Bishop seeks accord in complaint against the Rev. Bill McElvaney for performing same-sex wedding before pursuing any charges
Retired United Methodist Pastor Bill McElvaney will soon have to answer for his decision in early March to officiate the wedding of longtime gay couple Jack Evans and George Harris.
A complaint filed by the Rev. Camille Gaston of Richardson requires him to sit down with Gaston and Michael McKee, bishop of the North Texas Conference. Gaston is also the district superintendent of the North Texas Conference.
But the outcome of the process called a joint resolution, where the parties and bishop will discuss how to resolve the issue, could be anything from suspending McElvaney to defrocking him if the bishop decides to file charges and the case goes to trial.
McElvaney, emeritus pastor at Northaven United Methodist Church, married Evans and Harris on March 1 at Midway Hills Christian Church. The celebration took place at Midway to prevent Northaven and its current pastor from coming under attack for allowing the ceremony to take place there.
Evans and Harris, who’ve been together for 53 years, asked McElvaney to perform the ceremony after he announced in January that he disagreed with the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline about homosexuality being against God’s teachings and he would perform same-sex unions. A week later on March 7, he received a letter stating a complaint was filed against him for presiding over the ceremony.
“The UM Discipline calls for a supervisory response from the bishop,” McElvaney wrote on Northaven’s website last week when he announced the news about the complaint. “This response is intended to be pastoral and administrative, directed toward a just resolution between the parties.”
McElvaney also said that the letter explained he’d been suspended from all clergy responsibilities for a period not to exceed 90 days. But in a statement from McKee this week, he said the complaint initiated a “supervisory process” and suspension “is not being pursued.”
McKee said McElvaney’s “officiating a same-sex union has intensified our denomination’s ongoing conversation about human sexuality and same-sex unions.”
“Administrative and pastoral in nature, this process seeks a just resolution in which God’s work of justice, reconciliation, and healing may be realized in the body of Christ,” McKee said. “As a bishop of The United Methodist Church, I realize that our denomination often finds itself in conversations about a number of social issues, including the evolving discussions regarding the church and human sexuality. Like any other body with a diverse membership, there will always be a wide range of deeply held ideas and ideologies.”
Northaven Pastor Eric Folkerth said any Methodist can file a complaint about a situation or action deemed inappropriate or that defies Methodist rules, but the bishop is the only one who can elevate the complaint to charges. He can also dismiss the complaint and not pursue the issue.
If the three agree on a solution during the just resolution phase, the issue is resolved and no more complaints can be filed. However, Folkerth said in the case of McElvaney, who’s said he will perform weddings, more complaints could be filed if he officiates at additional ceremonies.
Folkerth said he doesn’t know how the process will go until it happens.
“I think that’s a hard thing for a lot of people because they don’t understand our system,” he said. “Pray and take no other action.”
McElvaney said the process has a lot of possible outcomes, and he also encourages prayer during the discussions.
“There are a number of possibilities that may arise from these developments,” McElvaney said. “This first step involves no legal counsel or judicial procedure.”
Dr. Robert Hunt, professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, doesn’t expect a trial to take place. Instead, he said any number of things could be agreed upon during just resolution.
For instance, a pastor who performed a same-sex wedding was once told to write a letter about accountability and to continue the dialogue about the topic with other clergy.
McElvaney’s age and health may be a factor in how the complaint is resolved. The 85-year-old has liver cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. He sat during the wedding in Dallas because of the treatment.
And some bishops have come out publically that they won’t address complaints regarding clergy’s actions for same-sex weddings. Others have said they will take the complaints to trial. Hunt said McKee hasn’t made a statement either way. His office did not return calls seeking comment.
“If a bishop fails to act in accordance with church law or gives the appearance of failing to act in accordance with church law, then the bishop could be charged,” Hunt said.
He added that bishops only suspend clergy in serious offenses. Suspensions prevent pastors from performing sacramental privileges like performing weddings and giving communion, as well as being able to vote at the annual conference. With McKee not suspending McElvaney, Hunt said it shows that the bishop sees this as a matter that doesn’t require the severity of suspension.
As for a possible trial and McElvaney being defrocked, which has happened to clergy in several cases regarding same-sex unions, he said he doesn’t think it’ll come to that.
“I think it is unlikely that it’ll happen,” Hunt said.
A stipulation to the resolution could be that McElvaney agree to not perform any more same-sex weddings, but Hunt, who knows McElvaney, said he wouldn’t agree to that.
“He is hard-headed on this subject,” he said about McElvaney. “He will not give up. … He would not have taken the first step if he didn’t intend to take the rest of the steps.”
And if the case goes to trial and McElvaney is defrocked, Hunt said there are many more clergy members ready to follow in his footsteps.
“There are a lot of other clergy members who are ready to push this,” Hunt said. “It’s quite clear Bill and others are very, very determined, and they’re not going to let it go. He may pass away, but others will pick it up. And the Methodist church will be in dispute over this for a long time until something gives.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 28, 2014.