Could a decision by New York United Methodists to promote conversation over consequence offer a model to a denomination divided over issues of same-sex marriage and gay clergy?
Some attending the March 10 news conference announcing the resolution of a complaint against the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, 80, who presided over the wedding of his son, think so, including Ogletree himself.
Just Resolution Statement
The New York Annual (regional) Conference has published "Terms of a Just Resolution in the Matter of The Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree"
"I’m really committed to this idea of encouraging dialogue among people who have sharp disagreements,” he told United Methodist News Service after the announcement of a “Just Resolution Agreement” by the New York Annual (regional) Conference. “I think it’s going to add to the momentum for change within the church.”
Neither the Rev. Randall C. Paige nor the Rev. Roy E. Jacobsen, the original complainants against Ogletree, were present at the news conference, but they released a joint statement expressing dismay at the settlement.
“It makes no acknowledgement of the breaking of our clergy covenant, the clear teaching of Scripture and our agreed upon way of discipleship expressed in our Book of Discipline,” they said.
The two clergymen were not involved in the agreement discussions. “The comments of the complainants were received and considered as part of the just resolution process,” said the Rev. William S. Shillady, secretary of the court, “but they are not signers of the just resolution agreement.”
‘Cessation of church trials’
New York Bishop Martin McLee gave the agreement some of its weight by calling for “a cessation of church trials” for those who conduct same-gender wedding or union ceremonies. In a statement, he pointed to the harm, expense and distraction of trials. He noted later that nearly a third of his time over the past year had been devoted to such complaints.
Instead, the bishop will convene a public forum, with Ogletree as one of the participants, “to contribute to the healing within the body and greater understanding” among those in the conference. He expects the forum, which will include a panel of 10-12 people and an audience, to be in April or May before the 2014 New York Annual Conference meeting in June.
In their statement, Paige and Jacobsen acknowledge that “dialog and deep listening are good” but not a substitute for vows of obedience to the denomination.
“Bishop McLee’s commitment to have no more trials for those accused of performing same-sex services means that numerous complaints that are in process will be held in abeyance and further complaints will be discouraged,” they added.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of the unofficial United Methodist evangelical renewal group Good News, said his organization is “deeply disappointed” by the New York Conference decision. His concern is that other like-minded conferences could copy this “pattern of non-accountability.”
“We are seeing the balkanization of the church, where different parts of the church live by different standards and hold to different theological understandings,” Lambrecht told United Methodist News Service. “I see this balkanization as a precursor to the potential disintegration of the "United" Methodist Church.”
In a March 12 clarification, the New York Conference said the resolution in the Ogletree case was not “a blanket dismissal-in-advance of every complaint filed against those performing same-gender weddings.” As all bishops, McLee will continue to follow “Administrative Fair Process,” as outlined in the Book of Discipline, the statement said.
Ogletree’s trial had been scheduled for March 10 at First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Conn. Retired Bishop S. Clifton Ives, the presiding officer or the equivalent of a judge, postponed the trial date Feb. 10.
Ives, who had returned the complaint to McLee for a further attempt at just resolution, told UMNS he hoped “there might be a discussion” about the agreement by some level of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.
“I would like colleague bishops to begin to understand there may be other ways to solve problems other than a trial,” Ives said.
Facts not in dispute
As the Rev. Timothy J. Riss, who served as counsel for the interests of the church at large, pointed out, the facts of the case were not in dispute.
Ogletree did perform a wedding ceremony “for two grooms,” violating Paragraph 2702.1b of the Book of Discipline, which prohibits United Methodist pastors from officiating at same-gender marriage ceremonies. The question, he noted, was what type of penalty would be imposed.
Based on the persistent advocacy by many of the conference’s clergy and lay leaders for the inclusion of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) people, Riss said, he thought the retired pastor would have been more likely to receive sympathy than sanctions.
Ogletree and others signing on to the resolution “have agreed to forgo the expense, trouble and pain of conducting an unnecessary trial which would only achieve a result equivalent to what we have negotiated,” Riss explained.
The just resolution represents the best of interest of the church by allowing it to keep lines of communication open and “stop demonizing those we disagree with,” he said.
The Rev. Scott Campbell, who served as counsel for Ogletree, and is a signer of the agreement, lauded the agreement and McLee’s action. “He has had the vision and the courage to move us in the only direction that may save our church from schism,” Campbell said in his remarks at the news conference.
Paige and Jacobsen disagree with that assessment, noting that some faithful United Methodists will feel ignored. “Far from avoiding schism, today’s settlement increases the probability that schism will take place,” their statement said.
Looking for more
For those who are waiting for a full reversal of church prohibitions, the dismissal of the Ogletree complaint is not enough.
Dorothee Benz of Methodists in New Directions, an advocacy group that has provided direct support to the retired pastor, commended McLee’s “very bold step” to find “a new way out of this problem,” and said the time for complacency is over.
Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked as a pastor after his own trial in November, also thanked McLee. “This indicates further how big our division is on the issue, but it also shows the advances we are making,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
The Rev. Amy DeLong, who had a June 2011 church trial and is part of the Love Prevails advocacy group, described the systematic oppression represented by church policy as an enormous rock, with the New York Conference action taking only a small chip out of it. “The piece that was missing was the church apology to him and his family,” she added.
“I’m heartened, but we’re not there,” said Lyn Ellis, co-coordinator of Affirmation, a long-time advocacy group. “Justice can’t be served if this can happen again.”