A United Methodist theologian and retired elder is facing formal charges under church law and a potential trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son.
The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean noted for his work on Christian ethics, presided over the wedding of his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, to Nicholas Haddad on Oct. 20. The service took place at the Yale Club in New York City.
Ogletree, 79, is a Yale Divinity School professor emeritus, veteran of the civil rights movement and lifelong member of the Methodist tradition. He told United Methodist News Service that as a professor, he rarely has been asked to perform weddings. When his son asked him to officiate, he said he felt "deeply moved."
He described the ceremony in a statement as "one of the most significant ritual acts of my life as a pastor."
The Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., led the clergy filing the complaint.
Ogletree said he and Paige met face-to-face in late January to an attempt to find a just resolution to the dispute and avoid a trial. Paige, who has not yet responded to requests for comment on this article and declined comment to the New York Times, asked Ogletree to promise never to officiate at such a union again.
"I told him that I am retired, I am almost 80 years old; it is highly unlikely I'll be asked to perform another wedding," he said. "But if I were asked to perform such a wedding, then I could not in good conscience refuse."
The case is among the first to go public since 2011, when more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States started to sign pledges announcing their willingness to defy the denomination's ban on officiating at same-sex unions.
Ogletree was among the 208 clergy signers, supported by 869 lay signers, in the New York Conference. He said he signed on to ecclesial disobedience to join in "solidarity with those pushing for change in The United Methodist Church."
The pledges, in turn, sparked a countermovement by other United Methodist clergy and lay people urging the Council of Bishops to make clear that they will enforce the Book of Discipline on this issue. More than 2,800 clergy and nearly 13,500 laity signed those petitions.
Bishops responded in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, promising to uphold church law banning same-sex unions.
New York Area Bishop Martin D. McLee, elected in 2012, informed Ogletree in March that he had referred the case to a church counsel - the equivalent of a prosecutor - taking an action that could lead to a trial.
Ogletree's son, Thomas, said having his father officiate at his wedding was very meaningful.
"I certainly was aware there may be an issue," he said. "But, for me, it was really a personal decision. I love my dad. I admire him. He has been a huge influence in my life and a big part of Nick's and my relationship over the past eight years. So when we decided to get married, there was no discussion about it. We just knew we wanted him to do it."
Two of Ogletree's five children are gay. His daughter married her partner in Massachusetts in a non-United Methodist ceremony. His wife is a United Church of Christ pastor, whose church has no objections to same-sex unions.
When the charges were filed, his wife suggested he resign from The United Methodist Church and join the UCC.
"What I realized is this was an opportunity for me to make a public witness in support of gay rights," he said. "Just as I had committed civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, so I committed ecclesial disobedience in the movement for change in our policies toward gay and lesbian persons."
Church law and homosexuality
Church law and recent history
The Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, ruled in 2009 that it is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy to perform ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions, even in states where such unions are legal. The State of New York legalized same-gender marriage in 2011.
The Rev. Amy DeLong of the Wisconsin Conference is the most recent United Methodist pastor to be convicted of performing a same-sex union in a public church trial. In June 2011, a jury of 13 Wisconsin clergy sentenced her to a 20-day suspension and a yearlong process to "restore the broken clergy covenant relationship."
That process resulted in a document titled "Clergy Covenant: An Invitation" that DeLong created in collaboration with Wisconsin Conference leaders. Wisconsin clergy members approved the document and the creation of DeLong's proposed "Conference Clergy Covenant Team" on May 31, 2012. Under the proposal, 12 clergy members, including DeLong, are meeting at least monthly "for the benefit of clergy solidarity and congregational leadership" and plan to bring a proposed clergy covenant to the 2013 Wisconsin clergy session of the annual conference meeting.
Learn about the denomination's position on homosexuality
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth but "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
Church law says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions."
Voters in the New York Conference have repeatedly approved petitions seeking to change church law on homosexuality, most recently in 2011.
McLee, who is at a meeting of active bishops in San Diego, said in a letter to his conference that confidentiality requirements of a church complaint process prevent him from discussing Ogletree's case in detail.
"The United Methodist Church welcomes persons from all backgrounds, including the (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning) community," McLee said in an earlier statement.
"Gay persons have found their way into our congregations at various levels of leadership and involvement. Many of our congregations have become reconciling congregations - that is, congregations that have specialized ministries to welcome members of the GLBTQ community. As is the case with most mainline Protestant denominations, matters regarding human sexuality continue to evolve."
Ogletree said the Book of Discipline is contradictory on the topic of homosexuality. The Bible contains no concept of sexual orientation, he said. The biblical passages that condemn homosexual behavior, he sees as "more about lust driven out of control."
"My argument is, strictly speaking, the Scriptures don't counsel us on this," he said.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial evangelical caucus Good News, said he thinks the church's position on homosexuality "is soundly based on Scripture."
"If you take a different analogy, is a bank robber of sacred worth? Of course," Lambrecht said. "Every person who does behavior that is contrary to Scripture - a greedy person (for example) - every person is of sacred worth. God loves them. God loves all of us with our flaws and everything. But that doesn't mean God doesn't have a standard for how we live our lives, and we are accountable to that standard."
He served as counsel in the church case against the Rev. Amy DeLong, the most recent pastor to face a public church trial. He also helped Paige file the complaint against Ogletree.
Lambrecht acknowledged other clergy in the New York Conference and elsewhere in the country have officiated at same-sex unions without facing charges.
"It's not like we're out beating the bushes looking for cases to file," he said. "You could spend all day looking at different newspapers around the country trying to find people who violated the Discipline. That's just not our main objective. But when a case becomes public ... that's when we want to take action."
The Rev. Vicki Flippin, associate pastor at Church of the Village in Manhattan, said she has officiated at two such unions.
"Many of us are doing weddings as they come up," Flippin said. "We've signed on to do these, and we're not just saying it, we are actually doing it. ...We're just trying to make it a normal thing. You wouldn't report to everybody that a heterosexual wedding was being done."
Reactions across theological spectrum
Ogletree has been a theologian for 50 years. He has served as dean at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., and the United Methodist Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
In addition, he helped draft the section of the Book of Discipline devoted to "Our Theological Task" approved by the 1988 General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly.
A native of Alabama, he earned his bachelor's degree from United Methodist-related Birmingham-Southern College, a Bachelor of Divinity from what is now the United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
As a doctoral student at Vanderbilt, he was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group, and participated in the group's sit-ins aimed at desegregating lunch counters.
He remained involved in the civil rights movement when he moved to Chicago, where he served in the leadership of Operation Breadbasket at the request of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was a student of his at Chicago Theological Seminary. Operation Breadbasket was the economic arm of the Rev. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked to open more jobs to African-American applicants.
Ogletree was ordained as an elder in the North Alabama Conference in 1959, and has been a member of the New York Conference since 1990.
Whether Ogletree actually will face a church trial remains uncertain. Ogletree told United Methodist News Service that the church counsel still could dismiss the case.
Matthew M. Berryman, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, said his group alongside the New York group "MIND" (Methodists in New Directions), plans to support Ogletree and his family - regardless of what happens - with prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness to Ogletree and his family.
Reconciling Ministries Network is an unofficial United Methodist caucus that advocates for greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of the church. MIND is an unofficial caucus in the New York Conference that has taken leadership in supporting Ogletree in the case.
"Public church trials are ultimately, any way you slice it, an expression of the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of Christ's church," Berryman told United Methodist News Service.
"But, as with many things in this paradoxical human life we live under grace, from sad and broken moments flow beauty, goodness and life. In this particular case, there will no doubt be pain involved, but I am certain that the ultimate effects of a potential church trial will be beneficial to the entire church and redemptive to Ogletree and his family."
He added that "any time truth-telling occurs in spite of the church-sanctioned policies of secrecy, silence and shame, a moral victory has been won."
Like Berryman, Lambrecht sees church trials as an unhappy development.
"I think when people voluntarily agree to abide by a covenant and then violate that covenant, that in itself is a sad commentary," he said. "I do not look at trials as a good thing or success."
But he added that trials can serve as public accountability for church members and annual conferences.
It is not known what sort of penalty Ogletree would face if he were found guilty in a trial.
The Book of Discipline gives a trial court - the church equivalent of a jury - a range of penalties if there is a conviction, up to revoking Ogletree's credentials as United Methodist clergy.
Jimmy Creech, a pastor in Nebraska, was stripped of his credentials in 1999 after being convicted of officiating at a same-gender ceremony in North Carolina. It was his second church trial.
Ogletree said as retired clergy, it won't make much difference if he loses his credentials.
"There's not much harm the church can do to me now," he said. "It wouldn't affect me because I am not seeking appointment, and it wouldn't change my history."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].