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Topics In the News
Charges against Methodist Theologian Dropped
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/10/14
Last updated on: 03/10/14
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Thomas Ogletree.

On March 10, 2014, New York Bishop Martin McLee announced that charges have been dropped against the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired United Methodist Church clergyman and former Dean of Yale Divinity School, who faced a trial for having officiated at his son's wedding to a man. In addition, Bishop McLee called on church officials to stop prosecuting other pastors for marrying same-sex couples and pledged that he would cease church trials over the issue in his district.

Dr. Ogletree, a distinguished academic and theologian, conducted the wedding of his son Thomas Rimbey Ogletree to Nicholas W. Haddad at the Yale Club in New York on October 20, 2012. A wedding announcement in the New York Times prompted a group of conservative ministers to complain to Bishop McLee, who referred the matter to the equivalent of a prosecuting lawyer.

On February 20, 2014, however, Bishop Clifton Ives of Maine, who had been chosen to oversee the trial, announced that it had been delayed indefinitely as all parties had agreed to pursue a "just resolution."

That "just resolution" was announced at a press conference in White Plains, New York on March 10. As Linda Bloom reports for United Methodist News, Bishop McLee dismissed the case against Dr. Ogletree without conditions.

"Church trials produce no winners. . . . trials are not the way forward," said McLee.

As part of a "Just Resolution Agreement," the full terms of which may be found here, Bishop McLee commits to a cessation of church trials of clergy who conduct same-sex weddings or commitment services and to hold a public forum on the "true nature of the covenant that binds us together." The forum will also discuss the question of the divisions within the United Methodist Church about human sexuality.

For his part, Dr. Ogletree agrees, health permitting, to participate in the forum organized by Bishop McLee.

At the press conference, Ogletree said he was grateful for McLee's commitment to cease the church trials and instead "offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation."

"I do believe he is now providing a new model for our bishops on how they can play a transforming role (on this issue)," Ogletree added.

Ogletree is Frederick Marquand Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Religious Studies at Yale University and former Dean of Yale Divinity School. He had a long career as an academic theologian. In addition to authoring books and articles, he wrote a section in the Book of Discipline, the very rulebook under which he was charged. Ogletree was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. His first civil disobedience arrest was at a segregated lunch counter with African-American colleagues, including Congressman John Lewis.

The conservative ministers who complained of Dr. Ogletree's officiating at his son's wedding demanded that he apologize and promise never to conduct another same-sex wedding. He refused.

Referring to the Book of Discipline's prohibition against celebrating same-sex civil unions or marriages, Ogletree told his accusers, "this is an unjust law. Dr. King broke the law. Jesus of Nazareth broke the law; he drove the money changers out of the temple. So you mean you should never break any law, no matter how unjust it is?"

In a post at the blog of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), a group working for the full participation of glbtq people in the United Methodist Church, Ogletree wrote of his decision to conduct the ceremony for his son: "Given the academic focus of my ministry, I was rarely asked to conduct marriage ceremonies, so I gave little attention to Disciplinary rules that prohibited pastors from celebrating same-sex civil unions or from presiding over same-sex marriage ceremonies in states where they were legal. However, when my son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, asked me to preside over his wedding to Nicholas William Haddad, I was deeply honored."

He added, "There was no way that I could with integrity have declined his request, even though my action was designated as a "chargeable offense" by The United Methodist Discipline (cf. par. 2702). Tom and Nick are men of maturity, wisdom, and integrity, and their exceptional bonds with each other have enhanced their commitments to foster a more just and inclusive society that serves the well-being of all people. Performing their wedding was one of the most significant ritual acts of my life as a pastor!"

The United Methodist Church remains the most discriminatory of the mainline Christian denominations. The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all moved toward inclusion and acceptance, while the UMC has been resistant to change.

The contradictions in the policies of the United Methodist Church toward homosexuality reveal a level of uncertainty and inconsistency (if not hypocrisy) that reflects the divisions within the denomination as it wrestles with the question of human sexuality.

The denomination's website contains a number of resolutions passed by its various committees and conferences, some of which extend welcome to all people and affirm their sacred worth. The denomination has even passed resolutions opposing homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Those resolutions, however, do not seem to apply to the denomination itself. The church's Book of Discipline, for example, pointedly declares, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

The church also forbids the ordination of practicing homosexuals: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

Most relevant for the case of Dr. Ogletree, the Book of Discipline declares that "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Moreover, the denomination forbids the use of United Methodist funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

Recently, however, UMC ministers and churches have resorted to civil disobedience in order to protest discrimination within the denomination, often in response to the church trials that have roiled the denomination.

For example, on November 18, 2013, Reverend Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pennsylvania was convicted for having performed the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim Schaefer, in 2007 and for having violated the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church. He was assessed a penalty of a 30-day suspension and told that if he did not agree to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials, which he did.

Although conservatives within the bitterly divided denomination saw the defrocking of Rev. Schaefer as a victory, the "show trial" had the effect of radicalizing many members of the church, including Schaefer himself.

In response to the conviction of Rev. Schaefer, more than 40 UMC ministers participated in a same-sex wedding and announced their intention to perform more weddings for gay and lesbian parishioners; at the same time, a dozen congregations agreed to allow same-sex weddings to be performed in their sanctuaries despite the prohibition by the Book of Discipline.

On October 26, 2013, retired United Methodist Church Bishop Melvin Talbert presided over the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in Birmingham, Alabama after their local bishop refused to allow a minister under her jurisdiction to perform the ceremony.

In officiating at the Prince-Openshaw wedding, Bishop Talbert became the first UMC bishop to publicly perform a marriage for a same-sex couple.

"All my life I have been an outspoken person for justice. I just see this as a continuing effort on my part to be faithful to the gospel, to speak truth and to do it out of love," Talbert said in a statement explaining his decision. "It is no more than what I did in 1960 when I sat in at a lunch counter and refused to obey the unjust law of segregation. It's the same. The principle is the same."

It seems likely that UMC will either split into two different denominations or change its discriminatory treatment of glbtq people.

Dr. Ogletree is featured in the video below, a 1913 PBS segment on the tensions within the United Methodist Church.

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