Bishop Melvin Wheatley Dies at 93

March 06, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Green*

March 3, 2009

Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley Jr., a champion of gay rights in The United Methodist Church, died March 1 after a prolonged illness.

Wheatley, 93, retired, had been residing in a private board and care residence in Mission Viejo, California but called Laguna Woods, California home.

Bishop Wheatley received an award of appreciation in 1984 from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "Arrogant judgmentalism, as some have experienced by society, even religious institutions, is too great a price for society to be able to continue to pay," he said at that time.

The Wheatleys also received a human rights award from an international Christian denomination that serves gay members. In a speech accepting the award, he said that his son John - who died in 1984 of cancer - was gay.

In 1982, Wheatley came under fire for appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual to a Denver church. Churches in Colorado and Georgia charged that Wheatley's stance undermined the authority of Holy Scripture and called for public censure. They also demanded that he revise his homosexuality stance to conform to Scripture or retire or resign from the episcopacy.

An investigative committee said in its final report that it found no "reasonable grounds" for accusing the bishop. The panel found that the bishop should not be tried on charges of heresy and disobedience.

Wheatley's advocacy on gay and lesbian issues, and dissatisfaction with the denomination's policy, led him to become one of 15 bishops to release a joint statement at the 1996 General Conference expressing their pain over the proscriptions in the Book of Discipline. Those bishops also affirmed their commitment to uphold the Discipline of the church.

Inclusive and caring

Born in 1915 in Lewisville, Pennsylvania, Wheatley was a graduate of American University, receiving his A.B. degree magna cum laude in 1936 and the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1979.

He received a B.D. degree summa cum laude from Drew Theological School and was ordained a deacon in 1939. He served as a pastor in Lincoln, Delaware, was ordained elder in 1941, and transferred his annual conference membership to the California-Pacific Conference in 1942.

Wheatley served pastorates for 33 years in Delaware and California before his election to the episcopacy in 1972. He served as resident bishop of Denver from 1972 to 1984 and served for one year as a visiting professor at the Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. He and his wife, Lucile, were to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in June.

"He was a wonderful, wonderful man," Mrs. Wheatley said. "He was just very, very special. Many people know that he was a superb person. He did not have a prejudice or bigoted bone in his body. He was born to be inclusive and care about everybody."

During his California pastorates, Wheatley taught courses at academic institutions, was active in national church organizations, and authored several books and magazine articles.

"He was a good friend of mine, and we served on several committees together," said Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, retired, of Oakland, California. "I knew him to be a hard worker and a good bishop."

"He was one of the great preachers of our generation," said Bishop Jack Tuell, Des Moines, Washington. "He was a gentle and loving man but fearless in his advocacy for the truth."

'Safely home'

For the past several years, Wheatley had adopted a mantra, "Safely home ... safely home ... safely home again, amen!" which he recited to himself continuously. In an email announcing his father's death, Jim Wheatley said the family and caregivers are comforted that his passing took place in an environment of manifest love and attention and that the bishop is at last "safely home."

A memorial service will be held March 22 at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Wheatley served that church for 18 years before his election as bishop.

In addition to his wife, Lucile, and son, James, of Kauai, Hawaii, he is also survived by another son, Paul, of Valley Center, California. Memorials may be made to the Reconciling Ministries Network, 3801 North Keeler Avenue Chicago, IL 60641 and to Westwood United Methodist Church, 10497 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024.