By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Weddings and trials sound disharmony for The United Methodist Church as it ends a year that included two well-publicized same-sex weddings and a high-profile church trial for a pastor who officiated at his son’s same-sex nuptials.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer no longer holds a ministerial office in The United Methodist Church according to a ruling Dec. 19 by the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference’s board of ordained ministry.
But the pastor and his legal counsel announced plans for an appeal in a news conference the same afternoon. Schaefer said the trial court’s ruling asked him to surrender his credentials, which he refused to do.
Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the conference, said the board then deemed his credentials surrendered.
Found guilty Nov. 18 of violating church law, Schaefer was given a 30-day supervised suspension and told if he cannot agree to uphold the entire Book of Discipline he must surrender his credentials.
Disagreement over same-sex unions and official church language that states, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” is nothing new for the church, but the issue reached a fever pitch when a retired United Methodist bishop officiated at a wedding for two men in Alabama and more than 50 United Methodist pastors officiated at a same-sex wedding in Philadelphia.
Protests against the denomination’s stance gathered steam at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference when the top lawmaking assembly rejected efforts to change the language about homosexuality including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016.
After that proposal failed, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert said the church’s stance is “wrong and evil … and no longer calls for our obedience.” He said he would be willing to perform same-sex weddings for pastors who felt they could not do so because of restrictions in the Book of Discipline.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
However, many United Methodist clergy and church members have become more vocal and are participating in “ecclesial disobedience” to church law.
Adding fuel to the movement was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26 that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it deprives the equal liberty of persons as protected by the Fifth Amendment. The case did not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage but did establish that same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law.
That ruling affected the church and in October, the General Council on Finance and Administration’s board announced the denomination’s general agencies would extend employee benefits to same-sex couples but asked the Judicial Council, the supreme court of the church, for a declaratory judgment on whether the benefits extension violates church law.
Other possible trials
The Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, announced he will likely face a church trial for officiating at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.
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.
Two other United Methodist clergy have had formal complaints filed against them and could face trials in 2014.
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.
Weddings could lead to trials
Days before the trial of Schaefer, United Methodists Richard Kevin Taylor and William Robert Gatewood celebrated their 25-year relationship with a service of Christian marriage inside stately Arch Street United Methodist Church on Nov. 9. They were surrounded by more than 50 faith leaders—mostly United Methodist– who blessed their marriage and recited in unison, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
The pastors and the couple said the wedding celebration was also a show of support for Schaefer.
Talbert officiated at the wedding of United Methodists Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince at Covenant Community United Church of Christ in Center Point, Ala. on Oct. 26. He is the first bishop to defy publicly the church’s law against United Methodist clergy officiating at same-sex unions. The wedding was also the first same-sex marriage he was asked to perform, he said.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops “respectfully” requested a formal complaint be filed against Talbert during its fall council session.
In Seattle, two United Methodist female pastors, the Revs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Christie Newbill, were married Dec. 7 by the Rev. Patricia Simpson, a district superintendent, before more than 300 people at Tibbetts United Methodist Church.
Calls for civil conversation
The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., issued an open letter Nov. 13 to the Council of Bishops saying for the sake of church unity, trials need to stop — and the bishops have the authority to stop them.
His statement was met with disagreements on both sides of the issue.
The Connectional Table suspended business Nov. 19 for conversation around inclusiveness after a disruption by Love Prevails, a group advocating inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the life of The United Methodist Church.
The issues of homosexuality and same-gender marriage are issues “that we cannot dodge as a denomination,” said Bishop Bruce Ough, chairperson of the Connectional Table. “… We are not all of one mind, and I don’t think we know what the mind of Christ is on this either.”
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.