MAY 5, 2013—Officiating his son’s same-sex wedding was the most significant act he performed as a pastor, and now he will possibly have to justify that action to a jury of his peers. Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist clergyperson, former seminary dean, and distinguished Christian ethicist, awaits charges by the New York Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC) for presiding over his son’s wedding. Bishop Martin McLee referred the case to counsel, an action expected to lead to a church trial.
Ogletree, formerly the dean of Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary, performed the wedding, knowing that The UMC bans such ceremonies. He believes the ban is morally indefensible. “As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’ Marrying Tom and Nick was for me a profoundly personal and quintessentially pastoral act,” said Ogletree. “I have been deeply moved by their exceptional bond, 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.”
This is one of the first cases headed to a church trial since the emergence of “Altar for All,” a national “marriage initiative” movement within the UMC. Clergy have made public commitments to officiate same-sex weddings, being obedient to the whole of church law which calls the church to be in ministry with all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons.
“Rev. Dr. Ogletree, in his refusal to obey immoral church policy, has opted instead to follow the deeper mind and Spirit of Christ,” said Matt Berryman, Executive Director of Reconciling Ministries Network. “In the life of faith, we call this Biblical Obedience. Instead of fearfully clinging to the withering branches of the letter of the law, Ogletree’s pastoral decision reflects his commitment to the flowering wisdom and faith of the Tree of Life. Consistent with the early church’s radical inclusion of the Gentile outsider (Acts 10-15), Ogletree has discerned the “signs and wonders” of the Spirit in Tom and Nick’s covenantal relationship. In doing so, he invites us all to follow the mind and spirit of Christ, no matter what the cost.”
Ogletree served as a professor and dean over his 50 year career. In addition to authoring books and articles, he wrote a section in the Book of Discipline, the very rulebook under which he is now charged. Ogletree has shown a lifelong commitment to social justice, going back to his involvement with The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee starting in 1959. His first civil disobedience arrest was at a segregated lunch counter with African-American colleagues, including Congressman John Lewis.
LGBTQ members of The UMC and their allies have organized for decades to try to overturn the church’s discriminatory rules. Other clergy, like Ogletree, have been prosecuted for performing same-sex ceremonies. Methodists in New Directions (MIND), RMN’s New York affiliate, will be supporting Ogletree through the complaint process.
At the 2012 General Conference, Bishop Melvin Talbert said these words, becoming the first bishop to endorse the marriage initiative movement:
The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience… I call on the more than 1,100 clergy [who have signed marriage initiatives] to stand firm in their resolve to perform marriages for same-sex couples and to do so in the course of their normal pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so….The time for talking is over. It’s time for us to act in defiance of unjust words of immoral and derogatory discrimination and laws that are doing harm to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
Since 1972, The UMC has held that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Book of Discipline, the church’s rulebook that contains this doctrine, can be changed only by the General Conference of the UMC, which meets every four years. Subsequent General Conferences have added explicit discriminatory language: such as the 1984 ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” serving as ministers; and the 1996 ban on clergy performing holy union ceremonies for same-sex couples, updated in 2004 to add same-sex weddings to the ban. Violations of these bans are considered “chargeable offenses” in the language of United Methodist Discipline.
Reconciling Ministries Network mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. RMN envisions a renewed and vibrant Wesleyan movement that is biblically and theologically centered. As committed disciples of Jesus Christ, RMN strives to transform the world by living out the Gospel’s teachings of grace, love, justice and inclusion for all of God’s children.