Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a United Methodist clergyman and distinguished scholar of Christian ethics, will be charged and tried in a church trial for officiating at the wedding of his son, Ogletree and Methodists in New Directions (MIND) announced Friday. Because the wedding, legally performed in New York State, was between two men, Ogletree’s participation in it is barred by church law, which holds that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and explicitly forbids its clergy from performing same-sex marriages or holy union ceremonies. The trial will be the first since a nationwide movement of clergy and lay supporters emerged within the church to publicly defy the ban and to extend their ministries to all couples, gay and straight, on an equal basis.
“I could not with any integrity as a Christian, as United Methodist or as a specialist in Christian social ethics refuse my son’s request to preside at his wedding,” explained Ogletree, who is a retired professor and a past dean of both the Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary. “Performing Tom and Nick’s wedding was one of the most significant ritual acts of my life as a pastor,” he added, referring to his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, and son-in-law, Nicholas William Haddad.
“That Tom Ogletree – a lifelong faithful Methodist and theologian who wrote a section of the very rule book now being used to prosecute him – could be brought up on charges for officiating at his own son’s wedding shows just how far off course the United Methodist Church has gone from any effort to live up to its slogan ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors,’ to say nothing of following Jesus’s commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’” said Dr. Dorothee Benz, chair of MIND.
Ogletree’s service to the United Methodist Church (UMC), which dates back to 1952, includes a term served on the UMC’s Episcopal Committee, during which he authored “Our Theological Task,” the section of the UMC’s Book of Discipline that explicates one of the foundational pieces of Weslyan theology. This discussion of the role of scripture, tradition, experience and reason in the life of the church forms one of the key parts of the Discipline, the text that outlines both the UMC’s doctrine and its rules.
“Tom’s actions were quintessentially pastoral,” said Rev. Vicki Flippin, associate pastor of The Church of the Village in Manhattan. “No minister should be required to discriminate against those they are charged to care for.”
The wedding took place on October 20, 2012, and a complaint was filed on October 24 with the bishop of the regional church body that Ogletree is part of, the New York Annual Conference (NYAC). The complaint set in motion a formal disciplinary process that has now resulted in the bishop referring the case to church counsel (the equivalent of a prosecutor) to draw up charges, which are the first step in initiating a church trial.
Prof. Ogletree’s willingness to ignore the rules that would prohibit him from presiding over his own son’s wedding is the latest evidence of a growing crisis of authority within the United Methodist Church resulting from its continued discrimination against LGBT people. In 14 of the UMC’s annual conferences, networks of clergy have organized and publicly declared their intent to defy the church’s gay wedding ban. In NYAC, the initiative, spearheaded by MIND, is called We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality, and includes 210 clergy as well as 881 lay people pledged to defend clergy in the case of any punitive actions. Six entire congregations are also part of the initiative, having voted to offer weddings to all couples as a matter of their official church policy. As a result of We do! and similar initiatives, gay weddings and holy union ceremonies are regularly taking place across the country.
“We refuse to discriminate any longer, and we call on United Methodists at every level of the church to do the same,” said Benz. MIND is asking NYAC officials to refuse to enforce the discriminatory church law, specifically calling on counsel for the church to refuse to draw up formal charges against Ogletree and on the bishop to refuse to initiate a church trial.
Ironically, Ogletree’s conduct in this case is wholly consistent with the official positions of NYAC, which has long dissented from the UMC’s prejudice against LGBT people, even though it is NYAC officials who are now prosecuting him. In resolutions passed at NYAC’s annual governing conferences, it has said that the UMC ban on same-sex weddings inhibits appropriate pastoral freedom for pastors to minister to their congregations and has explicitly urged restraint in the filing of charges against pastors who perform such weddings.