Marriage comes to United Methodist Church, in New York
March 11th, 2014
The United Methodist Church has been split for decades over the issue of where gay people fit within the body of faith. Many churches, even districts, have made loud gestures of inclusion and advocated for equality. But the UMC is a global, rather than national, denomination and representatives from Asia and Africa have allied with conservatives in the US to block advancement and inclusion. And so gay members remain banned from the clergy and officiating at same-sex marriages is forbidden.
Consequently, there is a growing sense of frustration by many of the UMC laity and clergy and an increasing likelihood of schism. This has been exacerbated by the ferocious and punitive responses by conservative Methodists who, holding the advantage of votes from foreign delegates, have arrogantly imposed their values on the majority of American Methodists.
The latest example was in November when a church trial in Pennsylvania convicted Frank Schaefer of violating the Methodist Book of Discipline by officiating at his son’s wedding. Those leading the charge were vile in their attack and succeeded in having Schaefer de-credentialed.
In response, Minerva Carcaño, UMC Bishop of Los Angeles, invited Schaefer to Southern California to work out of her office and to minister, though in a somewhat lesser capacity.
But while Schaefer’s trial caught the attention of the church and the public, it promised to pale in comparison to the scheduled trial of another Methodist minister accused of breaking the church’s doctrine by officiating at his son’s wedding. Schaefer was somewhat obscure, but Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree is not. (Yale)
Professor Ogletree has served as dean of Yale Divinity School (1990–96) and the Theological School at Drew University (1981–90). He was director of graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University (1978–81). He is the author of five books… He was also one of the principal drafters of the current United Methodist Disciplinary statement on doctrinal standards. Under the auspices of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Cross-Disciplinary Fellowship from the Society for Values in Higher Education, he pursued postdoctoral studies at the Free University in West Berlin, and at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He is a life member of Clare Hall at Cambridge University.
Defrocking a pastor of a rural Pennsylvania church is one thing. But seeking to expel the former dean of Yale Divinity School from your denomination commands global news coverage, and not in a way that makes your church look more Christian.
And so, with less than a week before trial, the bishop responsible for Ogletree’s trial made a dramatic decision. (NYTimes)
Bishop McLee, who oversees about 460 churches in lower New York State and Connecticut, agreed to drop all charges against Dr. Ogletree; in exchange, he asked only that Dr. Ogletree participate in a dialogue about the church and its stance on matters of sexuality. Promoting dialogue, the bishop said, could be a model for other United Methodist bishops to follow.
“While many insist on the trial procedure for many reasons, I offer that trials are not the way forward,” Bishop McLee said in a statement attached to the resolution of Dr. Ogletree’s case. “Church trials result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
McLee said that he would not prosecute cases in his district in which UMC ministers violated the Book of Discipline by officiating at same sex weddings, effectively giving permission to begin UMC gay marriages in New York.
It is too soon to know whether other bishops follow McLee’s lead, but I think it likely. And the consequence will be either to disunite the Methodists, or to result in an uneasy alliance under which each bishop or church can follow their conscience and the conservatives will fade into the corners. But irrespective of the eventual consequence to the denomination, to gay and lesbian Methodists this is an exciting and joyous moment.
OK UMC clergy declare support
January 20th, 2014
Today the Oklahoma United Methodists for Equality ran the following ad in the Tulsa World:
November 20th, 2013
Having been found guilty yesterday of breaking the Methodist Book of Discipline by officiating at his son’s wedding, United Methodist minister Frank Schaefer went back before the jury today to be sentenced. But today Schaefer was defiant and dared them to do their worst. (NY Daily News)
“I have to minister to those who hurt and that’s what I’m doing,” said Schaefer.
The prosecutor, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, invited Schaefer to “repent of your actions” and pledge never again to perform a homosexual union.
“I cannot,” Schaefer replied.
His refusal to submit to the church law infuriated his accusers.
Jon Boger, who filed the initial complaint against Schaefer, was outraged by the pastor’s recalcitrance. The career Naval officer grew up in Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, the church that Schaefer has led for 11 years.
“Frank Schaefer sat here and openly rebuked the United Methodist Church, its policies, standards and doctrines,” Bolger said when called as a rebuttal witness. “He should no longer be in service as a minister of the United Methodist Church, not at Iona, not anywhere else.”
But Schaefer did not back down. He chided the church about hate speech and insisted that it needs to stop treating gays as “second class Christians”. In closing, he put on a rainbow colored stole, a symbol within the church of gay supporters, and said,
I cannot go back to being a silent supporter. I must continue to be in ministry with all people and speak for LGBTQ people. Members of the jury, before you decide my penalty, you need to know I wear his rainbow stole as a visible sign that this is who I am called to be.
After deliberation, the jury sentenced him to a 30 day suspension, a very lenient sentence considering the subject and Schaefer’s refusal to repent and his pledge to take this fight as his mission.
They warned him, however, not to break any rules within 30 days or he’d lose his credentials. This story may be far from over.
Schaefer found guilty
November 19th, 2013
Yesterday the United Methodist Church put Rev. Frank Schaefer on trial. (WaPo)
By the end of the day, the rare jury of 13 Methodist pastors had found Schaefer guilty on two charges: “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.” On Tuesday morning, the jury reconvened to devise Schaefer’s penalty for agreeing in 2006 to marry his son Tim, who earlier had contemplated suicide over his homosexuality.
Schaefer’s punishment will be decided today and could range from a reprimand to expulsion. And the prosecutor is seeking as severe a punishment as possible. (Sun Times)
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who is serving as the church’s prosecutor, urged the jury in his opening statement to consider whether Schaefer will “repent of and renounce his disobedience to the (Methodist Book of) Discipline,” and promise to obey the denomination’s book of law and doctrine in the future.
Fisher told jurors that Schaefer’s disobedience couldn’t go unpunished.
“Ministers are not free to reinterpret (their) vows according to personal preference,” said Fisher, whose closing argument condemning homosexuality prompted Schaefer’s supporters to stand in silent protest in the gymnasium that served as a temporary courtroom.
“As a father, I understand the desire to show love and support to my children,” Fisher said. “It’s not always true we can do for our children everything they want us to do. True love draws boundaries.”
This line of attack does call into question the extent to which the denomination is sincere in it’s welcome and pledge of ministry to gay persons. If the crime was breaking a rule, that is one thing; but if the punishment is based on opposition to homosexuality, that is quite another.
And, finally, we now have learned the motivation behind the accuser. The mother of Jon Bolger, the man who filed the claim, was recently removed from her position as choir director.
Methodist minister goes on church trial for performing son’s marriage
November 18th, 2013
Unlike many other denominations, the UMC is not an American denomination; rather it is a global church with about a third of it’s membership outside the US. Ever four years, a convention of representatives meets to set it’s doctrines and policies and the issue of gay Methodists, pastors, and marriage are regularly debated. And while many Methodists are fiercely supportive of our rights, both civil and religious, the delegates from Africa and Asia uniformly oppose any movement towards acceptance.
In 2012, with 39% of delegates from outside the US, the church again confirmed the position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and during scheduled ‘holy conversations’ on the subject, a number of participants felt that they were bullied and derided by those who oppose inclusion.
After the convention, the many within the church in the US began a stage of discontent. Several regional conferences express dissatisfaction with the decision, and in Washington and Minnesota they encouraged voters to support marriage equality on the ballot.
Many others, supported by retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, are rebelling against the rules. In Pennsylvania, over 30 UMC ministers pledged to defy the Methodist Book of Discipline and to jointly officiate at a same-sex wedding. They are making the stand in support of a fellow Pennsylvania minister, Frank Schaefer, who went on trial today.
Six years ago Schaefer’s son Tim asked him to officiate at his wedding. Schaefer agreed and for six years no one complained. Then a few weeks before the statute of limitations ran, a congregant who was “dismayed and shocked” to learn about the event pressed charges. (yahoo)
A United Methodist minister who officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he broke his pastoral vows.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon entered his plea at the beginning of a high-profile church trial in southeastern Pennsylvania that is rekindling debate over the denomination’s policy on gay marriage.
Schaefer contends that the Methodist Book of Discipline also directs pastors to address the needs of their flock, including gay members and that this was an act of love, not of rebellion.
This trial is being closely watched both within and without the church, including by several other ministers who are also up for trial.
Depending on the outcome of this trial – and others – the United Methodist Church could be in for some tumultuous years. The church is growing rapidly in Africa and the Philippines while it is decreasing in the United States. While support is growing locally, the delegation is increasingly from parts of the world where gays are treated with open contempt, allowing the anti-gay minority in the US to punish those who stand up for justice and mercy.
The Tennesseean profiles Bishop Melvin Talbert
November 6th, 2013
Despite warnings from his denomination that he’d be violating the faith’s Book of Discipline, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from Nashville to near Birmingham, Ala., to perform the Oct. 26 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. They were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., but wanted a church wedding.
Talbert sees his involvement as an act of civil disobedience for a moral cause, and if you want to disagree, you’d better have some pretty big boots.
He volunteered to perform same-sex weddings and urged fellow clergy to do the same. He likens his work to the nation’s civil rights movement, a comparison he doesn’t make lightly. Talbert, now 79, shared an Atlanta jail cell with Martin Luther King Jr. in October 1960 after being arrested at an Atlanta lunch counter sit-in.
Talbert was one of the student organizers who invited King to join their protest. He spent three days and nights in the cell with King, which molded the direction of his life.
See also the Huntsville Times
You know that you’ve lost the “protect marriage” battle, when…
July 6th, 2012
… the United Methodist Church in Washington votes to endorse the marriage referendum, Referendum 74. (SeattlePI)
The church’s Pacific Northwest Annual Conference passed a resolution worded to “encourage all people to approve Referendum 74 so that the Marriage Equality Act can be put into law.”
Moderate Christians begin to speak up
June 8th, 2012
There is a fairly new but growing trend in Christianity: moderate Christians who have finally decided that far right conservatives will not be the only face of the faith. I’ve been saying for a while that if moderates don’t speak up that they have only themselves to blame if the unchurched think that all Christians are extremists and homophobes. But now they are speaking up.
In Minnesota, ministers from different denominations have joined together to oppose the proposed marriage ban. (Necn.com)
Among the latter was the Rev. Kelly Chatman, lead pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He took take a public stand against the amendment, he said Friday, “because I don’t want that other voice to be the only voice, I don’t want same-sex people to see all churches that way.
“I’m doing this because it’s important people see a pastor who believes that God is loving to everybody.”
Plenty of prominent Minnesota denominations have come out squarely against the amendment. Five Minnesota synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have approved formal resolutions in opposition to the marriage amendment. Earlier this month, the general assembly of Minnesota’s United Methodists overwhelmingly approved a resolution against the amendment.
This is so important for us for two reasons: first, it is essential that people not believe that the position of all people of faith is to support discrimination or that this is what God wants (many who never darken a church door will do “what God wants” on an issue they are not real clear on).
But as important is that when ministers begin to see this as a matter of justice and what they believe to be consistent with the call of Christ, they can get pretty worked up about it. And they can inspire their congregations to become allies for equality. And little old Methodist church ladies can reach people we have no access to with the message of “well, I just believe God wants us to treat gay people the way we want to be treated”. And that is a very powerful message indeed.
And I think that when compared to the other voices, those who call for equality, justice, and mercy have a natural advantage. They don’t sound like this:
The Rev. Bryan Pedersen of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Robbinsdale, said he’s been approached by parishioners at odds with his own public stand for the amendment.
“Every one of them will be accountable to God for how they’re informed by their conscience,” Pedersen said. “The definition of marriage is non-negotiable.”
Who speaks for Jesus?
March 8th, 2012
Within the more than 2 billion people on the planet who fall under the very diverse umbrella of Christianity, there are a good many voices who claim to speak for the founder of the faith. What Would Jesus Do is not only a trite slogan but a question that many religious leaders seek to answer, often with “exactly what I want to do”.
But sometimes that isn’t a question without an answer. If the gospels reflect the attitudes and theological positions expressed by Jesus, then sometimes it’s really pretty clear what Jesus would do, or say, or expect. Take, for example, this small disagreement between a Methodist minister and the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.
For decades Francis House in Sacramento has served the needy of the community. The Bee describes them thusly:
Each morning, dozens of poor people line up at Francis House, in Sacramento’s homeless services epicenter on C and 14th streets, for help with basic services such as housing and transportation. Now in its 42nd year, the organization is one of the largest homeless services agencies in the Sacramento region, serving upward of 25,000 people. It has an annual budget of about $500,000.
More than a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, Francis House is partly referral agency for address substance abuse, legal issues, and basic needs and partly an effort to provide the immediate necessities for people to become employable or safe. They do things like provide bus tokens, training in what is expected from employers, and yes get food and shelter to individuals and families in crisis. But, recognizing that while food may address hunger, it cannot change a life, a significant part of their work is counseling.
And though some of this is possible through programs funded by various levels of government, the majority is contributions from individuals and organizations. With three full time employees, three part time, and about 50 volunteers, they try to put their faith into action to change the world for those who most need change. The final paragraph in their Form 990 listing of accomplishments puts it this way:
Through God’s grace and the generous support of our community, we strive to serve the poorest among us, as worthy of His grace and His love regardless of circumstances. As we open our hearts to healing and growth we strive to assist our guests to discover a better life.
(I love the language that sees the necessity for healing and growth in the hearts of those who are not disadvantaged)
The group is not denominationally driven and receives funding from a wide variety of sources, one of which was an annual $7,000 to $10,000 contribution from the Catholic Church. But in December 2010 the director for the past 2 decades died from a heart attack and the new director just doesn’t live up to the Church’s expectations.
You see, before Rev. Faith Whitmore became the executive director, when she was still the senior pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, she expressed her personal views on some issue and her personal views are in disagreement with the declarations of the Vatican.
No, these views were not about liturgy or sacraments. They didn’t address papal infallibility, transubstantiation, or the veneration of Mary. No problem arose about catechism, form of baptism, or even whether each could consider the other a brother or sister in Christ.
But the issues about which Whitmore expressed opinion go to the heart of the differences between where the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church today: the extent to which each church believes it has a claim on the unquestioning obedience of those around them. Whitmore expressed opinions which “publicly oppose Catholic teaching” and that makes her and Francis house unacceptable. And these teachings, unlike the mystical matters of faith that purported divide denominations, are the matters which define the approach of each.
Within her own denomination, she has been a strong advocate of same-sex marriage. In 2008, during a short period in which gay marriage was legal in California, Whitmore openly defied church law by marrying same-sex couples. She has said publicly that she supports a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.
Gay marriage and abortion. These are the issues with which one MUST conform to Catholic teaching (a position that would disqualify most Catholics). And the difference is not even whether each should be a part of sacrament or even recognized as morally acceptable, the difference is what society can and should demand of its citizens and to whom it should defer.
It should be noted that Whitmore does not hold these views despite her faith. These are not matters of a secular nature, but rather are to her matters of justice and mercy situated at the heart of Christ and his message.
And so here we have two intractable positions, both integral to their faith, both established and bound by what each party believes is the will of God. Each believes that their view is the holy and righteous position.
And I can see how each came to hold their views and why they believe them to be moral. But views are not all we are discussing. And when we look at the priorities chosen and the behaviors resulting from a clenched hold to these views, I cannot see how one of these two parties can see themselves as being ambassadors of Christ.
Because one of these parties has been on a consistent path: if society will not conform to their doctrine, they will not run orphanages. Civil law must follow church law or they will not administer governmental aid programs. And now, if anyone dare differ with their beliefs, they will not feed the hungry or provide counsel for those seeking to reestablish themselves in the working world.
There are many issues on which Christian voices can claim to speak for Christ, but on this one, I’ll let Jesus speak for himself.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
More pissed off Methodists
June 30th, 2011
When I wrote about the United Methodists who are up in arms in Minnesota over marriage equality, some readers thought I was mocking them. This is the farthest from the truth: I respect and admire them.
But truly, Methodists tend to be a steady bunch. Very nice people, but just not all that excitable.
But every once in a while an issue comes along that fires them up and gets them agitating for change. And when they do, change happens. Which is why I am delighted that the United Methodist marriage movement is spreading. (Although, yes, I’m amused as well.)
Inspired by the Minneapolis letter, Methodists in New England are signing on to their own letter of defiance, declaring that they too will “offer the grace of the church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage.” And they got a lot more support than expected. (Portland Press Herald)
“We used the exact same statement they used in Minnesota, and we invited like-minded colleagues to sign with us” during the conference, he said.
He hoped for 12 people to stand with them. Fifty signed the statement on the first day.
That number grew to 90 by the end of the conference, and it now stands at 123, about one in nine clergy members in the New England Conference.
Now it may not seem that one in nine is significant enough to represent drastic change. But this is one in nine willing to sign a letter of defiance, expressing intent to violate the rules of the church, declaring that this issue is one of such importance that unity and formality fall secondary. In other words, this is ten percent of the church that is pissed off, fired up, and ready to love their opposition into submission.
And never ever underestimate the power of a pissed off Methodist.
How do you piss off a United Methodist minister?
June 3rd, 2011
How do you piss off a United Methodist minister?
Seriously? Have you ever met a United Methodist minister? Not exactly an excitable bunch.
But it seems to me that some UMC ministers have found a cause around which they are willing to be radical militant activists: marriage.
Now the UMC has not adopted a same-sex marriage rite. It hasn’t even approved Methodist ministers being allowed to conduct marriages. But those in the church who believe in equality have become rather, shall we say, disinclined to quietly wait for change.
I first noticed this in 2008 when California’s two conferences (Northern and Southern) thumbed their nose at their national rules and said “Fine, so our current pastors are banned from conducting marriages… well, then, we’ll vote to encourage and support retired ministers conducting same-sex marriages. That ain’t breaking no rules!”
And then this past weekend, the Baltimore – Washington Conference passed the following resolution, ensuring that this issue will be brought up next April at the national convention.
“[I]n those civil jurisdictions where homosexual persons have been granted the right to same gender marriage or civil union, ceremonies celebrating those marriages or unions may be conducted in our churches and by our ministers, the decision being the right and responsibility of the pastor.”
That wasn’t expected to pass. But the pro-gay ministers are refusing to sit still and respect the hesitations of others.
But that wasn’t really the example of how you piss off a UMC minister. That’s just progress. To really piss one off, you have to propose a marriage ban.
During the Methodists’ annual conference in St. Cloud this week, about 40 clergy members signed a statement saying they would “offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage.”
“Groups have been meeting who want to challenge parts of the United Methodist polity with which we disagree — that which relates to the lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual community and Christian marriage,” said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, who serves at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.
“With the possibility of a constitutional amendment in the state of Minnesota [defining marriage as limited to heterosexual couples], this seems important.”
I can just see the indignation. “A ban? Well, I’m so angry I’ll just, I’ll just… offer the grace of the Church’s blessing, by golly! That’s what I’ll do!”
Don’t you love it when the Methodists get all defiant and activisty?
UPDATE: The Christian Post says that the number of signatories has now increased to 70. They are really pissed.
Update 2: There seems to be some confusion due to the tone of the commentary. I am not mocking these Methodist ministers. They are taking rather large risks, and are true heroes.
Being Gay Is a Gift From God
May 6th, 2011
That is the message from the Central United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio. It’s part of a larger campaign which the church calls “a prophetic call to the Church to get out of the business of marginalizing gay and lesbian persons from the Church, and to welcome them as full members. The electronic billboard lit up with the message on April 25, and the church has secured the billboard for one month. They’d like to extend it if they can raise enough money.
[Hat tip: Lez Get Real]
United Methodists to revisit Judicial Council gay-exclusion ruling
July 30th, 2010
See Update below
In 2005, Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, refused church membership to a gay man that would not promise to live celibately. This exclusion based on solely sexual orientation was unacceptable to Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who put pastor Johnson on unpaid leave until such time as he recanted and accepted the man as member.
Anti-gay activists within the United Methodist (and without) saw this as defying a holy man’s stand for God and righteousness and sued before the Church’s Judicial Council. On October 30th of that year, the Judicial Council, controlled by conservatives, ruled that Edward Johnson had rightfully used his pastoral discretion in refusing to accept an openly gay man as a member of his church and reinstated Johnson as the head of South Hill UMC.
This proved to be a pyrrhic victory. Rather than quietly accept the decision, the Council of Bishops was infuriated. First it challenged the authority of Bishops to administer the flock in their region, and secondly (and more importantly) it sent out a message that the UMC was exclusionary and that it did not welcome worshipers unless they fit a certain criteria.
Within a week the Council of Bishops unanimously voted to issue a letter saying that, contrary to the Council’s decision, homosexuality was not a barrier to membership in the United Methodist Church. This letter had the support of both liberals and conservatives including some African Bishops (the part of the international church that is most conservative).
Shortly thereafter Johnson was relocated to another church and his replacement quickly invited the gay man to become a member of South Hill UMC.
In 2008, there was much hope that the United Methodist Church would adopt theological revisions that would be more welcoming to gay Methodists. Some UMC divisions, like those in California, are fierce advocates for gay Christians and sought a more inclusive gospel. However, conservatives Americans reneged on brokered deals by committees and banded together with African and Asian UMC representatives and blocked most progress.
However, one thing that was changed was the makeup of the Judicial Council. Prior to the 2008 convention it had a 6 to 3 conservative majority, but it left that meeting with a 7 to 2 liberal control. This newly comprised Judicial Council has decided to revisit the 2005 decision. (AP)
The highest court in the United Methodist Church will review its 2005 ruling that allowed a clergyman to bar a noncelibate gay man from joining a congregation.
The Judicial Council will take up the issue when it convenes Wednesday, Oct. 27, through, Saturday, Oct. 30, in New Orleans, according to United Methodist News Service.
UPDATE: Neill Caldwell, editor of the Advocate, a UMC publication, has provided some correction and clarification:
Rev. Ed Johnson first declined for the gay man to officially take membership in the congregation at South Boston, even though the man was already an active participant in the life of the church. Because of that refusal Johnson had charges filed against him by his immediate supervisor, called a District Superintendent, and the charges were then reviewed by his clergy peers at what’s called the Executive Clergy Session. Johnson’s clergy brothers and sisters overwhelmingly approved his being placed on involuntary leave of absence, which means that he was replaced as pastor of the South Boston church he’d been serving and suspended without pay. Bishop Kammerer then upheld the decision of the Executive Clergy Session when she was asked to review it at the Virginia Annual Conference by a question from the floor. No matter the subject, all such bishop’s “Decisions of Law” are automatically reviewed by the Judicial Council, which acts much like the denomination’s “supreme court,” so there was no “appeal” to the Judicial Council by anti-gay forces.
The Judicial Council, in a decision that was immediately and has continued to be very controversial, overruled the bishop and the action of the Executive Clergy session, and said that Johnson must be reinstated to his previous appointment. He was, but was soon appointed to another church in a different part of the state. The case has come before the Judicial Council at several times since in various ways, and each time the Council has reclined to revisit the case.
These latest appeals come from three other annual conferences (Minnesota, Arkansas and Northern Illinois) with a different tactic: At the 2008 session of the General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s official (and only) legislative body which meets every 4 years, the phrase in our Constitution was changed from “… a person may become a member …” to “… a person shall become a member…” to remove (hopefully) any ambiguity. The Judicial Council has a rule that a ruling may be revisited of the language in our Book of Discipline has changed that the council’s decision specifically dealt with. So these three conferences are appealing through that specific rule.
It’s a complex case that is not easily outlined!
There is also a “political” component: The Judicial Council is a panel with a 5-4 clergy/laity or laity/clergy split which is elected by the delegates of the General Conference. When the Judicial Council made its original decision, it had a 5-4 conservative majority. Then in 2008, four of the most conservative members were not re-elected, but were replaced by persons who would be considered much more progressive. This almost certainly was pushback due to the Ed Johnson decision by members of the general church.
Thank you, Neill. As you said, it is complex and I appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge of the case with us.
A Most Unusual Methodist
September 1st, 2009
David Weekley is a bit unusual for a United Methodist Church pastor. For one thing, he’s a Caucasian pastor of a historic 95% Japanese-American congregation. And for another, he has for the past 27 years kept the secret that he was born female. (WestLinn Tidings)
Standing behind his pulpit, Weekley began his usual worship service. About halfway through, he paused to share a personal message he called “My Book Report.”
He told them that in 1984, just nine years after undergoing extensive sex-reassignment surgeries, he was ordained by the Methodist Church without telling anyone of his original gender at birth.
Following his story, the congregation, who had remained silent throughout his talk, broke into thunderous applause. Church members then proclaimed their support for their pastor.
Days may be difficult ahead for Weekley, as the UMC is one of the more conservative branches of mainline Christianity. But at present he has a supportive family, supportive congregation, and supportive region. And his testimony can perhaps reach hearts that already know and love him and serve to open eyes and expand thinking.
What Does Ex-Gay Consolidation Mean?
August 12th, 2009
Exodus International is growing. Or, to be exact, they are going to be taking over functions previously administered by other organizations.
The largest and best know of these is the Love Won Out conferences previously run by Focus on the Family. Blaming a lack of finances, Focus is reassigning the conferences to Exodus. This is a move that is logical and will probably help both organization focus on their own mission.
But there was another consolidation that occured last month that is even more interesting. on July 17, Focus’ news site CitizenLink announced:
One by One, an outreach equipping the Presbyterian and Reformed faith communities to compassionately and effectively address biblical sexuality and Transforming Congregations, a likeminded ministry to The United Methodist Church, announced plans to merge with Exodus International. Exodus is the world’s largest Christian outreach to those dealing with same-sex attraction.
Together, the ministries will form a new division under the leadership of Exodus that will equip church leaders worldwide to break the polarizing debate over homosexuality through an approach that is both biblically orthodox and truly compassionate.
One by One came out of a Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) conference in 1994. They are a ministry within the Presbyterian and Reformed faith communities and, as such, have traditions and religious perspectives that are a bit outside the fundamentalist/charasmatic/megachurch affiliations that seem to dominate Exodus’ spiritual sphere. One by One’s website expresses an intention to establish a church network, but there does not seem to be one in place. They seem, to my eyes at least, to be less harsh and less political than either Exodus or Transforming Congregations.
Transforming Congregations was founded in 1988 to address the issue of homosexuality within the United Methodist Church. At one time it had at least 75 congregations that affiliated with the organization. However, now Transforming Congregations is a national education and lobby group within the church and they have for some while left individual ministry to Exodus.
Over the years, we have found that to be impractical. A change in pastors or lay leadership often resulted in an “about face” on the issues of human sexuality. Because most of these churches did not request removal, it became virtually impossible to keep our list accurately updated. So now we refer folk to the Exodus International Church Network.
Neither organization appears to be focused primarily on individual one-on-one ministry or even on addressing the specific needs of same-sex attracted congregants. Rather, they seem to be organizations within their denominations that seek to support and encourage those who have an anti-gay theology and to encourage others who may not yet have addressed the issue of the roll of gay men and women within the body of faith.
One by One’s mission statement is:
OneByOne’s mission is to educate and equip the church to minister the transforming grace and power of Jesus Christ to those in conflict with their sexuality. OneByOne’s goal is therefore two-fold: (1) to serve as a resource for educational material; and (2) to help create and/or support local ministries to those struggling with sexual brokenness, including but not limited to homosexuality. OneByOne representatives are available to provide seminars and workshops for church leaders and/or members who want to learn how to minister Christ’s compassion without compromising Christ’s standards.
And that of Transforming Ministries is:
Our Purpose: Equipping the Church to model and minister sanctified sexuality through Biblical instruction … Personal and Public Witness … Compassionate Outreach
So it seems clear that Exodus is not merging with external collections of congregations to increase their base size. Nor are they establishing new relationships; these two organizations – along with Focus’ Love Won Out – already work closely with Exodus.
What they are getting, is two mainline denomination affiliated groups that are, as best I can tell, dropping the denomination affiliation and becoming a “project” of Exodus, an outreach to mainline churches under the Exodus label. They are picking up two voices for anti-gay theology from a mainline perspective.
I can, of course, only speculate. But here’s what I think is happening:
Mainline churches are adopting a welcoming and affirming approach to gay Christians at an astonishing rate. While neither the PC(USA) or the UMC are as fully inclusive as, say, the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church, they are steadily marching in that direction. “Compassionate” condemnation, such as that coming from such Presbyterians as Dr. Robert Gagnon or Methodists like Karen Booth is increasingly seen by their fellow worshipers as bigotry and outside of the message of Christ.
If I had to guess, I’d suppose that Exodus is recognizing that anti-gay activism is losing the home front. Perhaps they are wanting to let up on some of the anti-gay political activism and bolster their forces in the pews. And that may be reflected also in Exodus pulling a bit away from the highly political Focus on the Family.
So it may well be that these groups are experiencing fatigue and losing heart. Perhaps they think it best to retreat and consolidate resources so as to present one face of anti-gay protestant Christian response to same-sex attracted persons.
But that comes at a cost. Those who fight from without are never as strong as those who fight from within. I very much doubt that Exodus can be as effective a lobbyist on church policy in either the PC(USA) or the UMC as were One by One or Transforming Ministries. And neither organization was, frankly, doing that great of a job to begin with.
We’ll have to wait and see what eventually happens as a result of this transition.
What Mainline Clergy Believe
May 22nd, 2009
“Mainline Christianity” has deep roots and wide branches. With about 18% of Americans (and 24% of all voters), the denominations that makeup this more-liberal end of the Protestant Christian world trace to the founding of our nation. When Americans think of church – the steeple, the stained glass windows, the minister in a clerical collar – these are probably the Christians that come to mind.
However, in today’s sound-bite driven media and take-no-prisoners politics, moderate Christians with nuanced positions and non-combatant values don’t make for good television. Instead the fire-breathing “Bible believing” family values culture warrior gets to speak for all of Christianity. So to non-believers, the impression is that Christianity is at war with the rest of the world, and gays are enemy number one.
But a recent survey of Mainline ministers finds quite another Christian response to gay and lesbian Americans. On most issues, these denominations are quite supportive.
The six denominations included, in order of support are:
- United Church of Christ
- Episcopal Church
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Evanglical Lutheran Church in America
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- United Methodist Church
- American Baptist Churches (USA)
(for those unfamiliar, American Baptist Churches is a smaller Baptist organization that is not affiliated with the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention)
Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues: Findings from the 2008 Clergy Voices Survey was released this month. And it provides us with better understanding of the beliefs of clergy in Mainline Denominations.
In general, these ministers are supportive of gay civil rights. Additionally, they are fairly supporting of the inclusion of gay persons into the body of the church – though that differs by denomination.
Some of the more interesting public policy issue findings are:
- 79% agree with the statement “Homosexuals should have all the same rights and priveleges as other American citizens”
- 67% support passing gay-inclusive hate crime laws
- 66% support employment non-discrimination laws
- 55% support adoption by gay persons
The one area where there is not majority support is for marriage equality. Only 33% support gay marriage with another 32% supporting civil unions. However, as I discuss in another commentary, support for marriage goes up to 46% when religious assurances are given.
There is also a large variance between denominations on this issue.
- 67% – United Church of Christ
- 49% – Episcopal
- 42% – Disciples of Christ
- 38% – Presbyterian
- 37% – Lutheran
- 25% – Methodist
- 20% – American Baptist
After clergy were reassured that churches and ministers would not be forced to conduct such marriages, support for civil marriage laws were over 50% for all denominations other than United Methodist and American Baptist.
The report goes on to break Mainline Christianity into three camps in relation to gay and lesbian issues; 29% are a supportive base, 30% are an opposing base, and 41% are in an uncertain middle. They find that on most issues the middle tends to side with the supporting base.
They also found that 45% of mainline clergy report that they are more supportive than 10 years ago. Only 14% are more conservative. The following is how those who became more supportive explain the change.
Among clergy who reported becoming more liberal on gay and lesbian issues, the top factors they cited as being very or extremely important to this change were discernment through prayer and reflection (66%), having a friend, congregant or colleague who is gay or lesbian (58%), and additional Bible study (55%).
We have long known that coming out is a valuable way to influence public opinion. Those who have real life examples from which to draw – rather than lies and stereotypes from anti-gay activists – are more likely to find that gay men and women are a valuable part of the social fabric.
But those within the Christian fold will also find it interesting that prayer, reflection, and Bible study can yield greater support for gay persons. Religion, when applied by devout and sincere people seeking to find meaning from sacred Scriptures for real life situations, need not be the enemy of freedom and equality.
As for the inclusion of gays and lesbians into religious life, the study found
- 94% – welcome gay persons in their church
- 63% – believe that the gospel requires their full inclusion in the church
- 51% – believe the church should not work towards making homosexuality unacceptable
- 45% – support ordination of gay and lesbian ministers without special requirements
- 13% – lead congregations that have formally become “open and affirming congregations”
These denominations have the potential to become strong allies in our question for civil equalities. Already many ministers from these denominations are active in showing legislators and voting citizens People of Faith who do not agree with the political agenda of “Christian” and “Family” groups that seek the exclusion of gay persons from civil equalities.
As time goes on, it is increasingly likely that Mainline Christianity is going to move in the direction of fuller acceptance, inclusion, and support. We should, as a community, be appreciative of their help and proactive in efforts to build bridges to these churches.
Another Perspective on the Ocean Grove Pavilion
December 30th, 2008
The Transplanted Lawyer at Not a Potted Plant blogsite provides another perspective about the decision to allow a lesbian couple to go forward with their lawsuit against the Ocean Grove Meeting Association for its refusal to rent the couple the boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union. In my commentary, I focused on the finding of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights that one lesbian couple’s suit could advance. He finds more relevance in the fact that another lesbian couple was denied.
That two couples suing the Association with different results brings a contrast, one that should provide comfort to those worried about the infringment on religious rights and one that further illustrates the dishonesty in the way in which anti-gays have spun the story.
In Bernstein v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a lesbian couple wanted to perform a civil union ceremony at a beachside facility owned and operated by a [Methodist] faith organization (it appears to not be a church per se, but it affiliates and identifies with [Methodist] Christianity). The New Jersey agency investigating the complaint found probable cause to permit the charge of discrimination proceed. But, in Moore v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, another lesbian couple wanted to perform their civil union ceremony at the exact same facility. In that case, no probable cause was found. Both case results were announced on the same day — yesterday.
Same facts, same defendant, same facility, decided on the same day, but different results.
The reason for different results is because the circumstances had changed. When Bernstein requested usage, the Pavilion had been used for a wide variety of purposes – religious and non-religious – including weddings of people of all faiths or no faith at all. All that was required was to pay a fee. Thus it was a “public accomodation”. And the sole reason for rejection of Bernstein’s usage of this public accomodation was that their union was of persons of the same sex.
But when Moore requested usage, the Association had changed their policy and tightened the purpose of the Pavilion. They no longer allowed weddings in the space at all and limited those who were allowed use of the space based on religious affiliation. Thus, the space was no longer a public accomodation but private property with restricted use. Therefore, religious exemptions again applied.
He further noted that this process, presenting one’s discrimination case before a board before a lawsuit, is further protection for religious bodies.
The Transplanted Lawyer found three lessons:
the first lesson is that someone who claims to be the victim of discrimination cannot immediately walk into court and file a successful lawsuit. They must present their charge to a state or federal agency for investigation first, and that agency has to investigate and decide if there’s any merit.
there is the second lesson about the law of discrimination. You are subject to the requirements of non-discrimination only if you are engaged in something called a “public accommodation.” So if you don’t want same-sex wedding ceremonies in your church, don’t rent your church out to people who are not members of your church’s congregation.
That’s the third lesson — [when invoking freedom of expression,] commercial activity does not enjoy the same level of Constitutional protection as expressive activity.
I found the arguments well thought out and easy to comprehend. And I think that the Tranplanted Lawyer very well expressed the moral of this story:
When the church stops being a church and starts being a banquet hall, then yes, it is vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit because it’s not acting like a church anymore. The message to churches that are opposed to same sex marriages is “stay true to your faith and the law will be on your side.”
Religious Business, Public Access, and Discrimination
December 29th, 2008
The recent campaign against civil marriage equality for gay people was rife with misinformation, spin, falsehoods, and downright lies. And one story which was repeated to great effect was a legal dispute over the use of a privately-owned public pavilion in New Jersey.
Seldom were the claims accurate.
Take, for example, Charlene: a single-mother of two who warned on her website of the dangers of gay marriage that she had learned at church. Amidst a heap of campaign propaganda and homophobic bogus statistics was this rather hysterical retelling:
Our Pastors would be arrested for preaching against homosexuality according to the BIBLE. God’s word would be restricted! Recently, a Methodist church in New Jersey refused to marry a lesbian couple and they were sued and LOST! Now they lost their tax exemption and the government actually TAXES their tithes! That is God’s Money!!
And it was not just frantic repetition of misunderstood sermons by those who rely on their church for their information; the anti-gay media also joined in the chorus.
The Christian Examiner ran an article – ironically titled Proposition 8: Separating the Fiction from Fact – in which they delared:
CLAIM: Current California law exempts churches and other religious organizations from having to perform marriages for same-sex couples or conduct other services against their religious beliefs.
FACT 1: New Jersey’s Ocean Grove Camp, lost its tax-exempt status after refusing to allow a same-sex couple to marry on its grounds.
The problem with these astonishing facts? They are not factual.
The LA Times explained it this way:
Another “Yes on 8″ canard is that the continuation of same-sex marriage will force churches and other religious groups to perform such marriages or face losing their tax-exempt status. Proponents point to a case in New Jersey, where a Methodist-based nonprofit owned seaside land that included a boardwalk pavilion. It obtained an exemption from state property tax for the land on the grounds that it was open for public use and access. Events such as weddings — of any religion — could be held in the pavilion by reservation. But when a lesbian couple sought to book the pavilion for a commitment ceremony, the nonprofit balked, saying this went against its religious beliefs.
The court ruled against the nonprofit, not because gay rights trump religious rights but because public land has to be open to everyone or it’s not public. The ruling does not affect churches’ religious tax exemptions or their freedom to marry whom they please on their private property, just as Catholic priests do not have to perform marriages for divorced people and Orthodox synagogues can refuse to provide space for the weddings of interfaith couples. And Proposition 8 has no bearing on the issue; note that the New Jersey case wasn’t about a wedding ceremony.
The facts of the story are these:
- The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, while a religious ministry, is not a church.
- The association lists two sites available for weddings on its website: Thornley Chapel and Bishop Janes Tabernacle, both of which are restricted to usage that is consistent with the United Methodist Church book of Discipline and both of which ban smoking or alcoholic beverages on the premises. The lawsuit did not involve either of these church buildings.
- SEE UPDATE BELOW – The structure where the lesbian couple requested rental was the Auditorium Pavilion. The Pavilion was not designed as a place of worship but rather was built in the 1880′s as a covering for “a scale model of 1st Century AD Jerusalem”. The Historical Society of Ocean Grove reports that the model was removed about 1950 and that “Today the Pavilion is used by the Camp Meeting Association, the Historical Society and various community groups.” It did offer its services as a wedding site until April 2007, shortly after the complaint.
- The Association owns all of the land in Ocean Grove (one square mile) but by no means is all of this property dedicated to religious use. There are a number of homes on the land who lease from the association, along with stores, restaurants, and hotels, in 99 year leases, and a beach boardwalk along the public beach.
- The Association rents out the religious meeting facilities to various groups, although it does maintain a ban on smoking and drinking on those properties. However, Ocean Grove was known as a location that was very gay-friendly and welcoming.
- The Association made the beach, the boardwalk, and the boardwalk pavilion public access property. A 1908 ruling referenced that they “had been dedicated years ago by the association as a public highway”. As privately-held public lands, the beach properties were available for a number of benefits including federal state and local funds for repairs and maintenance and exemption from local property taxes through participation in the state’s Green Acres Program.
- After a lesbian couple was rejected by the Association when they tried to rent the space for a civil union ceremony in March 2007, they contacted the State Division on Civil Rights to make a discrimination complaint.
- The State of New Jersey reinstated the Association’s exemption from property tax for the beach and the rest of the boardwalk, but stated that it could not continue to exempt the pavilion as it was not truly open to the public. (NY Times)
“When people hear the words ‘open space,’ we want them to think not just of open air and land, but that it is open to all people,” said [Lisa Jackson, state commissioner of environmental protection]. “And when the public subsidizes it with tax breaks, it goes with the expectation that it is not going to be parsed out, whether it be by activity or any particular beliefs.”
As we can see, the situation in no way mirrors the “facts” as presented by anti-gay activists and those who choose to believe them. No church lost its exempt status, no tithes were taxed, and it wasn’t related to a same-sex marriage in New Jersey (the right to which remains denied to New Jersey residents).
But we can expect even more distortion and truthiness in the days to come. In a move likely to inspire more untruthful rants in the anti-gay media, today the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled further in favor of the lesbian couple (AP)
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights said its investigation found that the refusal of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to rent the oceanfront spot to the couple for their same-sex union in March 2007 violated the public accommodation provisions of the state’s Law Against Discrimination.
The legal resolutions on this case are far from settled.
Meanwhile, the parties in the dispute are awaiting a ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the issue should be decided in the division on civil rights or in federal courts. A lower federal court has ruled that the state could consider the case.
This case highlights some of the conflict between religous and civil separations.
Churches can and do often operate outside the realm of the faith and doctrine. A church may own performance halls, bookstores, restaurants, or a great many other establishments, some of which have little to no religious function. And the further away they get from their central purpose, the more gray and hazy become the distinctions that allow them to claim religious exemption from civil rights laws.
A Catholic bookstore, owned and operated by a parish for use by parishoners, is probably exempt from hiring those who do not share Catholic faith. But it becomes much less clear that a Catholic-affiliated hospital who accepts Medicare and insurance payments can refuse to hire a Jewish doctor or provide care to a black Muslim.
As anti-discrimination laws run up against anti-gay theology, churches will have to decide whether they wish to ‘uphold their doctrines’ or keep their sideline businesses. This will become particularly sticky when those sidelines seem to be part of their mission and when those businesses are facing competition from secular sources. And public financing only complicates the matter.
Take, for example, the feeding of the poor.
As an act of Christian charity, many churches or other religious organizations make an effort to provide food to the less fortunate. Not always, but quite often, this charitable act comes with the price of listening to a sermon or having someone pray with/over/about the hungry. And while most of these efforts are voluntary, some are large enough and sufficiently well funded so as to employ staff.
This is not a problem when its a local church helping out the neighbors. But churches have, in many instances, ceased thinking of their efforts as a duty or an outreach of their faith and have instead began to view their efforts as a service provider for the needy. And, as such, they see the government and public funds as a logical source for paying for their efforts.
What would have been considered bizarre but a century ago – “faith based” initiatives funded by taxpayers but managed according to religious doctrines – now seems quite acceptable and even laudable. And religious organizations are clamoring for their place at the public trough, while simultaneously demanding exemptions from government strings or any duty to the taxpayers.
The Ocean Grove Pavilion is but a very visible instance of a religious body seeking the benefits of taxpayer largess while demanding the privileges of religious exemption. I expect many more such conflicts will arise.
UPDATE – 1/26/10
The Auditorium Pavilion is a separate structure from the Boardwalk Pavilion, the location requested by the couple for their civil union ceremony.
Council of Churches Ad
October 27th, 2008
The Santa Clara County Council of Churches is so committed to the Christian principle of justice and compassion that they ran a full page ad in the San Jose Mercury News giving their brothers, sisters, neighbors, and parishioners the following message:
As people of faith,
We believe that all people are made in the image of God.
We believe in loving, faithful and committed relationships.
We affirm everyone’s right to the freedom to marry.
We urge you to..
VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION 8.
Don’t eliminate marriage for anyone.
The ad was signed by 23 member churches. There is also an accompanying videowith statements from ministers from Unitarian Universalist, Disciples of Christ, MCC, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Jewish congregations. The Council is also running phone banks for No on 8 out of local churches.
Too often anti-gay activists coopt the name Christian or Religion in the same way they seek to control the word Marriage. It is encouraging to see people of faith willing to stand up for principles that are inclusive and based on love, compassion, and a deep desire to treat their neighbor as they want to be treated and declare to the world that neither faith nor Christianity is any barrier to equality and decency.
LA Times Article on Methodist Support
July 18th, 2008
We told you earlier about the support that marriage equality is receiving from United Methodists in California. An anecdote shared by the Los Angeles Times may shed some light on at least one reason why these ministers are willing to face punishment from their national denomination in order to bring joy to the lives of gay couples.
The Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett of Claremont United Methodist Church joined a retired deacon from her congregation to co-officiate at the July 5 wedding of two longtime members, Howard Yeager and Bill Charlton.
The wedding was held off site — at a Claremont complex for retired clergy and missionaries — to avoid violating the rule against such ceremonies in churches.
Rhodes-Wickett, who led the Lord’s Prayer and gave a homily, said she hoped to avoid discipline by stopping short of actually pronouncing the couple married. That action was performed by the retired deacon, who also signed the marriage license.
Rhodes-Wickett said she did not want Yeager and Charlton to leave her church to exchange vows.
“This is my flock,” she said, adding that the men have been together 40 years, 22 of them as members of her Claremont congregation. “It’s a matter of integrity and a matter of what it is to be a pastoral ministry.”
We as a community owe a debt of gratitude to Howard Yeager and Bill Charlton. As best I can tell neither man is an activist. But they have for at least the past 22 years been living activism with an impact that no form of marching or protest can achieve.