Third-Largest US Church Grapples with Gay Issue ; Methodist Clergy in Pacific Northwest Acquit a Lesbian Minister, despite Church's Policy against Homosexuality

Article excerpt

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. …