When I was suspended for three months for officiating at a same-sex marriage, I was often asked: “Will you do another one?” or “Will you do it again?” They meant, of course, would I officiate at another same-sex marriage. The question is moot as no same-sex couple has asked me, but the question did give me pause. I had trouble giving a clear answer. I thought to myself: “Do I really want several months my life consumed again with efforts to reach a Just Resolution?” The strained negotiations that followed the complaint against me ended only in a Complaint Resolution, not a Just Resolution. The resolution failed to meet two criteria of a just resolution: repairing harm and accountability.

As this would be my second offense, I also had to face the likelihood of a complaint going to trial.

As emotionally draining as the resolution process was, a trial would be much worse. A trial would also take more time and it could cost the church nearly $100,000.00. Although it would break my heart, I was not afraid of losing my credentials—it was a loss I was prepared to accept–but I wasn’t sure another trial would forward our cause, and I didn’t want to waste the church’s time and money. So, I was thinking then that, to avoid the likelihood of a trial, I would not do another one. But since General Conference my mind has changed.

I attended General Conference as an alternate delegate of the Virginia Conference. At the conference I sat in on the Church and Society Legislative Committee addressing the resolutions on human sexuality. In spite of some articulate progressives voices, I was deeply disappointed in the dialogue and disturbed by some of the attitudes. But what I did find inspiring at General Conference was the faithful, irrepressible, and courageous witness of those working for inclusiveness. It also opened my mind to other possibilities.

On the first Sunday of General Conference I visited Rose City Park United Methodist Church to hear the Rev. Frank Schaefer preach. Frank preached a great sermon, but what blew my mind, coming from the Southeast Jurisdiction, was to visit a United Methodist church with an openly lesbian pastor. The Rev. Courtney McHill welcomed us, and her wife, Jennifer Gossett-McHill, served as liturgist. “How could this be?” I wondered. I was shocked and happy to see a church and conference (Oregon-Idaho) that practiced non-conformity. The nearby Pacific Northwest Conference recently expressed a similar non-conformity when it officially declared it would not comply with the discriminatory policies of the Book of Discipline. This gave me a glimpse of a new strategy moving from non-conformity to non-cooperation.

As I noted above, my greatest concern about officiating at a same-sex marriage was not the possible loss of my credentials, but the emotionally draining process, and the waste of time, energy, and resources involved in a trial. Non-cooperation could address all of those problems. This time I will not tell my District Superintendent of my “Biblical obedience” as I did the first time.* At the same time, I will not try to hide or conceal my actions—I will treat it like any other marriage in which I officiate. Just as I waited for a sincere request for my pastoral services in the earlier same-sex marriage, I will not seek out a couple for a “political” marriage to defy the church.

If someone files a complaint against me for failing to discriminate against a same-sex couple, I hope my district superintendent and bishop will dismiss it. If they decide to honor the complaint, I would respectfully respond to their communication and participate in supervisory response with the aim of reaching a Just Resolution. If we cannot reach a Just Resolution, the bishop may dismiss the complaint or refer it to the Counsel for the Church, appointed by the bishop, for a possible trial.

If I am put on trial, I will not participate, testify or defend myself, nor will I ask anyone else to defend me. I would consider my participation in a trial as poor stewardship of my resources and of the resources of the church. If the Counsel for the Church decides on a trial, then the Counsel would be responsible for the waste of time and money. More importantly, I think non-cooperation in a trial is a faithful way to resist both the discriminatory policies in the Book of Discipline and the disciplinary apparatus designed to keep clergy from blessing same-sex marriages. The end result of my non-cooperation could well be the loss of my credentials, but I’m wondering how many bishops would go to trial under these circumstances. Still, I’m not recommending this strategy to those who stand to lose their ministry or livelihood—rather it is one possible strategy for those of us who are retired or whose employment does not depend on our ordination. But, as nearly a third of clergy in many conferences are retired, we could easily meet the pastoral needs of most same-sex couples.

Having officiated at a same-sex marriage, I have already practiced non-conformity to the Book of Discipline. Now, if it comes to a trial, I will to add non-cooperation to non-conformity. Today I reaffirm the pledge I took when I signed “An Altar For All.”

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. We joyfully affirm that we will offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage.

So, my answer now is a joyful and enthusiastic YES—I’m prepared “to do another one.”


*I had promised my D.S. I would notify him if I officiated at a same-sex marriage after I released my “An Altar for All” invitation to the Virginia Conference. I also wanted to publicly defy what I considered the unjust and oppressive policies in the Book of Discipline.

 

Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver

The Rev. John D. Copenhaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University and a retired clergy member of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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