Minnesota hospital. A child was born into the family during this time. Roger was then ordained in the Minnesota Conference of The Methodist Church and was appointed to a three-point rural charge. Roger’s training and life experience did not prepare him for this pastoral experience; it did not go well.
Roger received a fellowship for a year of study in Clinical Pastoral Education at the Mayo Clinic. The academic portion of this program was with the University of Dubuque. Roger completed the program with a master’s degree in sacred theology. Then Roger was appointed Minister of Education at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, a prominent congregation in downtown Minneapolis. Roger thrived there, but worked hard and found his abilities stretched.
The Vietnam War was unfolding at this time. Roger was selected for a National Council of Churches project to go to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to observe youth activities there. This was a life-changing experience that radicalized him. He met radical student leaders and was tear-gassed and beaten by the police along with them. Roger recalls that he went to Chicago having voted for Nixon and left a left-wing Democrat who was completely disenthralled with the social and political establishment.
Roger returned to Minneapolis and conflict in the congregation. The senior pastor, who had a connection with Hubert Humphrey, was a supporter of the war effort. Many of the younger members of the church who had revered the pastor now turned against him. The pastor blamed Roger for stirring up this dissension. There was also tension as Roger was pushing for the congregation, most of whose members came from the suburbs, to become more involved with the urban problems in the neighborhood.
Roger helped arrange some funding from Hennepin Avenue to support a drop-in center at Loring-Nicollet Center which provided youth service. Roger became so disillusioned with the congregation that he left and got a job doing street ministry and community organizing at Loring-Nicollet. One of Roger’s clergy colleagues, Jim Clayton, helped organize Gay House which opened in March 1971. Gay House received some support from United Methodist mission programs.
Roger had experiences earlier in his life which opened him to engaging gay and lesbian persons. One of his best friends in high school had a marvelous singing voice and effeminate mannerisms. This friend was regularly bullied and eventually committed suicide. When Roger was in seminary, one of his closest friends came out to him. Roger supported the friend through his coming out and transition to a new life. It was evident to Roger that there was nothing psychologically wrong with this friend; being gay was endemic to his being, not a choice. Roger came to understand that the real problem was with bullies and a homophobic culture. He developed a strong commitment to standing up for the underdog.
Two of the key leaders of Gay House, Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, decided to get married and to do that publicly. Jim Clayton had agreed to officiate at the wedding and helped Michael and Jack prepare. But just before the wedding Jim decided it was too risky for him to do this. So Roger immediately agreed that he would do it—two days before the wedding. Roger had a tendency to be impulsive, to jump into action. In this case, he had no idea of the consequences.
The wedding happened on Friday night, September 3, 1971, at 9:15 p.m. The venue was the apartment of a friend of Michael and Jack’s and it was sweltering hot. Roger does not recall a lot of memories about this wedding, except that he felt honored and joyous. However, he does remember his visceral response when Michael & Jack kissed—an internal cry of “oh, my goodness!” The kiss was a sign of the huge social shift happening right there. Roger recognized that the heart of homophobia for men is the distress that a man will do to you what you do to women.
A great deal of media publicity followed the wedding. Roger received a lot of mail—about half was supportive and the rest in opposition. A letter from Massachusetts addressed simply to “gay hippie minister in Minneapolis” got to him.
Roger’s bishop told him that nothing he did was illegal under church law, so there would be no consequences from the church. That church law, however, did change at the United Methodist General Conference a year later. Roger’s clergy status at this time was as a “minister to society,” so he was not accountable to any particular congregation or church body. He was still an active member of the Hennepin Avenue congregation. The Sunday following the wedding the pastor, Chester Pennington, decried the wedding in his sermon—even as Roger was present in the congregation.
The County District Attorney did present a charge to the grand jury that Roger had broken the law by conducting this marriage; the grand jury declined to act. The director of the Loring-Nicollet Center, an evangelical Christian, did fire Roger, but the chair of the board countermanded that action, noting that Roger had done nothing illegal and he did it on his own time. Nonetheless Roger’s position was eliminated at the end of the year.
Roger moved on to a position with People Incorporated managing a halfway house for mentally ill persons in St. Paul. At the 1972 General Conference the category of “minister to society” was ended. Roger was not interested at the time in being appointed to pastor a congregation, so he chose “honorable location.” Roger was invited to speak to a number of different groups. He observed that a conservative Baptist pastor regularly appeared at these events to harass him, while coming on to him in private. Another regular attendee was a clergy who had been an antiwar activist and courageous witness on other social issues, but was strongly homophobic. He and Roger ended up becoming good friends in spite of this fundamental difference in perspective.
Roger worked for ten years in services for mentally ill persons, first in St. Paul and then with Hennepin County. The last program where he worked came under severe scrutiny because of sexual indiscretions by the program director, so Roger was forced to resign.
For the next eight years Roger worked in construction alongside his father’s real estate business and in conjunction with a good friend. This became an enriching time for Roger to read, learn and grow spiritually. He began to have the kind of religious experience that he had been yearning for much of his life. At this time he did volunteer work in counseling and leading small groups at Walker Community United Methodist Church. He was deeply impressed that this congregation, under the leadership of Brian Peterson, was working diligently for social justice and addressing the issues of poverty and racism. Peterson was an urban ministry genius who knew where and how to find resources to build creative and effective programs.
When Roger decided he was ready to return to parish ministry, he discovered that officiating at the gay wedding years before had not hampered his career in the church. On the contrary, he was viewed as somewhat of a hero. In 1987 he was appointed pastor of Long Prairie UMC, where he served for five years. When he first arrived there some members tried to have him removed because of the gay wedding, but the district superintendent would not hear of this.
In 1988, Brian Peterson died and the congregation struggled and declined in his absence. Some members reached out to Roger to become their pastor. With the support of the United Methodist leadership, Roger was appointed as pastor of Walker where he served for the next nine years. This was an exhilarating time of building a community of care and working courageously for peace and justice.
Roger regrets that he has never performed another same-sex wedding. He knew LGBT persons and couples in his congregation, but the opportunity to perform a wedding never arose. He looks back at Michael and Jack and recognizes that they were/are an almost ideal couple, i.e. poster children for gay marriage. Their unflagging commitment to marriage exceeds that of many heterosexual marriages Roger performed over the years.
Roger retired from the Walker Community Church and from full-time ministry in 2002. He and his wife relocated to property in northern Minnesota. He returned to his earlier work in construction building a “green” timber frame home, and he started a restorative justice project working with juvenile offenders. More recently he took on a part-time pastoral role for a nearby congregation.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Roger Lynn and edited by Roger Lynn.)
Biography Date: July, 2016