Trial set for theologian who officiated at son’s wedding

By Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert*

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree.  Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree.
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

A United Methodist theologian and retired elder in the New York Annual (regional) Conference will face a church trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son.

The trial of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree is scheduled for March 10 at First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Conn., reports Methodists in New Directions,  an unofficial New York Conference group that advocates for greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of the church.

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, 2012. The service took place at the Yale Club in New York City.

Ogletree, 80, is a Yale Divinity School professor emeritus, veteran of the civil rights movement and lifelong member of the Methodist tradition. Ogletree is declining interview requests at this time.

But, in May, 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 said in a statement released Jan. 17 that “I could not with any integrity as a Christian refuse my son’s request to preside at his wedding.”

“It is a shame that the church is choosing to prosecute me for this act of love, which is entirely in keeping with my ordination vows to ‘seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people’ and with Methodism’s historic commitment to inclusive ministry embodied in its slogan ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’”

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.”

If found guilty, Ogletree could face a variety of penalties. The Book of Discipline gives a trial court of 13 clergy — the church equivalent of a jury — a range of choices up to revoking Ogletree’s credentials as United Methodist clergy. However, a trial court also can opt for a lesser penalty.

Voters in the New York Conference repeatedly have approved petitions seeking to change church law on homosexuality, most recently in 2011. In 2013, the conference approved a resolution by Methodists in New Directions that commended United Methodist individuals and congregations “whose bold actions and courageous statements help to provide for the pastoral needs of same-sex couples within The United Methodist Church.”

Complaint process

The Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., was among the New York Conference clergy who filed a complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared on Oct. 21, 2012, in The New York Times.

Paige is the president of the Wesley Fellowship, an unofficial evangelical renewal group in the New York Conference. He has not responded to requests for comment.

Ogletree and Paige met face to face in late January 2013 to try to find a just resolution to the dispute and avoid a trial. Paige asked Ogletree to promise never to officiate at such a union again. Ogletree declined.

New York Area Bishop Martin D. McLee informed Ogletree in March that he had referred the case to a church counsel — the equivalent of a prosecutor. The church counsel then determined that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

The Book of Discipline says “church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.”

McLee said in a statement released late Jan. 17 that he still prays that the complainants and Ogletree can negotiate a just resolution and a trial avoided.

“During this most difficult time in the life of the church, I invite you to be in prayer for the Reverend Dr. Ogletree, the complainants and all who have a vested interest in this matter,” his statement said. “God is still God and that is where our trust and hope lies.”

Expectations of trial

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial United Methodist evangelical renewal group Good News, will serve as an advocate for the clergy who filed the complaint against Ogletree.

“I hope that (the trial) will accomplish the goal of holding the Rev. Ogletree accountable to the vows he made as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church,” Lambrecht said.

He served as counsel in the church case against the Rev. Amy DeLong, who  was found guilty of officiating in a same-sex union at a public church trial in June 2011. He also helped Paige file the complaint against Ogletree.

Dorothee Benz, chair of Methodists in New Directions, said a trial “is a sad, painful thing. We are waiting for the scales to fall from some eyes to see that and to embrace the path of love instead of the path of legalism.

“On the face of it, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the church would rather criminalize ministry for LBGQT people than bend on one little anything.”

Ogletree told UMNS in May that as retired clergy, it won’t make much difference if he loses his credentials. Both federal law and provisions of United Methodist retirement plans prohibit depriving clergy members of the pension benefits they already have earned.

Lambrecht said that the goal of those filing the complaint is not necessarily to affect Ogletree’s financial standing.

“Our goal is to have a public declaration of accountability, and if Rev. Ogletree were to lose his credentials, it would be a very public statement that his actions were outside of the agreed-upon covenant of United Methodist clergy.”

Widening dispute

Ogletree’s case comes at a time when the church’s debate regarding human sexuality has intensified and more clergy have been willing to defy publicly church law.

He was among more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States, who in 2011, signed pledges announcing their willingness to defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-gender unions. The New York Conference alone had 208 clergy signers, supported by 869 lay signers.

Bishops promised in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, to uphold church law banning same-gender unions.

Since then, the dispute has become only more public.

Frank Schaefer in the East Pennsylvania Conference was told in December to surrender his credentials after he was found guilty in a church trial of officiating at the 2007 nuptials of his son to another man. After a 30-day suspension, Schaefer said he could not abide by the Book of Discipline “in its entirety because of its discriminatory laws.”  He also announced plans to appeal the ruling. The trial and  itsaftermath made headlines nationwide.

Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated on Oct. 26, 2013, at the same-sex union of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, members of Discovery United Methodist Church in Hoover, Ala. The Council of Bishops has called for a complaint to be filed against Talbert.

A complaint against the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, has been referred to church counsel. Heiss has said he officiated at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. Two cases in the Pacific Northwest Conference have likewise been referred to counsel.

*Hahn and Gilbert are multimedia reporters for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Click here to see the original UMNS story. 

United Methodist News Service

United Methodist News Service is the official news gathering agency of the United Methodist Church, and a division of United Methodist Communications. Mandated by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, UMNS provides news stories to communicators throughout the world.

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31 Comments on "Trial set for theologian who officiated at son’s wedding"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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John Anderson
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Our denomination needs to be united around the Discipline, our sacred covenant, and if someone can not keep church law, that person should leave.

John Anderson
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As an Elder of the United Methodist Church, I took a vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of our denomination, I recommend that all clergy keep these promises made to our church and to God; and I wish those who can not keep this covenant would leave and stop destroying our beloved church. Your disruption may cause the United Methodist Church to split into two denominations—perhaps a UMC-South will be created.

Winfried Ritter
Guest
Read the story of Judah and Tamar in Gen. 38 to discover that there are situations when the moral code (or Book of Discipline) has to be disobeyed in order to fulfill the righteousness (Zedakah) that is an obligation within the covenant of family and community. God’s righteousness is nothing else but his faithfulness to the covenant between God and Israel, and in Jesus Christ between God and the world. Judah: “Tamar is more righteous than I am!” He almost sounds grateful to her for having tricked him into fulfilling his covenant obligation. By accepting (or not being able to… Read more »
Jay
Guest

Wes Andrews, you may have had a class with Dr. Ogletree, but you were not a very good student. Save me from the kind of love you profess. The lesson of love is precisely what you failed to learn.

Jay
Guest
One of the great ironies of posts by Wes Andrews and others is the certitude they express about Scripture as though they are the only ones who understand it. It is especially ironic in that the latest one comes in comments about an article about one of the leading Methodist theologians of our time, a man who served as Dean of the Yale Divinity School and has advised the UMC about a number of issues, including some aspects of the Book of Discipline. I wonder if Wes Andrews is actually a Methodist. After all, Scripture is only one of the… Read more »
Wes Andrews
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Iliff School of Theology! I’m quite Methodist. Scripture is first. It is the authority then interpreted by Tradition, Reason and Experience. Whooops?!??! Jay’s assumptions just might be incorrect. So, according to the same-sex/ordination supporters the 100th of 1 percent of interpreters are smarter than the other 99.9 percent….. that makes sense. A couple Billion Jesus followers interpret Scripture as the 99.9% in a similar way, BUT they are liars, according to the same sex marriage and ordination crowd.! The 99.9 percent affirm the truth, and not a lie about human sexuality. Another shock I actually enjoyed a seminar while working… Read more »
Wes Andrews
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There are several issues here. It is not helpful to condemn homosexuality as uniquely sinful. Biblically faithful Jesus followers must address sexuality as a complete topic, not just focus on homosexuality. God is crystal clear in the Biblical definition of sexuality and marriage. The safest place for sexual expression and celebration is between one man, one woman, made one together by God. Every sexual expression outside of God’s Biblical definition of sexuality and marriage is equally sin and separation in the eyes of God. Our witness must be kept on the entire topic, or else it appears that we, as… Read more »
Jay
Guest

WAD, inasmuch as you defame gay people even more than Wes Andrews, I would suggest that you monitor your own comments if you want to promote civility. Like so many people, you think that you can say the most outrageous things about gay people and their allies, but they believe that we are somehow out of line when we call you out for your deceit and defamation.

Jay
Guest

Wes Andrews, I will be happy not to interact with you. I suggest that a part of civility is telling the truth and not demonizing the people you disagree with. And that is what you do even as you mouth smarmy sentiments. Lying is not a Christian virtue, even when you do in the name of the Lord.

james
Guest
Looking at “Your Thoughts” that want to encourage lively conversation………. This issue will never be decided until the council of bishops comes out of their ivory towers and chooses to fall on bended knee to inquire of Father/Son/Holy Spirit then face– head on, and toe to toe–the laity in the umc and lead out of this muck and mire. Just finished a book that graphically describes the grave decline of moral fiber way back in Roman times. Seems like society/umc/etc are about to over-take the Caesars of long ago. Keep looking up. Come, Lord Jesus, come…………………….. II Chronicles 7:14
james
Guest

Not sure it is proper to promote other folks work in a Methodist publication. Here goes: KILLING JESUS by Bill O’reilly. It is well worth the read. I have the “audio” copy of the book.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Actually all of those books are very engaging reading. I know people either love or hate the author, but they are very well written. Thanks for letting us know…

Wes Andrews
Guest

James would you mind sharing with us the title of that book?

Wes Andrews
Guest

Jay, you certainly don’t have to accept any kindness from anyone.

Faithful readers of Scripture have NOT been lying for over 2000 years. It is disingenuous to say the Scripture endorse same-sex marriage, but why argue over facts, because they don’t seem to matter.

There is no benefit for either of us to continue to interact, so I’ll reserve my responses for those who are civil. Be well.

Jay
Guest
Wes Andrews, I don’t want an apology from you. I want you to stop lying about gay people and those who support equal rights. The value that gay people place on marriage should be obvious from the great civil rights struggle going on about secular marriage. Those of us who are (or were) Methodist and want our churches to perform same-sex marriages do so because we value religious marriage very highly as a sacred union. You may not agree with us, but you should at least respect us enough to not misrepresent our point of view. Like so many people… Read more »
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