Yale scholar will be tried by Methodist Church for officiating at son’s wedding

Dorothee Benz, Methodists in New Directions, 718-314-4432
David Lerner, Riptide Communications, 212-260-5000, 917-612-5657

New York, January 17, 2014 – Charges have been filed against Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a United Methodist clergyman and distinguished scholar of Christian ethics, for officiating at the wedding of his son,  and he will  be tried in a church trial. Because the wedding, legally performed in New York State, was between two men, Ogletree’s participation in it is barred by church law, which holds that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and explicitly forbids its clergy from performing same-sex marriages or holy union ceremonies. Ogletree was notified of the charges yesterday. The trial will be held March 10 at First UMC in Stamford, CT.  Ogletree’s trial is one of a spate of cases that the UMC is prosecuting as it faces a wave of open rebellion by clergy and lay members no longer willing to submit to the requirement to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

ogletree-cropped“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.’”

“The United Methodist Church is once again choosing legalism over love,’” said Dr. Dorothee Benz, a spokesperson for Ogletree and the chair of MIND. “There is nothing in that that is compatible with Christ’s teaching, which so clearly demonstrated a priority for the needs of the people over the policies of religious authorities.”

Ogletree’s service to the United Methodist Church (UMC), which dates back to 1952, includes a term served on the UMC’s Episcopal Committee, during which he authored “Our Theological Task,” the section of the UMC’s Book of Discipline that explicates one of the foundational pieces of Weslyan theology. This discussion of the role of scripture, tradition, experience and reason in the life of the church forms one of the key parts of the Discipline, the text that outlines both the UMC’s doctrine and its rules. Dr. Ogletree is now charged with violating a part of the very rule book he helped write.

The wedding took place on October 20, 2012, and a complaint was filed on October 24 with the bishop of the regional church body that Ogletree is part of, the New York Annual Conference (NYAC). The complaint set in motion a formal disciplinary process. NYAC Bishop Martin McLee referred the case to counsel for the church (the equivalent of a prosecutor) in March 2013 to investigate and draw up charges.  Ogletree received notice by mail yesterday that charges had been filed against him.

Prof. Ogletree’s willingness to ignore the rules that would prohibit him from presiding over his own son’s wedding is the latest evidence of a growing crisis of authority within the United Methodist Church resulting from its continued discrimination against LGBTQ people. In 15 of the UMC’s annual conferences, networks of clergy have organized and publicly declared their intent to defy the church’s gay wedding ban. In NYAC, the initiative, spearheaded by MIND, is called We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality, and includes 218 clergy as well as 1,000 lay people pledged to defend clergy in the case of any punitive actions. Six entire congregations are also part of the initiative, having voted to offer weddings to all couples as a matter of their official church policy. As a result of We do! and similar initiatives, gay weddings and holy union ceremonies are regularly taking place across the country. These weddings are also being increasingly publicized. MIND is publishing a new story every week as part of an initiative started in October called We Did.

In November 2013, Rev. Frank Schaefer of the UMC’s Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference was tried and convicted for officiating at his son’s wedding. In December, he was stripped of his clergy credentials by his conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry when he refused to pledge that he would henceforth uphold the discriminatory mandates of the Book of Discipline.

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.

Ironically, Ogletree’s conduct in this case is wholly consistent with the official positions of NYAC, which has long dissented from the UMC’s prejudice against LGBT people, even though it is NYAC officials who are now prosecuting him. In resolutions passed at NYAC’s annual governing conferences, it has said that the UMC ban on same-sex weddings “inhibits appropriate pastoral freedom” for pastors to minister to their congregations and has explicitly urged restraint in the filing of charges against pastors who perform such weddings.  UMC polity expert Thomas Frank has written that “Nothing in the Book of Discipline requires that [bishops] refer complaints to counsel for the church and subsequent trial.”