United Methodist pastor Stephen Heiss conducted his first same-sex marriage in 2002, wedding his daughter Nancy to her lesbian partner. Heiss calls that event “the highlight” of his career. Since 2011, when the state of New York legalized same-sex marriages, Heiss has presided at seven more ceremonies, including five at his church. By doing so, Heiss is openly violating United Methodist Church (UMC) law.
In May, Heiss formally notified his bishop, Mark Webb, that he was performing gay marriages, and in June, Webb replied with notice of a complaint against the pastor. On Sept. 20, Heiss and the bishop met but agreed to wait a month before the bishop decides whether to proceed with a church trial.
Heiss has become a hero to Methodist supporters of gay marriage, such as the leaders of the University UMC of Syracuse, New York, which hosted a prayer vigil for the dissident minister when he met with Webb. (University UMC features a gay pride flag on its Twitter profile photo.)
To traditionalists within the UMC, however, Heiss is a troublemaking radical. John Lomperis, United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, describes Heiss as a “renegade pastor” who is turning his “destructive energies” against the UMC. But activists insist that Heiss represents a rising tide of clergy who are conscientiously breaking the UMC’s prohibition on gay marriages. Andy Oliver, director of communications for the Reconciling Ministries Network, told Religion News Service that his organization counts 569 Methodist-affiliated “churches or communities” and at least 1,500 clergy supporting full acceptance of non-celibate gays.
Backing for gay marriage certainly exists in the UMC, but the denominational picture looks different from a global perspective. The UMC is shrinking in America but growing in other parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. The 2012 UMC General Conference, its quadrennial global assembly, rejected efforts to modify the denomination’s stance that homosexual acts are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some 40 percent of conference delegates were from outside the United States, and they overwhelmingly supported the traditional UMC position.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has nearly 1,500 chaplains serving in the U.S. military. But the future of those chaplains seems uncertain, given the federal government’s growing affirmation of homosexuality and gay marriage. The SBC’s North American Mission Board recently published guidelines stating that SBC chaplains “will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for any same-sex couple, bless such a union or perform counseling in support of such a union.” This clarification follows a 2012 controversy in which a chaplain resigned his SBC affiliation after attending a same-sex wedding. The Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services issued a similar policy in September.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sees the chaplaincy crisis as testing whether religious freedom can “survive under America’s new moral order.” Numerous chaplains have already encountered pressure to stop expressing exclusive Christian beliefs (see “Holding the line,” July 13).
In light of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, some liberal critics are asking whether traditional Christian chaplains should be in the military, where they must agree to serve all personnel, regardless of faith or sexual practices.
Tom Carpenter, co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy (a gay advocacy group), says that the North American Mission Board’s policy has put SBC chaplains “into the untenable position of either serving God or country.” He contends that for SBC chaplains who support the denomination’s guidelines, the “only honorable course is to resign.” —T.K.