New York Times, 5 May 04

Lesbian Remains a Methodist Cleric, for Now


PITTSBURGH, May 4 -- The United Methodist Church's supreme court ruled Tuesday that it lacked the authority to reconsider the case of a lesbian pastor who was permitted to remain in ministry by a local church court in Washington State.

But the decision, by the church's Judicial Council, could prove only a short-lived victory for the Rev. Karen T. Dammann, the gay pastor whose trial tested a church law barring "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as ministers.

In its decision, the Judicial Council also restated a church law that says bishops may not appoint to the ministry anyone who has been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual. That part of the ruling is likely to bar Ms. Dammann from the annual reappointment that members of the Methodist clergy need to continue in ministry.

The council's rulings came on the same day that delegates to the church's General Conference here repeatedly rebuffed efforts to change its laws barring openly gay people from the clergy and declaring homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Church members have debated homosexuality at nearly every quadrennial General Conference for the last 30 years. At this one, delegates rejected a resolution from gay rights supporters on Tuesday that would have added to the church's Book of Discipline a sentence that said, "We recognize that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching." The vote was 527 to 423.

James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus in the church, said: "We believe that would be a nonposition, to say that there is disagreement. The church expects General Conference to give clear guidance, and we've had that in the Book of Discipline and I believe that's been upheld here today."

Another proposal, which would have allowed local regions of the church to decide whether to allow openly gay ministers, was also defeated, 638 to 303.

The Rev. Monica Corsaro of Seattle, an organizer with the Reconciling Ministries Network, which supports inclusion of gays and lesbians, said she was disappointed that the delegates had rejected measures taking account of the diversity of opinion on the issue.

"Forty-five percent of United Methodists who are here would like our church to be more open," she said, referring to the number of dissenting votes on the "compatibility" question. "The church is still divided on this issue. We are just asking for the church to be truthful."

Conservatives arrived at the General Conference determined to redress what they regarded as an outrageous ruling in the Dammann case. A jury of clergy members in the Pacific Northwest Conference acquitted Ms. Dammann in March of violating the Book of Discipline. But witnesses at the trial testified that the Book of Discipline did not unequivocally declare the church to be opposed to homosexuality.