Retired United Methodist Bishop Mary Anne Swenson’s dissent from the statement issued by the Council of Bishops Executive Committee asking Bishop Melvin Talbert to refrain from presiding at the celebration of marriage for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw tomorrow in Birmingham may seem unique to the current generation of United Methodists. But as Deen Thompson, former Upper Room employee and long time United Methodist knows, she follows in the tradition of another renegade United Methodist bishop — Melvin E. Wheatley Jr.
The year was 1978. Six years earlier the General Conference of 1972 had added the provision in the United Methodist Book of Discipline which stated that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Four year after that, the General Conference of 1976 amended the Social Principles to read “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage,” and added a footnote which had the effect of restricting ordination of gays and lesbians. Now, in 1978 the Council of Bishops is meeting on November 6 in Colorado Springs, CO. At that meeting a statement is shared affirming the Book of Discipline’s teaching on sexuality, and all the Bishops are asked to sign on in support of that statement. It looks like all are in agreement with the statement.
Not Bishop Wheatley. Elected to the episcopacy in 1972, Wheatley was known for his great preaching. As important, he was known for his inclusivity and care. ”He was a gentle and loving man,” said Bishop Jack Tuell, “but fearless in his advocacy for the truth.” His wife Lucile would say at the time of his death in 2009 that “…he did not have a prejudice or bigoted bone in his body. He was born to be inclusive and care about everybody.”
Wheatley was troubled by the statement he was being asked to sign. Wheatley had friends who were gay — the doctor who had saved his life, the organist who was a dear friend of he and his wife, the preacher’s kid that he knew and cherished, and his own son, John. Wheatley saw the statement as an academic position paper which treated gays and lesbians not as people but as objects. So Wheatley stood alone before the rest of his colleagues and began to read.
Wheatley would later send a copy of his statement to Deen Thompson in 1996 when Wheatley would join with 15 other bishops to express their pain over the proscriptions in the Book of Discipline. “I’m enclosing a rough draft of my ‘coming out” statement to the Council of Bishops,” Wheatley told Thompson. “At that time I stood alone, so this time (at the 1996 General Conference) 15 of us bishops seem like a crowd.”
After sharing the stories of his friends with the Council, Wheatley concluded his statement with these words:
This part of my story experientially received and recorded radically affects the way I hear the proposal before us, (to reaffirm the 1976 Discipline wording on homosexuality). Its words sound brave and strong and all but believable when addressed to a highly emotional and crassly exploited subject. Yet the same words strike me as naive, harsh and categorically false when addressed to the Bill, Roy, Rhea, and John Weatleys of my daily experience.
Therefore: not only is it impossible for me to consent to add my name to any such public pronouncement as here proposed, but also it is imperative for me, out of my own sense of integrity, to insist that any such public pronouncement with which I could be connected carry the unmistakable message that the vote that launched it was not unanimous.
Wheatley would go on to appoint a self-avowed practicing homosexual to a church in Denver, leading to complaints filed from churches in Colorado and Georgia which accused him of undermining the authority of the Holy Scriptures. They called for a public censure, and demanded that he revise his stance of homosexuality or retire or resign from the episcopacy. An investigative committee said in its final report that it found no “reasonable grounds” for accusing the bishop. The panel found that the bishop should not be tried on charges of heresy and disobedience.
Wheatley received an award of appreciation in 1984 from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “Arrogant judgmentalism as some have experienced by society, even religious institutions, is too great a price for society to be able to continue to pay,” he said at that time.
Wheatley “was a visionary for the whole church,” said the Rev. Donald Messer, president emeritus of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, who knew Wheatley for 30 years. “He was the Martin Luther of the Methodist Church. He freed all of us to be less prejudiced, biased and dogmatic.”
Click here to read Bishop Wheatley’s full 1978 statement to the Council of Bishops.