SYRACUSE, N.Y. (RNS) The Rev. Steve Heiss presided at his first same-sex marriage ceremony in a field in upstate New York on July 7, 2002. At the time, gay marriage was not legal in New York, and it remains illegal in the United Methodist Church.

Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 2, 2002 commitment ceremony of his daughter, Nancy Heiss (blue dress) and Kim Willow (pink and white dress) in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss

The Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 7, 2002, commitment ceremony of his daughter, Nancy Heiss (blue dress), and Kim Willow (pink and white dress) in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But his daughter was getting married, and he wanted to bless her relationship. As pastor of Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., he knew he was violating church law, but he saw no reason the women should not be treated as any other couple.

“Even then I knew it was worth the risk,” he said. “It was so right. You only have one opportunity to do this in your lifetime. I couldn’t imagine anyone would be so upset about it.”

In 2011, same-sex marriage became legal in New York state. Within a week, Heiss officiated at a same-sex marriage, and he has presided over six more since. Five of those weddings took place at his church.

In May, Heiss sent his bishop a letter disclosing his actions and his intention to continue officiating at same-sex marriages. On June 27, Heiss’ bishop, Mark J. Webb of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, sent him a registered letter informing him that a complaint had been filed against him.

On Friday (Sept. 20), Webb will decide whether to dismiss the complaint or forward the case to a church trial or an administrative hearing.

Heiss’ case comes as more United Methodists are challenging church policy. At least three other clergy face church complaints for presiding at same-sex marriages, and at least one pastor faces a complaint of being a practicing lesbian. All could potentially lose their clergy credentials.

Tom Ogletree photo courtesy Yale Divinity School

The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, 79, retired dean at Drew Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School, who presided at the Oct. 12, 2012, wedding of his son and another man. Photo courtesy Yale Divinity School


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Among those facing a complaint is the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, 79, retired dean at Drew Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School, who presided at the Oct. 12, 2012, wedding of his son and another man. Clergy filed a complaint against Ogletree after The New York Times published a marriage announcement. Ogletree has refused to promise never to preside again at a same-sex wedding.

Momentum is growing to change the church law, said Andy Oliver, director of communications for the Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent United Methodist group that advocates full inclusion of gay people.

The network includes 569 churches or communities that have written statements  welcoming all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There are so many churches entering the process that we’ve had to add regional staff,” said Oliver, an ordained elder in Florida.

At least 1,500 clergy have signed a statement, publicly stating they are willing to officiate at same-sex marriages, Oliver said.

In addition, the Western Jurisdiction, stretching from Colorado to Hawaii, and from Alaska to Arizona, overwhelmingly passed a resolution in July 2012 that says the church “is in error on the subject.” The jurisdiction will operate as if the church teaching in the Book of Discipline on homosexuality did not exist. Several regional conferences, the smaller areas that make up jurisdictions, have passed similar resolutions in recent years.

“More and more clergy are being public,” Oliver said. “They frame it as they’re not being disobedient to church law, they are being obedient to the fullness of church law that says a lot more than the few paragraphs about LGBT issues.”

The issue is evolving in the same way that the church addressed other civil rights issues, said the Rev. Dean Snyder, senior minister at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. “We’ve been through this again and again,” he said.  “We did it over the issue of slavery. We experienced the same kind of thing around women being given the vote. The church was divided when it was segregated.”

Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 2, 2002 commitment ceremony of his daughter, Nancy Heiss (blue dress) and Kim Willow (pink and white dress) in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss

The Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 7, 2002, in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Heiss sees himself as typical of his generation, growing more open to gay rights as time goes on. A big turning point was learning that his brother and daughter are gay, as is a close friend. “If everyone had a gay relative or a gay friend this issue would disappear,” he said.

When he performed his daughter’s marriage back in 2002, he did it with a bit of stealth.

“I never really pronounced them married,” he said.

But these days he is feeling far more secure in his convictions. When his bishop suggested Heiss agree not to perform any more gay weddings, Heiss refused.

His bishop declined to comment, saying through a spokesman that it was a personnel matter. The Rev. Richard Barton, a district superintendent in the Upper New York Conference who filed the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment.

Heiss said he no longer wants actions to be secret, and he wants his denomination to change its policies.

“The long bitter era of scorn and hatred against gay people is dissolving before our very eyes,” he wrote to Webb.  “Christ has broken down the walls. … We are learning that it is really OK with God if one is gay.”

The Rev. Kathryn Johnson performs a wedding ceremony between David Shumate and Andy Ragland.

The Rev. Kathryn Johnson performs a wedding ceremony between David Shumate and Andy Ragland. Photo courtesy Andy Oliver/Kathryn Johnson


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

At its worldwide General Conference in May 2012, the  12 milion-member global denomination voted to keep the language in its Book of Discipline that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The church does not ordain “avowed” homosexuals and bans clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages or holding such ceremonies in its churches. The church law cannot change until the next quadrennial conference, in 2016.

Should he lose his clergy credentials, Heiss would also lose his health insurance. But since his two daughters are grown and he’s divorced, it’s easier to take the risk than for younger clergy, he said. More important is the principle.

“I’m doing it because it’s so right,” he said. “After suffering the kind of bias these people have gone through, I have the privilege of standing there and saying, ‘You are married.’ It’s just knowing you are on the right side of history.”

 

18 Comments

  1. Holly Boardman

    I will be interested to see whether Bishop Webb will send this case to trial. The North East Jurisdiction and the Western Jurisdiction have voted to ignore the Book of Discipline on matters relating to homosexuality. I have heard of more and more examples of open defiance of United Methodist clergy regarding this issue.

    Over Labor Day weekend, at a gathering of the Reconciling Ministries Network, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples. In his sermon, Bishop Talbert urged United Methodist clergy and bishops to ignore what he termed the “evil” and “unjust” laws of the Book of Discipline. Here is a link to the video of the service http://youtu.be/BUdoPmC3JuM To my knowledge, no one has reprimanded Bishop Talbert or filed charges against him. (It would probably be rather pointless to do so since he is retired, AND a member of the Western Jurisdiction). However, I am disturbed by the silence of our Council of Bishops.

    It seems to me that The United Methodist Church is no longer united.

    Rev. Andy Oliver seems to think that this disobedient faction of the church is growing. I disagree with him. The United Methodist Church will probably NOT alter it’s law since there are more voting representatives from the South than the West and the North East who will determine the outcome. In addition, The United Methodist Church is now a global church. By the time the next General Conference meets, there will be MORE delegates from outside the United States than inside. Most of those delegates are clear that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

    My view is that it is time for The United Methodist Church to draft a new Book of Discipline–one that reflects the GLOBAL nature of our church. The current Book of Discipline has become obsolete. Perhaps we can toss out our polity (based on the model of the United States government); and work with our brothers and sisters in places beyond the United States to organize dynamic, faith communities that will be able to meet the demands of a new era.

    • I absolutely agree with you Holly. The UMC is growing so fast in Africa that by the 2016 General Conference the chances of the church changing its stance on Homosexuality is extremely slim and the chances will only decrease every 4 years. I think the UMC will eventually start to become a more evangelical Wesleyan denomination because of this change. But in the US, most of the approved UMC seminaries are pretty moderate/liberal with a couple conservative ones scattered across the country. I think the seminaries that the University Senate has approved is the reason why there is increasing tension in within the church. We have a conservative stance on Homosexuality but most of the future pastors in the UMC are getting a pretty liberal seminary experience.
      I think we also need an Archbishop in UMC to help foster unity because right now we have dozens of bishops across the United States and the globe that are creating their own agenda and only creating a greater divided within the denomination.

  2. This maybe what they want, but not according how God designed the institute of marriage. Unfortunately the more liberal baptists are condoning this sinful lifestyle (no proof of a biological connection to homosexuality). Yes, we as Christians can love them as Christ would, but He also told the woman accused of adultery, “Go and Sin no more.”

    • Ben – Actually you do realize that your god did not in any way create the modern concept of marriage, right? Modern marriage doesn’t involve any exchange of property, livestock, or money between families. Women are not sold like chattel; couples must be of age; love is now the primary motivation to get married. Allowing LGBT couples to access legal marriage might scare you because it’s new and LGBT couples have been demonized, marginalized, and dehumanized for many years thanks to religion, but think about it: just making marriage a voluntary commitment between two consenting adults who love each other changed marriage more than LGBT people ever could. Maybe you need to brush up on what Biblical forms of marriage actually involved.

      Oh, and just because Jesus(‘s ghostwriters) said “go and sin no more” to someone, that is not an endorsement of *Christians* saying that to anybody. He also said, after all, not to judge people but to leave that to your god. It’s the most hilarious and, I admit, sickening thing to see Christians using that story as if it gives them carte blanche to abuse people in the name of their religion. So, uh, feel free to “go and sin no more” yourself there. Your judgement is not required here. I’m thrilled to see pastors refusing to knuckle under to bigotry and oppression. Love is beating dogma at last.

      • Probably one of the best comments I’ve seen in a while. Unfortunately it has been my experience that Christians listen more to their twisted pastors who are not trying to save them, or anyone else, than they do the word of God. I know having once been a church leader and leaving because those around me forgot that we were there to preach love to EVERYONE and not just a select few. I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible were Jesus himself, who we as Christians claim to follow, ever mentioned homosexuality. Paul certainly did afterward, but we have to remember that was Paul’s words not Jesus’. So please don’t go blaming Jesus because you choose to oppress your fellow man. Jesus won’t be happy with you using him to scapegoat another section of humanity who after all like all the rest are made in God’s image.

  3. MMMM! Do you think they will take away the credentials of J. Edward Carothers who conducted such a ceremony in the mid sixties in a New York State United Methodist church? He died in the year 2000 at age 92, but maybe a retroactive kind of deal would be the thing. There is nothing new under the sun that shines upon us. Please let us get over this sad and ugly argument within the UMC and support our fellow human beings in living lives of love and peace.

  4. Sexually liberal activists endlessly repeat the claim that their side is gaining ground even when it is directly contrary to the facts. The liberal side is dramatically LOSING ground on this issue in the UMC, which helps explain their pouring their energies into such direct-action disobedience now http://www.theird.org/page.aspx?pid=2447

  5. It seems to me that we do an injustice to the Gospel and the mission/ministry
    of the Church when some make the claim that the embrace and inclusion of
    those who for reasons of race, gender or sexual orientation have been rendered second class by the Church, is “liberal”. The certainty that some assert as they use the word liberal to denounce inclusion has been addressed
    by Pope Francis in his recent interview; “If a person says that he met God with
    total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good….It means that he is using religion for himself.”

    There were some who critiqued those of us who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement seeking racial justice by calling us “liberal activists”. HIstory
    has shown that both in society and the Church, racial integration was not liberal, it was right. Marriage equality is not liberal, it too is right.

    “Certainty” about the wrongness of the perspectives of some people, and the rightness of one’s own perspectives, makes it difficult to “grow” spiritually or intellectually, if there is an unwillingness to change. We saw that as “good and gifted” people in church and society, rejected racial integration. Sadly,
    today, persons whose God-given gifts are quite evident, in response to the
    integration of same gender loving persons into marriage, are repeating the attitudes that once were anti-interracial marriage.

  6. I am a Lutheran pastor, ELCA. I understand what you are saying about a growing African membership reducing chances of opening the UMC to all people. Episcopalians have a similar problem. Perhaps the UMC will turn to a system similar to what American Lutherans have.

    In the ELCA we are open to everyone. We ordain LBTG pastors and are happy to officiate LBTG weddings. None of the dozens of smaller Lutheran denominations do so. But most of us work together for the common good. The Lutheran World Federation actively engages throughout the world, helping people provide their basic needs. Lutheran Social Services is another NGO that is multi a denominational. Each nation that is home to Lutherans is their own entity. Thus, ELC in Canada, Mexico, Cameroon, Costa Rica, and others.

    BTW, when the ELCA threw our doors open in warm welcome to LBTG folks, some congregations didn’t like it and left us. They were ungrudgingly allowed to do so. We miss them, but we can’t let numbers and income trump the voice of the Holy Spirit. There were losses over women’s ordination and other issues along the way too. It seems that when one Lutheran gets mad at another, he starts a new denomination!

    Hang in there UMC! (One of my favorite denominations.) You’ll get through this and do even greater ministry!!

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