Saturday, May 11, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage and the UMC

Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree is a longtime professor of Christian theological ethics and former dean at the Drew Theological School and Yale Divinity School. (I attended YDS prior to his tenure.) Last October, in his capacity as a United Methodist minister, Ogletree officiated at the wedding of his son Thomas to Nicholas W. Haddad in Massachusetts. Ogletree will likely now face a church trial, after several conservative clergy filed a complaint with the bishop about his actions.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline disallows same-sex marriages, and in the past some clergy have been disciplined for performing ceremonies for such marriage. The last General Conference (the denomination’s law-setting body) failed by a sizable majority to change or modify the church’s position on homosexuality. As Sharon Otterman writes in the New York Times (May 5, 2013), “the issue is creating a deep rift with the church’s evangelical, conservative wing, which is being bolstered by the spread of the 12-million-member denomination internationally into Africa and Asia.”

Ogletree comments that two of his five children are gay and his daughter already married her partner in a non-Methodist ceremony in Massachusetts. His son asked him to officiate their ceremony. Ogletree commented, “I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.” But he also stated that he considers the church law unjust (see his longer comments below).

Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, the vice-president of Good News, a traditionalist Methodist group, was quoted by the New York Times: “Reverend Ogletree is acting in a way that is injurious to the church, because it fosters confusion in the church about what we stand for. And it undermines the whole covenant of accountability that we share with each other as pastors.” Referring to the Book of Discipline language, Lambrecht stated, “We try to be nuanced about it...Although we disapprove of the practice of homosexuality, we believe that people who are gay or lesbian are loved and valued by God and worthy of the church’s ministry and welcome to participate in churches.” (All these quotes are from the same article by Otterman: )

I admit that I used to find the Discipline language nuanced and open, too, but I found that language no longer acceptable after I knew gay persons and listened to their stories. As I would not consider my own heterosexuality a "practice," nor would a gay person consider his or her sexuality in that way. Being gay is who they are; it’s an identity, a gift from God, and not a “lifestyle choice” as some straight persons continue to describe it. And so why should gay persons feel loved and valued and welcomed when they’re not being characterized in a way recognizable to them?

It would not take a gay person long to find other statements that show even less of a welcoming stance, for instance, a statement from the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s United Methodist Action Director, John Lomperis: "United Methodist disagreements over homosexuality and other forms of extra-marital sex are driven by far more fundamental divisions, between United Methodists who accept a high view of biblical authority, are loyal to United Methodist doctrine, seek to submit all areas of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and play by the rules that are supposed to apply to everybody, and other, nominal United Methodists who openly reject our core doctrine, allow the winds of secular American culture to trump Scripture, and zealously embrace an 'any means necessary' ethos.” Lomperis’ comments make no effort to be nuanced: if you’re not against homosexuality, you’re a pretty shallow Methodist and Christian, certainly not one who fully embraces Christ’s Lordship.

I so strongly dislike that kind of rhetoric. There are many of us straight persons who have indeed prayerfully looked at this issue, listened to gay persons’ testimonies and witnesses, and are now supporting gay persons in their journeys of life and faith. We have considered the biblical statements and also considered modern understandings of sexuality, the same as we interpret the Bible alongside modern understandings of women's roles, scientific theory, and so on. But this issue will continue to be a challenge because the biblical language about homosexuality is focused upon male behavior in those ancient cultures, rather than modern understandings of sexuality and identity.

Ogletree made a longer statement in the Washington Post. Here is a portion, but the whole statement is worth reading.  

“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. ...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.” (

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