Pastor expects trial for same-sex wedding

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The Rev. Michael Tupper notified his bishop Sept. 28 that he would not agree to a just resolution in a same-sex wedding complaint. His decision opens the way for a process that could culminate in a church trial.

The West Michigan Conference pastor said he would plead guilty at a church trial and he would not contest any penalty determined by a jury of his clergy peers. In a notarized letter, he also said he would not use an attorney and would waive his right to an appeal.

“God’s called me to highlight the need for a change in our Discipline at General Conference,” he said in another longer letter to Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey. “But God has also made it clear to me that I should be willing to pay the price for my disobedience to the present Book of Discipline.”

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, bans pastors from officiating at same-sex unions and prohibits “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy from serving United Methodist churches. Since 1972, the book has proclaimed that all people are of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, can change the church’s stance. The body next meets May 10-20, 2016, in Portland, Oregon.

The Rev. Melanie Carey, Michigan Area clergy assistant to the bishop, responded to Tupper’s letter on the bishop’s behalf.

“While Mike Tupper has made his thoughts and intentions about this process public, we are still in the supervisory response time, and that time and process are held confidential for the benefit of all parties involved,” she said.

How this case developed

Tupper is one of nine United Methodist pastors under complaint for helping to officiate at the July 17 wedding of the Rev. Benjamin and Monty Hutchison.

The Rev. Hutchison, an African Methodist Episcopal elder, was forced to resign as pastor of a United Methodist congregation after he admitted to being in committed relationship with another man. He and Monty legally wed later that same week with nearly 30 United Methodist clergy in attendance. Tupper was among the clergy who signed the wedding license.

The complaint against the other eight clergy is proceeding separately, and details have not become public.

But Ginny Mikita, a United Methodist candidate for deacon, already has faced consequences after officiating at the Hutchisons’ wedding.

Earlier this month, West Michigan Conference leaders told her that by getting online credentials through the Universal Life Church she had forfeited her candidacy and her United Methodist church membership. She and others dispute that she withdrew her membership or that conference leaders properly handled her case.

Tupper, as a United Methodist clergy member, has more due-process protections under church law than either Hutchison or Mikita. A complaint against him for officiating at his daughter’s same-sex wedding reached a resolution last year.

But after much prayer and many conversations with his daughter, he said he discerns God leading him in a different direction this time.

“I’ve struggled over the word ‘just’ in just resolution,” Tupper said in his letter. “I don’t believe God wants me to get ‘off the hook’ again so easily with a just resolution, knowing that justice in our church is not yet available for my gay daughter Sarah and my friends Rev. Hutchison and Ginny Mikita.”

What happens now

Under church law, the next step for Tupper’s case will likely be that the bishop refers his case to a counsel for the church, who is responsible for compiling all the relevant materials in the case.

The counsel for the church then forwards that information to a seven-member committee on investigation. At least five committee members must vote that Tupper be charged for a trial to proceed. The Book of Discipline says trials should be regarded as “an expedient of last resort.” Under church law, a resolution without trial remains an option throughout the process. 

“My assumption is that it will be a pretty simple process to go through because I’m admitting guilt,” Tupper said.

If a trial court convicts him, it could vote to strip his clergy credentials or for a lesser penalty.

Latest in longtime debate

Tupper, who has 35 years in ministry, told United Methodist News Service he believes it may take clergy making that kind of sacrifice for the church to awaken to what he sees an injustice.

“My hope and prayer is that this may stir the hearts of the delegates heading to General Conference,” he said.

This case is the most recent flare-up in the denomination’s longtime debate about how the church best ministers with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals. People on all sides cite the Bible for support.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, said what Tupper plans to do is in keeping with the principles of civil disobedience. His unofficial United Methodist group, which defends church teachings on sexuality, asserts that breaking the clergy covenant should have meaningful consequences. In Tupper’s case, Lambrecht suggested such a consequence might be suspension without pay for the rest of his appointment year.

However, Lambrecht doubts Tupper’s actions will change many hearts and minds.

“I think that (his) strategy fails to recognize that there are people of deep conscience and Christian commitments on both sides of the issue, and that they are not able to compromise those deeply beliefs,” Lambrecht said. “Thinking people will change their minds because of a strategy like this is probably misguided.”

Reconciling Ministries Network said in a statement that “when people fully embrace the consequences of unjust church laws in order to reveal their discord with the core of Christian teaching, we draw strength from such individuals' courage and convictions.” The unofficial United Methodist group advocates for the church to become more inclusive.

“The discriminatory policies of our church and all of the harm they inflict cannot be hidden from God's eyes,” the group said. “We are inspired by all who, in various ways, ensure we, too, cannot hide our eyes from the ongoing costs of theologically and structurally sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ persons and our allies.”

Hutchison said he views Tupper’s dedication to justice as “poignant,” but added that Tupper is fortunate that he had a just resolution as an option.

"The real lack of justice, I feel, came when I was threatened with termination because of the presumption of a sexual relationship with my partner,” he said. “Just resolution was not an option for me or offered. I had no choice. To add insult to injury, Ginny Mikita was also denied this just resolution process.”

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

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