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Logo for the "Open Hearts, Open Minds" publicity campaign.
Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist Church clergyman and former Dean of Yale Divinity School, faces possible trial for officiating at his son's wedding to a man. The minister, who is a distinguished academic and theologian, has been charged with violating the denomination's Book of Discipline when he 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 the local bishop, who referred the matter to the equivalent of a prosecuting lawyer, who will decide whether to hold a trial.
As Sharon Otterman writes in the New York Times, while Dr. Ogletree "would not be the first United Methodist minister to face discipline for performing a same-sex wedding, he could well be the one with the highest profile."
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 is now 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 writes, "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 adds, "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!"
In the blog, Ogletree offers an eloquent theological justification for his opposition to "current shortcomings in United Methodist polity, in particular, forty-one years of prejudicial language portraying the life practices of gay and lesbian persons as 'incompatible with Christian teaching,' a standard that has excluded them from ordination, from marriage, and in some cases even from church membership (Judicial Council Ruling 1032)."
Ogletree's predicament is similar to that of Professor Norman J. Kansfield, who was suspended from being a minister in the Reformed Church in America and fired as president of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 2005 after officiating at his daughter's same-sex marriage.
But whereas the Reformed Church's attitudes toward homosexuality are unremittingly hostile, the United Methodist Church has been somewhat schizophrenic in its attitudes toward glbtq people.
In 2001, intent on reversing years of declining membership and countering a perception of conservative religious denominations as close-minded and intolerant, the UMC launched an advertising campaign, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." The campaign was intended to suggest that Methodists welcomed a diverse membership, including glbtq people, and perhaps to draw a distinction between themselves and groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, which aggressively demonizes gay people.
For a while, the campaign was very successful, but when in a highly publicized case in 2005 a gay man was denied membership in the denomination because of his homosexuality, many people came to regard the denomination's slogan as laughable. It was even mocked by an ad for another, more truly accepting denomination, the United Church of Christ.
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.
Following the highly publicized and embarrassing incident in 2005, the denomination's Council of Bishops issued a pastoral letter stating that "homosexuality is not a barrier" to membership. This pastoral letter, however, did nothing to reverse the minister's decision to deny membership to the gay man.
Similarly, 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."
The denomination has in recent years been roiled by church trials of openly gay ministers and of ministers who have officiated at same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies. At the denomination's General Conference in 2012, it reaffirmed its stance on homosexuality and on same-sex weddings and civil unions.
Nevertheless, many ministers openly defy the Book of Discipline. Otterman reports, for example, that more than 200 UMC ministers in the New York area have said that they are willing to perform same-sex weddings.