Yesterday, a groundbreaking resolution was reached in the case of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a former Yale Divinity School dean being prosecuted by the United Methodist Church for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding. At a press conference in White Plains, N.Y., Bishop Martin McLee, who was presiding over Ogletree’s trial, announced his decision to dismiss the case entirely. In his statement, McLee declared that he would not prosecute pastors for ministering to LGBTQ people and called for the complete cessation of such church trials.
This announcement comes at the end of a 16-month ordeal for Ogletree, who is 80 years old. In 2012, a complaint was filed against Ogletree after his son was featured in a New York Times wedding announcement. In the ensuing process, Ogletree was asked never to perform another same-sex wedding; he refused, prompting the church to charge him formally. His defense team was led by Rev. Scott Campbell, who has advocated for clergy in several marriage equality trials, including the high-profile cases of the Rev. Amy DeLong and the Rev. Frank Schaefer.
For those fighting for marriage equality within the church, yesterday’s decision was considered a victory. “I do think a step forward was taken today," said DeLong, who was found guilty of officiating a same-sex union and sentenced to a 20-day suspension in 2011. "Tom didn’t have to apologize, and he didn’t have to agree not to do another same-gender union.”
“When Bishop McLee said that he would not enforce the discriminatory laws, it renewed our own commitment and our own refusal to be complicit in discrimination anymore,” said Dorothee Benz, Ogletree’s spokesperson and chair of Methodists in New Directions, which provided Ogletree’s legal defense. McLee’s announcement coincided with news that Pope Francis might be open to supporting gay civil unions in the future, signaling another small advance in the fight for marriage equality in the church writ large.
Still, it is worth asking why anybody should care about the seemingly antiquated workings of religious law. One answer is that the fight for marriage equality within the church has implications that extend far beyond its pews. The trials chip away at widely used religious and moral arguments invoked to justify discrimination, changing the way people think about church-sanctioned homophobia. The significance of this moment in a broader struggle for equality is evident to those who participated in this most recent proceeding.
“The fight within the church is tremendously important for the well-being, the civil rights and the physical safety of LGBT people anywhere, whether they have anything to do with the church or not,” said Benz. She believes that the trials convey to the American public that there are Christians who believe Christian homophobia is wrong. “This really matters because this nation identifies predominantly as Christian. Every piece of the fight to rid Christianity of homophobia -- that in many places is very vicious -- is an important piece of the larger struggle.”
Changes in church doctrine and practice inevitably spread across the denomination, which has roots throughout the country. While Methodists on the East Coast and California tend to favor marriage equality, these trials also influence more conservative congregations in the Midwest and the South -- which may, in turn, influence the culture more broadly. “The deeper you go into conservative Christian territory, take some Bible Belt town in Oklahoma or Mississippi, you will find good Christian kids who go to Baptist or Methodist churches and are as homophobic as anybody because the church is still the main source of legitimation of homophobia,” said Benz.
Bishop McLee, who presided over Ogletree's case, told Salon that it was important to take a strong position precisely because it had the potential to change problematic aspects of conservative American culture. “We have a lot of folk in the United States -- in the South for instance -- who are strongly opposed to any kind of inclusivity towards LGBTQ folk. Culturally, it’s a challenge,” he said.
It is also worth noting that while younger Americans have taken the lead in supporting marriage equality -- the majority of 18- to-29-year-olds support same-sex marriage nationally, while fewer than 35 percent of those 64 and older do -- many of those taking a stand within the Methodist church belong to an older generation: Earlier this month in Dallas, 85-year-old Rev. William McElvaney, a retired pastor and seminary president, conducted a wedding for George Harris, 80, and Jack Evans, 84, who had been partners for 53 years. Ogletree undertook his trial at the age of 80, while Bishop Melvin Talbert was 77 when he rejected the pleas of the Council of Bishops and performed a same-sex marriage in Alabama last year.
For some of these older religious leaders, the struggle for marriage equality is reminiscent of earlier struggles for equality in the church. They often frame their decision to conduct same-sex weddings as an act of civil disobedience. Ogletree told me, “I have lived to see the end of the era of excluding women from ministry. I have lived to see the end of racial segregation in our denomination. And I would very much like to live to see the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the church.”
These older champions of marriage equality upend the widely held belief that the the full arrival of a younger, more tolerant generation will be necessary before LGBTQ acceptance can become the norm. Amy DeLong insists that waiting years for that shift to complete is a mistake. “Nothing is inevitable. I am not one who believes that change will automatically come with a generational shift,” she said. “Throughout my time in ministry as an out lesbian, some of the most supportive people have been folks from the older generation.”
The marriage equality trials typified by Ogletree have had an influence on communities far beyond the church. They have succeeded in shining a light on Christians who are deeply invested in the fight for LGBTQ rights and subverting narratives about Christian homophobia. However, the fight for marriage equality within the church shows no sign of waning in the immediate future. The question is whether impending battles will take place within the context of church trials. Bishop McLee is pushing for a complete moratorium on trials. “I’ve been very clear that church trials are not helpful at all,” he said. “Rather, they are hurtful and harmful. And so, not going that route give us an opportunity to be helpful and to be in conversation.”
Others, however, believe that church trials continue to serve a valuable purpose. Among them is the Rev. Scott Campbell, who had been gearing up for Ogletree’s defense for months. Given New York’s comparatively progressive environment, it was likely that Ogletree would win -- thus giving him a platform to fully articulate his beliefs. “We are not interested in a moratorium on trials or the suspension of action for the moment. We are interested in concrete action that results in a new way of dealing with things,” said Campbell. DeLong concurred: “Trials are one of the few ways to really highlight the discriminatory policies of the church,” she said. “It allows people to tap into their own moral courage. I think trials really empassion folks for real movement toward justice.”
While McLee’s decision has briefly lifted the penalties on ministers who choose to perform same-sex marriages, it has done nothing to change the denomination’s laws, which still discriminate against LGBTQ people. According to DeLong, this is the real issue at the heart of these trials and there is still much work left to be done. “At the end of the day's announcement, some people with heterosexual privilege get to go home and enjoy their privilege and people who are oppressed by the policies of the church are still oppressed. Our job, in the end, is to end that level of systemic injustice and oppression,” she said.