Supporters rally around gay United Methodist Church pastor on 'trial' over marriage to a man

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the more than 100 supporters who crowded a second-floor meeting room – and overflowed into a ninth-floor ballroom – the United Methodist Church’s hearing in Indianapolis Friday about Rev. David Meredith was a referendum on their own place in the church.

Meredith, an openly gay man who has served as the pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church in Cincinnati since 2012, was called to Indianapolis for a hearing before the UMC’s North Central Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals.

At issue is whether his 2016 marriage to his partner of three decades, Jim Schlachter, disqualifies him from remaining as an ordained minister within the UMC.

READ MORE | Gay United Methodist Church pastor to stand 'trial' in Indianapolis

The challenge was raised by a group of 11 UMC denomination members, including at least two fellow clergymen, shortly after Meredith and Shlachter’s wedding. In letters sent to the UMC’s West Ohio Conference, the objectors cited the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which states that homosexuality is “incompatible” with Christian teaching:

“While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

In October 2017, the Committee on Investigation for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church dismissed the two most serious violations Meredith faced – that he lived an “immoral lifestyle” and that as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” he couldn’t be ordained as a minister – but left open the possibility of discipline for a lesser violation of disobedience to church law.

That decision was appealed – resulting in Friday’s hearing in Indianapolis.

The North Central Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals limited seating space for the hearing, which was closed to the press, to 50 people. Dozens of other Meredith supporters, including many who traveled from his former home of Columbus, Ohio, set up camp in a ballroom on the ninth floor of the Indianapolis Hilton.

One of those who traveled from Columbus was 73-year-old Louis Tucci. Tucci, a gay UMC member, said the hearing might as well have been about his own fitness as part of the church.

“It’s another step as a gay man where I feel less-than,” Tucci said. “I feel like the Church is making me be that again, even though we do talk about open doors, open hearts and open minds. There’s always that one little denominator that comes back at us.”

Tucci came out as gay at 50 after 24 years of marriage. He says he comes from a generation where "gay" meant something different.

“I didn’t come out until I was 50 because I didn’t know what gay meant,” he said. “When I started to go to therapy, when I was asked if I thought I might be gay I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’ But then a friend took me to my first gay bar and I knew this was where my life was meant to be.”

Meredith’s supporters were also drawn from clergy members – those of his denomination and of others. Among them was 24-year-old Leah Yen, an associate minister at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis and a student at the Christian Theological Seminary.

“I serve a church where there are many of God’s children who happen to be LGBT,” Yen said. “I knew that if I didn’t come here and show me support, that not only was I not supporting a cause I believe in, but I also wasn’t being a minister to my congregation.”

For Yen, the church's position on the issue should be clear: “Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all the world.’” Even the thought of a UMC minister losing his ordination over his sexuality is hurtful, Yen said.

“It hurts. It seems that the leadership of the Church is standing in direct opposition to the will of God, to where the spirit is moving,” Yen said. “But, I believe that our roots are deeper and our faith is stronger than this and that, eventually, God is moving the Church to include all of God’s children.”

Meredith’s hearing before the committee took a little more than an hour. Meredith said he wasn’t allowed to speak on his own behalf during the meeting. He will be allowed to present objections in writing.

“It confirms what the denomination is continuing to do,” Meredith said. “The denomination is refusing to let gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, lay and clergy, speak for themselves in places of power that affect and impact their own lives. Whatever they decide today is going to affect me. It’s going to affect me and my husband. I will be impacted significantly by this decision, and yet I was not given fair process, or due process, to speak for myself and speak on behalf of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer disciples of Christ in the United Methodist Church.”

Afterward the hearing ended, Meredith led assembled supporters in song and communion. He said he remains hopeful that the committee will uphold the lower group’s ruling.

“I am hopeful because God keeps me hopeful,” he said. “God is showing that there is a new way coming to the United Methodist denomination, and I believe we, who stood together with me today, are the forefront of that movement.”

The UMC’s North Central Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals was expected to issue its ruling within 20 days. The lowest charge against Meredith, a charge of “disobedience to church law” which was upheld by the lower committee, typically carries a penalty of a week’s suspension, a spokesman for Meredith told RTV6. The two more serious charges Meredith faces, though -- that he lived an “immoral lifestyle” and that as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” he couldn’t be ordained as a minister – potentially carry the risk of the church rescinding Meredith’s ordination as a minister.

Until the decision is made, though, Meredith said he still has a job to do.

“I’m a United Methodist minister,” Meredith said. “I go back to being an evangelist for the gospel for all people. I go back to do the best of what Jesus has called me to do and what the United Methodist Church has authorized me to do. So, I’m going home and I’m going to work.”

 

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