Up until the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I lived with the comforting illusion that The United Methodist Church was making progress toward abandoning its condemnation of the “practice of homosexuality” in the Social Principles and was moving toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people. When it became clear that I could no longer live with that illusion, I knew I had to join the ranks of those actively resisting our derogatory statements and discriminatory policies.
In May of 2013, at the request of the Virginia Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), I wrote a statement in support of “An Altar for All” of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and publicly joined other United Methodists in stating: “We refuse to discriminate against any of God’s children and pledge to make marriage equality a lived reality within the United Methodist Church, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.” Since the release of that statement in May of 2013, over 200 Virginia United Methodists (clergy and laity) have signed on to support “An Altar for All.” Rives Priddy, who worked with Central Virginia Affirmation and now works with Virginia Reconciling United Methodists (VRUM), and I are “regional organizers” for “An Altar for All.”
I was expecting some same sex couple to ask me to officiate at their marriage soon after this statement, but no one asked. I did not seek out a “political marriage” to challenge the church—I wanted to wait for a genuine and heartfelt request from a couple. This year my mother’s caregiver and her partner asked me to officiate at their wedding in the summer of 2015. As I had made my views public, I welcomed and accepted their request, especially as they were anxious to provide a stable home for the boy they had recently adopted.
On Sunday, October 5th, shortly after returning from a three-week trip to Turkey, I attended University Chapel at Noon (UCAN) and was surprised that DeLyn Celec and Sarah Celec were not leading the worship and music. They sat behind me. In that service I was shocked to learn that DeLyn’s sister had been murdered and that she and Sarah would soon have custody of her sister’s three children. But, my schedule for officiating at a same sex marriage suddenly accelerated when the Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from five states seeking to keep their marriage bans in place after federal appeals courts struck them down.
I didn’t know how to help or comfort them, but told them. “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
The next day, Monday, Oct. 6th, the same day the Supreme Court decision broke, I drove to Roanoke to visit my mother. That night I attended, with my sister, a lecture by Stanley Hauerwas at St. Johns Episcopal Church. Shortly after that lecture I received an email from DeLyn Celec. She wrote, “Yes, there is something you can do for us–officiate at our wedding.” (DeLyn and Sarah were married in a religious ceremony in Canada in 2006 and celebrated a civil union in New Jersey in 2007, but neither made them legally married in Virginia.)
DeLyn and Sarah were anxious to get married right away because of watching these opportunities close up, as had happened in California and Idaho. They scheduled their marriage for 5:00 p.m. the next day (Tuesday, Oct. 7th) at Jim Barnett Park in Winchester, VA. I wrote DeLyn later, “I’m happy to be in this thing and I think the Holy Spirit often upsets our carefully orchestrated sense of control and timing.”
Their sense of urgency was also driven by their desire to provide a stable home for the three young children who would soon be in their custody. I didn’t really have any choice in the timing.
At first I was concerned that officiating at their wedding might interfere with my commitment to doing the wedding for Kimmie, Mom’s caregiver, next year. If stripped of my credentials, I wasn’t sure I could fulfill that commitment. I finally figured that I could find some way to keep that commitment. I felt I had a pastoral, prophetic, and personal obligation to assist my friends and colleagues. I did not want them to have to resort to a Civil Marriage Celebrant. Nothing against civil celebrants, but I knew they would rather have someone they know, and someone who shares their faith and convictions, to officiate.
After sleeping on it, I agreed to do it early Tuesday morning. My sister and I hustled to Brandon Oaks Nursing Center to make some health care decisions for Mom before I left to return to Winchester for the ceremony.
The celebration itself was short, wonderful, festive, and holy. I told DeLyn and Sarah it felt like Kairos time, not Chronos. Bishop Ray Chamberlain, former Bishop in Residence at Shenandoah University, sent in an eloquent blessing in absentia.
Sarah and DeLyn told me afterward that the service was a great comfort and bright spot in the midst of grieving the death of DeLyn’s sister.
The next morning I called my District Superintendent, the Rev. Larry Thompson, to inform him. I had promised to do that when I published a statement and took leadership in “An Altar for All.” In that statement I announced that I would offer my pastoral services to any prepared couple regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
I don’t know what will happen next. Since then I have had a meeting with my District Superintendent and another D.S. who was present to take notes. The purpose of the meeting was to get the facts straight. The Rev. Rob Vaughn was allowed to accompany me, as “another set of ears.” Evidently, no complaint has yet been filed, but the report will go to the Bishop.
I was allowed time to explain how I was seeking to “keep covenant with the Church.” I briefly summarized a couple points from the statement that follows.
In officiating at the wedding of DeLyn and Sarah Celec, and as a regional organizer for “An Altar for All,” I have sought to keep covenant with the Church. I have acted in good faith and in good conscience. First and foremost I have sought to be true to my baptismal vows. The second vow asks, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Ordinarily I work within the church to address evil, injustice and oppression in the world. Sadly, in this case, injustice and oppression exist within the church, i.e. in its language about homosexual practice and its policies regarding ministry and marriage.
The language of that second baptismal vow does not exempt the church—it says, “In whatever forms they present themselves.” So, in good faith and in good conscience I am trying to keep that vow by addressing injustice and oppression within the church.
When I took vows to “support and maintain” our “Church government and polity” that was because I had previously answered affirmatively that I believed our “doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.” In regard to homosexuality and same sex marriage, I no longer believe our doctrines are in harmony with Holy Scripture. Specifically, I believe we have used scriptural texts that do not address the context of sexual orientation and committed relationships we see today to exclude LGBTQ persons from ministry and marriage. More importantly, Jesus commanded us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When Marsha and I committed to love each other until “death do us part,” we had the blessing of church and state. I want that same blessing for LGBTQ persons.
I believe I am acting in Biblical obedience when I bless and consecrate the committed loving relationships of all prepared couples without regard to gender or sexual orientation.
I believe I am acting in ecclesial obedience to a Church that believes all people are created in the image of God and that “homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.” In the Discipline we read: “Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination. The mark of an inclusive society is one in which all persons are open, welcoming, fully accepting, and supporting of all other persons, enabling them to participate fully in the life of the church, the community, and the world.” Paragraph 140 In excluding many LGBTQ persons from ministry, the Church has deprived itself of their gifts and graces and made its claims to inclusiveness a sham. We read, “Without creative use of the diverse gifts of the entire Body of Christ, the ministry of the church is less effective.” Paragraph 303.4 The book of Discipline makes a powerful statement for inclusion. As Bishop Melvin Talbert notes, “It only contradicts itself in a few places.”
I love the United Methodist Church—it has nurtured and challenged me. If I am “out of order,” it is because of our heritage of opposing injustice and oppression.
It has shaped my conscience and called me to act. I am honored to be among the ordained clergy of the United Methodist Church and I want to keep my credentials and ordination, but not at the price of complicity in discriminatory policies. At the same time, a church trial and losing my credentials would be a small price to pay (for me as retired clergy) if it exposes the moral bankruptcy of our policies and helps move us to change them.
Let us pray for our Church during this time of discernment and transition.
Thanks to all of you for signing “An Altar All.” That is a great encouragement to me and a sign of hope for our Church.
Godspeed, John D. Copenhaver, Jr.,
Prof. Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy, Shenandoah University
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