The verdict this weekend in the trial of a Methodist minister shows that even a church that holds homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teachings" is being buffeted by a changing culture.
The Rev. Karen Dammann, of Ellensburg, Wash. was acquitted by a jury of 13 clergy in the United Methodist Church (UMC) of violating church law by living in a homosexual relationship.
The UMC, the third-largest Christian church in the United States after Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, has been embroiled in debate on the issue for three decades. At its last general conference in 2000, however, two-thirds of the delegates voted against any change in policy, rejecting both ordination of gay clergy and blessing of same-sex unions. The trial outcome is likely to stir tumult leading up to the next conference, in late April, which most had expected would hew to the status quo.
The action by her peers in the Pacific Northwest stunned church conservatives, even though many in the more liberal region are known to be at odds with the policy, which they say fails to embrace all members in the body of Christ.
"I'm totally shocked, and Methodists across the country will be deeply disturbed," says the Rev. James Heidinger, president of Good News, a church renewal ministry concerned with biblical authority. "Karen is clearly violating the standard of the church, and we thought this was simply giving her due process." The Methodist Book of Discipline says that "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" are not to be ordained as ministers.
But the defense argued that it was not cut and dried, and that the church's social principles also strongly backed inclusiveness and civil rights for homosexuals, according to the Associated Press.
"We're thankful the jury was able to listen to the whole story," says the Rev. Troy Plummer, of Reconciling Ministries Network, a group seeking full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. "People try to make this about sex, but it's about a complete person called by God to ministry, and the church has said she has the gifts and graces for the job."
The pastor initiated the church action herself by writing to her bishop in 2001 to acknowledge the relationship, in effect challenging a "don't ask, don't tell" situation. She and her partner have a son, and Ms. Dammann has said it was important for her to be truthful. Now that she is acquitted, the church cannot appeal.
But this is not the only test challenging the Methodists. The Rev. Karen Oliveto, a pastor in San Francisco, recently performed what she called the first legal gay marriage in the church, when she held a ceremony for a gay couple who had gotten a license and civil marriage at city hall. A complaint has been filed against the pastor and it's expected that will also go to trial. Church law says "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
This won't be the first time the UMC has sought to discipline such action. Jimmy Creech, a Methodist pastor for 29 years, was defrocked in 1999 after celebrating a gay union for a couple in North Carolina.
He began doing so, Mr. Creech said in a recent interview in Boston, "because of my understanding of what a pastor is. I feel a responsibility to help people overcome barriers ... to be able to feel loved by God, to be able to love oneself and another."
After a church member shared his anguish over the mixed messages of God's unconditional love and condemnation of homosexuals, "I began to understand what kind of violence was being done to people within the church," he says. "I grew up in the South and knew how the Bible could be misused to justify racism [and] make second-class citizens of women, how social customs could be declared God's will."
He says he undertook deep study of the Bible, church history, ethics, and writings about sexual orientation, after which he became committed to change. Creech is now a leader of Soulfource, an ecumenical group advocating full acceptance within churches. He worries that Saturday's verdict could lead to a backlash and some form of retaliation at the April conference.
Mr. Heidinger says he felt the church's standard was "clear and compassionate" and would be retained. But "what happens in the culture has impacted the church," he adds. "The jury was unwilling to rule according to church law, and it was the polity of the church that was put on trial, not Karen Dammann," he adds. "It's important for folks to step back and realize this is the position of the worldwide Christian church - Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, the global Anglican Communion...."
Anglicans have been split over the Episcopal Church's approval of a gay bishop. This weekend a convention of the Episcopal church in Massachusetts voted in favor of the state court's ruling that homosexuals have a constitutional right to civil marriage.