Same-sex union trial controversy continues

Update: The Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church's top court, plans to take up at its next session in October questions of law regarding the proposed clergy covenant team in the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference. Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee on July 2 sent to the church court her ruling that the questions of law are hypothetical and therefore was not properly before the annual conference. The Judicial Council automatically reviews rulings on questions of law.

A year ago, a jury of 13 Wisconsin clergy convicted the Rev. Amy DeLong of performing a same-sex union and sentenced her to a 20-day suspension and a yearlong process to "restore the broken clergy covenant relationship."

Now, she plans to join a team she initiated that will determine what the United Methodist clergy covenant should look like in the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference.

The team has "the potential to really plumb the depths of what it means to be in covenant and what it means to really talk about and struggle with the things we don't agree with," DeLong said.

But before the team can get started, the group first must overcome a challenge that its existence violates church law. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a member of the Wisconsin Conference, has raised questions of law regarding the team's mission and its funding.

DeLong made the proposal for the team as part of the document that the jury - called a trial court - had required her to write. The trial court instructed DeLong to outline procedures to help resolve issues that "harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit or lead to future clergy trials."

What The United Methodist Church teaches

The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Here is the denomination's position on homosexuality.

As part of her sentence, she collaborated on the document with Wisconsin Conference leaders, including Bishop Linda Lee. She titled the finished paper "Clergy Covenant: An Invitation."

Wisconsin clergy members approved the document and the creation of DeLong's proposed "Conference Clergy Covenant Team" during the executive (clergy only) session of the annual conference meeting on May 31. The vote, by a show of hands, clearly favored the proposal, say multiple clergy members who attended the closed-door session.

On June 3, the lay and clergy members of the conference designated $5,000 to fund the team's meetings, travel and communications.

Under the proposal, 12 clergy members, including DeLong, will meet at least monthly "for the benefit of clergy solidarity and congregational leadership" and bring a proposed clergy covenant to the 2013 Wisconsin clergy session.

"I think this offers a way for the clergy in the conference to come together with each other across clear differences of perception, understanding and belief," Lee said of DeLong's plan. "We worked very hard to offer a restorative possibility that could build people up and build relationships based on that which binds us together, and that is belief in Jesus Christ."

About the trial

DeLong, an ordained elder and a lesbian who has been with her partner for 17 years, faced two charges during her church trial on June 21-23, 2011, in Kaukauna, Wis.

The trial court acquitted her of being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" by a vote of 12-1. Her counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued successfully that church authorities had not proven she engaged in prohibited sexual activities.

The same panel unanimously found her guilty of violating the prohibition against conducting ceremonies celebrating same-gender unions.

The total cost for the church trial in June 2011 was $41,291, according to the Wisconsin Conference.

The Rev. Gordon Lind, the dean of the Wisconsin Conference appointive cabinet, said DeLong's trial and sentence have sparked mixed reactions among the state's United Methodists.

"Some seemed glad for the trial, while many were saddened that such a thing, the trial, would happen," he said. "Also, for the penalty, some were delighted with its often-described creativity, while others thought the sentence too light."

Before the trial, DeLong served the conference in an unpaid extension ministry, directing an education and advocacy group. Since the trial, she continues in that role and now travels around the United States to "tell my story," she said.

She recently attended General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. She joined in a protest on the conference floor after the assembly rejected petitions that would have added language to in the Book of Discipline to say United Methodists disagree about homosexuality.

She added that she thinks the clergy's vote on the proposal was a "turning point in the life of the clergy here together."

However, Lambrecht, who served as church counsel - the church equivalent of a prosecuting attorney - during DeLong's trial, questions whether the team itself will infringe on church law.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, bans "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. It also says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and forbids United Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex unions.

It also prohibits conferences, agencies and other denominational entities from using church funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

Lambrecht, who is vice president and general manager of the evangelical caucus Good News, has asked Lee to rule on whether DeLong's proposal violates any of these prohibitions.

He pointed to DeLong's requirement that the covenant to be developed be based on "ending participation in discrimination (specifically against GLBTQI people)." DeLong uses those initials to refer to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex individuals.

"By saying in the covenant we are to end that, it mandates that the covenant would essentially circumvent the Discipline," he said.

Lee has until the first week in July - 30 days after the conclusion of Wisconsin's annual conference session - to rule on Lambrecht's questions. Her ruling next automatically goes for review to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bishop said she planned to consult with the conference's chancellor, its legal adviser, before making her decision on Lambrecht's question.

For his part, Lambrecht said he supports the idea of formulating a clergy covenant specific to the Wisconsin Conference. "But it obviously ought to happen within the larger picture of the covenant we already acknowledge, which is outlined in the Book of Discipline," he said.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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