The United Methodist Church is not ready to embrace same-sex unions. But a few of its members are. And while they’ve been quietly defying church law for years in order to grant LGBT people the respect, rights, and love they deserve, the story of one pastor who risked his career to celebrate his son’s marriage is finally making bigger waves.
This case began back in 2012, when Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a former dean of the Yale Divinity School and a renowned author on Christian ethics, presided over his son’s wedding to another man.
Upon reading the wedding announcement in the New York Times, some Methodist clergy, led by Long Island-based Rev. Randall C. Paige, filed a complaint against Ogletree, resulting in what would have been a church-based case against him.
Ogletree would have faced a UMC canonical trial Monday to determine his fate — which could have been as severe as a defrocking from the church, the punishment faced by Rev. Frank Schaefer in December when he, too, officiated his son’s same-sex wedding. Methodist practice tends to cling especially tightly to the church law saying that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and apparently participating in a same-sex union is equally detestable by association.
But instead of going forth with a punishment, Bishop Martin McLee announced at a news conference that the charges against Ogletree would be dropped. The decision is unconditional, so Ogletree is not required to swear off performing same-sex marriages or even apologize for his actions. In fact, McLee even acknowledged that Ogletree had “violated the Discipline,” but then questioned whether that behavior is as troublesome as the church would have it seem:
But the bishop said the best way to deal with the case was to bring it to what he called “a just resolution. We didn’t dismiss the case — we resolved it.”
And then, he said, “the question was, do we go the punishment journey, or something more nuanced?”
The groundbreaking aspect of this story, though, is that McLee also called for an end to the prosecution of any and all Methodist pastors who preside over same-sex weddings, beginning with his district of 462 churches in New York and Connecticut. According to fellow Patheos blogger John Shore, it’s the first time ever a sitting United Methodist bishop has unequivocally stated that he will not punish pastors for ministering to LGBT people:
Guess what happened this morning instead of the trial of Thomas Ogletree? The UMC bishop overseeing the trial dropped all charges against the pastor. And he didn’t just drop them, either. He turned them into a huge brass bell he used to ring what will likely be remembered as the death knell of the anti-gay policy of the largest mainline Christian denomination in the world.
The United Methodist Church in particular has struggled with a decades-long identity crisis over whether to recognize same-sex relationships. It boasts more than 12,000,000 members worldwide and is the second-largest Protestant group in the United States, where homosexuality and marriage equality are becoming more and more acceptable and even commonplace.
Churchgoers have responded to McLee’s decision with mixed feelings, but these all point to good things for the pro-LGBT side. Most telling is the statement released by Paige, who filed the initial complaint, in response to the bishop’s decision:
“It makes no acknowledgement of the breaking of our clergy covenant,” Paige said, adding that “there are no consequences for such violation.”
Paige said the decision will also further divide the church: “The impact of this settlement today will be that faithful United Methodists who support the church’s teachings will feel ignored and will face their own crisis of conscience, as to whether they can continue to support a church that will not abide by its own rules.”
Where Paige sees a crisis, the rest of us see an opportunity. It is no secret that the culture is changing — in both the United Methodist church and others — when it comes to homosexuality. There’s more support than ever among religious folks for marriage equality, and nowadays when young people leave the faith traditions they were raised in, it’s often because of that church’s views on homosexuality.
When small-town pastors go against the book, it’s easy for their bravery to get overlooked. When someone with a bit more clout and a higher title steps forward to defend them, though, it becomes clearer that pro-LGBT Christians might not be so rare after all. Those who have been standing up for tolerance and acceptance all along finally get a place at the table, even if only for a brief moment. And if the church has to eventually divide into groups — one with great momentum that supports LGBT people, and a shrinking traditionalist group that doesn’t — then it’s all the better for those of us who are on the right side of history.
As part of this resolution, Ogletree will participate in a public forum later this year about how the church deals with human sexuality and how different schools of thought around sexuality have affected Methodists. If his outspokenness and resilience so far are any indication, there will be at least one voice of reason in the conversation, even if he’s met with kicking and screaming.