Repression will not stop this movement of love
The dominant reality for Methodists in New Directions in 2013 and the beginning of 2014 has been the prosecutorial response of the institutional church to our movement. This included the high-profile case brought against Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree for officiating at his son’s wedding and also the formal complaint filed against Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” These cases were among a spate of charges brought against UMC clergy all over the country. The prominence of the Ogletree case gave MIND a newfound national visibility, which we used to help coordinate and feed the national movement. Meanwhile, we continued and expanded our congregational development work and brought the same intensity and commitment to pew-by-pew ministry that we brought to our more visible work.
All this unfolded against a backdrop of unprecedented legal gains for LGBTQ people in the U.S. Since the beginning of 2013, seven states have legalized same-sex marriage, bringing the total to 17 plus the District of Columbia, and judges in another six have ruled that bans of such marriages are unconstitutional. In June 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Yet at the same time, LGBTQ people continue to be the target of hate crimes, including two murders in New York City in 2013, and a majority of states neither recognize gay marriage nor prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Ministry on Trial
In October 2012, Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree officiated at the wedding of his son to another man. Days later, a complaint was filed against him, a complaint that eventually led to formal charges and preparations for a church trial. Ogletree – who is a world-renowned theologian, an expert in Christian ethics, the past dean of both the Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary and an author of the “Our Theological Task” section of the UMC Book of Discipline – was committed from the outset to use his position to turn this prosecution into an opportunity to make a public witness. As MIND’s legal team researched and prepared for every aspect of the legal case, MIND’s steering committee helped mount a publicity campaign that put the case in the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere. Meanwhile, we set up a MIND Defense Fund and raised a total of $36,000 (MIND raised $25,000 and MFSA contributed $11,000) to defend Tom and others who face church prosecution.
The combined effect of our campaign and the national movement put tremendous pressure on the church, and as the trial date approached, a settlement was reached. As part of the settlement, announced on March 10, 2014, Bishop Martin McLee made a statement that declared, “I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.” It was a significant victory for MIND and a bold act of leadership for our bishop, whose longstanding support herewith took a new step that mirrors our own refusal to follow discriminatory laws.
Three months earlier, Frank Schaefer had been defrocked after an Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference trial found him guilty for the same thing Ogletree did: saying yes when his son asked, “Dad, will you do my wedding?” Schaefer’s case rocked the church, as did Bishop Melvin Talbert’s very public commitment to perform the October 2013 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. Talbert and Schaefer were among a half dozen clergy beyond NYAC who faced formal complaints in 2013; Talbert’s case is ongoing, as is the case against Rev. Stephen Heiss of the Upper New York Annual Conference.
Conservatives in the denomination, in ever more shrill tones, are calling for harsher punishments for clergy who dare to minister to LGBTQ people. But Rev. Scott Campbell, Ogletree’s lead counsel and the movement’s premiere legal expert, got it right in his summation of the Ogletree settlement: “Fear works to hold conscience in check for a time. But sooner or later someone is more afraid of being unfaithful to God than they are of any punishment the church might mete out….The wind of the Spirit cannot be sent back to the place from whence it has come.”
We Did: Stories of United Methodists living marriage equality
While the headlines were all about church prosecutions, MIND’s day-to-day work continued to build a grassroots movement committed to pastoral care for all people. We do! Methodists living marriage equality, our signature initiative that inspired similar efforts across the country, continued to grow. We passed 1,000 lay signers and now have 217 clergy signers on the Covenant of Conscience, all publicly pledged to offer ministry on an equal basis to all couples, gay and straight. Our most intense effort, though, has been in working with congregations to encourage and help them in the process of becoming congregational signers of the covenant. MND expanded its workshop for congregations to a two-day course, held three times in 2013, and in 2014 we combined forces with the national Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) to adapt their “process coach” training to our congregational development work. All told, we now have 14 churches on a path towards becoming welcoming churches in both theology and practice. This work is deep and slow, but it is ultimately our most important work – because if we do not make the pews welcoming of LGBTQ people, what good will it have done to make the Book of Discipline welcoming?
In 2013 we also expanded the ministry of We do! with an offshoot project called We Did: Stories of United Methodists living marriage equality. It began as an act of solidarity with Tom Ogletree – a weekly story published on our website and RMN’s blog simultaneously, telling the story of one same-sex wedding performed by a clergy member of our conference – but it has become a powerful witness it its own right.
Much of our work in recent years has focused on providing ministry, specifically marriage, to LGBTQ people in defiance of the UMC’s ban. But our denomination’s discrimination is not limited to the ban on same-sex weddings. The Book of Discipline says “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are “not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” A formal complaint against Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy was filed in early 2013 based on this prohibition, and after Bishop McLee declared a mandatory attempt to arrive at a just resolution with the complainant a failure in June, the case was referred to counsel for the church in October. No formal charges have been filed as of this this writing.
MIND is committed to building a campaign challenging the ban on LGBTQ clergy that is as powerful as our We do! project challenging the ban on LGBTQ weddings. The MIND steering committee is in the early stages of discerning the best way to do that.
A star-studded annual conference
Our new bishop, Martin McLee, a longtime outspoken critic of the UMC’s bigotry against LGBTQ people, set a new tone for our annual conference from the very first day. The conference’s theme was “Dismantling Walls: Building the Beloved Community” and the walls we need to dismantle were named right on the stage in a backdrop representation of a brick wall with graffiti on it: “homophobia” was scrawled on the wall along with “racism” and “sexism” and “institutional structure.”
Our featured lunch speaker was Bishop Talbert, and it was at the 2013 MIND lunch that he first publicly declared that if asked, he would perform a same-sex wedding. Talbert was joined by Tom Ogletree, who also spoke at the lunch. Bishop McLee came, and stayed, for the lunch as well.
MIND introduced three resolutions at annual conference, all of which were passed. One, titled “Commendation of Those Who Have Taken a Stand for Justice,” was challenged by the conservative Wesley Fellowship, which asked for a ruling of law on the matter. The resolution, which offered praise for the heroes of our movement like Bishop Talbert, Tom Ogletree and many others, was upheld by both Bishop McLee and the Judicial Council. It was the third time in four years that a MIND resolution made its way to the UMC’s highest judicial body – and the third time the MIND resolution was affirmed by that body.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
At annual conference, MIND Chair Dr. Dorothee Benz introduced Bishop McLee by saying that while the paths we take may differ, “we are together on the same journey to justice. And I do not mean only justice for LGBTQ folks,” she added. “I mean racial justice. Gender justice. Immigration justice. Economic justice. I mean God’s justice, because surely we do not believe in a God who wants justice for only some people.”
While MIND celebrated along with others the Supreme Court ruling overturning DOMA, we also shared the anger at the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. And while we are concerned about anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, we are equally concerned about all hate crimes and about state-sanctioned violence like that which allowed George Zimmerman to get away with the murder of Tayvon Martin. The 50th anniversary of the famous 1963 march on Washington fell in 2013 on the date we had picked for the annual MIND picnic. We decided, especially in light of these troubling setbacks for racial justice, to make it a “picnic with a purpose” and take it on the road together with others from NYAC who travelled to Washington to rally for the unfinished agenda of racial equality in America that day.
On June 6, 2014, Frank Schaefer will join an honor roll of other Methodist outlaws – Bishop Talbert, Amy DeLong, Greg Dell and Beth Stroud – who have been the speaker at MIND’s annual lunch. We are preparing to mount a campaign to defend and support Sara Thompson Tweedy as her case moves forward. And MIND will continue to provide leadership to the national movement by its example. These are tumultuous and difficult times in the life of our church, but we are convinced, as Martin Luther King put it, that “there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.”