A Clifton minister's gay marriage sets up a battle with opponents over his continued ministry

Rev. David Meredith feels 'profound assurance'
A Clifton minister's gay marriage sets up a battle with opponents over his continued ministry
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-16 07:19:07-04

CINCINNATI -- In May 2016, the Rev. David Meredith, pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church, married Jim Schlachter, his companion of 30 years.

This didn't cause a scandal in his congregation. In 1997, Clifton UMC had become what's known in the denomination as a reconciling congregation, one where, as the church website puts it, people of all sexual orientations are "fully included participants in the life of the community."

Since Meredith was appointed pastor in 2012, the church has enjoyed a boom in attendance and has started a second Sunday service.

His marriage, however, did cause a scandal with others in the denomination. Just a few days after the wedding, eleven Methodists sent letters to Gregory Palmer, bishop of the denomination's West Ohio Conference, saying that Meredith shouldn't be allowed to serve as a pastor.

They allege that his service violates a section of the denomination's Book of Discipline that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with church teaching. It goes on to say that "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."

Those letters began a formal, quasijudicial process in the West Ohio Conference that will continue Sunday afternoon when a Methodist Committee on Investigations hears the case.

Likening it to a "probable cause" hearing in a criminal court, Meredith said the committee would hear evidence and decide whether there were reasonable grounds to proceed with a church trial. The conference spokeswoman did not return a call left for comment on the case.

The committee must make a decision within five days of the hearing, Meredith said. If the committee agrees to have a trial, that could happen within the next 12 months. A Methodist bishop from another conference would act as the judge, with Methodist ministers from the local conference acting as the jury.

The jury could decide to remove him from his post and revoke his ordination.

Residents in the Tri-State might remember a similar case from 2003, when the local Presbyterian governing body defrocked the Rev. Steve Van Kuiken for performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. At the time, Van Kuiken was the pastor of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

Something similar happened more recently in the Methodist church when the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania clergyman, was defrocked for officiating at his own son's same-sex marriage. The decision was later reversed by an appellate committee, and the reversal was upheld by the denomination's highest judicial body, the Judicial Council, in 2014.

At the "probable cause" hearing on Sunday, Meredith says he plans to give several reasons why "reasonable grounds" don't exist to move to a trial. Those include a challenge to the phrase "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals."

That phrase was put into the Book of Discipline "for the sole reason of expressing hatred toward gay people," he said.

He's secured the services of a team to represent him during the deliberations, including William M. "Scott" Campbell, an instructor at Harvard Divinity School.

Meredith feels threatened by the charges and what they might mean, but he doesn't feel afraid.

"I feel a profound assurance that I am standing in the center of God's will, and that the Spirit is doing good through me, through this conflict and through the church I serve," he said.

Meanwhile, his supporters in the church and in the community plan to hold a rally for him at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, outside Worthington United Methodist Church, 600 High St. in Worthington, Ohio. Then, at 3 p.m., they'll move to the conference headquarters about a mile up the road, at 32 Wesley Blvd. The "probable cause" hearing begins there at 4 p.m. and isn't open to the public.

Clifton UMC also is holding a vigil in Cincinnati at 2:30 p.m.

His supporters include Steve Depoe, a University of Cincinnati professor who also chairs the Clifton UMC Church Council, the lay governing body of the congregation.

He called Meredith a "dyed-in-the-wool Methodist who lives by and preaches three simple rules from John Wesley," one of the founders of the Methodist Church: "Do no harm, do good and stay in love with God."

He commended Meredith for his involvement in the community, where he builds coalitions, organizes, marches, prays and inspires others to do the same. His preaching has prompted the congregation to get involved with social concerns such as marriage equality, opposition to gun violence and support of immigration reform.

Earlier this year, the church became part of a new group that takes care of immigrants, the Cincinnati Sanctuary Congregation Coalition.

Linnea Lowe, who's attended Clifton UMC for almost two years, credited Meredith with making her a regular churchgoer who only misses a Sunday service when she's out of town.

Many conservative churchgoers think that progressive congregations like Clifton UMC only care about social issues, not the Bible, she said, but that's not true. Meredith's sermons "really emphasize growing that personal connection to God," she said.

She didn't know Meredith was gay until after she had attended church for a few months, she said. It's not something that he constantly talks about. She said she's never understood why people would think a person would choose to be gay.

"I think it's great that he has someone he loves, and someone he supports," she said.