Upper N.Y. pastor expects to face church trial

By Heather Hahn*

The Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, officiated at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.

Now, Heiss announced in a blog post Oct. 26, he likely will face a church trial on charges that he has violated church law. Heiss is the pastor of Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y.

The Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghampton, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Religion News Service.

The Rev. Stephen Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Religion News Service.

Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties.

Bishop Mark J. Webb, who leads the Upper New York Conference, announced in a statement Oct. 28 that he has referred a complaint against Heiss to the counsel of the church, the equivalent of a prosecutor.

The counsel will determine whether enough evidence supports Heiss has committed a chargeable offense or recommend to the bishop that the matter be dismissed.

“After much discussion and prayerful discernment, I am sorry to announce that we have been unable to reach a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter,” Webb said.

“We know all United Methodists are not in agreement about same-sex marriage. However, there must be universal agreement that the covenant between the church and its clergy is sacred and must be upheld by both,” the bishop said. “Clergy take their oath freely and with the knowledge they must fulfill the promises they make. By the same covenant, the annual conference and I, as a bishop, must fulfill the obligation to fully and fairly administer church law.”

Heiss is at least the fifth clergy member this year facing church legal action related to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

Church law and Heiss’ perspective

The Book of Discipline affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”

Since 1972, the book has stated that all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law bans United Methodist clergy from performing, and churches from hosting, “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

In his blog post, Heiss said, “I have never officiated at the wedding of people who were homosexuals as homosexuality was understood by most church folk when the ‘incompatibility’ language was added to the Discipline in 1972.”

He noted that the America Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, a year later.

He also said he has not officiated at a wedding that violates the Bible’s teachings about homosexuality. “For Bible writers, heterosexuality was a given reality — true for all people —no exceptions. All people are heterosexual,” Heiss said. He went on to say the Bible writers did not have the notion of sexual orientation as people understand the concept today.

His blog post was taken from an email he sent to Webb and the Rev. Richard Barton, superintendent of the Finger Lakes District. Barton, Heiss’ district superintendent, filed the complaint.

Heiss wrote, “if one believes homosexuality is best understood in 2013 as a normal and harmless expression of sexuality, as received unbidden, as neither morally superior nor inferior, not better, not worse than heterosexuality, then I am not in violation” of church law.

Since this summer, Heiss has spoken out in local and national media accounts about his willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Members of his congregation have rallied in support of the pastor and same-sex marriage.

He told Religion News Service that when the bishop asked him to no longer officiate at such unions, he refused.

Heiss, Barton and Webb did not immediately return requests for comment for this story.

One of many challenges

Heiss’ case comes as more United Methodists publicly are defying church policy.

On the same day, Heiss published his blog post, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated at the wedding ceremony of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince in Birmingham, Ala. Executive committee members of the Council of Bishops had urged Talbert not to perform the ceremony.

On Oct. 24, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., announced that its church building is available for same-sex weddings and the congregation would support its pastor, the Rev. Scott Campbell, if he performs such services there.

At least three other clergy are now facing complaints related to the church’s stance on homosexuality.

On Nov. 18, the Rev. Frank Schaefer in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference will go before a church trial for performing the same-sex wedding of his son in 2007. A complaint was filed one month before the statute of limitations ran out and word of the trial became public Sept. 20. In a show of solidarity with Schaefer, more than 30 of his fellow United Methodist pastors plan to participate in the wedding of a same-sex couple ahead of the trial.

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son in 2012. Some clergy filed the complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times.

The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, also in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian, a chargeable offense under church law.

The complaints against Heiss, Ogletree and Tweedy are in roughly the same stage in the church’s complaint process.

Call for prayer

At the end of his statement, Bishop Webb urged “all of us to continue in a spirit of prayer for Rev. Heiss and all involved in this difficult and painful matter.”

“May we continue to live with one another in a manner worthy of being sisters and brothers in Christ,” the bishop continued. “May we continue to seek God’s wisdom, direction and vision as we strive to live our mission to ‘make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ and be a witness of light to the world around us.”

His statement also noted that only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — has the authority to change the church’s stance on homosexuality.

A majority of United Methodist delegates to General Conference have voted consistently against altering that stand for 40 years. The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change the language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.

The next General Conference will convene in 2016 in Portland, Ore.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.



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  1. Be

    If those who have broken covenant with the denomination to uphold the Book of Discipline do not have their orders removed then the denomination needs to apologize to all clergy who have had their orders removed for other violations of the BOD and they deserve to have their orders restored. Let’s be consistent.

    1. Richard E. Edwards

      The Discipline is clear. Each annual conference is autonomous with regard to its judicial process. The jury decides. The
      jury is made up of members of the conference, who decide what penalty is appropriate, assuming they convict.

    2. WAD

      I fully agree with this. There cannot be a double standard, like was ushered in with the DeLong verdict. You can bet that if Amy DeLong had of been a heterosexual and had admitted to being a practicing adulteress, she would no longer be a clergyperson in the church. And, as important, that trial also established a new, virtually no-penality benchmark for performing a same sex union ceremony. These impending trials and the potential of numerous other trials is about to fully test the church. Either the church treats these cases like all others and follows appropriate procedure with corresponding appropriate penalty (certainly not like the sham trial of DeLong), or the timeline for a split is greatly enhanced. These trials will, indeed, be the defining points for the future of the UMC.

  2. Cathryn Spencer

    Dear UMC Leaders,

    Please help me to understand what is going on within the United Methodist Church? I’m constantly reading in the UMNS Daily Digest about pastors marrying same sex couples and the conflict many are having about what God’s word really means on the subject.

    With regard to Rev. Stephen Heiss, the pastor in the Upper New York area expecting to face a church trial on charges in officiating at same-sex unions, why would consideration of dismissal of the charges even be a consideration? He did what he shouldn’t have, and needs to be accountable for his actions. There is no question whether or not there is enough evidence of a chargeable offense.

    With regard to Mary Ann Kaiser, in acknowledging herself as being a lesbian, there should not be any question as to whether or not she should be ordained. “Not” in the United Methodist Church as the Book of Discipline states.

    With regard to Rev. Frank Schaefer in PA, is he going to get a slap on the wrist and told not to do it “again?” How is it that 30 other Methodist Pastors will follow him and plan to perform same-sex weddings and not see that God is offended?

    What controversy is the United Methodist Church having on homosexuality? In the NC Conference, we had a 60% to 39% division on allowing same-sex couples in the church. If you want to see a split in the denomination, then you are headed for it! The United Methodist Church needs to make a stand on God’s word. We are to be witnesses to all who come into our house of worship, inviting all to come in, to love each person. We are to be teachers of the word that has been around for thousands of years. We don’t have to judge when homosexuals, alcoholics, drug addicts, or abused people enter our church. But, we teach all sinners, including ourselves, that continued choices of the same sinful way of life is sin. It takes time to heal and learn what Christ would have for us as we develop our relationship with Him. We need not keep people out of our church, but seek Christ’s direction in reaching out, asking Him to help us in the process, and then help and guide those in need.

    We have had several families to leave our church in the past few months just because the United Methodist Church is in conflict with decisions on how to handle the decisions on homosexuality in the church. Not because homosexuals are coming to our church and worshipping with us, but because there are questions on allowing gays serving in leadership and pastors around the US marrying same-sex couples. If a married person sins against his wife in a marital affair, then he/she should be asked to step down from their position. If a clergy is doing the same, the clergy should be asked to resign and credentials removed. If a clergy is planning to marry a same-sex couple, then he/she needs to be removed before the event takes place. The intent is there. The conflict is there.

    I love the United Methodist Denomination. I don’t want to leave and go elsewhere. What are you going to do to keep me in the denomination? Questions in the United Methodist Church conferences should not continually come up about “what to do” about the conflict of homosexuality in the denomination. There should be firm stance in its beliefs and following of God’s Word.

    1. WAD

      I Corinthians 6:9-11. What is wrong with that model of Christian love and Christian inclusion? The key, what some of them WERE at the Corinth Church BEFORE they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

  3. Robin Andress

    “If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.”
    ― Thomas J. Watson Jr.

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