GREAT FALLS – The Rev. Susan Otey was one of the first members of the clergy in Montana to officiate a same-gender wedding.
Otey, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Great Falls, performed the ceremony in front of the Cascade County Courthouse on Nov. 20. It came one day after a federal judge in Montana overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage.
While same-sex marriage is now legal in Montana, it goes against the teachings of the United Methodist Church. The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids a member of the clergy from “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.”
Otey was aware of the prohibition when she volunteered to officiate at the wedding. In a telephone interview Thursday, she said she made that decision “because I really felt God was calling me to be part of that.”
“I would say that sometimes to stand with the love of Jesus Christ for all people, you have to break a vow you’ve taken,” she said.
Otey previously served as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Billings for seven years. She assumed her post at the Great Falls church in July.
A photo of Otey with the couple, Jamie Gumemberg and Caylie Thompson, appeared in the Great Falls Tribune on Nov. 21. Knowing the ceremony would likely attract news coverage, Otey alerted Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky and other denominational supervisors of her intentions.
In turn, Stanovsky notified pastors in the 100-plus churches in Yellowstone Annual Conference, so they wouldn't be caught off-guard. Stanovsky, who is based in Denver, oversees about 400 churches in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone annual conferences, which encompass Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
“It is my understanding that Rev. Otey acted from a deeply held faith commitment and with full knowledge that The United Methodist Church does not allow its clergy to conduct ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” Stanovsky wrote.
She added that she would initiate a supervisory review of Otey’s action “in light of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and the sacred covenant of her ordination.”
No formal complaint has been filed with the denomination over Otey’s decision, Stanovsky said Thursday by telephone. Speaking with Otey is a routine part of her ongoing supervisory relationship that she has with all her pastors.
“Whenever a pastor acts in a way that may appear to be in conflict with church teaching, there is a responsibility of oversight,” Stanovsky said. “We want to be in conversation about what they’ve done, how they make peace within themselves with the vows they took at ordination.”
In her letter, Stanovsky acknowledged that it is not unusual for a pastor to be approached by same-gender couples in their parishes to seek a blessing on their lifelong, monogamous relationship. It puts members of the clergy in a tough position, caught between obeying church law “and faithfully following a leading from God to embrace these couples and ask God’s blessing on their commitment to one another.”
Otey said she didn’t make her decision lightly.
“I spent a lot of time in prayer about it, trying to discern whether this was right for me,” she said. “When I was ordained, I said I would uphold the Book of Discipline.”
The root of Otey’s decision goes back to her days at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She attended the school with several gays and lesbians who could not be ordained in the United Methodist Church.
“I heard their stories, the shame they felt, and it stayed with me,” Otey said. “I have this strong belief that God does not want any of his beloved children to feel shame, and those of us in the religious community need to do something about that.”
Otey said she just finished preaching for eight weeks on the New Testament book of Acts, in which the Apostle Peter told the Pharisees and Sadducees they were stuck in the past and unable to see the new things God was doing.
Otey felt through her study of Scripture and her prayers that God was saying the same thing to her. Someone needed to say the status quo is wrong.
“I know there is always a possibility of consequences when you go against the vows you’ve taken to uphold, but I was willing to take that risk,” Otey said.
Like many mainline denominations, the debate over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people has been an ongoing topic of debate among United Methodists in the United States.
In November, after several hours of closed-door discussions on human sexuality, the UMC Council of Bishops asked for prayer as they conceded the difficulty in coming to consensus. The group issued a statement that acknowledged the differences that exist among both leadership and members.
“As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church,” the statement read. “We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow ‘to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.’ ”
A United Methodist News Service release said that since 2011, “more than 1,000 UMC clergy have announced their willingness to defy the prohibition against performing same-gender unions.”
In July, more than 100 pastors and laypeople in the denomination released a statement calling for UMC bishops to uphold church law concerning marriage. The statement called for a number of steps, including calling on the Council of Bishops to:
• Promote, defend and uphold the church’s teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.
• Fully enforce the Book of Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same-sex marriage services.
According to a separate United Methodist News Service release, a conference organized by many people in that same group in April issued a call to separate from the denomination.
Otey is not alone in presiding at a same-gender ceremony. Other UMNS accounts tell about cases in which pastors who performed wedding ceremonies also have come under scrutiny.
In one case, a Michigan bishop in November announced that two Michigan pastors who officiated at same-gender weddings would not go on trial. In another case, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who initially had his clergy credentials revoked saw them re-instituted in October by the denomination’s top court.
How same-sex marriage is handled varies by denomination. Some of the largest, the Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and Mormons, as well as evangelical denominations, adhere to the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Others, like the United Church of Christ advocate equal marriage rights for all, and in states where it is legal, perform same-gender wedding ceremonies. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, individual pastors, in consultation with their congregational leadership, can decide whether to perform same-gender weddings.
In June, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to give pastors discretion whether to conduct same-gender weddings in civil jurisdictions where it is legal. The constitutional amendment requires ratification by a majority of the presbyteries.