New York Times, 22 March 04

Verdict for Lesbian Minister Looms Over Methodist Confab

Associated Press

By MATTHEW PREUSCH SEATTLE, March 21 — A month before the quadrennial conference of the United Methodist Church, the acquittal of a lesbian minister on a charge of violating Methodist law by engaging in a homosexual relationship has outraged traditionalists, elated reformers and energized both groups. Many in the church had hoped to avoid a confrontation on homosexuality, one of the most contentious issues facing the church since the Methodist split over slavery in 1844. But any chance of that was dashed on Saturday when a jury of 13 Methodist clergy members found that the Rev. Karen T. Dammann had not violated church law by being in a lesbian relationship. According to church leaders, next month's conference, the church's equivalent of a legislature, is likely to test the bounds of civil debate. The 11-day meeting, which will be held in Pittsburgh, will begin April 27. William B. Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said both sides will push for a clarification of the church's stance on gays in the ministry. Dr. Lawrence said on Sunday that he hoped the church would "find a way to handle this difficult and complex set of issues without feeling the need to fracture or enter into some sort of schism." He added, "But that remains to be seen." The Rev. David F. McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said both sides were girding for a struggle. "They'll both have at it tooth and nail," he said. "I'm sure the phone lines are burning up right now as they strategize on how to deal with this." Ms. Dammann, 47, could have been defrocked had she been found guilty in the church trial. She said that the verdict vindicated her decision to tell her bishop about her lesbian relationship, but that she recognized the effect the verdict could have on the Methodist church. "For the church it means a beginning of another stage of struggles, and I'm mindful of that," she said. "This is going to be painful." The prosecutor, a minister, argued that the Book of Discipline, the church law, barred gays from the ministry. But the jury concluded that while the Book of Discipline said homosexuality was "incompatible with Christian teaching," it offered no clear declaration on whether gay men or lesbians could join the clergy. In a statement that accompanied the verdict, the jury also said the Book of Discipline encouraged inclusiveness in the church. Ben Witherington, a professor of the New Testament at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., said the conference would offer a chance to strengthen the church's prohibition on gay clergy. "This just makes all the more urgent the necessity for the church at the General Conference in April to make clear, once again, where they stand on these issues," Dr. Witherington said. Ms. Dammann was a minister at First United Methodist Church of Ellensburg, in central Washington, before going on family leave March 1. Congregants at the church celebrated the acquittal on Sunday, The Associated Press reported. "I don't think the jury had an easy task, but I think they gave it long, thoughtful, prayerful consideration," Dodie Haight, a member of the congregation who sat through Ms. Dammann's trial about 95 miles away in Bothell, told the A.P. At Sunday's service, which was attended by about 60 people, the Rev. Ron Hines, a district superintendent of the Methodist church, read a letter from Bishop Elias Galvan of Seattle. "This decision will not resolve the conflict within the United Methodist Church," Bishop Galvan wrote. "As long as this issue is important to society, the church must continue to reflect theologically and biblically and lead in ministries of justice and peace."