Methodist Court Says Gay Clergy Prohibited
Wash. Pastor Can Remain, for Now
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page A22
The highest court in the United Methodist Church ruled yesterday that church law unambiguously says the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and a "chargeable offense" for Methodist ministers.
The 6 to 3 ruling by the Judicial Council was a strong rebuke to a jury of 13 Methodist ministers who acquitted an openly lesbian colleague, the Rev. Karen Dammann, after a three-day church trial in Seattle in March.
The Judicial Council does not have authority to overturn the jury's verdict and remove Dammann. But its ruling will make it harder for any future jury to disregard the church's ban on "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" in the clergy.
The ruling was announced in Pittsburgh to nearly 1,000 delegates at the church's General Conference, which has been consumed by debate over the Dammann verdict.
The conference, which takes place every four years, is the lawmaking body of the United Methodist Church, which has 8.3 million U.S. members and is the nation's third-largest religious denomination, after the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention.
Evangelical Methodists who want to retain the ban on openly gay clergy have won votes at the last two general conferences, in 1996 and 2000, by a margin of two to one. But they have been frustrated by their inability to enforce the ban through church courts.
The charge against Dammann was that she engaged in "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching." The jury found she was a "self-avowed, practicing" lesbian but said the church had not clearly declared homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching.
The Rev. Scott N. Field, the conference coordinator for a coalition of conservative and evangelical Methodist groups, said the Judicial Council rejected the jury's "novel interpretation" of church law.
But he said that "it does not end the debate because people of conscience who disagree with the church's current stand will continue acts of noncompliance, and therefore the real issue before the denomination is whether we can enforce the covenant within the clergy, and that will require additional legislation."
Among the proposals before the conference is to give the Judicial Council authority to reverse a trial court's verdict. In addition, the conference voted yesterday to ask the Judicial Council for a further ruling, on whether Dammann can be reappointed to the pulpit when her current, annual appointment is up in June.
Field said he and other conservatives believe that if Methodists fail to uphold their ban on gay ministers, they may go the way of the Episcopal Church, which is threatened with schism over the consecration of a gay bishop. "There are many, many congregations who have let us know they are watching closely, and the decisions by the General Conference will determine whether they are staying or leaving," he said.
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which favors allowing openly gay clergy, said that "the issue is: Can we have different opinions and still be family?"
Plummer accused conservatives of using the example of the Episcopal Church as a "scare tactic" at the convention.
"Continuing to try to solve this issue with legalisms and legislation is an error," he said. "The holy spirit will not be tied down. It is present in loving couples creating loving families, and it will always find a way to break free."
Helen King, 63, a retired elementary school teacher from Durham, N.C., who is an observer at the conference, said the church's position has driven away her 33-year-old lesbian daughter. "The last time I asked her to go to church with me, tears rolled up in her eyes, and she said, 'Mom, please don't ask me to do that,' " King said.
King noted that the church has formally declared homosexuals to be persons of "sacred worth" who are welcome in Methodist congregations. "You can't have it both ways," she said. "They want to say that they love and welcome gays and lesbians, at the same time that they will not allow gays and lesbians to be full participants in the life of the church."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company