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. 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. Even so, the delegates to that assembly maintained the church's positions on homosexuality by roughly 2-to-1 margins.
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. While the Dammann verdict will have no official impact on the assembly, it is expected to spur a passionate effort by critics to fill what they consider a loophole in church law.
"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 Washington.
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 statement that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. They also affirmed the church's stand 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," he said, "especially because there's not going to be a solution."
*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].