When the Rev. Andrew Leigh Gunn made an appeal last month for legalizing drugs "on a controlled basis," he said he knew other religious leaders were "thinking along the same lines . . . . "
But none of them seemed to be in his congregation at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, which formally censured the minister last week for his controversial stand.
At its June 12 meeting, the church's Administrative Board adopted a resolution "officially . . . disassociating the congregation" from the Gunn's proposal to allow the government to dispense drugs to users at minimal cost.
"While we recognized that the Rev. Gunn has a constitutional right to express his personal views, we are concerned that the implication . . . was that he was speaking for the church," the Administrative Board said in a news release.
Gunn's proposal, set forth in a May 22 press release, "was never presented to any official policy-making entity of the church," the board's statement said. Besides, the board charged, Gunn's proposal runs counter to the denomination's official position on drugs, which supports "the strict administration of laws regulating the sale and distribution of opiates."
Gunn had said in his proposal that he intended to go through denominational channels "to challenge and encourage the churches to change their position on drugs and to advocate new ways to take drugs out of the hands of the underworld."
The censure of a pastor in a United Methodist church is so unusual that local denominational officials are still trying to figure out what to do about it. "I'm not sure what it means," said the Rev. Lyle Harper, superintendent of the Washington Central District of the church, which includes Mount Vernon Place.
The United Methodist Discipline, the formal statement of church policies and governance, makes no mention of "censure," he said.
Harper said he didn't think the censure action called for any disciplining of Gunn. "United Methodists believe in freedom of the pulpit and freedom for open debate . . . . We encourage debate -- in a responsible fashion."
In the United Methodist Church, pastors are assigned to churches by the bishop and advisers. Local congregations of the church can neither call nor dismiss a minister.
Gunn, who from 1976 to 1979 headed Americans United, a church-state separationist organization, could not be reached yesterday for comment. It was not clear what prompted him to launch his campaign for drug legalization. Harper speculated that it may have emerged from the minister's encounter with addiction problems in the vicinity of his church, located at 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
The minister argued that legalization of drugs "would take most narcotics out of the hands of the underworld" and rid law enforcement and courts of much of their present burden.
"To simply be opposed to drugs is not good enough," he said in his May 22 statement. "Ways must be found to keep drug addicts from committing crimes to feed their addiction and rehabilitation programs must be provided for those who want to kick the habit."
His proposal caused a mild stir in United Methodist circles, but beyond that it was largely forgotten until the censure action called attention.