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Recent events have put me at the center of a strange and troubling irony. Just as our nation is making steady progress toward embracing the rights of same-sex couples to marry, my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, continues to deny such rights to gay and lesbian persons, even within its own membership. Current marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court have received unprecedented support from the White House, prominent political leaders, public corporations and religious associations. Especially compelling is the fact that thousands of American citizens recently took to the streets in all 50 states to support same-sex marriage, declaring, as one sign put it, that “love is an awful thing to hate.” As a United Methodist clergyman, however, I am now facing charges in a possible church trial because I performed a same-sex wedding in New York City, where such marriage are fully legal.
I have spent most of my career as a professor of theological ethics and Christian social ethics, both at theological schools and university-based divinity schools. I have also served as dean of Drew Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School. In these latter roles I was always a strong advocate for inclusive visions of the Christian mission, embracing issues of race, gender, class, national origin and sexual orientation. In carrying out my duties as a professor rather than a parish minister, I was rarely asked to officiate at weddings. However, when my son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, asked me to preside at his wedding to Nicholas William Haddad, I was deeply honored. Performing their wedding was one of the most meaningful ritual acts of my life.
Most regrettably, current United Methodist disciplinary rules strictly forbid ordained clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages ceremonies or celebrating same-sex civil unions, contending that same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teachings.” These rules, formally adopted in 1996, declare that clergy who perform such actions are guilty of a “chargeable offense,” one that must be addressed by a formal church trial. While these restrictive rules have generated a spiritual crisis for many people throughout the denomination, they have provoked vigorous resistance as well. In 1999 the Reverend Greg Dell was suspended from his ministry for an entire year because he performed a same-sex marriage ceremony. In response he declared publicly, “I will not withhold a ministry from some which is available to others solely because of an unjust church law.” Also in 1999, a group of 68 clergy officiated at a lesbian holy union ceremony. Church charges were brought against the “California 68,” but they were eventually dropped. The Reverend Jimmy Creech was defrocked on the basis of similar charges, and in 2011 the Reverend Amy Delong was tried and convicted in a church trial. However, a “just resolution penalty” was adopted in her case that was far less severe.
Networks of clergy in the denomination’s regional conferences have been pursuing more systematic approaches to challenge discriminatory rules against gay and lesbian persons. Among other things, participants in these networks have declared their resolve to officiate on an equal basis at all marriages in their congregations, whether between same-sex or heterosexual couples. This movement has now spread from coast to coast. It is noteworthy that the introduction to the United Methodist Book of Discipline reminds us about previous flaws and shortcomings in the denominations history, including the accommodation of racial segregation and the denial of ordination to women. It took persistent efforts to overcome these unjust practices, and such efforts generated serious conflicts within the church itself. We are now engaged in a similar struggle to end the denomination’s discrimination against LGBT people.
As a white southerner growing up during the segregation era, I became intensely aware of the pervasive racism in our society. I recognized that I had to join emerging new movements to dismantle racial segregation or I would myself become morally complicit for injustices resident in those practices. Beginning in 1959, during my Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University, I became a participant in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This involvement entailed acts of civil disobedience by joining African-American students in sit-ins at legally segregated lunch counters. I remained active in the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s, especially during my support for Operation Breadbasket in Chicago when I was a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
My experiences in the Civil Rights movement have illumined my responses to what I perceive to be unjust disciplinary rules in the United Methodist Church, especially rules that denied my right to officiate at my own son’s wedding. As a heterosexual, married clergyman I have a unique opportunity and obligation to challenge the inequitable treatment of gay and lesbian persons, both in church practices and also in the wider society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Marrying Tom and Nick was for me a profoundly personal and quintessentially pastoral act. I have been deeply moved by their exceptional bonds, and their strong commitment to a more just and inclusive society. It is high time for the United Methodist Church to honor such bonds and to take strong and diligent steps to overcome persisting prejudices.
Thomas W. Ogletree is Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Theological and Social Ethics at Yale University Divinity School.