Commentary by Karen Booth
In 2004, I wrote a column for The United Methodist Reporter entitled, “What I Would Say to Karen Dammann.” A church trial court had just acquitted her of being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” and someone had asked me what I would say if given the opportunity to talk with her.
First, I decided I would emphasize what we agreed on—that God loves her. I would also want her to know that though I strongly disagreed with her behavioral choices, I did not doubt her professed faith in Christ. Even so, I would encourage her to complete the process of sexual sanctification, to forsake sin and pursue purity. Finally, I would express my profound sorrow that the UM Church offered her little to help in that effort, whether through resources, trained leadership, or local church ministries.
I was pretty naïve back then. I had been serving as the executive director of Transforming Congregations (www.transcong.org) for less than a year and I had not observed our pro-gay activists in action. I had not experienced their in-your-face “witness” at two contentious General Conferences or struggled to make sense of their non-Biblical reasoning during legislative sessions. I had not observed their media manipulation of the Beth Stroud trial and appeals, or mourned over their mistreatment of the Rev. Ed Johnson because he had taken a stand for the truth. I did not know how well they fit the description given to them on the Soulforce website: “relentless.” Unfortunately, I am much more cynical now.
Fast forward to my onsite observation of the church trial of another lesbian pastor, the Rev. Amy DeLong. Since its lay and clergy members had voted for Wisconsin to become a “Reconciling” Annual Conference in 1996, I didn’t expect it to be a level playing field. And DeLong’s defense team did not disappoint. They combined her evasive non-answers regarding her sexual practices with her partner with her counsel’s legalistic loopholes. The “not guilty” verdict on the charge of being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” was almost a foregone conclusion. It was not surprising that her counsel argued that she was being tried for “who she was” rather than for what she had done. Even though national surveys have proven otherwise, DeLong’s counsel apparently accepts the cultural notion that same-sex attraction inevitably leads to lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity.
According to The Social Organization of Sexuality edited by Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, while 6.2 percent of men and 4.4 percent of women reported experiencing an attraction for the same sex or gender at some time in their life, only 2 percent of men and less than 1 percent of women defined that as having a homosexual orientation or went on to adopt a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity. (More information about the “three-tier distinction” between attraction, orientation, and identity can be found in Dr. Mark Yarhouse’s book Homosexuality and the Christian.)
But the many individuals who (for lack of a better term) identify themselves as “ex-gay” tell a different story. The above-mentioned surveys indicate that they are the rule rather than the exception. But their voices have been silenced within the denomination and their journeys of sexual sanctification have been ignored or hindered by our singular focus on the policy battles. These individuals would have much to teach anyone struggling with same-sex attraction. And they have much to teach the church, too, about confronting and overcoming sin, about trusting in God’s providential love and healing, about sacrificing self-desire for the greater good, and about becoming a new creation, with an entirely new identity, through faith in Jesus Christ. All it would take is really open hearts, doors and minds!
DeLong’s web site is inappropriately named “Love on Trial.” It should have been called “Integrity on Trial,” because that was what was actually at stake. In addition to personal integrity, the trial spotlighted the integrity of the Wisconsin Annual Conference. Apparently there are leaders who “winked at” DeLong’s lesbian relationship for a long time. Through the penalty process, all her ministerial colleagues have been given the opportunity to rectify that oversight when they discuss, approve or reject her final writing project at next summer’s clergy session. If those leaders who are called to supervise her suspension and written assignment do so in a way that is faithful to authorized United Methodist policy and teaching about human sexuality, and if the Rev. DeLong is helped in that process to comprehend the pain and turmoil her actions have caused throughout our worldwide connection, then true, Biblical restoration could actually occur.
The day before the trial, my devotions included Psalm 37 in which believers are told three times “do not fret.” The psalmist reminds us to be still and have faith in the Lord, commit your way to Him, do good, and refrain from anger and wrath. “Then it will be as clear as the noonday sun that you were right” (Psalm 37:6, Contemporary English Version). I choose to believe that.
Today, I would still say the same things to Amy DeLong that I wanted to say to Karen Dammann many years ago. “God loves you, but does not love what you do. Through your faith, He gives you the power to be sanctified sexually, to turn from sin and experience new and full life. And though the UM Church still is not prepared to help you, I can point you to those who can. The choice, finally, is yours.”
Karen Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations. She is an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. Prior to her appointment to Transforming Congregations in 2003, she served as a local pastor in Delaware for 17 years. She graduated with honors from The Drew Theological School and has been married for 23 years to husband, Randy, who is pastor at Monroe UM Church in Monroe, Wisconsin. Her upcoming book project, Remembering How to Blush: Restoring Sexual Virtue in the Culturally Compromised Church, is scheduled to be published by Bristol House next spring.