This is a follow-up reflection following the letter Rev. Steve Heiss wrote to his Bishop explainging why he has officiating the same-sex wedding of his daughter and others. Following that letter a complaint was filed by a fellow clergy colleague. To understand the clergy complaint/charge process in The UMC, click here.
- by Rev. Steve Heiss -
My time with Bishop Mark Webb (bishop of the Upper New York Conference) and the Rev. Richard Barton, (who filed the complaint against me).
THE BISHOP’s OFFICE is located in the top story of University UM Church in Syracuse. As I climb stairs with Penny (chair of our staff-parish relations committee, now my advocate), I wonder how many steps there were in the tower of London. Finally, the summit is reached, the door to the bishop’s office is before us. We enter.
The office space is 21st century. It feels a bit “out of sync” after climbing the worn stairs of a 19th century building! The receptionist gives us a warming smile. Gentleness from the front desk: good. Offers for variations on caffeine: better still. No worries.
No prisoners; nary a cudgel nor a sword in sight. My Tower of London fantasy dissembles. Bishop Webb arrives in a minute or two (greetings, introductions all around) then suggests we walk down to the sanctuary to share a prayer with the 150 supporters who have assembled there. The people who have gathered in the sanctuary of University Church come from all over New York State, Vermont and Massachusetts.
For the entire time Penny and I were in conversation upstairs, this wonderfully supportive group was led in worship, prayer, song and conversation by the Rev. Dr. Brolin Parker and several other lay and clergy. It was an amazing gift to all of us. We walk into the sanctuary; people are singing. After the hymn the bishop prays. His prayer is conciliatory, thoughtful - even hopeful. Back to the stairs. I opt for the elevator.
The chairs in the bishop’s office are in a circle. His executive secretary is there, ready to take notes. We settle in, get to know each other. (After the meeting I realized I might have asked Rev. Barton to talk a bit more about his life. I have just met him for the first time. I suppose he too is in a painful place. It must be hard to submit a charge against a colleague.) The meeting lasts about 1 ¾ hours.
It is mostly a conversation between Bishop Webb and me. He seemed curious about my motivations. Wondered if I had ever considered alternatives. Offered opinion about my letter. I presented stories, rambled in theology, offered opinion about context, framing and narrative, and “How I Read the Bible.”
Penny told some very moving stories. Rev. Barton chimed in a few times as well. It was, by and large, a cordial meeting, devoid of animosity, peppered with moments of grace. The bishop seemed to listen well, allowed my occasional long-winded monologues to wind down naturally, without interruption. Everyone tried to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and care.
Looking back on it now, I am reminded of that touching Christmas Eve story from World War I – when English soldiers and German soldiers started singing “Silent Night” to each other, over the trenches which divided them. Then they all ceased fire, “shared a pint or two”, and waxed philosophical about the tragic limitations of the human condition.
How strange it is to be human!
The prize of peace so tantalizingly close, and yet they could not grasp it. All of us so damned sure we are the ones who are right, while the others are wrong – or at least muddle-headed.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
At the end of our meeting, Bishop Webb asked that our conversations remain confidential.
After seeking clarity about parameters, our agreement is that we will not reveal sensitive details nor disclose private / personal information.
Further, and obviously, we will not disparage the others in the room. Truth be told, nothing said at our meeting would really surprise you.
By the end of the meeting, I had reason to believe that the charges brought against me might be dismissed if I would promise not to officiate at any more same-sex weddings.
I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would agree to that.
And so, we now have 90 days to work together toward what is called a “just resolution”.
If after 90 days there is no “just resolution” which the bishop can accept, then the bishop must do what he must do.
My dream for a “just resolution” begins with my bishop dismissing the charges filed against me on the grounds that my actions - reflect obedience to the central teachings of Jesus, confirm the best and highest reading of the UMC Discipline, and do, in truth, spring from the Spirit of God herself.
If that could happen . . . our UM church could finally begin to proclaim that we want to be a 21st century church – no longer relying on the crumbling architecture of a 19th century understanding of human sexuality.
The prize of peace is so tantalizingly close!