From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Verdict sets stage for homosexuality debate at assembly

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Thu, 8 Apr 2004 12:06:16 -0500

April 8, 2004	News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
7 E-mail: 7 ALL-GLBT{168}

NOTE: Photographs and a General Conference logo are available with this
report at

A UMNS Report
By Amy Green*

The recent decision of a group of United Methodist clergy to acquit a lesbian
pastor of charges related to her relationship with another woman did little
to resolve the struggle over homosexuality that has gripped the denomination
since 1972.
The March 20 acquittal of the Rev. Karen Dammann came a month before General
Conference, the 10 million-member church's largest legislative assembly.
Nearly 1,000 delegates gather every four years to make laws for the
denomination and conduct other business. When the delegates arrive in
Pittsburgh for their April 27-May 7 meeting, they can expect an emotional
backlash from all sides over the outcome of the Dammann trial.
Dammann, a Seattle-area pastor, faced a single charge of "practices declared
by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings."
A jury of 13 of her peers found her innocent, a controversial verdict in a
church that forbids the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" in
its law book.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest U.S. Protestant denomination,
has historically welcomed diversity, and the theme of its media campaign is
"Open hearts, open minds, open doors." However, the church has struggled with
homosexuality for decades. During its 2000 General Conference, more than 200
protesters, including two bishops, were arrested over the issue. 
The upcoming General Conference will process an estimated 70 petitions
related to homosexuality, out of a total of more than 1,600 pieces of
legislation. In addition, the Dammann verdict is expected to spur a
passionate effort by critics to fill what they consider a loophole in church
"If there's any action taken, it will likely be an action that is more
restrictive or punitive toward gay and lesbian people than is currently in
the (Book of) Discipline," said the Rev. David F. McAllister-Wilson,
president of United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in
The denomination is sending too many mixed signals, said the Rev. James V.
Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, an unofficial evangelical
caucus within the church.
"We tend to be waffling on this, and I find that to be an embarrassment to
our church," said Heidinger, whose organization will send 50 members to
General Conference to lobby delegates. "It's clear our General Conference has
got to do something because what we have here is an egregious ignoring of the
Book of Discipline." 
Issues related to homosexuality have dominated headlines since last fall,
with the Episcopal Church's consecration of a gay bishop, the performance of
gay marriages in San Francisco and elsewhere, and President Bush's
endorsement of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Bush, a United
Methodist, has been invited with first lady Laura Bush to address General
Conference. The White House has not officially responded to the invitation.
General Conference action on issues related to homosexuality will be watched,
said the Rev. William B. Lawrence, dean of United Methodist-related Perkins
School of Theology in Dallas. "I'm sure that wise politicians will take note
of actions at General Conference."
Those who celebrate the Dammann verdict consider it a breakthrough worth
rallying around. Laura Montgomery Rutt, a United Methodist and spokesperson
for Soulforce, an ecumenical organization targeting religious persecution of
homosexuals, said she hopes the decision will become "a beacon that is a
light for the rest of the church to follow." As it did in 2000, the group
plans protests at General Conference that include civil disobedience should
delegates take a more conservative stance, she said. 
In 2000, delegates in Cleveland retained the denomination's policies by
2-to-1 margins. They kept the statement that the practice of homosexuality is
incompatible with Christian teaching; the proscription against self-avowed
practicing homosexuals being ordained or appointed as clergy; and the
prohibition of same-sex union ceremonies by United Methodist ministers and in
the church's sanctuaries.

At the same gathering, delegates also affirmed that homosexuals are people of
sacred worth, and they ordered the church's General Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns to launch a series of dialogues on
homosexuality. The talks turned up passionate but mixed feelings among church
members across the United States.  
"There is no consensus," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, staff executive at the
church's Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which offers pastoral
training. "We have historically over the last several General Conferences
maintained the language that we are to be in ministry (with homosexuals), but
there is the prohibition against in terms of ordination."
A petition submitted by the denomination's social justice arm, the Board of
Church and Society, is meant to reflect this diversity, said Linda Bales, a
program director on the board. The petition calls for more moderate language
in the church's Social Principles, which are considered guidelines but not
law by the church, with the addition of a phrase noting that "faithful
Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with
Christian teaching." 
Some consider the ongoing debates over homosexuality a distraction from other
General Conference business that could advance the church. Pointing to the
church's lagging membership, McAllister-Wilson worries that contention over
homosexuality is yet another symptom of the denomination's lack of focus and
leadership. Even if delegates could agree on the issue, he said, that would
not give the denomination the direction it needs to move forward.
"The majority of delegates feel this issue is a distraction especially
because there's not going to be a solution," he said. "I'm afraid the most
forward-thinking decision will be the decision to adjourn." 

# # #

*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn.


United Methodist News Service
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