Methodists in crisis over gay marriage, church law
The dispute among United Methodists over recognition of same-sex couples has lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy who are presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage who are trying to stop them.
Since 2011, Methodist advocates for gay marriage have been recruiting clergy to openly officiate at same-sex ceremonies in protest of church policy. In response, theological conservatives have sought formal complaints against the defiant clergy, which could lead to church trials. One scholar has warned that Methodists are "retreating into our various camps" instead of seeking a resolution over an issue the church has formally debated since the 1970s.
"At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are," said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. "Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way."
The intensity of the conflict was laid bare over the last several months, when the church tried, convicted and defrocked Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania pastor who presided at the wedding of his son to another man. Berryman said the case galvanized Methodists advocating for recognition of gay marriage, increasing donations to the group and traffic on Reconciling Ministries’ online sites. Schaefer has since been traveling the country giving talks and sermons on gay acceptance.
Opponents have also stepped up their organizing. Through statements, videos and conference calls, a theologically conservative Methodist movement called Good News has been pressing church leaders to act when church law, contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline, is violated. "When people choose to break the covenant that holds us together, there has to be some accountability," said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, Good News’ president.
Last month, a new Methodist group formed called the Wesleyan Covenant Network to support theologically conservative Methodists and keep them from leaving the denomination. The meeting in Atlanta drew about 130 clergy and others. One speaker choked back tears while telling the group his son is considering entering ministry - but not in the United Methodist Church.
"The present atmosphere is the worst I’ve ever seen it," said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky who helped organize the Wesleyan Covenant Network. "We are a divided church already."
Several other high-profile cases are pending. The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired Yale Divinity School dean and retired elder in the church’s New York district, will be tried March 10 for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son. The Council of Bishops has also called for a formal complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who presided at the wedding of two men last October in Alabama over the objections of a local bishop. The Rev. Stephen Heiss of Binghamton, N.Y., is expected to face a church trial for presiding at his daughter’s same-sex wedding in 2002 and at other same-sex marriages.
Thomas Frank, a Wake Forest University professor who specializes in Methodist history and governance, wrote an open letter to the church’s bishops, urging them to end the trials. He warned that Methodists have been "retreating into our various camps" and were in desperate need of an open conversation.
"The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage," Frank wrote. "It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of ’prosecution’ ’defense team,’ ’conviction,’ ’judge,’ and ’jury’ to our church as if we were all players in ’Law and Order.’ We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment."
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships "incompatible with Christian teaching" and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position: No ordinations or clergy appointments are allowed for "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." No "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" are permitted in churches. No clergy can preside at the ceremonies no matter where the events are held.