Andy Oliver, Reconciling Ministries Network, 312-448-5303, 863-397-0678
Spokesperson Dorothee Benz, Methodists in New Directions, 718-314-4432
David Lerner, Riptide Communications, 212-260-5000, 917-612-5657
JAN 17, 2014—The United Methodist Church is putting ministry on trial, again. Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree officiated his son’s same-sex wedding, describing it as one of the most meaningful ritual acts of his life. The church trial has been set for March 10, 2014 at First UMC in Stamford, Conn.
“I could not with any integrity as a Christian refuse my son’s request to preside at his wedding,” explained Ogletree, who is a retired professor and a past dean of both the Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary. “It is a shame that the church is choosing to prosecute me for this act of love, which is entirely in keeping with my ordination vows to ‘seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people’ and with Methodism’s historic commitment to inclusive ministry embodied in its slogan ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’”
In accordance with Biblical Obedience, Ogletree has seen the shape of love embedded in the whole sweep of the Holy Scriptures with eyes of faith. Recognizing the gospel’s tendencies toward inclusion and grace, Ogletree has fulfilled his calling as a United Methodist clergyperson, acted upon the deeper pastoral wisdom contained in the Book of Discipline, and extended himself to his son in self-giving love.
Like so many United Methodist clergy around the country who are embracing Biblical Obedience, Ogletree has courageously looked beyond the dead letter of the law only to behold life-giving Spirit and has reminded us all that faith is much more a disposition of the heart than strict adherence to a set of rules. By doing this, he is an example of faith for all—shining a light on the deeply spiritual nature of pastoral ministry, the spiritual nature of the Christian life, and the deeply spiritual nature of authentic familial love.
“We stand alongside him as he continues his life-long commitment to Biblical Obedience and we celebrate his commitment to the gospel for the transformation of the church and the world,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network. “His act alongside the acts of many others demonstrate that God is with us all as we work for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of The UMC. We are deeply disappointed that the Church’s response to such an act of unbridled grace and love is an anachronistic juridical procedure culminating in trial rather than an outright celebration that there are Christian leaders whose wisdom and faith enable the effective interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in changing times. Woe unto us when our fear and lack of insight stymie the work of the Holy One for such a time as this.”
This follows on the heels of Rev. Frank Schaefer’s trial, who was defrocked for officiating his son’s wedding. In response, a growing number of clergy and churches have signed the “Altar for All,” a national marriage initiative movement within The UMC. Clergy and churches have made public commitments to officiate same-sex weddings, being obedient to the whole of church law which calls the church to be in ministry with all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons.
In October 2013, Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated at a gay wedding in Birmingham, Alabama, subsequent to which the Council of Bishops directed two of its members to initiate prosecution of Talbert by filing an official complaint.
Rev. Stephen Heiss of the Upper New York Annual Conference has had a complaint against him referred to counsel for the church. Two cases in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference have likewise been referred to counsel.
Ogletree served as a professor and dean over his 50 year career. 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.
To show your support for Ogletree and marriage equality, consider joining Reconciling Ministries Network’s mailing list or sign on to the Altar For All.
Read Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s own words as to why he decided to preside over the wedding of his son:
Recent events have put me at the center of a strange and troubling irony. Just as our nation is making steady progress toward embracing the rights of same-sex couples to marry, my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, continues to deny such rights to gay and lesbian persons, even within its own membership. Current marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court have received unprecedented support from the White House, prominent political leaders, public corporations and religious associations. Especially compelling is the fact that thousands of American citizens recently took to the streets in all 50 states to support same-sex marriage, declaring, as one sign put it, that “love is an awful thing to hate.” As a United Methodist clergyman, however, I am now facing charges in a possible church trial because I performed a same-sex wedding in New York City, where such marriage are fully legal.
I have spent most of my career as a professor of theological ethics and Christian social ethics, both at theological schools and university-based divinity schools. I have also served as dean of Drew Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School. In these latter roles I was always a strong advocate for inclusive visions of the Christian mission, embracing issues of race, gender, class, national origin and sexual orientation. In carrying out my duties as a professor rather than a parish minister, I was rarely asked to officiate at weddings. However, when my son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, asked me to preside at his wedding to Nicholas William Haddad, I was deeply honored. Performing their wedding was one of the most meaningful ritual acts of my life.
Most regrettably, current United Methodist disciplinary rules strictly forbid ordained clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages ceremonies or celebrating same-sex civil unions, contending that same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teachings.” These rules, formally adopted in 1996, declare that clergy who perform such actions are guilty of a “chargeable offense,” one that must be addressed by a formal church trial. While these restrictive rules have generated a spiritual crisis for many people throughout the denomination, they have provoked vigorous resistance as well. In 1999 the Reverend Greg Dell was suspended from his ministry for an entire year because he performed a same-sex marriage ceremony. In response he declared publicly, “I will not withhold a ministry from some which is available to others solely because of an unjust church law.” Also in 1999, a group of 68 clergy officiated at a lesbian holy union ceremony. Church charges were brought against the “California 68,” but they were eventually dropped. The Reverend Jimmy Creech was defrocked on the basis of similar charges, and in 2011 the Reverend Amy Delong was tried and convicted in a church trial. However, a “just resolution penalty” was adopted in her case that was far less severe.
Networks of clergy in the denomination’s regional conferences have been pursuing more systematic approaches to challenge discriminatory rules against gay and lesbian persons. Among other things, participants in these networks have declared their resolve to officiate on an equal basis at all marriages in their congregations, whether between same-sex or heterosexual couples. This movement has now spread from coast to coast. It is noteworthy that the introduction to the United Methodist Book of Discipline reminds us about previous flaws and shortcomings in the denominations history, including the accommodation of racial segregation and the denial of ordination to women. It took persistent efforts to overcome these unjust practices, and such efforts generated serious conflicts within the church itself. We are now engaged in a similar struggle to end the denomination’s discrimination against LGBT people.
As a white southerner growing up during the segregation era, I became intensely aware of the pervasive racism in our society. I recognized that I had to join emerging new movements to dismantle racial segregation or I would myself become morally complicit for injustices resident in those practices. Beginning in 1959, during my Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University, I became a participant in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This involvement entailed acts of civil disobedience by joining African-American students in sit-ins at legally segregated lunch counters. I remained active in the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s, especially during my support for Operation Breadbasket in Chicago when I was a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
My experiences in the Civil Rights movement have illumined my responses to what I perceive to be unjust disciplinary rules in the United Methodist Church, especially rules that denied my right to officiate at my own son’s wedding. As a heterosexual, married clergyman I have a unique opportunity and obligation to challenge the inequitable treatment of gay and lesbian persons, both in church practices and also in the wider society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Marrying Tom and Nick was for me a profoundly personal and quintessentially pastoral act. I have been deeply moved by their exceptional bonds, and their strong commitment to a more just and inclusive society. It is high time for the United Methodist Church to honor such bonds and to take strong and diligent steps to overcome persisting prejudices.
Thomas W. Ogletree is Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Theological and Social Ethics at Yale University Divinity School.