Last month, a new Methodist group formed called the Wesleyan Covenant Network to support theologically conservative Methodists and keep them from leaving the denomination. The meeting in Atlanta drew about 130 clergy and others. One speaker choked back tears while telling the group his son is considering entering ministry — but not in the United Methodist Church.
"The present atmosphere is the worst I've ever seen it," said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky who helped organize the Wesleyan Covenant Network. "We are a divided church already."
Several other high-profile cases are pending. The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired Yale Divinity School dean and retired elder in the church's New York district, will be tried March 10 for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son. The Council of Bishops has also called for a formal complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who presided at the wedding of two men last October in Alabama over the objections of a local bishop. The Rev. Stephen Heiss of Binghamton, N.Y., is expected to face a church trial for presiding at his daughter's same-sex wedding in 2002 and at other same-sex marriages.
Thomas Frank, a Wake Forest University professor who specializes in Methodist history and governance, wrote an open letter to the church's bishops, urging them to end the trials. He warned that Methodists have been "retreating into our various camps" and were in desperate need of an open conversation.
"The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage," Frank wrote. "It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of 'prosecution' 'defense team,' 'conviction,' 'judge,' and 'jury' to our church as if we were all players in 'Law and Order.' We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment."