Trial Set for Theologian Who Officiated at Son's Wedding


 By Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert, United Methodist News Service

A United Methodist theologian and retired elder in the New York Annual (regional) Conference will face a church trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son.

Thomas Ogletree 290x435 Trial set for theologian who officiated at son’s wedding

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree. Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

The trial of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree is scheduled for March 10 at First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Conn., reports Methodists in New Directions,  an unofficial New York Conference group that advocates for greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of the church.

Ogletree, a retired seminary dean noted for his work on Christian ethics, presided over the wedding of his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, to Nicholas Haddad on Oct. 20, 2012. The service took place at the Yale Club in New York City.

Ogletree, 80, is a Yale Divinity School professor emeritus, veteran of the civil rights movement and lifelong member of the Methodist tradition. Ogletree is declining interview requests at this time.

But, in May, he told United Methodist News Service that as a professor, he rarely has been asked to perform weddings. When his son asked him to officiate, he said he felt “deeply moved.”

He said in a statement released Jan. 17 that “I could not with any integrity as a Christian refuse my son’s request to preside at his wedding.”

“It is a shame that the church is choosing to prosecute me for this act of love, which is entirely in keeping with my ordination vows to ‘seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people’ and with Methodism’s historic commitment to inclusive ministry embodied in its slogan ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’”

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Church law says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

If found guilty, Ogletree could face a variety of penalties. The Book of Discipline gives a trial court of 13 clergy — the church equivalent of a jury — a range of choices up to revoking Ogletree’s credentials as United Methodist clergy. However, a trial court also can opt for a lesser penalty.

Voters in the New York Conference repeatedly have approved petitions seeking to change church law on homosexuality, most recently in 2011. In 2013, the conference approved a resolution by Methodists in New Directions that commended United Methodist individuals and congregations “whose bold actions and courageous statements help to provide for the pastoral needs of same-sex couples within The United Methodist Church.”

Complaint process

The Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., was among the New York Conference clergy who filed a complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared on Oct. 21, 2012, in The New York Times.

Paige is the president of the Wesley Fellowship, an unofficial evangelical renewal group in the New York Conference.

“As we who brought the complaint expressed to Bishop McLee , we take no joy in bringing this complaint,” Paige said.  ”We do it in obedience to Christ and the laws of our Church.  His honor, along with the integrity of the entire United Methodist Church is the motive driving this action.”

Ogletree and Paige met face to face in late January 2013 to try to find a just resolution to the dispute and avoid a trial. Paige asked Ogletree to promise never to officiate at such a union again. Ogletree declined.

New York Area Bishop Martin D. McLee informed Ogletree in March that he had referred the case to a church counsel — the equivalent of a prosecutor. The church counsel then determined that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

The Book of Discipline says “church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.”

McLee said in a statement released late Jan. 17 that he still prays that the complainants and Ogletree can negotiate a just resolution and a trial avoided.

“During this most difficult time in the life of the church, I invite you to be in prayer for the Reverend Dr. Ogletree, the complainants and all who have a vested interest in this matter,” his statement said. “God is still God and that is where our trust and hope lies.”

Expectations of trial

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial United Methodist evangelical renewal group Good News, will serve as an advocate for the clergy who filed the complaint against Ogletree.

“I hope that (the trial) will accomplish the goal of holding the Rev. Ogletree accountable to the vows he made as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church,” Lambrecht said.

He served as counsel in the church case against the Rev. Amy DeLong, who  was found guilty of officiating in a same-sex union at a public church trial in June 2011. He also helped Paige file the complaint against Ogletree.

Paige added: “We filed this complaint in the spirit of Matthew 18 following Christ’s direction when a brother/sister sins.  We are to go to him asking him to listen.  The goal is restoration; the implicit requirement is repentance.”

Dorothee Benz, chair of Methodists in New Directions, said a trial “is a sad, painful thing. We are waiting for the scales to fall from some eyes to see that and to embrace the path of love instead of the path of legalism.”

“On the face of it, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the church would rather criminalize ministry for LBGQT people than bend on one little anything.”

Ogletree told UMNS in May that as retired clergy, it won’t make much difference if he loses his credentials. Both federal law and provisions of United Methodist retirement plans prohibit depriving clergy members of the pension benefits they already have earned.

Lambrecht said that the goal of those filing the complaint is not necessarily to affect Ogletree’s financial standing.

“Our goal is to have a public declaration of accountability, and if Rev. Ogletree were to lose his credentials, it would be a very public statement that his actions were outside of the agreed-upon covenant of United Methodist clergy.”

Widening dispute

Ogletree’s case comes at a time when the church’s debate regarding human sexuality has intensified and more clergy have been willing to defy publicly church law.

He was among more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States, who in 2011, signed pledges announcing their willingness to defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-gender unions. The New York Conference alone has 218 clergy signers, supported by 1,000 lay signers.

Bishops promised in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, to uphold church law banning same-gender unions.

Since then, the dispute has become only more public.

Frank Schaefer in the East Pennsylvania Conference was told in December to surrender his credentials after he was found guilty in a church trial of officiating at the 2007 nuptials of his son to another man. After a 30-day suspension, Schaefer said he could not abide by the Book of Discipline “in its entirety because of its discriminatory laws.”  He also announced plans to appeal the ruling. The trial and  itsaftermath made headlines nationwide.

Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated on Oct. 26, 2013, at the same-sex union of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, members of Discovery United Methodist Church in Hoover, Ala. The Council of Bishops has called for a complaint to be filed against Talbert.

A complaint against the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, has been referred to church counsel. Heiss has said he officiated at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. Two cases in the Pacific Northwest Conference have likewise been referred to counsel.