DOVER, N.H., AUG. 24 -- When the United Methodist Church banned homosexuals from its ministry in 1984, the Rev. Rose Mary Denman was pleased. A former Roman Catholic from a conservative family, Denman had told her bishop that she would consider leaving the church if it ordained avowed homosexuals.
But later that year, Denman fell in love with a woman, the ex-wife of a Methodist minister, and began the journey that led her to St. John's United Methodist Church here where she stood ecclesiastical trial today for violating the church's 1984 restriction.
Late tonight the jury, on a 11-to-2 vote, found Denman guilty of violating church law. But they meted out the lightest sentence possible -- suspending her credentials until June 1988.
"The sentence was an act of reconciliation on the part of the jury," said Rev. John MacDougall, who represented Denman.
Denman said she did not expect to win because church officials made clear that the case would be limited to church law and whether it had been broken. But she asked for the trial rather than resign, hoping to force the church to reexamine its stand and to force the issue into public.
"If there were no trial this would have been kept very quiet," she said before the trial. "But it's important to talk about it because the United Methodist Church is certainly not united on this issue."
"That jury really pulled through and finally showed there's a church out there," a teary-eyed Denman said tonight.
At a news conference before the trial began today, Bishop George Bashore predicted that the matter will come up again at the United Methodists' quadrennial General Conference in 1988. "You can put scholars on both sides of the fence, he said. "It's a debate that I think is going to go on for some time."
Denman, who says she intends to transfer to the Unitarian Universalist Church, had hoped for the verdict she received from a jury of her peers, 13 Methodist ministers. It allows her to leave the church in good standing.
"Everyone's hope is she'll be able to transfer to another denomination in an orderly manner," MacDougall said tonight.
The trial was open only to Methodist reporters and spectators.
The complaint against her, filed by Bashore earlier this year, accused her of violating the church's Book of Discipline, which holds that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and forbids homosexuals to be ordained.
Bishop Neil Irons, the presiding officer at the trial, turned down Denman's request to have three experts on theology and ethics testify in her defense. Their testimony, he wrote in a letter to Denman's attorney, was "not relevant to the issue of the trial."
Denman, 40, took a leave of absence from her two Conway parishes in 1985, almost a year after realizing that she was a lesbian, and moved in with her lover, printer Winnie Weir, in Portland, Maine. Last spring, she told Bashore that she was homosexual. He recommended against an extension of her leave and filed the complaint.
Unlike other homosexual ministers who keep their sexual preferences secret, Denman said, she decided to tell friends, family and church officials that she was a lesbian because her religious beliefs demanded that she tell the truth.
"I just decided I had to live with myself a lot longer than I'll have to live with the church," she said. "I'm going to eternity, but I'm not sure the church is."
Taking such a public stand has not been easy, according to Denman, who took no part in the antiwar and civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s. "My name and the word 'activist' would never have appeared in the same sentence," she said.
It was equally hard to tell her family, she added, including the son she bore before her divorce in 1971.