Wow. Looks like United Methodist pastor Reverend Thomas Ogletree of New York won't be facing a canonical trial after all. Ogletree recently officiated at the same-sex marriage of his son, apparently a violation of church rules that merited a Methodist Church trial. The result could have led to his ouster from the ranks of the church's clergy. An undertaking like this is not to be taken lightly, but then, Reverend Ogletree himself is no particular lightweight either. Dr. Ogletree, 79, was dean of both the Yale Divinity School and Drew Theological Seminary. He's still a professor emeritus at Yale. From 1978-81 he was director of graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University. He's authored several widely-read and -admired books, including The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics and Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding. He's also on the editorial board of The Journal of Religious Ethics.
Challenging somebody with creds as eye-popping as those makes for a formidable public-relations task. It comes as no surprise that New York UMC Bishop Martin D. McLee abandoned the ecclesiastical confrontation. If there's a surprise here, it's the unequivocal way that Bishop McLee rejected any further objections to conducting same-sex marriages in the churches over which he has authority. Said McLee, "I call for and commit to a cessation of
church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual
unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a
process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation." As a long-standing member of Rapid City's Canyon Lake United Methodist Church, I know that this issue has been percolating for some time. Recently I had dinner with one of South Dakota's long-admired UMC pastors, now retired (sorry, no names, no genders) and asked if the church was likely to reverse course on this. The Ogletree matter was just making the news. "I hope so," said my friend, "if the church knows what's good for it."
I hope so, too, but think it will be a contentious process. The blowback to Bishop McLee's decision in New York has been swift and immediate. One of the complainants against Ogletree, New York Reverend Roy E. Jacobson, said today, "the settlement agreed to is not, in our minds, a just resolution of
our complaint. It makes no acknowledgement of the breaking of our
clergy covenant, the clear teaching of Scripture, and our agreed upon
way of discipleship expressed in our Book of Discipline. There
are no consequences for such violation. It fails to recognize the harm
done to our church members, who are seeking to live faithfully by
teachings of the church for the last 2,000 years. And it fails to
prevent further breaking of our covenant by other clergy in our annual
conference." The red flags attached to this statement are the words "clear teaching of Scripture," which of course is as clear as the mud tracked in by the donkeys who bore Mary into that stable one fateful night in December. If the teaching of Scripture were so "clear", we probably would have avoided two millenia of conflict among those for whom the "clarity" of the Holy Bible is indisputably authoritative, versus the competing "clarity" of those who obtain their teachings through another facet of that wonderfully prismatic Book.
One set of "clear teachings" challenging another set of "clear teachings" of Scripture has been the source of some of History's most egregious catastrophes. Another schism, we don't need. I certainly hope the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church can avoid a contentious aftermath of the New York decision, which I embrace wholeheartedly. I've written before of "cafeteria Christians," who seem to tolerate some sins (like that of adultery committed by divorced people who remarry, per the words of Jesus) but exclude sinners of other stripes from obtaining the sacraments of their churches. This is hypocritical baloney and ignores Christianity's towering imperative, summed up by poet W.H. Auden: "love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart." I can't outdo Auden, but I can note that the word "love" is the verb that drives the rest of that sentiment.