Facing Possible Charges, Methodist Minister Reflects On Meeting With Bishop

by Rev . Steve Heiss

In May 2013, Rev. Steve Heiss wrote to Bishop Mark Webb, the bishop of the Upper New York Conference, to explain why he officiated the same-sex wedding of his daughter and others. This letter prompted a formal complaint from a clergy colleague. This blog is Rev. Heiss’ reflection on his meeting with Bishop Webb and the minister who filed the complaint.

The Bishop’s office is located in the top story of University United Methodist Church in Syracuse. As I climb stairs with Penny, who is chair of our staff-parish relations committee and an advocate on my behalf, I wonder how many steps there were in the tower of London.

Finally, the summit is reached, and the door to the bishop’s office opens before us. 

The office space is 21st century. It feels a bit “out of sync” after climbing the worn stairs of a 19th century building! The receptionist gives us a warming smile. Gentleness from the front desk: good. Offers for variations on caffeine: better still. No worries. 

No prisoners; nary a cudgel nor a sword in sight. My Tower of London fantasy dissembles. Bishop Webb arrives in a minute or two and suggests we walk down to the sanctuary to share a prayer with the 150 supporters who have assembled there. The people who have gathered in the sanctuary of University Church come from all over New York State, Vermont and Massachusetts.

For the entire time Penny and I were in conversation upstairs, this wonderfully supportive group was led in worship, prayer, song and conversation by the Rev. Dr. Brolin Parker and several other lay and clergy. It was an amazing gift to all of us. We walk into the sanctuary; people are singing. After the hymn the bishop prays. His prayer is conciliatory, thoughtful – even hopeful. Back to the stairs. This time, I opt for the elevator.

The chairs in the bishop’s office are in a circle, and his executive secretary is there, ready to take notes.

We settle in, get to know each other. In retrospect, I realize I might have asked Rev. Barton to talk a bit more about his life. I have just met him for the first time. I suppose he too is in a painful place. It must be hard to submit a charge against a colleague. The meeting lasts almost two hours.

It is mostly a conversation between Bishop Webb and me. He seemed curious about my motivations, and he wondered if I had ever considered alternatives. He offered his opinion about my letter. I presented stories, rambled in theology, offered opinion about context, framing and narrative, and thoughts on “How I Read the Bible.” 

Penny told some very moving stories. Rev. Barton chimed in a few times as well. It was, by and large, a cordial meeting, devoid of animosity, peppered with moments of grace. The bishop seemed to listen well, allowing my occasional long-winded monologues to wind down without interruption.

Everyone worked to create an atmosphere of mutual respect
and care. 

Looking back on it now, I am reminded of that touching Christmas Eve story from World War I—when English soldiers and German soldiers started singing “Silent Night” to each other over the trenches which divided them. Then they all ceased fire, “shared a pint or two,” and waxed philosophical about the tragic limitations of the human condition.

How strange it is to be human! The prize of peace so tantalizingly close, and yet they could not grasp it. All of us so damned sure we are the ones who are right, while the others are wrong, or at least muddle-headed. 

At the end of our meeting, Bishop Webb asked that our conversations remain confidential. After seeking clarity about parameters, our agreement is that we will not reveal sensitive details nor disclose private or personal information. Further, and obviously, we will not disparage the others in the room.

Truth be told, nothing said at our meeting would really surprise you. By the end of the meeting, I had reason to believe that charges against me might be dismissed if I promise not to officiate any more same-sex weddings.

I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would agree to that. 

And so, we now have 90 days to work together toward what is called a “just resolution.” If after 90 days there is no “just resolution” which the bishop can accept, then the bishop must do what he must do.

My dream for a “just resolution” begins with my bishop dismissing the charges filed against me. I hope for this resolution on the grounds that my actions reflect obedience to the central teachings of Jesus, confirm the best and highest reading of the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, and do, in truth, spring from the Spirit of God herself.

If that could happen, our United Methodist church could finally begin to proclaim that we want to be a 21st century church. 

We would finally begin to proclaim that we no longer rely on the crumbling architecture of a 19th century understanding of human sexuality. The prize of peace is so tantalizingly close!

Originally posted by Reconciling Ministries Network; Photo via flickr user Naresh Singh