2 clergy face suspensions for performing same-sex weddings

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Two Virginia United Methodist clergy will face suspensions for officiating at same-sex weddings under resolutions reached in each complaint, Virginia Area Bishop Young Jin Cho announced March 6.

Both resolutions said they are “an effort by all parties involved to maintain the unity of the church and to settle their differences through the resolution process rather than through a costly and time-consuming ecclesiastical trial.”

Under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense and clergy who do so could face the loss of credentials. This move eliminates that possibility.

“We worked for four months in an attempt to reach just resolutions,” Cho said in a statement. “We experienced many challenges, pain and difficulties along the way, but everyone involved earnestly and prayerfully sought to be open to each other and to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”

Details of suspensions

What Does the Church Say

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

The 2012 General Conference rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.  The denomination’s top lawmaking assembly will next convene in 2016.

Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. The book also allows for complaints against clergy who officiate at same-gender unions to be resolved without a trial. 

The Book of Discipline states that marriage is between a man and a woman. It also affirms that all people are of sacred worth, that all are in need of the church’s ministry, and that God’s grace is available to all. The church implores congregations and families not to reject gay and lesbian members and friends.

Read full coverage of sexuality and the church

The Rev. John D. Copenhaver Jr., professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at United Methodist-related Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, will undergo a three-month suspension. He officiated at the wedding on Oct. 7 of two longtime friends and Shenandoah colleagues, DeLyn and Sarah Celec.

The Rev. Amanda Miller Garber, pastor of RISE, a new church start in Harrisonburg, Virginia, will be suspended from ministerial duties for one-month with no pay. She performed the ceremony Nov. 1, of Brittany and Lindsay Caine-Conley, a couple who met through their involvement in RISE.

Both complaints were filed by the elders’ respective district superintendents, the Rev. Tommy Herndon of the Harrisonburg District and the Rev. Larry Thompson of the Winchester District. Neither immediately returned requests for comment.

During their suspensions, neither Copenhaver nor Garber will be able to preach or administer the sacraments, and Copenhaver said he will likely decline at least one invitation to preach as a result. Both have committed to use the time for reading, prayer and reflection.

Cho said the length of suspensions differed because of consideration of Garber's ministry setting and the fact that Copenhaver is retired and, therefore, faces no financial impact.

The penalties mark a departure similar clergy complaints settlements in recent months. Since early 2014, church leaders have resolved complaints against clergy who officiated at same-sex weddings or unions in IowaMichiganEastern Pennsylvania and New York — as well as the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert — without any suspensions.

Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist advocacy group, also on March 6 announced that it was supporting Garber out of its clergy defense fund. “A check is being sent today in the full amount Rev. Garber would have otherwise lost,” the group said in a statement.

“I think this is the best resolution we could agree on,” Copenhaver told United Methodist News Service. Those involved, he said, made a number of compromises to reach an agreement.

“I respect my bishop, my district superintendent and all those who have worked on this process. We have worked hard. Given our differences, I am pleased we were able to have a resolution at all.”

Garber said she is relieved that the complaints are not going to trial, but she is also sad.

"I am experiencing great grief for my denomination that I love and I am sad for the LGBTQ community who continue to receive the message that they aren't loved and they aren't welcome," she said. "This entire journey is about more than two pastors. This is about beloved children of God." 

She also worries for her young congregation of about 170 people. 

"I knew this would come at a cost," she said, "but I also firmly believe this was what God was calling me to do."

Details of resolutions

In both resolutions, all parties in the complaint process say they are “not of one mind on matters of human sexuality.” The resolution documents also acknowledge “the conflicts of conscience with regard to differing interpretations of scripture and church teaching.”

In the resolutions, both Garber and Copenhaver say that they believed they could not obey the denomination’s ban on celebrating same-sex unions and fulfill its call, also in the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 140, which says “inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.”

Both of their district superintendents, however, say that they believe filing the complaints reflect “faithfulness to both the spirit and letter of the 2012 Book of Discipline.”

Wanting more healing work

Both Sarah and DeLyn Celec expressed relief that the complaints against Copenhaver and Garber had ended. But they both said the documents fell short by not stating the harm the church has done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals.

“A more just resolution would have included some listening to LGBTQ people,” DeLyn Celec said.

The couple’s request to Copenhaver to perform their wedding came after the couple learned DeLyn’s sister had been murdered and they would soon have custody of her three children.  

They had married in Canada in 2006, but they wanted a ceremony that would be legally recognized in Virginia to provide family stability.   

Virginia has legally recognized same-sex civil marriage since Oct. 6, 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court decision striking down the state’s ban. The Celecs’ wedding took place the next day.

Even with their civilly recognized marriage in Virginia, Sarah Celec said she could lose custody of the children should anything happen to her wife. It’s that kind of legal uncertainty the couple said they wish more United Methodists could hear and advocate against.

Copenhaver said everyone involved in the process wanted “more healing and restorative work in our relationships.” But they could not agree on language in the statement.

It’s not just LGBTQ individuals who feel harm, Copenhaver said, but also United Methodists who agree with the church’s stance on homosexuality and feel harm whenever clergy members defy that stance to officiate at same-gender weddings.

“One of the things I have wanted to do on my part is to listen to those who have felt harmed by my decision to violate the Discipline or who felt I harmed the church by that decision,” he said.

"This is a tragic conflict in our church, and we need to acknowledge everyone's pain," he added, "but especially the pain of those suffering from our derogatory language and discriminatory policies."

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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