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Marsh Chapel Dean Defends Gay Marriage

Robert Hill supports Methodist colleague in controversy

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Boston University BU, Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill, methodist gay marriage

Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill is defending a Methodist colleague who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

An act of love for his child embroiled the Rev. Thomas Ogletree in the culture war over gay rights. The 79-year-old Methodist minister and ex-dean of Yale Divinity School presided over his son’s wedding last fall to another man, violating the United Methodist Church’s ban on its clergy officiating at same-sex marriages. Conservative colleagues of Ogletree are pressing for a canonical trial.

BU’s chapel dean, also a Methodist, has defended both the man and his message from the pulpit.

“Now the winds of reaction, abetted by the mistaken misguidance of the current general superintendent [Methodist bishop] in New York, are bringing him to trial,” the Rev. Robert Hill told Marsh worshippers earlier this month in a Sunday sermon. Describing Ogletree as “courtly, gracious, soft-spoken,” Hill went on, “The measure of our current failure to live up to the much ballyhooed Methodist tradition of social justice and holiness can no more accurately be taken than by this dark image of Ogletree on trial before Methodism. … It is Ogletree who has brought Methodism to trial, not the reverse.”

Noting that the Upper New York Conference (Methodist jurisdiction) of which he is an elder has lost 11 percent of its members in the last three years, Hill declared, “For those under 45, the disaffection is highly specific. We refuse to affirm the full humanity of gay people. Can we be surprised that people of conscience go elsewhere?”

Churches’ stances on same-sex marriage—Catholicism doesn’t sanction it as well—are not affected by yesterday’s Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby allowing federal benefits for gay married couples. Gay weddings are performed at Marsh by non-Methodist officiants among his 75-person chaplaincy, ministers and staff, Hill said in an interview. The nondenominational chapel, which is not a Methodist church and therefore not under that church’s jurisdiction, hosted about a half dozen same-sex marriages in recent years.

As for performing them himself, “I have not. Yet,” he said with a smile.

“I believe that over time, our denomination will move in the same direction as others have done” to recognize gay marriages. “Gay people are people, not fractions—five-fifths, not three-fifths.”

This sermon was not the first time that Hill, Marsh’s dean since 2006, has preached in defense of gay marriage. A January sermon, And Are We Yet Alive?, faulted his church’s 2012 general conference—attended every four years by global members to write church law—for excluding gay people from marriage and ordination. (An effort to modify to the church’s position on homosexuality failed by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent). After the conference, Hill said, he spent six months praying and speaking with friends about Methodism’s future. Among its needs, he concluded, was pastoral care for gay people.

He argued that New Testament figures—even St. Paul, who explicitly condemned same-sex relations—supported his view that “gay identity is creation, not fall, God’s gift, not human sin, as is straight identity.” Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Hill noted, contains the famous line, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female.”

“And no gay and straight,” Hill said. He also cited Jesus, who said God cared for even the trivial lilies of the field, and St. John, whose gospel foretold the coming of an “advocate” in the Holy Spirit to help his disciples. That spirit will “lead us out into further truth,” Hill preached, “which is not in that gospel, or even in the Bible.”

“The gospel is about redemption, not about tradition,” he said. “Gospel finally and ever trumps tradition.”

One traditionalist Methodist pastor told the New York Times that he believed Ogletree chose the wrong route for challenging the marriage law: “Rev. Ogletree is acting in a way that is injurious to the church, because it fosters confusion in the church about what we stand for. And it undermines the whole covenant of accountability that we share with each other as pastors.”

Calling the former Yale dean “about the most Christian person I know,” Hill said in the interview that the decision on trying him would be made by his conference’s superintendent. Were he convicted, the sanction would be determined by the canonical court. Given Ogletree’s age, stature, and piety, “My hope is that the general superintendent will simply not bring him to trial.”

Ironically, he said, Ogletree, a scholar of social ethics, wrote “huge swaths” of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the law book he’s accused of violating.

17 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

17 Comments on Marsh Chapel Dean Defends Gay Marriage

  • Daniel T. Moran on 06.27.2013 at 6:34 am

    I heartily applaud Dean Hill’s defense of, not only his colleague,Thomas Ogletree, but his statement of support for the rights of all human beings to love, and if they choose, to marry who they damned well please.There is something in his Bible that suggests to “judge not that ye be not judged.” But I would hope that he would also consider something more. It will not be for our words that we will be remembered, but for our acts. It is only in acts that we can see and understand the real meaning of courage. It cannot be sufficient for any of us to simply say what we believe to be right and just and humane. In the absence of action, those words ring hollow.

  • Linda Wells on 06.27.2013 at 7:19 am

    A courageous and principled statement–I am with you, brother.

    • Webster on 06.27.2013 at 3:45 pm

      I’ll second that.

  • Alumnus on 06.27.2013 at 9:02 am

    We are lucky to have Dean Hill at BU

  • Christopher Muller on 06.27.2013 at 9:36 am

    What it takes to move a mountain is a few good people of conscience presenting an idea whose time has come, who then lead us to that mountain to be moved.

    Dean Robert Hill, an enormously good man of conscience, presents just such an idea, and we will be blessed to follow his lead.

  • Matt on 06.27.2013 at 9:59 am

    This is nothing but decay from within. Anyway, not surprising because the Bible foretold the dimension of apostasy that would characterize the last days. When reputable Methodist ministers are beginning to speak in support of the forbidden, then obviously we are at the beginning of the end. I wish John Wesley would hear them philosophize the sacred work he started. God have mercy on these men!

    • Fantastic on 06.27.2013 at 10:57 am

      Personally, I’m thrilled to watch obsolete institutions decay from within. It’s a lot easier to push them towards irrelevance.

    • Tony on 06.28.2013 at 2:24 am

      @ Matt — it is unfortunate that we see ministers in this age that have folded under the pressure of society or have simply forgotten the simple, clear, and explicit instructions from God. There is no room for mis-interpretation. Only willful ignorance. I’m glad someone else posted something courageous.

      @ fantastic — obselete are all of the things humans create and that fades away. As for the true church, it has stood the test of time and violent criticism and hatred for believing something true. Truth is exclusive and for that reason, truth can hurt.

  • Christopher O'Rourke on 06.27.2013 at 10:09 am

    How very fortunate Boston University is in having Dean Robert Hill as the dean of Marsh Chapel. I applaud his courage and his justice, so richly justified by the Gospel he preaches.

  • Catherine on 06.27.2013 at 10:31 am

    Hopefully, we are at the beginning of the end of hate, fear, bigotry and injustice. BU is very fortunate to have Dean Robert Hill.

  • Stephanie Deckard Henry on 06.27.2013 at 1:21 pm

    Thank you, Dean Hill!!

  • Miriam Derivan on 06.27.2013 at 1:53 pm

    Bob was my minister at Asbury First United Methodist Church. His words, from the pulpit and from his heart, always inspired me. I applaud his courage in speaking out on this tragic event in the Methodist church; I hope pastor Ogletree is spared the humiliation of a “trial” that never should happen.

  • rev. dir. charles salisbury on 06.27.2013 at 5:17 pm

    While I believe this a statement of conscience, this change must happen at the General Conference level. Saying that the Bishop of Upper New York must not enforce the discipline selectively is an open invitation for individuals and/or congregations not to observe the Discipline for any issue in which they claim conscience, rendering the Discipline moot. Implying the attitude of the Bishop of Upper New York is at fault for three years of decline is also irresponsible since the Bishop has only been in charge for a little over 8 months. There are those like the Dean who argue that the cause of social justice justifies ignoring the structural constraints through which change must work in United Methodism. He may be right but do not be surprised that if this happens the results may not be the results he desires.

    • Rev. Douglas Asbury on 06.29.2013 at 2:19 am

      I believe Rev. Hill was not “implying the attitude of the Bishop of Upper New York is at fault for three years of decline,” but rather that the UMC’s refusal “to affirm the full humanity of gay people” has driven “people of conscience…under 45″ away. Your argument against Hill’s position “that the cause of social justice justifies ignoring the structural constraints through which change must work in United Methodism” sounds very much like the statements of the clergy to whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It might do you – and others to agree with you – some good to reread that document, especially since King got his Ph.D. from the same seminary from which you received your M.Div., and King wrote the letter in a city in which the Rev. Dr. Ogletree founded a United Methodist Church.
      The “incompatibility clause” was placed in our Book of Discipline under false pretenses, since the only thing about “the practice of homosexuality” that most General Conference delegates knew in 1972 was the way many gay rights advocates of the day acted out their anger at our society for demeaning and abusing – and, yes, sometimes killing – them and their gay brothers and lesbian sisters. In the last forty years, we have come to know that the vast majority of LGBTQ persons are loving, responsible, and often grace-filled persons, much as the vast majority of straight persons; so that the vestiges of heterosexism and homophobia in our BoD are shameful relics of a time long past and an attitude for which the Church must repent. The fact is that every negative reference in the Bible to same-sex sexual relations has more to do with the abuse of power and loveless indulgence in things of the flesh than it does the loving and responsible sexual relations between two persons of the same sex who are devoted to one another and their family. That conservatives refuse to acknowledge this simply shows their desire to use a longstanding and perverse interpretation of scripture to maintain their power in the Church at large – whether Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or otherwise – even the Mormons pervert scripture in this way. It is time for us to follow the Spirit which “blows where it chooses” rather than remaining stuck in our adherence to constructs that owe more to human limitations and a judgmental spirit than to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

  • The Rev. Dr. James Olson on 06.27.2013 at 10:54 pm

    I’m glad to see that Marsh Chapel is continuing its progressive defense of lgbt rights. My husband, the Rev. Darrick Jackson and I were the first same-sex couple publicly married at Marsh Chapel in 2005. The Dean at the time, The Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, was unable to preside at our wedding, and risked charges from the UMC by even preaching for us. Apparently, we started a trend. Thank you, Dean Hill, for your positive and continuing witness.

  • Cleve Shields on 06.28.2013 at 8:57 am

    The UMC church is caught in the same culture war as the rest of the country. Can it reconcile its people? At least Bob’s voice and others are speaking out for the “arc of justice”

  • judith hawkens on 06.28.2013 at 11:08 am

    Well said, Bob. Will pass your message on to our Study group. The Hawkens miss you and Jan!

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