Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley, Jr. a champion of equal rights in the United Methodist Church, died March 1, 2009,after a prolonged illness. He was 93 years old. Recognized in 2000 with a proclamation by the City Council of Los Angeles for his pastoral leadership on the city's west side, Wheatley served for 18 years as senior pastor of the Westwood United Methodist Church. The same proclamation cited his national leadership on behalf of gay and lesbian persons.
While in the Los Angeles area, Wheatley was active in numerous efforts promoting interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues among area citizens and was twice elected Chairman of the Community Relations Conference of Southern California. In the early 60’s, he arranged with the Rev.L.L.White, pastor of Holman Methodist Church, to exchange pulpits for a month in an effort to break down racial barriers. He also opened Westwood church as a temporary synagogue for three different Jewish congregations while their buildings were under construction. In 1972, he was elected as a Bishop and assigned to the Denver Episcopal Area.
In 1980, Wheatley sent shockwaves through the denomination when he broke ranks with his peers and refused to endorse the official position of the United Methodist Council of Bishops which states, in part, that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Wheatley said, “I will not accept [this statement]. It states as an absolute fact what is an insufficiently documented opinion: that gay persons can’t be Christians. The statement violates the laws of logic because one positive exception destroys a negative absolute. I personally know not one, but at least 50 gay men and lesbians who are Christians…I take Jesus Christ very seriously in making judgments, and the more seriously I take him the stronger is my feeling that this statement is an inadequate representation of Christianity.” Wheatley often spoke of his youngest son, John, who was gay, as being one of those most responsible for shaping his views. “Only when the rights of all family members are guaranteed are the rights of any family members assured.”
Two years later, Bishop Wheatley made the first appointment in the denomination of an openly gay man, Rev. Julian Rush, to the pastorate of St. Paul’s U.M.C. in Denver. In reaction to the appointment, a Methodist pastor in Georgia filed charges against the Bishop, accusing him of promoting ''doctrines contrary to the established standards'' of the church and the Bible. During a hearing before a standing committee on whether he should be put on trial for heresy and disobedience, Wheatley repeated his earlier statements, saying "Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God's grace," and "I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin." He argued that the church had undergone ''constant change'' in its conception of sin on such issues as slavery, divorce, abortion, and women’s rights. In May of 1982, the committee ruled in its final report that it found “no reasonable grounds” for a trial. At the church’s General Conference in 1996, 15 Bishops stood in support of Wheatley’s call for inclusion. In 2004, the number had grown to 30.
Melvin Ernest Wheatley, Jr. was the grandson, son, brother, brother-in-law, and father of ordained Methodist clergy. Born in Lewisville, Pennsylvania, on May 7, 1915 to Melvin Ernest and Gertrude Elizabeth Mitchell Wheatley, Mel was a graduate of The American University, receiving his A.B. degree magna cum laude in 1936 and the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1979. Wheatley then attended Drew Theological School, receiving his B.D. summa cum laude in 1939.
Ordained deacon by Bishop Edwin Holt Hughes in 1939 and elder in 1941 by Bishop Adna Wright Leonard, Wheatley joined the Peninsula Conference and served the Lincoln Charge in Delaware. In 1942 his membership was transferred to California and he became Associate Pastor at First Church in Fresno; then Pastor at Centenary Church, Modesto (1943-46); Central Church, Stockton (1946-54); Westwood Church, Los Angeles (1954-72). He was honored as Young Man of the Year in Stockton in 1950 and the Clergyman of the Year in 1958 in Los Angeles.
During his career, Bishop Wheatley taught courses at academic institutions, gave the St. Luke's Lectures in Houston, was active in conference and national Methodist organizations, and authored several books and magazine articles. He was awarded honorary doctorates by American University and The University of the Pacific. He retired in 1984, returned to California and served for one year as Visiting Professor at The School of Theology in Claremont. During retirement, he and his wife Lucile concentrated their efforts on gay rights, actively working as members of the international organization of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and as supporters of Affirmation and Reconciling Congregations within the Methodist Church. He received the Ball Award from the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the 1985 Award for Prophetic Leadership by the Consultation on Homosexuality, Tolerance and Roman Catholic Theology; the 1985 Human Rights Award of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Congregations; and the 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award from PFLAG in Denver, Colorado.
Wheatley is survived by his wife of 69 years, Lucile, and sons Paul and James, and three grandchildren. His youngest son John died of melanoma in 1984.
(This biographical statement was written by the Wheatley family for the www.melvinwheatley.com web site following his death.)