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UPDATE: Trial postponed for theologian who officiated at son’s wedding

Editor’s note:  This story was updated Feb. 10 after a postponement of the trial was announced and more details were confirmed.

By Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert*

A United Methodist theologian and retired elder in the New York Annual (regional) Conference, who had been scheduled to face a church trial in a month for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son, is now awaiting a new trial date.

Thomas Ogletree 290x435 UPDATE: Trial postponed for theologian who officiated at son’s wedding

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree. Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

The trial of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree was initially scheduled for March 10 at First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Conn. Retired Bishop S. Clifton Ives, the presiding officer or the equivalent of a judge, postponed the trial date Feb. 10.  No new date has been given.

Ives’ decision followed a joint motion by the counsel for the church, the Rev. Timothy Riss, and the counsel for Ogletree, the Rev. W. Scott Campbell.  In a previous pre-trial meeting, Ives —  after consultation Riss and Campbell — referred the charge to a process seeking just resolution.  More time is needed for this process, said a news release. This news opens the possibility that the case could be concluded without a trial.

Ogletree, a retired seminary dean noted for his work on Christian ethics, presided over the wedding of his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, to Nicholas Haddad on Oct. 20, 2012. The service took place at the Yale Club in New York City.

Ogletree, 80, is a Yale Divinity School professor emeritus, veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement and lifelong member of the Methodist tradition.  He has served as dean at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., and the United Methodist-related  Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Ogletree is declining interview requests at this time.

But, in May, he told United Methodist News Service that as a professor, he rarely has been asked to perform weddings. When his son asked him to officiate, he said he felt “deeply moved.”

He said in a statement released Jan. 17 that “I could not with any integrity as a Christian refuse my son’s request to preside at his wedding.”

“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.’”

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Church law says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

If tried and found guilty, Ogletree could face a variety of penalties. The Book of Discipline gives a trial court of 13 clergy — the church equivalent of a jury — a range of choices up to revoking Ogletree’s credentials as United Methodist clergy. However, a trial court also can opt for a lesser penalty.

Voters in the New York Conference repeatedly have approved petitions seeking to change church law on homosexuality, most recently in 2011. In 2013, the conference approved a resolution by Methodists in New Directions that commended United Methodist individuals and congregations “whose bold actions and courageous statements help to provide for the pastoral needs of same-sex couples within The United Methodist Church.”

Complaint process

The Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., and the Rev. Roy E. Jacobsen, a retired pastor, were the New York Conference clergy who filed a complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared on Oct. 21, 2012, in The New York Times.

Paige is the president of the Wesley Fellowship, an unofficial evangelical renewal group in the New York Conference. Jacobsen is a board member of the group.

“As we who brought the complaint expressed to Bishop McLee , we take no joy in bringing this complaint,” Paige said.  “We do it in obedience to Christ and the laws of our Church.  His honor, along with the integrity of the entire United Methodist Church is the motive driving this action.”

Ogletree and Paige met face to face in late January 2013 to try to find a just resolution to the dispute and avoid a trial. Paige asked Ogletree to promise never to officiate at such a union again. Ogletree declined.

New York Area Bishop Martin D. McLee informed Ogletree in March that he had referred the case to a church counsel — the equivalent of a prosecutor. The church counsel then determined that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

The Book of Discipline says “church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.”

McLee said in a statement released late Jan. 17 that he still prayed that the complainants and Ogletree could negotiate a just resolution and avoid a trial.

“During this most difficult time in the life of the church, I invite you to be in prayer for the Reverend Dr. Ogletree, the complainants and all who have a vested interest in this matter,” his statement said. “God is still God and that is where our trust and hope lies.”

Ives’ referral of the case for the  just resolution process puts the matter before  McLee again. Under the Book of Discipline, the process is confidential. McLee may use a trained, third-party mediator to help. If a resolution is achieved, a written agreement will be presented to Ives. If no agreement is reached, the matter will be returned to Ives for further action.

Trial preparations

The United Methodist News Service confirmed Feb. 10 that McLee had asked Ives to serve as the trial’s presiding officer and Riss, pastor of Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) United Methodist Church, to serve as the counsel for the church. McLee was not immediately available for comment Feb. 10.

Ives was among 36 retired bishops who signed a 2011 statement urging General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, to end the United Methodist ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Riss is the  treasurer of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an unofficial progressive United Methodist group that has advocated for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial United Methodist evangelical renewal group Good News, serves as an advocate for the clergy who filed the complaint against Ogletree.

“The complainants registered their concerns about the appointment of Rev. Timothy Riss as counsel for the church with Bishop McLee,” Lambrecht said on Feb. 10. “Bishop McLee assured them that Rev. Riss would carry out the responsibilities of the office of counsel with objectivity and integrity, and he refused to reconsider the appointment.  We are hopeful that Rev. Riss will indeed vigorously pursue the goal of accountability with grace, which has been the intention of the complainants all along.  The complainants desire to maintain the covenant unity and polity of The United Methodist Church in a context of deep division.”

After the trial’s postponement, Lambrecht did not yet know whether he and the complainants would be part of the discussions with Riss and Ogletree’s counsel about a potential just resolution.

In an earlier interview, Lambrecht said his hope is that a trial “will accomplish the goal of holding the Rev. Ogletree accountable to the vows he made as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church.

Lambrecht served as counsel in the church case against the Rev. Amy DeLong, who  was found guilty of officiating in a same-sex union at a public church trial in June 2011. He also helped Paige and Jacobsen file the complaint against Ogletree.

“We filed this complaint in the spirit of Matthew 18 following Christ’s direction when a brother/sister sins.  We are to go to him asking him to listen.  The goal is restoration; the implicit requirement is repentance,” Paige said.

Methodists in New Directions,  an unofficial New York Conference group that advocates for greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of the church, has championed Ogletree’s case and first announced the trial date.

Dorothee Benz, chair of Methodists in New Directions, said after the trial’s postponement, “Tom (Ogletree) has had an official complaint hanging over his head now for 16 months and the phrase ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ certainly comes to mind.”

“But let us hope that justice may yet be won,” she added, “And let us remember that whatever happens in this case, the problem here is not the church trials but the unjust church laws that put pastors on trial for ministering to LGBTQ people.”

Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., serves as Ogletree’s counsel. He previously represented DeLong in her 2011 trial.

“I will try to help the jury of 13 people understand the difference between what is legal and what is right,” he said in  a statement on his church’s website. “I will attempt to empower them to make a decision that reflects the true nature of the covenant of the ordained, a covenant that is not held hostage every four years to the whims and prejudices of the General Conference.”

Ogletree told UMNS in May that as retired clergy, it won’t make much difference if he loses his credentials. Both federal law and provisions of United Methodist retirement plans prohibit depriving clergy members of the pension benefits they already have earned.

Lambrecht said that the goal of those filing the complaint is not necessarily to affect Ogletree’s financial standing.

“Our goal is to have a public declaration of accountability, and if Rev. Ogletree were to lose his credentials, it would be a very public statement that his actions were outside of the agreed-upon covenant of United Methodist clergy.”

Widening dispute

Ogletree’s case comes at a time when the church’s debate regarding human sexuality has intensified and more clergy have been willing to defy publicly church law.

He was among more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States, who in 2011, signed pledges announcing their willingness to defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-gender unions. The New York Conference alone has 218 clergy signers, supported by 1,000 lay signers.

Bishops promised in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, to uphold church law banning same-gender unions.

Since then, the dispute has become only more public.

Frank Schaefer in the East Pennsylvania Conference was told in December to surrender his credentials after he was found guilty in a church trial of officiating at the 2007 nuptials of his son to another man. After a 30-day suspension, Schaefer said he could not abide by the Book of Discipline “in its entirety because of its discriminatory laws.” He also announced plans to appeal the ruling. The trial and  its aftermath made headlines nationwide.

Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated on Oct. 26, 2013, at the same-sex union of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, members of Discovery United Methodist Church in Hoover, Ala. The Council of Bishops has called for a complaint to be filed against Talbert.

A complaint against the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, has been referred to church counsel. Heiss has said he officiated at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.

*Hahn and Gilbert are multimedia reporters for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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  1. Bill Johnson

    Key words from the church’s counsel: “agreed upon covenant”. We are called to defend the Discipline, but we do not all agree that it is correct. When we don’t agree, we are obligated by conscience to speak and act to change it. Ogletree is guilty only of acting on his conscience and how he believes the Spirit directs him.

    1. Mark

      You’re right up to a point. Ogletree may be guilty of acting on his own conscience, but he is also guilty of breaking his promise to uphold the Discipline (and, more importantly, the Scripture which undergirds it).

      Yes, if you end up disagreeing with an oath you have sworn to keep then you can work to change the particulars of the oath. But you are duty-bound to keep it unless and until it is changed, or else you are obligated to renounce your prior commitment and join a new community with which you agree.

      Of course, the question then becomes will the fluidity of your conscience end up causing conflict with the new community.

      1. Michael Durand

        Mark, your reply essentially moots my planned response. An oath is something more than a promise to do or not to do something unless you later change your mind about it.

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