Upper N.Y. pastor expects to face church trial

The Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, officiated at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.

Now, Heiss announced in a blog post Oct. 26, he likely will face a church trial on charges that he has violated church law. Heiss is the pastor of Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y.

Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties.

Bishop Mark J. Webb, who leads the Upper New York Conference, announcedin a statement Oct. 28 that he has referred a complaint against Heiss to the counsel of the church, the equivalent of a prosecutor.

The counsel will determine whether enough evidence supports Heiss has committed a chargeable offense or recommend to the bishop that the matter be dismissed.

“After much discussion and prayerful discernment, I am sorry to announce that we have been unable to reach a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter,” Webb said.

“We know all United Methodists are not in agreement about same-sex marriage. However, there must be universal agreement that the covenant between the church and its clergy is sacred and must be upheld by both,” the bishop said. “Clergy take their oath freely and with the knowledge they must fulfill the promises they make. By the same covenant, the annual conference and I, as a bishop, must fulfill the obligation to fully and fairly administer church law.”

Heiss is at least the fifth clergy member this year facing church legal action related to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

Church law and Heiss’ perspective

The Book of Discipline affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”

Since 1972, the book has stated that all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law bans United Methodist clergy from performing, and churches from hosting, “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

In his blog post, Heiss said, “I have never officiated at the wedding of people who were homosexuals as homosexuality was understood by most church folk when the ‘incompatibility’ language was added to the Discipline in 1972.”

He noted that the America Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, a year later.

He also said he has not officiated at a wedding that violates the Bible’s teachings about homosexuality. “For Bible writers, heterosexuality was a given reality — true for all people —no exceptions. All people are heterosexual,” Heiss said. He went on to say the Bible writers did not have the notion of sexual orientation as people understand the concept today.

His blog post was taken from an email he sent to Webb and the Rev. Richard Barton, superintendent of the Finger Lakes District. Barton, Heiss’ district superintendent, filed the complaint.

Heiss wrote, “if one believes homosexuality is best understood in 2013 as a normal and harmless expression of sexuality, as received unbidden, as neither morally superior nor inferior, not better, not worse than heterosexuality, then I am not in violation” of church law.

Since this summer, Heiss has spoken out in local and national media accounts about his willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Members of his congregation have rallied in support of the pastor and same-sex marriage.

He told Religion News Service that when the bishop asked him to no longer officiate at such unions, he refused.

Heiss, Barton and Webb did not immediately return requests for comment for this story.

One of many challenges

Heiss’ case comes as more United Methodists publicly are defying church policy.

On the same day, Heiss published his blog post, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated at the wedding ceremony of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince in Birmingham, Ala. Executive committee members of the Council of Bishops had urged Talbert not to perform the ceremony.

On Oct. 24, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., announced that its church building is available for same-sex weddings and the congregation would support its pastor, the Rev. Scott Campbell, if he performs such services there.

At least three other clergy are now facing complaints related to the church’s stance on homosexuality.

On Nov. 18, the Rev. Frank Schaefer in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference will go before a church trial for performing the same-sex wedding of his son in 2007. A complaint was filed one month before the statute of limitations ran out and word of the trial became public Sept. 20. In a show of solidarity with Schaefer, more than 30 of his fellow United Methodist pastors plan to participate in the wedding of a same-sex couple ahead of the trial.

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son in 2012. Some clergy filed the complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times.

The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, also in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian, a chargeable offense under church law.

The complaints against Heiss, Ogletree and Tweedy are in roughly the same stage in the church’s complaint process.

Call for prayer

At the end of his statement, Bishop Webb urged “all of us to continue in a spirit of prayer for Rev. Heiss and all involved in this difficult and painful matter.”

“May we continue to live with one another in a manner worthy of being sisters and brothers in Christ,” the bishop continued. “May we continue to seek God’s wisdom, direction and vision as we strive to live our mission to ‘make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ and be a witness of light to the world around us.”

His statement also noted that only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — has the authority to change the church’s stance on homosexuality.

A majority of United Methodist delegates to General Conference have voted consistently against altering that stand for 40 years. The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change the language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.

The next General Conference will convene in 2016 in Portland, Ore.

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

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