In 1990 I fell in love. I met a beautiful man named Paul who shared my values, my heart and my soul. We quickly knew that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together. We were not looking for legal protection or rights, and the public conversation about same-sex marriage and marriage equality really had not even begun. We just sought to solemnize our relationship into a spiritual marriage.
My parents had been on their own journey toward accepting my sexual orientation, and they had evolved to the point that they felt comfortable approaching the minister of their church, whom they had supported significantly for years. They asked him if he would perform a ceremony for us. He answered that even though he wanted to, that he supported what we were doing, he could not. More specifically, he was afraid to perform the ceremony.
The truth is that it was unlikely that our private ceremony would have been noticed, but he was worried that his church superiors might somehow catch wind of it, and that he would get in to trouble. He was, in truth, not my first choice to conduct the ceremony anyway, but his cowardice lowered him even further in my perception. I was actually relieved to not be married by a man who was so weak in his own convictions. He dodged the bullet of being judged for doing something right, and I dodged the bullet of not having a blessing said over my life that had no moral courage behind it.
One could not say the same thing of another minister, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist clergyman who has laid a very public stake in the ground while standing on his own heroic convictions. He too was asked to officiate a same-gender wedding -- his son's -- in 2007. He did not shrink away. His response: "When he asked me in 2007, 'Dad, would you do my wedding?' I was just honored."
It was a private ceremony, not done defiantly in the faces of Schaefer's Pennsylvania congregation. It was not meant as a protest of the United Methodist Church's policies. It would not have even been an issue had not a lone congregant, Jon Boger, pressed it. Inexplicably, Mr. Boger somehow felt that the baptisms of his children and the funerals of his grandparents had been adversely affected by Schaefer's proceedings over his own son's wedding. Since the events had no relation to each other in any way, I have trouble seeing this as a matter of religious tenet, but rather as pure, unadulterated prejudice, but then, I was not asked my opinion.
The decision on whether to go to trial on this issue was under the auspices of Bishop Peggy Johnson. Bishop Johnson received a petition pleading with her not to move forward, but she replied that even though she "tried really, really hard," she had to move forward anyway.
Just in case a voice of reason might prevail where a petition of thousands did not, I sent this open letter to Bishop Johnson and any others in the Methodist hierarchy who are judging Rev. Schaefer. Below is my letter to her, and her kind and pretty amazing response back.
Dear Bishop Johnson,
I am writing this to you as one who was raised loving God in the United Methodist Church. I am writing to you as a father of two special-needs boys who were adopted through foster care, each having been born to drug-addicted birth parents. I am writing this to you from the vantage point of one who has had the privilege of officiating for and marrying dedicated couples. I am writing this to you as a gay man.
One of the factors that has driven me in my personal spiritual quest is the embrace of Christ, who stood for principles beyond the "rules" of man. While He respected rules, He was the first to confront them when they no longer were serving their intended use. He broke the "rule" regarding work on the Sabbath when doing so meant that He could heal someone in need. He left us with two main principles that override all rules that do not support them: to love God above all else, and to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Certainly, Bishop Johnson, your own position in your church is the result of enlightened thinking that looked at a biblical "rule" and realized that it did not stand up to the scrutiny of holy principle. The first book of Timothy is unequivocal in its "rule" that women be silent, and that they be forbidden to teach or lead men. This biblical statement is far clearer than any of the statements about gang rape, temple orgies, heterosexual divorce or prostitution that some choose to interpret as mandates against gay people. Yet clear minds and hearts of the United Methodist Church rejected this "rule" of the Bible and tradition. John Wesley, in founding the United Methodist Church, stated, "It has long passed for a maxim with many that 'women are only to be seen but not heard.'" While it took some time after that pronouncement, the United Methodist Church finally put the outdated rule to bed in lieu of principle in May 1956.
So now you are up against another "rule." A son looked into the eyes of the father who loves him so much and asked him to officiate and bless his marriage. It is obvious that the Methodist court that judged the father in question did so completely blinded by "rule" and devoid of principle. For me, as someone who has been on all sides of the marriage ceremony, as a father, as a son wanting to marry my life partner, and as one who held the space for those coming together in matrimony, I can tell you that the Method Church's actions are a shame and a travesty against all things loving, good and right.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court stated that "the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition." In that single quotation, the justices summed up the heart of this issue.
In my experience, when a couple sought me out to be an officiate their wedding, they were asking me to put words to their own self-definition as a couple. It is an honor and a holy task that I have undertaken twice now. I strived to know them, their hopes, and their dreams and describe the commitment of the path they were now taking together. There are 1,500 rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, and those were never the subject of either of the ceremonies I wrote. I wrote the ceremonies based on their love, hope and vision.
When I discuss marriage with my sons, even at their young age, I talk about my own vision of marriage, in hopes of imparting upon them the very best experience that life has to offer. If, a few years from now, one of my sons were to ask me to officiate his wedding, that would be a harmonic convergence of my vision for him and his own. I can think of few moments as a parent that would be as beautifully unifying as that and underscore the pure soul of a family to such an extent. If that request came to me, I would move heaven and earth to make it happen. Nothing, nothing, would keep me from showing up for my son and being part of that self-defining moment for him, exactly as he asked me to.
This was what Rev. Frank Schaefer experienced as a parent, and all that you intend to set aside, all for the sake of an archaic "rule." You are dead wrong in every way conceivable.
The Bible's principles do not support your rule. Leaving aside that the Bible makes no prohibition against two people of the same gender making a marriage commitment, you are ignoring the Bible's greatest examples of principles behind parental love. The father of the prodigal son did not turn his back on either of his sons, the rule follower or the rule breaker. The story of King Solomon is probably the most pertinent. Two mothers came to him claiming a single child as her own. The false mother had had a stillbirth, but the king did not know who was telling the truth. He laid out a rule of fairness. The rule would have a baby severed in half to appease both the false mother and the true mother standing before him. The true mother rejected the ruling and was self-sacrificing for the sake of the love of her child.
You have placed Rev. Schaefer in that same position, and he has followed the path of the real parent. He is willing to sacrifice his own career for the love of his son. He stated, "I couldn't pass on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule. All I saw was love for my son." Rev. Schaefer is exhibiting the best of a father's love. In terms of spiritual principle, his actions can easily be compared to the consecration of the Holy Father's love, and its reflection, with His creations. God loves and has a vision for us, and when we seek Him to solemnize our own vision aligned with His, we have holiness.
In the Solomon story, the king realized that the "rule" was a test, and it demonstrated who the true parent really was. It was also a test of the authority behind the rule. Was that authority one in which a child would be slaughtered all for the sake of a "rule," or was it one in which higher principle would prevail? For the real mother in that story, it was the latter. For you, as a deserving member of the clergy and qualified to serve, it was also the latter.
Now is your time to prove that those who used principle over "rule" on your behalf were right in doing so. History is watching.
Wedding officiant, Methodist, gay man and a dad
Bishop Johnson's reply:
Dear Mr Watson
Thank you for what I consider the best letter yet on this topic. I could not agree with you more on the points you have made. This trial was never my choice but the results of an impasse that could not be resolved and rules in the Book of Discipline that have remained for over 40 years the same. I hope Rev Schaefer decides to stay and continue to work from within. Know that our social issues continue to plague us. Yes, women can be ordained in the UMC but there is not a year that passes that I don't get a letter from a church saying they won't take a woman pastor. One of my churches does not allow me to preach there. The struggle for civil and ecclesiastical rights for the LGBTQ community will also go on for some time. We prayerfully continue the work. Keep shining your light.
In conclusion, I want to thank Bishop Johnson for her consideration. My hope is that the progressive voices in the United Methodist Church also rise to the occasion. It is the opportunity for a church not only to stand by a man who deserves it but to stand on the right side of history.