A Love Letter to the United Methodist Church
This week, the New York Times published an article about United Methodist pastor, former seminary dean, Social Ethics professor, and father, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree. Last year, Rev. Ogletree performed the wedding of his son to another man, a chargeable offense in the United Methodist Church. A complaint has been filed against him, which may lead to a church trial. Another clergy colleague and I were also named in the article as United Methodist ministers who have performed same-sex weddings. This is my response.
In 2008 I committed my first act of discrimination in the name of God. A young lesbian couple—members of my church who called me their pastor, parishioners who had welcomed me into their home and hospital rooms for prayer, full participants in the ministry of our community—made an appointment with me. With smiles on their faces, they told me that they had just gotten engaged and wanted me to perform their wedding in their beloved home church. These women were not trying to do anything radical. They were blissfully ignorant of the heated and hurtful battles within the church about whether they were sacred or sinful, family or abomination, beloved or beyond the reach of God’s love. They just wanted to commit to each other before God and church.
I said no. I did what my church asked me to do. I did not agree with it, but I was afraid of losing my job and my church and the work I felt called to do. So I blessed their cake standing next to a justice of the peace in a hotel ballroom, choosing to stand in judgment before my God instead of before my church.
The act of discrimination I committed against that couple has changed everything about my ministry. I have never wrestled with God more than I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to do that wedding. I lost sleep over it and, for years after, I could not speak about what I had done without bursting into tears. It was without a doubt a real Wesleyan moment of justification—when I was thrown to the ground by a blinding light and convicted. I had committed sin, grave sin. Like Saul himself, in the name of religion, I had caused harm to God’s beloveds.
I have talked with a number of other clergy who have experienced the agony of following church law against their conscience. I thank God that we are still idealistic enough—still alive enough—to be devastated when we act in opposition to our understanding of the gospel.
I know that these moments lead many of us to wonder why it is we choose to stay in a church that asks us to commit acts of discrimination. And that has been such an important wondering because it forces us to remember why it is we are so painfully in love with this family of United Methodists.
I love the United Methodist Church. It was Sunday School teachers in this church who taught me The Lord’s Prayer. It was a pastor in this church who gave me my first Bible in 3rd grade. It was ladies in the bell choir of this church who loved me through my awkward adolescence. I am so grateful to this church for giving me Jesus, for showing me the scriptures, for embodying God’s love day in and day out in my life.
I pray for this church. I adore this church too much to allow it to sin. And I am determined to do everything in my power to love this church into righteousness.
You see, those of us who are involved in the movement for LGBT equality in the United Methodist Church cannot be dismissed as radical activists trying to change this church into something it is not. Because we are The United Methodist Church. We sing in the choir and bring casseroles to the potlucks. We chair Trustee boards and pray at hospital bedsides. And, as we were reminded this week in the complaints against Rev. Ogletree for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, we devote our careers to the church, we write the Book of Discipline, we serve as deans of United Methodist seminaries, and we love our children unconditionally according the family values we learned in United Methodist local churches.
There is a young lesbian woman in my life whose mother is having trouble accepting her sexual orientation. Mom asked her one day, “What happened to make you like this?” She answered, “I am like this because of you. You taught me to be true to myself, to follow God’s call on my life, to be honest, to have integrity, and to do what is right.”
The same is true for those of us who struggle for LGBT equality in our mother church. We are like this because of you. You taught us to be true to ourselves, to follow God’s call on our lives, to be honest, to have integrity, and to do what is right. And we are so grateful.
If you want to support Rev. Ogletree and the other clergy who are ministering equally to all people, you will find suggestions here.