GEORGIA CHURCH NEWS
The recent same-sex wedding ceremony performed at Glenn Memorial UMC in Decatur has left many North Georgia United Methodists wondering what signal it sends to churches and clergy throughout the conference.
The key question: Despite prohibitions in church doctrine, are clergy in North Georgia now able to perform same-sex ceremonies with little concern for significant consequences? Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s response will be closely watched by people on all sides of the issue.
“The bishop has repeatedly said that she would uphold the Book of Discipline,” said Jeff Jernigan, a lay delegate to General Conference. “But how this issue is handled will be very telling. Many of us who care about the church hope that this isn’t quietly swept under the rug.” On Dec. 18, two elders in the North Georgia Conference, Rev. Eric Lee and Rev. Kristin Heiden, officiated a wedding ceremony for Jay Horton and Jeremy Burns. The event had been publicized on social media. Horton is Director of Community Engagement at Atlanta First United Methodist Church and a former staff member of the Conference office.
The UMC’s stance on homosexuality has been a hot-button issue since 1972, resulting in increasing rancor within the denomination. The United Methodist Book of Discipline (BOD), which defines the doctrine of the denomination as well as its guiding rules and regulations, prohibits both clergy and churches from participating in same-sex ceremonies. The BOD also states that, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Various sources within the North Georgia Conference say that Jessica Terrell, the District Superintendent of Central West, filed charges shortly after the ceremony was held. Heiden, who is married to Lee, serves as pastor in charge of East Cobb UMC, which is in Terrell’s district. Lee is pastor in charge at Chamblee First UMC. These events raise the question among some in the UMC: Why would two lead pastors put their credentials at risk, and disrupt the leadership of their congregations, unless they believed their conduct would not be significantly punished?
“It is vitally important that we have transparency from our leadership,” said Randy Brown, a lay delegate to General Conference. “How this is all resolved needs to be out in the open.”
According to the Book of Discipline, clergy who are under investigation in such an instance would be suspended immediately. If found guilty, the minimum penalty is a year suspension without pay. A second offense requires the forfeiture of credentials.
“If the bishop follows the normal process, the Board of Ministry would be notified and any clergy under investigation would be suspended,” said Janet Sligar, a lay delegate to the General Conference. “But there is concern that the bishop will opt for a Just Resolution, which is in her authority, keeping the entire process and resolution of it in the dark. That would allow the bishop to say she followed the Book of Discipline while allowing clergy to perform a prohibited wedding ceremony while avoiding harsh penalties.”
Such a concern is valid, believe some United Methodists, in light of Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s “Welcoming Table” statement in April 2021, in which she and her cabinet stated their desire to remove the prohibition of same sex marriages from the Book of Discipline.