By Heather Hahn
Talk to United Methodists of differing views about the church’s homosexuality debate, and they will tell you the recent clergy trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong was just a prologue.
The real showdown will take place next year when General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, meets. Yet, all say the trial may offer some clues to the discussions that will take place April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
“We are deeply divided, obviously,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, a Virginia pastor and licensed lawyer who assisted the church’s counsel in the case.
“Just as in society, what happens is we move from an attempt to dialogue to legislation, and when legislation doesn’t work, we move to the courts,” he added. “So, because we have not been able to resolve this debate in our mutual sharing, General Conference every four years has been called to legislate on it. While we have done that, it has created only more avenues of conflict.”
Advocates of differing perspectives on homosexuality all agree that the DeLong case verdict, which was split, and the penalty, which marked a departure from previous cases, are indicative of the division (see story on page 18).
A jury of 13 Wisconsin United Methodist clergy acquitted DeLong of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by a vote of 12-1. The same panel unanimously found her guilty of celebrating a same-gender union on Sept. 19, 2009. During the trial’s penalty phase, DeLong declined to promise that she would never again perform such a union.
The trial court voted 9-4 to suspend DeLong from her ministerial functions for 20 days beginning July 1, 2011, and sentenced her to a more detailed process for a year after her suspension to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.”
The church cannot appeal the verdict or penalty, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the church’s counsel in the case.
Not a simple case. The trial court deliberated for about seven hours before returning with a penalty.
Boyette pointed out that the jury could have taken a simpler path, coming back with any number of possibilities in 10 or 15 minutes. The team of Lambrecht and Boyette, representing the church in the case, had requested that DeLong be suspended indefinitely until she vowed in writing not to officiate at any more same-sex unions or until the church law is changed.
“I believe … the trial court was trying … to do something that would restore every person, every part of the church with that penalty,” Boyette said. “So they were very focused on restoration while at the same time seeking to uphold the (Book of) Discipline. I think that was very clear. I believe they worked very hard at that.”
Boyette is the chair of the board of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus that advocates maintaining the denomination’s stand on homosexuality.
The Rev. Dan Dick, the director of connectional ministries in the Wisconsin Conference, said the verdict indicates an ongoing tension in the denomination between what people discern as God’s call and how people interpret the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.
He said he has not known anyone who has worked with DeLong in ministry who does not feel she has the gifts and graces of a pastor. Still, DeLong does not deny that she is a lesbian who has been together with her partner, Val Zellmer, for 16 years.
“Most people who have seen her in ministry say: What she does in her private life is her affair; what we experience of her as a pastoral leader is significant,” Dick said.
The Book of Discipline bans the ordination or appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Dick said what that actually means is unclear.
The Rev. Scott Campbell, DeLong’s counsel, argued during the trial that church authorities had not proven DeLong engaged in prohibited sexual acts.
“What does a person have to actually confess in order for us to say this is in violation?” Dick wondered. “Dealing with the differing interpretations of what the language in the Discipline means is something we have not really done well for a long time.”
Question of being and acting. One aspect in dispute is the way the denomination distinguishes between a person’s sexual orientation and sexual behavior.
“The church does a very good job of disintegrating people and pretending that there is a difference between who you are and what you do,” DeLong testified during the trial. “The word practicing would never be used for a heterosexual person. It’s just part of who they are.”
The Rev. Karen Booth, the director of Transforming Congregations, disagrees. Her group, an unofficial caucus in the denomination, aims to help United Methodist churches minister to “the sexually confused, broken and sinful.”
“For me,” she said, “the most troubling aspect of all the arguments (in the case) is the other side’s either inability or unwillingness to separate behavior from the person. A couple of times throughout the trial, it’s been mentioned, ‘It’s not about what I’m doing; it’s about who I am.’”
Booth contends that people can overcome same-sex attractions and says she has seen that in her own ministry. “They’re talking in universal terms,” Booth said, “but it’s not true for everybody.”
Growing public support. The trial took place at a time that civil recognition of same-sex marriage is gaining wider acceptance in the United States.
On June 24, 2011, the day after DeLong’s trial, New York became the largest and most recent state to approve same-sex marriage, joining Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia.
On May 20, Gallup reported for the first time that a majority of Americans—53 percent—now support the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. That follows a series of other polls in recent months that also show majority support for such unions. At the same time, 30 states have constitutional amendments banning civil recognition of same-sex marriage.
Boyette said such polling data should not matter in determining the denomination’s policies.
“The church stands over and against culture and society when culture and society is moving in a direction or persisting in practices that the church understands to be not biblical,” he said. He noted that a number of passages in the Old and New Testaments declare same-sex activities to be sinful.
Still, many advocates for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians see their campaign as biblical as well. Sue Laurie is a supporter of and former outreach coordinator for Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life. She said she often refers to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in arguing for greater inclusion.
“This is why I find Scripture so inspired and inspiring,” she said. “It’s still so relevant today when we come to whatever group is being excluded. The things Jesus was doing 2,000 years ago still apply because we still fall short, and there’s still another group that needs to be welcomed in.”
The approach of General Conference. Only General Conference can change the Book of Discipline, and members of unofficial caucuses that champion differing perspectives will be out in force.
The subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at every session of the quadrennial General Conference since 1972. Delegates consistently have voted to keep the language identifying homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said his group will be working with both delegates from the United States and abroad “to help change along.”
Lambrecht, the church’s counsel and a board member of Good News, said his group will be seeking to uphold the denomination’s current stand, but the group would like to see the Book of Discipline changed to allow the church a limited right to make appeals in cases such as DeLong’s.
Among those who attended DeLong’s trial was Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist elder who was stripped of his ministerial credentials in 1999 after performing a same-sex union.
Since his conviction, he said, many United Methodists in the United States have moved “toward more acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and providing them inclusion and full equal rights.”
But, the same is not true in Africa, where the denomination is growing.
For that reason, based on the 2012 General Conference delegate distribution list, he does not expect to see much change next year.
“My opinion at this time is that The United Methodist Church is still a long way from changing its policies related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” he said.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
Recent Annual Conference Actions
The topic of homosexuality surfaced at a number of annual conferences in June, and a number of United Methodist clergy around the United States have said they will defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-sex unions.
Seventy clergy signed a statement voicing their willingness to bless same-sex unions. There were about 450 clergy at the session.
“Groups have been meeting who want to challenge parts of the United Methodist polity with which we disagree—that which relates to the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community and Christian marriage,” said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. He was speaking June 1 to a clergy meeting during the Minnesota Annual Conference session at the St. Cloud Civic Center.
Northern Illinois Conference
Clergy voted 178 to 76 to approve a resolution that recommends a maximum penalty of 24-hour suspension for clergy convicted of performing same-sex unions. Since that same session, more than 200 clergy—nearly a third of the conference’s 696 clergy—signed a statement that they are willing to perform such unions. Civil unions just became legal in Illinois this month.
New York Conference
Members of the New York Conference, which encompasses New York City and Connecticut, also voted to send to General Conference five different “Marriage Equality” resolutions seeking amendments to the Book of Discipline to strike language referring to heterosexual marriage and to marriage between a man and woman, and to permit clergy to perform same-sex unions. The session also has proposed an amendment permitting the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” and two separate amendments permitting clergy to perform same-sex unions without fear of reprisals.
Conference members narrowly defeated a resolution affirming the retired bishops’ “Statement of Counsel to the Church,” which urges a change in the Book of Discipline to allow the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
New England Conference
According to the Boston Globe, more than 100 United Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry same-sex couples. “We repent that it has taken us so long to act,” said the statement that was presented to the annual conference. “We realize that out church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].”
“I basically “I basically agree with our position as a church,” Bishop Peter D. Weaver, head of the New England Conference, is quoted as saying. “We have what I think is a good process of holy conferencing,” he said, calling it democratic and representative. “I’m committed to supporting that process.”