Committee quashes two most serious charges against gay Clifton UMC pastor

Posted at 2:39 PM, Oct 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-20 14:41:21-04

CINCINNATI -- The Rev. David Meredith, pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church, was breathing easier this week after an ecclesiastical committee investigating three charges against him dropped the two most serious ones.

The Committee on Investigation for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church told Meredith’s church of its decision via email on Wednesday.

The charges had to do with the fact that Meredith, who has never made it a secret that he was gay, married his longtime companion Jim Schlachter in May 2016. As previously reported, a few days later, members of the denomination, including some of Meredith’s fellow ministers, wrote letters to Gregory Palmer, bishop of the West Ohio Conference, contending that Meredith shouldn’t be a pastor.

The bishop referred the matter to the Committee on Investigation, which considered three possible violations of the denomination’s Book of Discipline:

  • That as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” he couldn’t be ordained as a minister;
  • That he was living an immoral lifestyle;
  • That he was disobedient to church law because he had participated in a same-sex wedding ceremony.

In a hearing Wednesday at the conference’s headquarters in Columbus, the committee heard evidence from witnesses and gave Meredith and his accusers a chance to speak. 

According to Meredith, those accusers included the Rev. Mark Rowland, pastor of Anderson Hills United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Derek Russell, pastor of Hillsboro United Methodist Church.

Attempts to reach Rowland through his church’s communications person were not successful; Russell said that since the matter is still ongoing, he couldn’t comment.

“I can’t confirm if I am a complainant or not, at this point,” Russell said.

It’s a judicial process, Meredith said, and judicial processes are adversarial by nature.

“I understand the institution of the denomination is structured in such a way as to provide a means of correction and accountability,” he said. But he added, “It doesn’t look much like the church when the church is operating in that sphere.”

The committee found reasonable grounds to substantiate only the disobedience charge, which Meredith said is the least serious of the three. If the others were felonies, he said, disobedience is like a misdemeanor.

If a settlement of that charge can’t be reached through mediation, which the bishop has said he prefers, he will have to set a date for a trial by a jury of some of Meredith’s fellow pastors in the conference.

If the jury were to find him guilty of disobedience, Meredith said, he could still lose his credentials as a minister. But that’s unlikely, he said, given that ministers found guilty of that charge have paid much lighter penalties. 

For some, he said, it was as simple as promising not to repeat the offense, or writing a paper explaining their understanding of the covenants that bind clergy.

Steve Depoe, the chair of the Clifton UMC Church Council, the lay governing body of the congregation, said he can’t help but think that the presence of so many Meredith supporters outside the hearing influenced the committee’s decision. 

Before the hearing began, Meredith and Schlachter led a parade of more than 100 friends and supporters who walked from a local church parking lot about three-quarters of a mile to the hearing site, Depoe said. As they walked, they sang familiar hymns such as “This Little Light of Mine.”

Participants included Cincinnati clergy, Depoe said, including a rabbi, an imam from a mosque and a Christian minister from another denomination.

He’s hopeful that the decision might be a small indication that Methodists can work out their differences over gay rights. 

The fact that the committee rejected the first two charges was a big victory, Meredith said. It may be the first time in the denomination’s history that a charge that relates to homosexuality reached a committee on investigation and was dismissed, he said.

“For the first time in the United Methodist Church, an official body in a judicial process has found that the church talking about gay and lesbian people and their lives, and loves and sexuality, is not appropriate and not chargeable,” he said.

“That’s big. For years, LGTB folks have been talked about by the church, been judged by the church … this feels like a moment when a few within places of authority in the church have said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that anymore.’”

Meredith is popular minister in the Greater Cincinnati area. Case in point: Meredith's congregation more than doubled in the first two years after he took over.