And so it begins again: #UMC Clergy Trial


You may have heard of Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree. He’s kind of a Methodist statesman. He was the dean of Yale Divinity School and Drew Divinity School. He’s written tons of books and articles. He wrote the section in our Book of Discipline on the Quadrilateral. In short, he’s taught and lived Christian Ethics for his entire life and few people have the breadth and depth of knowledge about working within and without a religious system than Ogletree does.

And out of that Christian ethic, he has chosen to violate the doctrine and polity of the United Methodist Church. Last October, Ogletree officiated at the wedding of his son to his longtime partner, which is in violation of the rules that clergy share.

The New York Times has a great short article for context about Ogletree and the trial.

Dr. Ogletree, 79, is now facing a possible canonical trial for his action, accused by several New York United Methodist ministers of violating church rules. While he would not be the first United Methodist minister to face discipline for performing a same-sex wedding, he could well be the one with the highest profile. He is a retired dean of Yale Divinity School, a veteran of the nation’s civil rights struggles and a scholar of the very type of ethical issues he is now confronting.

“Sometimes, when what is officially the law is wrong, you try to get the law changed,” Dr. Ogletree, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said in a courtly Southern drawl over a recent lunch at Yale, where he remains an emeritus professor of theological ethics. “But if you can’t, you break it.”

While every clergy trial is a terrible terrible thing, I suspect this will be kind of like the trial of Dumbledore and Harry Potter before the Ministry of Magic. Did Harry use magic outside of the rules? Yes. But why? And was it okay? Or were there other forces at work? Such questions will be had at Ogletree’s trial and it will be fascinating to see whom the prosecution pairs with a theological titan like Ogletree.

For an example of the type of argument Ogletree is capable of, he wrote an article on Reconciling Ministries Network that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

I am deeply grateful, moreover, for the opening section of The Book of Discipline, which reminds us of serious flaws and shortcomings manifest in the larger history of Methodism.  Shortcomings specifically listed include our previous accommodation of racial segregation by establishing a race-based Central Jurisdiction, and our extended denial of ordination rights and prominent leadership roles for women.   These unjust practices were by no means easily addressed or overcome.  Indeed, the struggles to eliminate them generated serious conflicts within the church, conflicts that were only resolved by persistent efforts to press for more just and inclusive church practices.

Indeed, such practices were based originally on a few lines in the Bible, and then over time the Methodist church chose to go a different way–to our benefit. Ogletree expounds:

I fully embrace the basic theological commitments that undergird the mission of The United Methodist Church.  Indeed, I had the honor to play a role in drafting the section on “Our Theological Task” (par. 104, Part II of the Discipline, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task”).  Drawing upon John Wesley’s teachings, this section emphasizes the priority of biblical authority, and it underscores as well the indispensable roles of tradition, reason, and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness.  These principles are clearly incompatible with attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by “proof texting,” i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts that allegedly provide definitive resolutions of particular issues.  The self-conscious inclusion of tradition, reason, and experience in our critical engagements with biblical resources actually deepens our discernment of the profound, life-transforming promises of the gospel message.

Just as secular court cases take a single instance and extrapolate it for other instances, I wonder how far-reaching of effects a church trial like this will have on the burgeoning movement to remove the Quadrilateral from our polity and doctrine. But that’s for another blog post…

In the meantime, it hurts my heart when our church’s judicial process becomes front and center to the news rather than our mission, ministry, outreach, and witness to the world. May that witness to the world be made evident in our church trial and that the world can see our unity in diversity on display in life-giving ways.  We’ll be watching this one closely.

My challenge to readers: While any blog post on LGBT issues in the UMC brings out the snakes, let me posit a direct question:

  • What is your understanding of Christian Ethics? How would you define it?
  • Is it adherence to the community’s rules or to your own sense of yourself? Or is it both?
  • What circumstances would it be allowable for a person to violate church law due to their Christian ethic?


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  1. Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says

    I commend Dr Ogletree for his courage and his witness to and for the inclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to Him and our conscience that hopefully His Spirit has influenced that we owe our first and foremost allegiance not to the any institution not even the Community of Faith.
    The Sacrament of Marriage is a covenant made and exercised by two people in a loving, faithful, and committed relationship. As St John so clearly teaches us where there is Love there is God and God, who is not bound by our cultural or limited understanding of human life and relationships blesses such a covenant and his Body the Church must do also. To do otherwise is to defy Jesus Himself!
    I was officiating at such weddings 30 years ago when there was no church of any denomination that would allow such a blessed service. Indeed the first wedding of two people of the same gender I had the honour to witness and bless in the Name of God was held in a restaurant above a gay bar where only the week before I had baptized one of the partners. People who had not received Holy Communion for years came forward to do so that day and on the day of the wedding!
    I would if I could tell Dr Ogletree anything is to remember if they decide you are not kosher just remember you are in most excellent company that includes Jesus himself and many of his saints!

  2. says

    It would be very interesting to know how those who filed the complaint felt about mixed race marriages when they were deemed illegal. The language that is used when dealing with this issue is eerily similar to the language used in the 1960s during the civil rights struggle.

    And I go back to a question that I have always asked. What will we do when (not if) we find out that sexuality is genetic and not simply a matter of choice.

    To answer your questions – Christian ethics are my sense of right and wrong guided by the example of Jesus. How many times did he do something that was either illegal or socially unacceptable?

    I learned a long time ago that my sense of right and wrong is internal and not determined by the community. Growing up in the south in the 50s and 60s meant growing up in communities were segregation was the law. But I also grew up in communities were there was no segregation. It became quite evident that it would be my sense of right and wrong that I would have to follow because there was so much discrepancies in communities.

    I think that one of the basic tenets of the Bible, especially in the context of the New Testament, is stand up for what is right and to stand by your friends. I doubt you will find specific verses that say that but it is a sense that comes from trying to lead the life that was set for us on the back roads of the Galilee. If church law goes against that, well, so be it. If I had been a member of the Methodist Episcopal church in 1840 and lived in the South, I would probably have left rather than stay in the M. E. South branch. That’s how I feel about what is happening now.

    • says

      Tony, I read Jeremy’s question about ethics differently than being a question about civil disobedience. But whatever the case, what does “your sense of right or wrong guided by the example of Jesus” tell you about sexual ethics for Christians?

  3. SBoote says

    I think Christian Ethics are, at the core, based on “Love God”, and “Love Everyone”, including yourself. If the act is in the service of love, it is following Christian Ethics. If the action is compelled by, or called by, the Holy Spirit, and you have tested that calling or compulsion through conversation and personal discernment practices, then you are acting in the service of God. Personally, I believe that if a couple goes through the premarital counseling that is required and show that they are in a loving and committed relationship, it is the right thing to do to marry them. It doesn’t matter if they are same sex or opposite sex. Many rely on the idea that marriage is for procreation or to promote families in order to deny marriage to same sex couples, but that doesn’t apply anymore (if it ever did). Many couples marry who do not want children, or can’t have children.

  4. Dylan says

    First United Methodist Church of _____ fed 500 people last Tuesday…
    First UMC of ____ passed out 45 bags of school supplies to underprivledged children…
    A 80 year old lady who had been unchurched for 75 of those years was baptized Sunday, face full of tears…

    These are the type of headlines we don’t see about the Methodist Church. Instead it is “Pastor faces church trial for conducting wedding” or a video about the divide in the UMC at General Conference over the inclusiveness issue.

    Frankly it embarrasses me, ticks me off, and makes me a bit sick. Words fail me. When I hear about this type of stuff I feel an inner Carrie Nation coming out in me…

    • TKnTexas says

      Dylan, you can imagine how I felt. Living in homophobic East Texas, I NEVER heard word one against the LGBT. Not even “hate the sin but love the sinner”. As the realization in my life I was gay, never called a conflict with my Faith. My church never said God would not love me.

      To find out later that the church worked in the background to segregate its pastors by eliminating those who are LGBT from ordination. To hear stories of pastors denying membership to out LGBT was appalling.

      I know the standard passages that are plucked. But I had my own epiphany during a service at the Cathedral of Hope. The sermon was on the Roman Centurion and the faith he demonstrated. I love that passage. The Apostles were blessed as WITNESSES to Jesus’ miracles. Matthew 8:5-13 was opened to me in new light. He always had a parable when the circumstances arose. With the Roman Centurion, his story was of faith. He wasn’t bothered by the relationship of the “servant” to the Centurion. It was a non-issue. So it should be.

  5. Sue Laurie says

    Speaking as a United Methodist who is lesbian… clergy trials are not a bad thing. They allow for urgency and truth-telling in a system of “inflammatory silence”.
    The article stated that the accusers hoped Dr. Ogletree would recant, apologize and promise never to do it again. To agree to this would be to accept the “Shame on you.” I appreciate that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is not willing to carry the blame or shame, but articulates joy and confidence.
    My fear was that we could not have another honest moment about the policies of hatefulness toward LGBT people until the next General Conference in Portland.
    My fear was that all my allies would continue to say, “Well, the Bishop did want he had to do. He had no choice.”
    My joy is that LGBT people deserve better and are asserting this.
    My joy is that in Oglevie, we have an ally who matched words with actions.
    My joy is that two more clergy from New York were quoted as having done weddings as well!
    My joy is that many others are praying about joining them!

  6. says

    The Christian ethic is a community ethic, not to be discerned in one’s isolated conscience but determined in concert with (and sometimes over against) others in the Body of Christ.

    I’m not sure that Ogletree should be applauded as much as he is, because he has very little on the line practically (in that sense I think it is hyperbole to speak of this as “brave” and “bold” and so on). If this were done by someone who was 50 years old, with a career and means to subsist on the line, then yes. But Ogletree has nothing significant to lose. I’m sure it is more difficult than I can imagine for church law to be harmful to someone so dear to you and I appreciate him sticking up for his son. Of all people, though, he knows what he has brought on himself. In that sense, this will not be at all like the trial of Harry before the Ministry of Magic, because Harry was forced to defend himself in a battle not of his choosing. Dr. Ogletree knew precisely what he was doing and what the consequences would be.

    Most of all, I regret that much of the “debate” to follow will be a total sham; we know who will argue what and how because we’ve done it a hundred times: most of us will vomit our “progressive” or “traditionalist” views all over pages such as these and call it gospel truth, when most if it is – in form and content – little more than recycled talking points from cable news with some Jesus dust sprinkled in to make it palatable for the Christian blogosphere. The Body of Christ will remain broken, in part because we have been unable to rise above the bitter, self-righteous partisanship of the culture wars.

  7. Tom Lambrecht says

    I think it is inappropriate to use civil rights tactics to bring about change in the church. The language of civil disobedience is appropriate in a country where one has no choice but to obey the laws or leave the country. Even in Acts 4, there was only one Temple where one could offer sacrifices and engage in Jewish worship. The situation is much different with The United Methodist Church. We are one denomination among many. There are other denominations that permit same-sex marriage. Dr. Ogletree even acknowledges that his wife invited him to resign from the UMC and join her in the UCC, which does so.

    Instead, Dr. Ogletree decided to stay United Methodist and yet to defy United Methodism’s polity and doctrine, based on 40 years of holy conferencing on this issue. By his action, he seeks to coerce the UMC to change and adopt his perspective on homosexuality. Throughout history, it has been the non-authentic voices of Christianity who have sought to coerce change in the church (for example, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars of the Middle Ages and Reformation period). When James and John wanted to call down lightning upon those who would not receive them, Jesus rebuked them.

    The UM Church has decided that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, in continuity with 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian teaching. Those who cannot accept the UMC’s position are free to find another venue for their ministry. Yet, proponents of accepting the practice of homosexuality would rather tear the church apart in order to get their way. There is nothing Christ-like about that.

    • Martin says

      Tom, how do you feel about the sit-in protests that desegregated restaurants in much of the country? Often those protesters could have gone to other, non-segregated restaurants. Perhaps even better restaurants. Yet they kept protesting, restaurant by restaurant, until every one was desegregated. Was this inappropriate? Was this coercive?
      Those who cannot accept the restaurant’s positions are free to find another venue for their lunch.

      • Creed Pogue says

        If there were integrated lunch counters in Greensboro, then people would have been happy to go there and let market forces change the opinions of the bigots. But, they weren’t available.

        In Montgomery, black people had to go to the back of the bus because there was only one bus line. That is certainly not the case for religion or even for mainline Christianity.

        Our leadership does a lot to blur any lines between us and the rest of mainline Christianity. So, it is difficult to understand why someone would put themselves in the position of lying during their ordination vows and being in violation of the Discipline every day since to become a UM clergy while also being homosexual. They knew going in that they could not remain and do both openly. Yet, they want the rules changed. The only real difference is that we have guaranteed appointment and better benefits than other denominations. We also have more church locations and are dying at a slower pace. That isn’t a matter of conscience but a matter of comfort and convenience.

        There are many laws in civil society ranging from speed limits to homicide being a crime that we are all expected to obey. Yet, many of us violate “the law” at some point or another. We can try to argue jury nullification or “everybody else does it” but those types of arguments usually don’t get you very far. We do have exceptions even for the crime of homicide but if you are convicted then you are punished. But, we each don’t get the “right” to determine which laws we will disobey without any fear of punishment–that is the very definition of anarchy.

        • Martin says

          I’m sure you know that being homosexual in the clergy is not against the Discipline. The Discipline concerns itself with sex and marriage, not orientation.

          On market forces vs protest: here is an article on the Greensboro sit-ins:

          > Greensboro’s first round of demonstrations aimed at lowering racial barriers in places catering to the public began with the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s and Kress’s variety stores in February 1960.
          > They came to an end about six months later when management of both stores went against “local custom” and made their food services available to all races.
          > In a sense, what happened at the variety stores was dress rehearsal for a later all-out bid to open every place of public accommodation in the city. But it was a long time between demonstrations. The next one did not come until late in 1962.

          So, after Woolworth’s and Kress’s desegregated, there WERE integrated lunch counters. But in 1962, the people WERE NOT happy to go to Woolworth’s and let market forces change the opinions of the bigots. They protested and demonstrated at the remaining restaurants. Was this inappropriate? Was this coercive?

    • Fred says

      Thank you Tom for all your faithfulness through the years in the face of sincere, insincere and misguided people hurling insults at you. Great is your reward. May your tribe increase.

  8. Greg says

    In reflecting on the questions I feel compelled to say that I have never met a person who has looked me in the eye and stated that they agree with every point of discipline and common practice in the UMC. I’m quite certain that I will someday.

    It is important to understand, however, that the very collection of viewpoints in the UMC reinforces the notion that we are not in lock step, and we must understand that we remain in such a group by choice. This means we disagree on various things to varying degrees.

    By extension most United Methodists I know, as well as many people of other denominations and faiths, do not believe that their religious organization’s every rule is “cut and dried, and forever inarguable.”

    So there will be times when a given church law may not seem quite right.

    If I am being asked to violate a church law, I must carefully consider, through prayer, sisterly and brotherly discussion, and careful discernment why I feel I’m being asked to do this. I must carefully study the scriptures and how these scriptures have been articulated through time, reason them carefully, and search out the experiences that affirm or deny them.

    If scripture, reason, tradition, and experience affirm a different view I must find a way to reconcile the views. If tradition is the only factor in disagreement, I must consider the possibility that tradition may be wrong. If scripture both seems to agree and disagree while tradition disagrees, yet experience and reason both agree, I will be highly confused (!), but there is one thing I must always be certain of: I must obey my Lord and Master.

    I must love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. _If_ that walk requires disobedience to the law of a human organization, even one steeped in prayerful consideration, then I must disobey the earthly to obey the Holy.


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