The New York Conference of the United Methodist Church announced Monday that it had dropped a case against the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired dean of Yale Divinity School who had been scheduled to face a church trial this week for officiating at his gay son’s wedding.
Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York, a former leader in the church’s New England Conference and former pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End, called for an end to church trials of clergy who perform same-sex weddings. A recent spate of such trials has been roiling the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
“Church trials produce no winners,” McLee said in a statement Monday. “Church trials result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
The resolution comes three months after the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Pennsylvania, was defrocked for presiding at his gay son’s wedding in Hull in 2007.
Instead of a trial in Ogletree’s case, McLee will convene a public forum to discuss the church’s disagreements over human sexuality. Ogletree agreed to attend at least one session, health permitting.
“This offers another way out,” McLee said in a phone interview Monday. “We can have a conversation under my ecclesiastical leadership that is pastoral and helpful and does not result in a punitive response.”
The outcome in Ogletree’s case could have a powerful effect on the denomination, which appears to be nearing a schism over gay issues.
Views differ over the impact of the resolution. Gay rights advocates within the church predicted other bishops would use the Ogletree resolution as a model for averting trials, ultimately, perhaps, defusing tensions and avoiding the threat of a denominational split.
“If we continue to use that kind of [adversarial] means to address our differences in the church, particularly when a large number of people see this as a matter of conscience and really as a matter of morality, we’re going to destroy the church,” said the Rev. Scott Campbell of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, who represented Ogletree in the proceedings.
Those who view the church’s rules against gay marriage as Scripture-based and inviolable expressed dismay, saying the resolution sanctioned a clear violation of church law and would move the church closer to a break.
“When certain parts of the church decide they can no longer live according to church teachings, you’ve got an intolerable situation in the church,” said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, a Methodist ministry that promotes orthodox views.
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline declares that all people have sacred worth but calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with church teaching,” prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy, and forbids clergy from officiating at same-sex unions. Many church members, however, say those sections contradict a more fundamental principle of church law: that the church and its ministries should be available to everyone.
Frustrations on both sides have escalated, as the church’s worldwide body has repeatedly rejected calls for change from gay United Methodists and their supporters. The split seems to be widening: The church is losing members in the United States, particularly in more liberal parts of the country, but growing rapidly in Africa, where homosexuality is widely opposed.
Clergy who support gay rights are openly defying the prohibition on gay marriage in a movement inspired by a group in the New York Conference called Methodists In New Directions.
“The more people join us, the sooner the day that we will end codified discrimination against LGBT people in the United Methodist Church,” said Dorothee Benz, chairwoman of the group’s steering committee, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
In response, conservatives have begun to file formal complaints against clergy who officiate at weddings of gay couples or who are in gay relationships. A handful of cases are pending across the country.
The Rev. Randall C. Paige, senior pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., and the Rev. Roy E. Jacobsen, a retired pastor in the New York conference, filed their complaint against Ogletree after seeing an announcement of the wedding of Ogletree’s son in The New York Times.
Paige said in a statement that the resolution gave a “green light to disobey the Discipline.”
“The impact of this settlement today will be that faithful United Methodists who support the church’s teachings will feel ignored and will face their own crisis of conscience, as to whether they can continue to support a church that will not abide by its own rules,” he said. “Far from avoiding schism, today’s settlement increases the probability that schism will take place.”
Ogletree said in an interview Monday that celebrating his son’s wedding was more of a fatherly act than a pastoral one.
But Ogletree, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and immersed himself in civil rights and Christian social justice issues as an activist and scholar, saw a larger significance in his case and its resolution.
He pointed to the Book of Discipline’s opening section, which he said referred to other instances in church history where quarrels — over slavery, segregation, and women’s roles — racked the church, but were ultimately resolved in favor of expanding civil rights. “It reminds us that we’re not perfect people, and therefore we have to struggle to make changes when we find we have done something wrong,” Ogletree said. “This is another example of discrimination in our laws, and we’ve got to change them.”
McLee, who said his prior South End congregation was the first historically black “reconciling” (gay-friendly) congregation in any mainline denomination, also urged a wider view.
“I see us continuing to grapple, and some will be happy with the grappling, and some will tire of the grappling,” he said. “But I don’t see schism as a place where we will go.”
Schaefer said he was overjoyed about McLee’s decision, even as he continued to mourn the loss of his congregation and lament the toll his trial had taken on his family. He commended McLee for “sticking out his neck” for gay rights.
“It just shows, though, how much has changed since my trial, and that makes me feel good,” Schaefer said.