By Andrew E. Harrod
Moral and theological confusion, to say nothing of human pride and sin, were on full display at a June 7, 2013, luncheon lecture at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, during the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) of the area’s United Methodists. Presented by Methodists in New Directions (MIND), a pro-homosexuality grouping of like-minded local Methodists, the event featured Thomas W. Ogletree, an ordained but now retired United Methodist minister and former dean of Yale Divinity School, New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, and retired United Methodist bishop, civil rights movement veteran Melvin G. Talbert.
The speakers defended Ogletree in his pending church disciplinary action for violating The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church by performing a same-sex “marriage” (SSM) ceremony for his homosexual son (a collection of reports on the incident is here). Ogletree’s violation of church law will be adjudicated by Bishop McLee. The event should serve as yet another warning signal to defenders of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy within America’s culture wars.
Suffusing the entire event was an understanding of approval for homosexuality in general and SSM in particular as being a matter of justice analogous to other hard-fought gains for human dignity. In particular, the speakers consistently invoked the well-worn comparison of the homosexual movement to past civil rights struggles on behalf of Ogletree, himself a veteran of the 1960s era Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its sit-ins. Ogletree’s defiance of The Book of Discipline’s paragraph 161(F) calling homosexual behavior “incompatible with Christian teaching” (while attributing to all people “sacred worth”) figured as another act of civil disobedience.
MIND chairperson Dorothee Benz, for example, opened the event before some 150 people seated at luncheon tables in the Hofstra USA building with the comment that “God is doing a new thing…through conflict, through law breaking.” Even though “conflict is not fun” and no one says in the morning “I am going to have some conflict for breakfast,” individuals like Ogletree had exhibited “nonviolent constructive conflict.” Ogletree’s defiance was part of the “same journey” to “racial justice,” “immigration justice,” “gender justice,” “economic justice,” and “God’s justice.”
McLee, introduced by Benz as a “vocal supporter” of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues, continued in a similar vein. He called for his audience “to speak truth to power” and to show that “progressives are not afraid of Jesus.”
Two MIND members including Nehemiah Luckett addressed the “division” existing between homosexuals and African-Americans, two groups that should be “allies together.” The fewer than a dozen minority members among the some 150 people in attendance testified to Luckett’s concern. Surveys of African-American views on comparisons of the homosexual movement with the civil rights movement continue to justify Luckett as well.
Martin Luther King’s one-time cellmate Talbert personally manifested the comparison of the civil rights movement with the homosexual movement. Talbert recalled how he how he “chose to be nonviolent even if it meant losing my life” during the civil rights movement. Seeing in SSM another manifestation of equality, Talbert proclaimed that “God has already settled this matter.”
In case of conflict between the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the will of God as determined by Talbert, he therefore told his audience that “I assume you know to whom priority is given.” “I challenge you,” Talbert concluded, “to do the right thing” and “stop giving your allegiance to unjust and immoral laws.” United Methodist rules on homosexuality “no longer deserve our obedience.”
Rather, the Book of Discipline’s homosexuality incompatibility clause inserted in 1972 was a “failure to do the right thing” and contained “derogatory, discriminatory language,” Talbert claimed. He compared this “valley” moment to other stains upon the United Methodist Church’s history such as the 1844 denominational schism over slavery and the 1939 formation of a segregated “colored” Central Jurisdiction. Yet “even our church can be saved if it confesses its sin.”
Talbert argued that while “racism, sexism, and homophobia are still alive,” his granddaughter’s generation “has gone far beyond where we are” in approval of homosexuality in general and SSM in particular. Such attitudes made Talbert “fearful” of losing this younger generation absent a change in received Christian sexual orthodoxy. He accordingly saw affirmation of LGBTQ issues as necessary for the United Methodist Church “to embrace its future with hope.” Talbert wanted to “applaud” Ogletree for “his decision to do the right thing” through “ministry to his son” in a SSM ceremony and appealed to his audience not to support a church conviction of Ogletree under an “unjust and immoral law.”
Citing United Methodist condemnation of homosexuality as a hindrance to LBGTQ ministry, Talbert declared his willingness to emulate Ogletree in officiating SSM in the future. Talbert was thereby “at peace with myself and my God” irrespective of any subsequent disciplinary action.
For scriptural foundation of his views Talbert turned to two well-known Biblical injunctions. Micah 6:2-8 in the Old Testament and Mark 12:28-31 in the New Testament commanded, respectively, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He called the latter verse the “focal point” in the ministry of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, whose “three simple rules” were namely “do no harm,” “do good,” and “stay in love with God.”
Talbert described Wesley advocating that followers of these precepts “become perfect in becoming perfect.” “We must transform ourselves,” he explained, “before we can effectively transform the world.” Among various examples of United Methodist social witness around the world approvingly cited by Talbert was support for President Barack Obama’s controversial healthcare law.
The event’s star speaker appearing after Talbert was, of course, the center of the current controversy, Ogletree. Echoing the other speakers, Ogletree judged the Book of Discipline’s homosexuality incompatibility clause as being discredited like past views among Christians such as support for slavery and a belief that “women should not be ordained.” The Book of Discipline’s simultaneous condemnation of homosexual behavior and profession of respect for homosexual individuals was a “contradiction.” Hence Ogletree invoked Martin King’s natural rights axiom that an “unjust law is no law.”
Rather than see himself as in the wrong, Ogletree described his son’s SSM as an “opportunity to make a public witness for justice,” indeed among Ogletree’s “most exhilarating.” That Ogletree’s son and his partner fulfilled their wish to publish this SSM in the New York Times only made this “witness” more public. Not surprisingly, the MIND event ended with the people in attendance standing to sing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Following the luncheon, Ogletree offered to spend a few minutes answering my questions before leaving for another event, despite a discreet admonition by Benz. In contrast to the unconcerned Ogletree, Benz expressly recognized the ideological implications of my reporting for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).
My initial questions concerning Ogletree’s grouping of women’s ordination with issues such as slavery indicated that I did not accept the various moral equivalences apparently assumed at the luncheon. Ogletree responded that female clergy had become largely uncontroversial “within the Protestant legacy” and made the well-known argument that exclusion of women from the clergy reflected a past “different culture.” Ogletree conceded, though, that the matter remained an “unresolved question…within the church as a whole” such as among Catholics.
A subsequent inquiry asked whether the Book of Discipline’s treatment of homosexuality was not contradictory at all, but merely a standard formulation of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Ogletree agreed that proponents of the incompatibility clause in 1972 believed that “you can welcome” LGBTQ individuals “just like you can welcome an alcoholic.” Ogletree, however, did not offer any justification for the propriety of homosexual acts meriting a change in United Methodist doctrine.
My final questions raised concerns about SSM’s impact upon family stability. In particular I noted that inherently sterile homosexual couples desirous of children without recourse to adoption needed the biological services of a third person of the opposite sex. Such triangular relationships presented numerous questions about how these three adults and the child would relate to one another.
Ogletree answered that an understanding of “bisexual marriage” encompassing both heterosexual and homosexual unions meant “supporting marriage as an institution.” He said that marriage was a “foundational social institution” according to the 2003 Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court mandating SSM in that state. According to Ogletree’s vision of SSM, homosexuals would have “to be faithful to their spouse” just like any heterosexual couple and would have to exhibit chaste “constraint” before a SSM.
Yet Ogletree concluded with an understanding of family structure novel by anyone’s standard, and certainly by the standards of past United Methodist ministers. He noted he also has a lesbian daughter who became pregnant from the sperm donation of a homosexual man. This man is now an “outside father” who regularly “links up” with Ogletree’s daughter, her lesbian partner, and the child. The biological father, Ogletree noted, “is not constantly in the family, just occasionally,” similar to an “uncle” or a “cousin.” Ogletree also casually expressed in his remarks no objection to two homosexual men making use of a surrogate mother in order likewise to establish a male homosexual household.
Such is the firm foundation of marriage as a “social institution” in Ogletree’s vision. It is perfectly acceptable to Ogletree that a man or woman intentionally provide the physical means of procreating a child while expressly foreswearing any parental role. Apparently merely being a “cousin” or “uncle” or “aunt” to the actual biological offspring will suffice. In turn, Ogletree arbitrarily assumes and accepts that another, homosexual person unrelated to the child will supplant the lifelong commitment to the child purposefully abandoned by a biological parent. The child will then live without a direct relationship to one of the biological parents and gender role models, even if the child’s biological homosexual parent and the homosexual partner never dissolve their relationship.
The underlying raison d’être of this entire arrangement, meanwhile, is to enable adult homosexuals to conjoin their sexual pleasures with the raising of children who are otherwise a natural result and purpose of heterosexuality. The triangular relationships promoted by Ogletree allow homosexuals to circumvent the sexuality imprinted upon human nature by, according to monotheistic understandings, a divine intelligent design. Homosexual couples raising a child in these circumstances, though, will seek precisely to indoctrinate an immature and not consenting child into believing that such homosexual behavior and lifestyles are perfectly normal. This intentional exposure of a child to homosexuality will be even greater where Ogletree’s “outside” biological parent is also homosexual. This is actually a common occurrence in these relationships often involving not just triangular threesomes, but also rectangular foursomes of two homosexual men and two homosexual women.
It is hard to see how the behavior of Ogletree’s daughter could ever allow for the drawing of moral distinctions among various sexual and lifestyle behaviors. Along with demanding sexual “constraint” from homosexuals both before and during a SSM, Ogletree denied advocacy of polygamy by most supporters of SSM. Yet Ogletree’s intentional splitting and meltdown of the nuclear family will thus result in an unstoppable chain reaction of permutations in household arrangements.
Polygamists, for example, would argue that children in such households at least have a father, however divided his attentions among multiple wives and offspring, and not just an “uncle” or a “cousin.” Bisexuals, meanwhile, might take Ogletree’s curious formulation of “bisexual marriage” all too literally and advocate polymorous bisexual arrangements. After all, if three people may collectively raise a child, why may they not have sex together, saving the costs of artificial reproduction in the process?
Repeated Biblical references to a natural family unit would prevent orthodox Christians from pursuing the unbiblical advocacy of Ogletree and others. Such Christians would not accept a cafeteria, à la carte division of the “one flesh” union between a man and his wife spoken of in Genesis 2:24 (and recalled by Jesus in Mark 10:8) after he has left “his father and mother.” The command to honor father and mother, meanwhile, appears in the Fifth Commandment on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments concerning man’s duty to God because, as John Stott wrote in Basic Christianity, “our parents, at least while we are children, stand towards us in loco Dei: they represent God’s authority.” A father and a mother, after all, represent the full human “image of God” created “male and female” in Genesis 1:27. This verse that would also exclude “transgenderism” no matter how much MIND’s website would misappropriate Galatians 3:28 reference to there being “neither…male nor female” in Christ.
The Bible’s references to a natural human family occur within a context of natural revelation. Romans 1:26-27 condemnation of both male and female homosexuality concerns individuals in the preceding Romans 1:18-20 “who suppress the truth” that “God has made…plain to them…since the creation of the world.” Thus the traditional ecumenical Christian er position on homosexuality as expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357-58) has been that this behavior is “intrinsically disordered,” although homosexual persons deserve “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” The oft-invoked Old Testament condemnations of (male) homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and the Sodom narrative of Genesis chapter 19 merely reinforce this natural understanding of human sexuality.
Standing against homosexuality are accordingly both the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” described in the Declaration of Independence referenced by the Rev. King in his famous August 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech before Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial. No matter how incessant the equations of gay “rights” such as SSM to civil rights for groups like African-Americans made by MIND and other groups, it is difficult to envision King supporting Ogletree et al. Particularly with respect to civil disobedience, King distinguished in his famous April 16, 1963, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” between a “just law” as a “man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God” and an “unjust law” as a “code that is out of harmony with the moral law” or is “not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
Whether a person obeys a human law based upon natural law, or shows the “highest respect” for natural law through disobedience to an unjust human law, natural law must guide human action in order to avoid “anarchy.” Rote invocations of “equality” and the civil rights movement, however, do not suffice to justify Ogletree’s disobedience.
Objective observers can understand the intense desire of LGBTQ individuals and their close relations to conform social mores to private LGBTQ behavior. Yet societies throughout history have known that human sexuality involves not just private pleasures but serves public purposes in the context of the family as the origins and incubator of human life. Accordingly, the commentator Robert R. Reilly notes that the Romans 1:32 condemnation of homosexuality extends not only to those who “continue to do these very things but also” to those who “approve of those who practice them.” The United Methodist Church and other Christians must continue to stand against the advocacy of Ogletree and his supporters, for marriage involves not just isolated individuals but a society as a whole. The public cannot afford to “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20), no matter how pleasing to private individuals.