- by Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree -
As a lifelong United Methodist, an ordained elder in the New York Annual Conference, and a scholar specializing in theological and social ethics, I am profoundly grateful for the efforts of Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), their affiliate Methodists in New Directions (MIND), and similar organizations throughout the denomination, to foster marriage equality for LGBT persons within United Methodist practices. Such equality is fully congruent with the inclusive vision of the “Mission and Ministry” of The United Methodist Church (cf. Part III, Sec. VI of the Book of Discipline), though same-sex civil unions and marriages are currently prohibited by Disciplinary rules.
Throughout most of my career I have served as a professor in theological schools and university-based divinity schools, which included terms as dean at Drew Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School. In these various roles I was a strong advocate for inclusive visions of the Christian mission, embracing issues of race, gender, class, national origin, and sexual orientation. Given the academic focus of my ministry, I was rarely asked to conduct marriage ceremonies, so I gave little attention to Disciplinary rules that prohibited pastors from celebrating same-sex civil unions or from presiding over same-sex marriage ceremonies in states where they were legal. However, when my son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, asked me to preside over his wedding to Nicholas William Haddad, I was deeply honored. There was no way that I could with integrity have declined his request, even though my action was designated as a “chargeable offense” by The United Methodist Discipline (cf. par. 2702). Tom and Nick are men of maturity, wisdom, and integrity, and their exceptional bonds with each other have enhanced their commitments to foster a more just and inclusive society that serves the well-being of all people. Performing their wedding was one of the most significant ritual acts of my life as a pastor!
I fully embrace the basic theological commitments that undergird the mission of The United Methodist Church. Indeed, I had the honor to play a role in drafting the section on “Our Theological Task” (par. 104, Part II of the Discipline, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task”). Drawing upon John Wesley’s teachings, this section emphasizes the priority of biblical authority, and it underscores as well the indispensable roles of tradition, reason, and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness. These principles are clearly incompatible with attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by “proof texting,” i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts that allegedly provide definitive resolutions of particular issues. The self-conscious inclusion of tradition, reason, and experience in our critical engagements with biblical resources actually deepens our discernment of the profound, life-transforming promises of the gospel message.
I am deeply grateful, moreover, for the opening section of The Book of Discipline, which reminds us of serious flaws and shortcomings manifest in the larger history of Methodism. Shortcomings specifically listed include our previous accommodation of racial segregation by establishing a race-based Central Jurisdiction, and our extended denial of ordination rights and prominent leadership roles for women. These unjust practices were by no means easily addressed or overcome. Indeed, the struggles to eliminate them generated serious conflicts within the church, conflicts that were only resolved by persistent efforts to press for more just and inclusive church practices.
Equally important is the Disciplinary discussion of human rights as central to the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church (Part IV). This text strongly endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with emphasis on respect for the inherent dignity of all persons. Explicitly cited are the full rights of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; and the rights of children, young people, the aging, women, men, immigrants, and persons with disabilities. The list concludes by declaring the full human rights of all persons without regard to their sexual orientations, a reference that suggests rational and experiential grounds for endorsing the rights of same-sex couples to marry.
It is in the context of these traditions that we must address current shortcomings in United Methodist polity, in particular, forty-one years of prejudicial language portraying the life practices of gay and lesbian persons as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” a standard that has excluded them from ordination, from marriage, and in some cases even from church membership (Judicial Council Ruling 1032). These exclusionary principles are prominent components of the “chargeable offenses” assigned to the “Judicial Administration” (chapter 7, par. 2702). Such unjust rules, combined with the prosecution of clergy who refuse to uphold them, are themselves incompatible with United Methodist visions of inclusiveness, which call of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” Like previous forms of discrimination in bygone eras, the current marginalization of LGBT people in our churches has been met by equally persistent movements to embrace the full diversity of God’s creation. I am honored to be a part not just of RMN and MIND’s role in this movement, but of the New York Annual Conference, which has for over three decades declared their opposition to The United Methodist Church’s discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In order to move past the crisis caused by the blemish of bigotry in our denomination, we need to give far more weight to reason and experience in our conscientious reflections on the import of the biblical message. We also need to uphold with integrity the inclusive vision that undergirds The United Methodist mission. Reason dictates that we take account of the evolution of scientific and legal understandings, which now recognize that variations in sexual orientation are a natural feature of human life. The denial of civil rights, including marriage rights, to gays and lesbians is, therefore, a violation of our Constitution. While we await the Supreme Court’s ruling on these rights, we should acknowledge as United Methodists that unprecedented numbers of leaders from other religious communities, along with significant portions of our major political parties, and virtually all of the nation’s largest corporations now embrace marriage equality. Experience teachers us, moreover, that people with gay and lesbian orientations are as fully capable of living mature and socially responsible human lives as heterosexuals. Given these realities The United Methodist vision obligates us to foster more inclusive communities, both within the church itself and the larger society as well. Such inclusiveness requires a full recognition of same-sex marriages, including an appreciation for the role such marriages can play both in fostering larger and more inclusive family networks and in undergirding a stable, just, and well-ordered society.
Thus, I contend that same sex unions and marriages are fully compatible with Christian teachings, and that we have an obligation to incorporate these understandings into United Methodist practices, even though such efforts are presently in conflict with the church’s existing judicial standards. For the sake of justice, therefore, I was obliged to commit an act of ecclesial disobedience, even though I now face judicial charges for acting in faithful devotion to our church’s inclusive vision.
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Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree is Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Religious Studies at Yale Univeristy and former dean at Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary. Ogletree recently officiated his son's wedding. In addition to authoring books and articles, he wrote a section in the Book of Discipline, the very rulebook under which he is now charged. Ogletree has shown a lifelong commitment to social justice, going back to his involvement with The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee starting in 1959. His first civil disobedience arrest was at a segregated lunch counter with African-American colleagues, including Congressman John Lewis.