Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired UMC elder, retired dean of Yale Divinity School of Divinity and former dean at Drew Theological Seminary, may now be the next clergy to face a church trial as a result of officiating the wedding ceremony of his son Thomas to Nicholas Haddad. While such weddings are legal in New York, they remain a chargeable offense in United Methodist Church polity, which states, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches” (BOD ¶ 341.6). Clergy considered to have violated church law are subject to having a complaint brought against them thus beginning a very tedious process of investigations, possible trial and possible conviction with penalties imposed. It has been reported that, in the case of Dr. Ogletree, an attempt was made to resolve the complaint without it necessitating a court trial. As the parties could not reach resolution, the bishop of the NY area, Bishop Martin McLee was then compelled by church law to refer the complaint to counsel for the Church (see BOD ¶ 363).
I have taken the time to present a synopsis of the highly publicized beginnings of yet another potential UMC trial for a matter related to the church’s discriminatory stance against LGBTQ persons. The collection of facts is available from various sources. It’s important to know these matters if we are to follow the tradition of the nonviolent campaign for civil rights handed down to us by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the 20th century civil rights movement. In his epic piece, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote these words, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” These words are seldom quoted at our annual celebrations in honor of this great man of peace and justice yet some of us have made them a crucial part of our work. They are words we attempt to live by each day. Having grown up in that era, these words, this methodology is the foundation for my work to eradicate discriminatory laws against LGBTQ persons such as myself. I am reflecting upon these words as I consider, most especially, the bishop involved in processing the complaint made against Dr. Ogletree.
It seems to me that we are at the point of wanting to implement direct action without having done the sincere work of self-purification. We want to “do something” against the injustice we know exists and to which we have tried negotiation but failed to reach a sustainable resolution. “We WILL defy church law!’ we proclaim. Bishop McLee has been critiqued for “not standing up against the institution.” But I wonder how successful we will be without having done the hard job of handling our own internal challenges, especially that of racism and classism. Talk is cheap. Truth is expensive.
Both McLee and Ogletree are now subject to the conservative right wing strategy to “divide and to diminish” our community by going after our bishops and clergy and to put us at odds with one another. The decisions each of these men made possibly included weighing possible financial loss, suspension or revoking of credentials. It is easy for us to talk about what Bishop McLee should have done. It is another matter to understand UMC polity and to have the resources in place to help our other clergy take such actions without fearing their livelihood. Or are we so adamant as to declare that “for the cause” we all must be willing to be brought to financial and cultural ruin? Is this the yardstick upon which we measure each other’s commitment?
Even more, how seriously can white LGBTQ folks and allies be taken after working so hard to collaborate with persons of color, only to attack an African American ally who made the incredibly hard choice of following church law? Do we have any idea of the all he stood to lose? Until America overcomes its racism – both outside and within the LGBTQ community – we had better have a serious game plan in place that includes repentance to admit our internal bigotry and a strategy to overcome not only the financial risks but also the burdens imposed by our various cultural histories. In this case, “Black man rises to the episcopacy and gives it up as a matter of principle,” is not a choice I can imagine now or the near future. I dare say this would be true of any bishop, though I can only speak with knowledge of my context.
As I think of the possible sacrifices to be born, I recall one Black church in NY that has given Christians the saying attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace.” The term was actually coined by Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Bonhoeffer worshipped while a student at Union Theological Seminary. Clayton used this term to speak against the racism so embedded in white conservative and liberal ideologies then and now. Are we really prepared to take direct action against the United Methodist Church? Or are we just “talking loud and saying nothing,” practicing “cheap grace,” and a certain kind of idealism that cannot be received as earnest by the poor, by women and by people of color within our community?
Bishop Talbert has rightly declared that discriminatory church laws “no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” He called it right. Now we must do the work to take into account the cost that truth requires and to developing a plan of action that saysbeforehand “this is how we will support you.” We have the volunteers, we have the skills, we have access to the data, and we have a great organization. The price is so high that only together can we make it happen. Not the few but all of us doing all that is within our capacity.
We don’t need any more martyrs but we do need the entire village working together to embody the truth of one of our favorite statements: “All means ALL.”
Dr. Pamela Lightsey serves as Associate Dean and Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Theology. She is also board member of Reconciling Ministries Network and Coordinating Team member of Church Within a Church. Originally appeared as a RMNBlog. Reprinted with permission.