Same-sex marriage ban strains region's Methodists churches

01.28.14 | Bob Price

Same-sex marriage — a divisive issue for many faiths — has the region’s United Methodist congregations facing strains in their churches.

A former United Methodist pastor, who was defrocked late last year for officiating at a same-sex marriage, will come to the Binghamton church of another minister who is also charged with violating denominational rules that prohibit these ceremonies.

The two crusaders to legalize same-sex marriage ceremonies in the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country will unite in support of Reconciling Congregations and other efforts to change United Methodist policy related to gay and lesbian rights.

Although the denomination has wrestled with the question since the 1970s, the issue now confronts the region’s Methodists in the Upper New York Conference that includes the Binghamton, Elmira and Ithaca areas.

Rev. Stephen Heiss, of Tabernacle United Methodist Church, 83 Main St., Binghamton, and the Rev. Frank Schaefer, whose defrocking drew national media coverage and invigorated the same-sex marriage debate, want the 12 million member church to allow clergy to extend marriage ceremonies to everyone, regardless of sexual preference.

Schaefer will be the speaker at a 10:30 a.m. worship service Feb. 2 as Tabernacle celebrates the seventh anniversary of its decision to become a Reconciling Congregation.

Welcoming all

A reconciling United Methodist congregation has formally adopted a statement to welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Reconciling Congregations are not officially endorsed by the United Methodist Church.

In the Southern Tier, several congregations have approved this welcoming statement, including Tabernacle and Centenary-Chenango Street churches in Binghamton, St. Paul’s in Ithaca and First United Methodist Church in Oneonta. No churches in Chemung, Chenango, Steuben, Schuyler or Tioga counties are Reconciling Congregations. Likewise, no UMCs in Susquehanna, Bradford or Tioga counties in Pennsylvania have formally filed a welcoming statement with Reconciling Congregations, according to the organization’s website.

“When we say that we welcome everyone, everyone comes. When everyone comes, peoples’ understanding of other people changes,” said the Rev. John McNeill, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca. “We understand that everyone is a Christian brothers and sister. … The Christian lifestyle can encompass everyone.”

St. Paul’s has been a Reconciling Congregation since February 1998.

McNeill, who has been the church’s pastor since July 2012, said not everyone in the 800-member congregation fully agrees with the statement, but parishioners wants to welcome all people to worship and other activities.

McNeill, 61, declined to answer whether he would officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Conflict in the region

The designation as Reconciling Congregation does not obligate a pastor to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

On the other hand, Heiss sent an open letter to Tabernacle and Bishop Mark Webb in June about officiating at several ceremonies since New York legalized same-sex marriage two years ago. Webb, of the Upper New York Conference based in Syracuse, responded with the letter outlining a charge that another clergy had filed against Heiss.

Heiss and Webb had a face-to-face meeting in early August. Neither budged, but Heiss was given 30 days to agree to stop officiating at these ceremonies.

Heiss, 62, remained adamant and Webb forwarded the complaint to a church counsel to decide if the evidence supports a trial. At its extreme, Heiss could face the same fate as Schaefer, likely with the same media attention, especially if he would be defrocked

At the time, Webb issued a statement saying a bishop must fully enforce church law.

“We know all United Methodists are not in agreement about same-sex marriage. However, there must be universal agreement that the covenant between the Church and its clergy is sacred and must be upheld by both,” Webb wrote.

Stephen J. Husteda, director of communications for the Upper New York Conference and a spokesman for Webb, wrote via email that no decision or date has been set for Heiss’ trial.