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Same-sex wedding lands St. Petersburg Methodist pastor in hot water

Allendale United Methodist Church sign congratulating the couple the Rev. Andy Oliver married at the Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg in March. [Allendale Methodist Church]
Published May 3

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church has made no secret of the fact that he is willing to perform same-sex marriages.

In February, when his denomination voted against a proposal to let regional church bodies decide whether to ordain gay and lesbian people in relationships, allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages and hold such ceremonies in a church, his congregation took out a full-page newspaper ad to apologize for the decision.

His church website announces that it provides "an altar for all" and is committed "to support and celebrate same-sex marriages."

Now Oliver may be in trouble for that stance.

On March 16, wearing a rainbow-colored stole, the 39-year-old pastor officiated at the wedding of two women, both members of his church, at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.

Ten days later, the Rev. Brent Byerman, of Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church in Tampa, lodged a formal complaint against Oliver with the bishop of the denomination's Florida Conference. A meeting to resolve the matter is scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 29 with Bishop Ken Carter at his Lakeland office.

Violations of the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline can lead to the stripping of a pastor's credentials.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay United Methodist clergy vow to defy church's LGBTQ bans

Oliver said he and his congregation are "saddened that a pastor who is not even a part of our community felt the need to try to control the ministries" being offered to LGBTQ people.

"I don't think of myself as a victim in this. The real victims are LGBTQ persons who are having their lives and their faith legislated,'' he said. "This complaint system seeks to create a culture of fear that would try to prevent clergy from doing the same thing that we did, opening up their marriage altar to all people that are ready for marriage."

About six people, including Byerman, will be permitted to attend the May 29 meeting, Oliver said. One of the brides from the March ceremony will accompany him.

Byerman, a United Methodist pastor since 1980, declined to comment. "With all due respect, this is a confidential matter within the United Methodist Bishop's Office," he said in an email.

The Rev. Alex Shanks, assistant to the bishop, confirmed that complaints are confidential.

"We get a few complaints a year and they are more often related to sexual misconduct," he said, adding that at this time, the Florida Conference has only one complaint related to same-sex marriage.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, who was a guest at the museum wedding, said she was disappointed to learn about the complaint against Oliver.

"My reaction was, how could somebody who doesn't know this couple and has nothing to do with their lives just sort of insert themselves into this conversation in such an ugly way?'' she said. "It's really appalling.

"Our country has an ugly history of discrimination when it comes to marriage and of people dressing up that prejudice in religious garb. I am grateful that there are people of faith no longer willing to be silent when that happens. As someone who attended the wedding surrounded by the couple's family and friends, my greatest hope is this complaint filed in such an ugly manner will in no way mar what should be nothing but a beautiful memory."

The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a conservative group that fought against changing the denomination's LGBTQ policy. The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the group, said charges can be brought against pastors for a number of offenses outlined in the church's Book of Discipline. Offenses include interfering with the ministry of another pastor, financial improprieties and performing a same-sex ceremony, he said.

"The goal of the complaint is to reach a 'just resolution,' Boyette said, using the denomination's language. "It goes to trial only as a last resort. ... It's a system internal to the church to preserve the order of the church and to uphold the discipline of the church."

Boyette said trials include a trial court — or jury — of clergy, with a bishop as judge. Penalties can range from suspension to loss of credentials, he said.

Asked whether Oliver's accuser violated the Book of Discipline by interfering with his ministry, Boyette emphasized that same-sex ceremonies are against church policy. If Oliver feels called to that ministry, he should do so outside the United Methodist Church, he said.

"We are in a mutual covenant as pastors and we hold each other mutually accountable," he said.Oliver thinks it's unlikely that he will face a church trial.

"In my opinion, the Florida Conference is not interested in prosecuting clergy for offering the ministries of the church to same-sex couples," he said.

In 2015, the year same-sex marriage became legal in Florida, the United Methodist Florida Annual Conference passed a resolution to "strongly encourage" the bishop and cabinet to resolve complaints related to violations of the denomination's LGBTQ policies through "just resolution rather than through a church trial."

Oliver said he has the full support of his congregation and others in the broader community.

"Allendale has kind of become a refuge church for LGBTQ people and allies who have left other congregations where they weren't being welcomed and affirmed," he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892–2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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