Group protests chaplain’s rebuke

The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy says the Southern Baptist Convention is reining in chaplains who don’t toe the line in opposition to last year’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

By Bob Allen

A chaplaincy organization supportive of last year’s repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military accused the Southern Baptist Convention of bullying and intimidation for asking an Air Force chaplain to explain his presence at the first publicly announced gay civil union or wedding ever to take place at an American military installation.

The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a group of about 70 retired chaplains across the country representing various faith groups and branches of service, issued a rare public response to a July 13 Baptist Press story clarifying comments attributed to Air Force Chaplain (Col.) Timothy Wagoner in a July 4 Associated Press story about his attendance at the June 23 ceremony held at the chapel he leads.

According to Baptist Press, immediately after the story appeared the North American Mission Board’s executive director for chaplaincy, retired U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains (Major General) Douglas Carver, contacted Wagoner and received assurance that the chaplain was “either misinterpreted or quoted out of context” by the Associated Press.

The BP story included a statement by Wagoner, who commands five other chaplains at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst joint military base near Trenton, N.J., saying the AP article’s “general tone” led many to conclude incorrectly that he personally supports same-sex civil unions.

The AP story said Wagoner would not have been willing to officiate at the civil-union ceremony in McGuire chapel, but he had no problem with another member of his team, Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, doing so.

In the AP story, Wagoner explained his presence as a Southern Baptist, a denomination that considers homosexual activity sinful, was “to lend support” both for Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali, a well-known base leader, in his commitment to his civilian partner and for Chaplain Reeb.

Wagoner said in the Baptist Press story that his intent was never “to embarrass or misrepresent Southern Baptists, whom I have faithfully served for 30 years as a pastor and military chaplain.”

But Col. Paul Dodd, a retired Southern Baptist Army chaplain who co-chairs the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, said Wagoner should not have to apologize. Dodd, who served the final four of his 21 years of military service as a command chaplain, said Wagoner “would have been derelict in his duty” to not attend such a newsworthy and important event.

Dodd, now a pastoral counselor and psychotherapist in Austin who attends that city’s University Baptist Church, said the all-volunteer forum without a website or paid staff operated behind the scenes for several years to advocate for repeal of DADT. Lately the group has become more vocal, he said, because of attacks on the repeal by the Religious Right.

One of the most noticed, an August 2011 letter to congressional leaders from a group called Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, was signed by David Mullis, military chaplaincy associate for the North American Mission Board.

Dodd said the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy decided to issue a public statement about Wagoner because of the seriousness of the rebuke. Dodd said in a telephone interview “the very idea” of NAMB leaders going after a chaplain for carrying out his sworn duties is “outrageous.”

“This attack by the Southern Baptist Convention on a 20-year military chaplain doing his duty is unconscionable and an insult to service members,” Dodd said in a press release. “Apparently the SBC will not even allow their chaplains to observe from a distance when one of their troops gets married to a same-sex partner.”

Lt. Col. Henry Roberson, who served 30 years as a Catholic Army chaplain, said the “real agenda” of anti-gay groups is to “pounce on any chaplain willing to support his gay troops, even passively, and whip him back into line.”

According to Baptist Press, after the AP story appeared NAMB e-mailed all its chaplains reiterating Southern Baptists’ opposition to same-sex civil unions. A video conference is being planned for all senior SBC military chaplains about NAMB’s expectations for ministry to members of the armed forces.

“Our expectation is that chaplains that we endorse on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention would carry out their ministry in harmony with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, our guiding doctrinal statement,” Mike Ebert, NAMB’s vice president for communications, said July 16. “The BFM 2000 clearly states that one man, one woman is the only biblical standard for marriage. SBC messengers have echoed that in several resolutions at our annual meetings over the last decade."

Ebert said when the Associated Press story was published NAMB’s chaplaincy teem contacted Chaplain Wagoner to talk to him about the article. “He wanted to make it clear that he stands squarely on the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 view of this issue and he was happy to have that point clarified since the article might have given readers a different impression,” Ebert said.

Carver, who took over Southern Baptists’ chaplaincy office after retiring from the military last year, said at a Washington conference in June that the military’s revised policy on homosexuality has created “tensions” for chaplains between government authority and faithfulness to Scripture and contributed to a “growing intolerance” toward even discussing religion.

The Associated Press story, however, said dire predictions of a mass exodus of chaplains forced to compromise their beliefs have not occurred and there have been very few reports of problems caused by the change.

A July 17 story in Stars and Stripes quoted Wagoner about the lack of negative reaction to the civil-union ceremony held in his chapel. “I haven’t heard anything negative,” he said, only positive things like, ‘It’s about time!’”