By Heather Hahn - UMNS
Two United Methodist pastors in the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference under complaint for officiating at same-sex unions in violation of church law will face not a trial but a 24-hour suspension without pay.
That was the conclusion of the Rev. David Orendorff, appointed by Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya as the counsel for the church in the case — roughly the equivalent of a prosecutor.
Hagiya told United Methodist News Service he has accepted the church counsel’s recommendation and has received signed confirmations from the two pastors that they will abide by the penalty. Their local church treasurers’ have made arrangements to carry it out, the bishop said.
The Rev. Cheryl A. Fear, pastor of Garden Street United Methodist Church in Bellingham, Wash., and the Rev. Gordon Hutchins, pastor of The Bridge, a United Methodist church in Tacoma, Wash., both have acknowledged performing the ceremonies after Washington legalized same-gender civil marriage in 2012.
Hutchins was filmed officiating at the Jan. 19, 2013, wedding of Wayne and Michael Simonson for the documentary “A Church Divided,” by KQED, a PBS member station in Northern California, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The resolution of their case comes less than two months after a church trial in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference drew national attention and resulted in Frank Schaefer losing his clergy credentials after officiating at the same-gender nuptials of his son. It also indicates just how varied responses can be in the denomination’s deepening divide over human sexuality.
“I believe this is a just resolution to this complaint,” Hagiya said. “We will also require the Clergy Orders to convene a deep discussion of the nature of the ‘Clergy Covenant’ in which we ask clergy to engage each other with theological and personal integrity on our own covenant.”
However, the two pastors who filed the complaints against Fear and Hutchins took a far different view.
The Rev. Colleen Sheahan, pastor of Westpark Church in Yakima, Wash., and the Rev. David Parker, pastor of Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Wash., both expressed disappointment in what they see as an inadequate response to a violation of the United Methodist clergy covenant.
In separate statements to Good News, an evangelical United Methodist publication, they warned that the decision could lead to more problems for the denomination in the future.
Sheahan said the complainants’ main request was that Fear and Hutchins not perform any future ceremonies that church law prohibits. “Our offer was refused (not the other way around),” she said. “The decision to accept the counsel’s recommendation further divides the church.”
Parker called the resolution “overly gracious.”
“It is a ‘verdict’ that has little meaning,” he said, “and no meat to deter others from following the same course of action. One can only believe, that is exactly the point of the decision.”
Hutchins told United Methodist News Service that to some extent, he almost wishes his case would go to trial to bring wider attention to what he sees as discriminatory church laws. At the same time, he stressed, such a trial would use resources better spent on ministry.
“We are fighting about this when people are going hungry, people are going homeless and people are suffering right in our eyesight,” he said. “Those are the issues the church needs to deal with.”
Orendorff, the pastor of Bear Creek United Methodist Church in Woodinville, Wash., did not immediately return a request for comment. Fear also was not available for comment.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has asserted all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The book defines marriage as a covenant “that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” It bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
Since 2004, officiating at a same-sex union has been listed as a chargeable offence that potentially could lead to a church trial.
However, the Book of Discipline also says “church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.”
Parker told United Methodist News Service that he and Sheahan, like others involved in the case, offered alternatives to avoid a trial. He disputed a statement in the church counsel’s case summary that he and Sheahan were no longer interested in “seeking a just resolution.”
He said a just resolution for a first-time violation of the same-sex union ban should require pastors to cease and desist and have some consequence. “We thought suspension of a week’s pay would have some bite,” he said.
Hutchins declined to say whether he would officiate at any same-gender weddings in the future.
He said he decided to officiate at the Simonsons’ wedding after multiple conversations with the couple.
The Simonsons were both members of the now-defunct Asbury United Methodist Church 41 years ago when they met and fell in love and were soon kicked out for being gay, Hutchins said. Hutchins’ 3-year-old congregation, The Bridge, now uses Asbury’s former building.
After same-gender marriage was signed as state law in Washington, the couple approached Hutchinson about being wed in their former church home. “For 40 years, Wayne and Mike did not have a church,” the pastor said. “As their pastor and as an agent of the church of Jesus Christ, how could I say no?”
The couple now are both active members of The Bridge, Hutchins said.
As more U.S. states have legalized same-gender civil marriage, more United Methodist clergy have been willing to publicly defy the church’s ban on such unions. Some individual conferences and the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses the western part of the United States including the Pacific Northwest Conference, have approved nonbinding resolutions urging minimal penalties for such violations.
In 2013, voters at the Pacific Northwest Conference supported a resolution first approved at the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference that the penalty for those clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex marriage or using a United Methodist building for such a ceremony receive a 24-hour suspension.
But the Pacific Northwest Northwest resolution indicated the day off would be with pay, noted the Rev. Monica Corsaro, who served as an advocate for Fear and Hutchins.
"The church counsel was making a decision based on what was already passed by the body, the membership of the annual conference," said Corsaro, who is also pastor of Rainer Beach United Methodist Church in Seattle. "I think this now helps change the question. What kind of autonomy do annual conferences have?"
Sheahan, one of the complainants, said she expects petitions before the 2016 General Conference that would stipulate consequences for violations of the church rules on homosexuality. General Conference passes the laws in the Book of Discipline and is the only entity that officially speaks for the denomination.
“Because of the divisiveness of this issue, leaving it to different regions doesn’t work anymore,” she said.
The debate over the church’s stance on homosexuality has surfaced at every General Conference since 1972, and delegates consistently have voted to keep the incompatible language.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org