By Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert*
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.
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 is a Yale Divinity School professor emeritus, veteran of the civil rights movement and lifelong member of the Methodist tradition. He told United Methodist News Service in May 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 described the ceremony in a statement as “one of the most significant ritual acts of my life as a pastor.”
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.”
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.
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.
Ogletree’s case comes at a time when the church’s debate has intensified and more clergy have been willing to defy publicly church law.
Ogletree 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 had 208 clergy signers, supported by 869 lay signers.
Bishops promised in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, to uphold church law banning same-gender 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 can also opt for a lesser penalty.
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.
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 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.”
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.
*Hahn and Gilbert are multimedia reporters for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615)742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.