NEW YORK (AP) — A United Methodist bishop on Monday dropped the case against a retired minister accused of breaking church law by officiating his son’s same-sex wedding — a dramatic decision that came just months after another minister was defrocked for the same reason.
The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, 80, a former dean of the Yale Divinity School, said he’s grateful his church had decided not to put him on trial for what he called “an act of pastoral faithfulness and fatherly love.”
Bishop Martin McLee, who made the announcement at a news conference in White Plains, a New York suburb, also called on church officials to stop prosecuting other pastors for marrying same-sex couples. The bishop said he would cease trials over the issue in the district he leads, which covers 462 churches in New York and Connecticut. Ogletree lives in Guilford, Conn.
The bishop later told The Associated Press that it was clear the minister, by conducting the same-sex rite, had “violated the Discipline” — as Methodists call their ecclesiastical laws.
But the bishop said the best way to deal with the case was to bring it to what he called “a just resolution. We didn’t dismiss the case — we resolved it.”
And then, he said, “the question was, do we go the punishment journey, or something more nuanced?”
McLee said the resolution was to ask Ogletree to participate in a public forum later this year — a broad discussion about divisions among Methodists over gay relationships and about how the church deals with human sexuality.
Ogletree’s was the second high-profile United Methodist case in recent months over same-sex relationships. In December, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a minister from Pennsylvania, was defrocked after he officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding.
On Monday, Schaefer welcomed Monday’s decision but noted it didn’t seem fair.
“Two United Methodist ministers are charged with the exact same ‘crime’ of officiating at their son’s same sex weddings — one is defrocked, the other one’s case is dropped without conditions,” he said in a statement.
Still, Schaefer added, he’s “very happy” Ogletree and his family will be spared an internal church trial that was “an emotional ordeal that I never want to experience again.”
He added, “Thank you Bishop McLee!”
McLee’s decision is considered a victory for Methodists who have defied the church law that considers homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Conservative Methodists have been pressing church leaders to discipline clergy who preside at gay weddings.
Ogletree presided over the wedding of his son, Thomas Rimbey Ogletree, to Nicholas Haddad on Oct. 20, 2012, at the Yale Club in New York City.
Some Methodist clergy filed a complaint against the minister after the wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times. The lead complainant was the Rev. Randall C. Paige, pastor of Christ Church in Port Jefferson Station on Long Island.
Paige issued a statement Monday saying that he’s “dismayed by the settlement” and said there were no “consequences.”
The decision will also further divide the church, Paige said.
“The impact of this settlement today will be that faithful United Methodists who support the church’s teachings will feel ignored and will face their own crisis of conscience, as to whether they can continue to support a church that will not abide by its own rules,” he said.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest U.S. Protestant group, has debated for four decades whether to recognize same-sex relationships. The denomination has more than 12 million members worldwide.
The dismissal of the case against Ogletree, a theologian noted for his work on Christian ethics, comes without conditions. The settlement does not require him to say he’ll never conduct another same-sex wedding, nor does it specifically say that what he did was wrong.
Dorothee Benz, chair of Methodists in New Directions, a grassroots organization that provided Ogletree’s legal defense, called McLee’s decision “a bold act of leadership for our bishop” — announced on the day the minister’s trial would have started.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.