By Steve Harper
Every religion has a spirituality, because spirituality simply means our capacity to relate to God through certain established ways for doing that. Moreover, there are varieties of “spiritualities” within religions. For example, we can speak about Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant spiritualities. And we are able to further sub-divide them, with expressions that speak more of their origin (e.g., Reformed) or of their emphasis (e.g., Contemplative). The ability and necessity of speaking about spirituality in precise ways brings us to an exploration of the features of Wesleyan spirituality. In this article we will look at some selected features of it.
First and foremost, we must remember that early Methodism was a movement, not a denomination. Christians who affiliated with Methodism were usually members in other churches. As such, the Wesleys did not want to separate from any legitimate expression of the Body of Christ. When John Wesley wrote “The General Rules of The United Societies” in 1744, he made that very clear. From the beginning, Methodism was an ecumenical movement, as well as a reforming movement within the Church of England.
With respect to Wesleyan spirituality, this means we do not define or describe it with any intent of separating ourselves from the rest of historic, orthodox Christianity. In fact, John Wesley said on multiple occasions that God had raised up the people called Methodist to revive primitive Christianity. Nothing that we will talk about in this article should be used to isolate ourselves from any other Christian. But at the same time, Wesleyan spirituality is not so generic as to be vague or useless in establishing the life of discipleship. Again, as John Wesley put it, the aim of Methodism was to make “real Christians,” not “almost Christians.” What we call Wesleyan spirituality is at the heart of how he and others sought to do that.
We begin with the message of Wesleyan spirituality, which means that we begin with theology, as all valid spiritualities do. Unfortunately, spirituality has been caricatured by some as shallow, experienced-based, and even “touchy-feely.” But that is not true, and it reflects more upon the misperceptions of critics than upon true spirituality itself. On the contrary, Wesleyan spirituality emerges from sound doctrine informed by Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
The heart of holiness
At the heart of Wesleyan spirituality is holiness. Wesley’s conscious choice to place Methodism in the historic holy-living tradition is a reflection of his discernment regarding the centrality of holiness in historic Christianity. We cannot go into detail about holiness in an article like this, but there must be no doubt that it is at the core of Wesleyan theology. Wesleyan spirituality is about making disciples who are holy in heart and life—men and women who live in formative community that is developmental in nature (personal holiness) and missional in purpose (social holiness).
Furthermore, Wesleyan spirituality—as a theology of holiness—is also a spirituality of grace. God invites us to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). But this can only happen by grace and in response to grace. So, Wesleyan spirituality speaks of prevenient grace, converting grace, sanctifying grace, and glorifying grace. These are not four different kinds of grace, but rather the singular grace of God as it intersects our lives at different points along the human journey. God’s grace comes to us as we are and where we are, and that’s why we are able to speak of it in different terms. But grace is not either imposed or irresistible; we must respond to it and interact with it.
In terms of spiritual formation we can summarize it this way. Through prevenient grace, we “awaken” to God. Through converting grace, we “attach” to God. Through sanctifying grace, we “abandon” to God and “advance” in God. And finally, in glorifying grace, we make the transition from earth to heaven, where we “arrive” in heaven to forever glorify God and experience our final Sabbath rest. Underneath these broad descriptions we go on to describe the grand doctrines of Christianity and are thus enabled to see our life “in Christ” in its detailed manifestations and overall magnificence.
This brings us to the means of Wesleyan spirituality. We have already noted that grace is not given apart from God’s desire for us to respond to it. We do so with what many have called the spiritual disciplines—what John and Charles Wesley called “the means of grace.” Before looking at each of the means, we must emphasize what the Wesleys emphasized, that the stated disciplines are means, not ends. They are never “proofs” of our spirituality, but only the practices in which we engage to receive and nurture it. Many mistakes have been made in Christian history by those who have tried to make their practice of the disciplines “badges of honor” and ways of elevating themselves above others who are not as devoted as they appear to be.
Instead, the means of grace are the usual channels through which God conveys grace to us. The means are not the Water of Life, but only the pipelines through which it flows. But as we drink of that Water, we find that the means promote both personal and social holiness. The Instituted Means of Grace promote personal holiness (piety) and the Prudential Means of Grace promote social holiness (mercy). Taken together, they establish and advance inward and outward holiness, and they do so both with respect to individual formation and life together in community.
Instituted Means of Grace
The Instituted Means of Grace are so named because we can see them firmly established in the life and ministry of Christ himself: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and conferencing. These are practiced privately and collectively, and they establish and advance “the mind that was in Christ” (Philippians 2:5)—which was one of John Wesley’s favorite descriptions of true Christianity. Again, it is not possible to go into these five means in detail. I have written more extensively about them in my book, Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition: A Workbook.
Suffice it to say that prayer is the singularly central means of grace. John Wesley called it the “chief means of grace.” He also said that we could not make up for a lack of prayer by using the other means. In every way he could, he showed that the Christian spiritual life is established and maintained by prayer, precisely because it is the means by which we relate to God—and Christianity is, at its heart, a relationship. With that relational base in place, we are then given the additional means of the Bible, the Lord’s Supper, Fasting, and Conferencing to strengthen that relationship, which is essentially described in the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor.
Prudential Means of Grace
This leads directly to the Prudential Means of Grace. The term comes from the emerging belief by the church that inward holiness would lead to outward holiness. The word “prudent” is a word that bespeaks action—putting our faith into practice. And Wesley commended three Prudential means of grace: doing no harm, doing good in every way possible, and attending the ordinances of God. Bishop Rueben Job has revived their practice through his excellent little book, Three Simple Rules. John Wesley would say that the Prudential means of grace are the primary ways we express our love for God and neighbor.
Again, we cannot go into each of these in detail. In “The General Rules of The United Societies” John Wesley gave specific examples for practicing the Prudential means of grace. Some illustrations do not fit life today, but they make the point that spirituality is specific. It does not “dangle in the air,” but rather “puts feet” to its convictions. The conviction to “do no harm” means that we never consciously do anything we know will damage someone else. We make this commitment in both our personal conduct and also in our collective life (e.g. business, industry, politics).
But the Prudential means of grace also remind us that the Christian life is not simply a matter of what we avoid; it is also what we engage ourselves to accomplish. So, we “do all the good” that we can. In our elimination of evil, we move to replace it with goodness. The ethic of elimination becomes one of contribution. As the old saying goes, we leave the world better than we found it. Hence, Wesleyan spirituality is supportive of and engaged in all the efforts to improve life on this planet, and the life of the planet itself.
The “ordinances of God” are those things which enable us to do this. They are the acts which keep us attuned to God, so that the Spirit can speak to us in all the ways we have just described. The ordinances were often thought of as the Instituted means of grace practiced in community, but they could also be more widely described as any of the ways we keep positioned, so that God can get our attention and work through us for the good of others. So, what we have in the means of Wesleyan spirituality is a comprehensive exposure to the grace of God—an exposure which establishes and deepens holiness of heart and life.
The method of Wesleyan spirituality
We come now to the methods of Wesleyan spirituality. After all, John Wesley accepted the name “Methodism” to describe the movement, so there must be a “method” somewhere! And indeed there is. It is a structure which helped to manifest each element of grace and invite a response to grace.
• The United Societies (the largest Methodist meeting) reflected Prevenient grace by inviting people to “flee the wrath to come” and give serious attention to God.
• The Class Meetings (groups of a dozen or so) reflected Converting grace by bringing people to the point of profession of faith and the sustained development of that initial commitment.
• The Band Meetings (groups of three to five) reflected the need for more-personal attention, where the group “watched over one another in love” week after week, advancing sanctifying grace.
Together with the Church, the Methodist movement was present and in ministry to the dying, thus relating to glorifying grace. This is one of the geniuses of early Methodism: there was a ministry structure for each element of grace.
In addition to the formative structures for participants in general, there were two additional groups: one for strugglers and one for those who were experiencing special growth at the moment.
• The Penitent Bands were the place where the discouraged could go for support and hopefully, reactivation of faith.
• The Select Societies were the place where people who were “on fire for God” in particular ways could receive support and counsel commensurate with their experience.
When we apply this to spiritual formation, we see that Wesleyan spirituality had established methods to care for the “day in and day out” development of faith. But it also had structures to care for those who were in decline and those who were making exceptional progress. So, the “highs and lows” were provided for in the larger context of ongoing community formation.
“Ecclesiola en ecclesia”
Before we leave the methods, we must make it clear that Wesleyan spirituality’s highest peak is the church. Again, the Wesleys and the early Methodists have been caricatured as malcontents who were just waiting for the chance to “jump ship” from the church. But an accurate reading of the early Methodist movement reveals just the opposite. Methodism was seen from beginning to end as an “ecclesiola en ecclesia”—a “little church within the big church.” It was intended to develop disciples who would be the finest church members imaginable.
Despite it deficiencies, John Wesley never ceased to call himself “a Church of England man.” He rejected all views of Methodism as a substitute church, and for much of his life he even forbade the Methodists from meeting at times when meetings at the church were held. It was only later, when Methodists were deprived of the sacraments by the Church of England, that he saw “the handwriting on the wall” and began to lay the groundwork for a movement that would eventually become its own denomination in the United States and elsewhere. The point of mentioning this is that Wesleyan spirituality never condones any Christian life that degrades the church or denies the need for it.
The message, means, and methods of Wesleyan spirituality bring us to the final point: the mission. Without this feature, any spirituality becomes consumeristic—what Walter Trobisch described as “spiritually bloated.” The legitimate turning inward in the spiritual life is never the final act. Every turning inward is for the purpose of “re-turning” outward. It is an oversimplification to say what I am about to say, but it makes the point. Membership is lived inside the walls, but discipleship is always for life outside the walls. Membership has to do with the offices and tasks we perform for the good of the church; discipleship has to do with the way we practice our daily vocations for the sake of the world.
Wesley clearly understood the Methodist movement this way. The Class Meetings had not been in existence very long before the leaders were required to go house to house, inquiring about the spiritual wellbeing of the members. But as they did so, they were to collect a penny a week and a shilling a quarter. This money was designated for ministries that would provide relief to the poor and oppressed—missional spirituality. This specific practice was fueled by a larger, threefold vision: the regeneration of the lost, the renewal of the church, and the reform of the nation.
Directed into mission
In other words, every facet of early Methodism was eventually directed into mission. Different Methodists would express their spirituality in one of the three areas more than the others, and there was never a “one size fits all” definition of “a good Methodist.” Variety and specificity always characterized the mission. But every Methodist understood that he or she was commissioned by Christ and sent by him into the world, to witness and to serve in some way. Institutionally we may have a category called “inactive members,” but no such category exists in Wesleyan spirituality.
One of the surest signs that Wesleyan spirituality is taking root in a life or in a community is when we understand that we are not only called to have the mind and heart of Christ, but we are also called to do the work of Christ. To be sure, that work is empowered by the Spirit, but it happens! It is impossible to claim to have the mind of Christ without having the motivation which emerges from that mind. We cannot claim to have the heart of God without having the redemptive and restorative impulses that beat in that heart. When a homemaker does her home-making for Christ, when a teacher teaches for Jesus, when a doctor practices medicine for the Lord, when a farmer grows crops for God—when each of us “fans out” Monday through Saturday to do what we normally do, but do it in Jesus’ Name—that is when we know we have embraced Wesleyan spirituality to the fullest extent.
There are multitudes of Wesleyan Christians who practice the kind of spirituality I’ve described briefly in this article. But there are also multitudes who have yet to embrace it. For more than thirty years, I have described it this way: many of us need to stop studying the journeys of Paul in Sunday school, and start studying our own journeys. In other words, we need to receive the “faith once delivered to the saints” in all the ways we can, but then we need to respond to the singular implication which eventually comes to each of us: live by Christ, in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ! When we do this, we have embraced Wesleyan spirituality.
Steve Harper is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies at the Florida-Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He has authored 12 books and co-authored six others. Dr. Harper’s latest book is Talking in the Dark, Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.
By Rob Renfroe
Within this edition of Good News you will find several articles describing and reacting to the trial of the Reverend Amy DeLong, a United Methodist elder that was recently brought before a church court in Wisconsin for (1) having performed a “holy union” for a same-gender couple and (2) being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. She was found guilty of the first charge, but not guilty of the second.
Representing the church’s case against DeLong were the Rev. Tom Lambrecht—a UM pastor in Wisconsin, a long-time Good News board member, and now on our staff as General Manager—and the Rev. Keith Boyette, a former attorney, a UM pastor in Virginia, and the current chairperson of Good News’ board of directors. Theirs was not an easy or pleasant task, but they fulfilled their duties admirably. I tell you that because I want you to know that no other group is doing more than Good News to defend The Book of Discipline, hold church officials accountable for enforcing the Discipline, and fight for the unity of the United Methodist Church.
The Good. The split decision is actually as good as we could have hoped for. Wisconsin is a very liberal Conference and the verdict of “guilty” on either charge was not a given. “Jury nullification” was a very real possibility. We can be gratified that the Rev. DeLong’s peers held her accountable (by a vote of 13-0) for breaking the Discipline when she officiated a “holy union” for a lesbian couple.
The reason she was found not guilty of being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual is twofold. First, whether through incompetence, neglect, or ignorance, before charges were brought against the Rev. DeLong, the officials of the Wisconsin Annual Conference did not ask the questions necessary to prove that she was a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Second, when asked those questions at her trial, she refused to answer. Hence, even though DeLong’s partnered relationship with another woman is well-known (they filed for domestic partnership in Wisconsin), the jury had no evidence before it to find her guilty on the second charge.
The Bad. Unfortunately, the penalty for Delong’s actions was a mere slap on the wrist. She has been suspended for twenty days and she must participate in a small group to discuss what she has done, write a report on her understanding of covenant-keeping, and present her thoughts to the Wisconsin Annual Conference.
What makes this “penalty” particularly disturbing is that the Rev. DeLong is neither remorseful nor repentant of her actions. “I’m excited,” she told the Associated Press after the trial. “I feel like I’ve been sentenced to write and teach, and that’s what I dedicated my ministry to anyhow. I’m always open to the opportunity to get people together and help us resolve our differences.”
Furthermore, she said before the penalty was determined that she would continue to perform same-gender marriages.
So, let’s get this straight. You knowingly and purposefully break the Church’s policies. You do so in a public way that creates pain to many faithful UM members—and no doubt will cause some to leave the Church. And asked if you would do it again, you respond affirmatively. And your penalty is to join a small group, write an essay, and enjoy a platform for espousing your views before your Annual Conference.
In no other institution in the world would we see such a ludicrous response. Secular or religious, every other organization that cares about its integrity would have said, “Thank you for your past service. You can gather your personal belongings, we will escort you to the door, and we wish you well in looking for future employment. Maybe you can find another company that will allow you to break its policies and embarrass it publicly simply because you believe you are more enlightened or more sincere than it is.”
At the very least, the Wisconsin court should have suspended the Rev. DeLong from pastoral ministry until she promised to abide by UM doctrine and policies. That was the modest and reasonable penalty proposed by the counsel of the Church.
Some who defend DeLong claim that for her marrying same-gender couples is an “act of conscience;” and, therefore, she should be given a light sentence. But what would become of UM pastors who as a matter of conscience refused to pay apportionments to support the General Board of Church and Society? Or as a matter of conscience re-baptized persons previously baptized as infants? Or who as a matter of conscience refused to work with ordained female clergy? In each of these cases, “conscience” would not be accepted as a valid excuse for breaking the church’s policies. And you can be sure, that persons continuing in these practices would be suspended and finally removed from the ministry.
But Amy DeLong gets a pass. Why? Because a liberal agenda in a liberal Conference trumps consistency and integrity.
The Ugly. Recently, hundreds of UM pastors have recently signed statements that they will perform same-gender marriages in the future—most notably in Minnesota, Northern Illinois, New York and New England. It’s possible that we will go through a time of massive ecclesiastical disobedience that will threaten our ability to live together as a united church.
Those who want to promote a pro-gay agenda contrary to the teachings of the Bible know they do not have the votes to change the official positions of the UM Church that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. We are the only mainline church that has maintained a scriptural position on these issues and the liberals know that they have little hope of changing our official stance any time soon.
They have also seen the Judicial Council continue to be faithful in its interpretation of the Discipline. The present Council has been given opportunities to liberalize some past decisions but has refused to do so. So what is left to those who want to change our positions is disobedience so rampant and so wide-spread that enforcement will become onerous and overwhelming.
We are entering a time of crisis. You have done your part. You have stood up for the truth of the Gospel, you have remained faithful in your local churches, and you have made the work of Good News possible with your prayers and your financial support.
It is now time for the Council of Bishops to do its part—and that is lead. Not after the fact, but before. It is time for every Bishop to sign a statement that he or she will enforce the Discipline regardless of how often it is disobeyed or how many pastors in his/her Conference breaks it.
What we do not need is another tepid, innocuous statement about holy conferencing and having a conversation. For 40 years we have engaged in the holy conferencing that is called General Conference; for 40 years we have listened to each other; and for 40 years delegates have been given the opportunity to vote their conscience. And that process will continue.
Breaking the covenant that holds us together is not holy conferencing—it is, in fact, the very antithesis of holy conferencing. It is disobedience—and disrespectful of the witness of a worldwide denomination, the Holy Scriptures, and the historic teaching of the Church. And if it is allowed to continue, we ourselves will discover the disastrous effects of living in a time when “each one did what was right in his own eyes.”
Those who are in positions of leadership need to understand that widespread homosexual marriages by UM pastors will cause so much damage to United Methodism that it may not be repairable. And it will be done on their watch.
History will record the actions of our Bishops— whether they stood for the integrity and the unity of the church and led in a way that prevented a church split or whether they were oblivious to the signs of the times and fiddled while the church burned.
Please join me in praying and believing that our Bishops will be the leaders we need them to be: proactive, courageous, and committed to the clear teachings of the Scriptures. The future of the church we love depends upon it.
Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.
By Heather Hahn
For the first time in 20 years, a conviction for performing a same-sex union has not resulted in a United Methodist elder’s defrocking or indefinite suspension.
Instead, after seven hours of deliberations, a jury of 13 United Methodist clergy voted 9-4 to suspend the Rev. Amy DeLong from her ministerial functions for 20 days beginning July 1, 2011.
The jury, which is called a trial court, also sentenced DeLong to a more detailed process for a year after her suspension to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.” At least seven votes from the trial court of five women and eight men were required to approve a penalty.
“I hope this signals to folks around the country and around the world that the United Methodists in Wisconsin aren’t going to throw their gay children out,” said a smiling DeLong, sitting beside her partner of 16 years, Val Zellmer.
“I hope that this is the dawning of a new day that can include openness for all people,” she added.
The church trial, which began June 21 and ended June 23, was in the basement fellowship hall of Peace United Methodist Church in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. DeLong was charged with violating the United Methodist Church’s ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and the prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions.
The trial court acquitted her of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by a vote of 12-1. The same panel unanimously found her guilty of violating the prohibition against conducting ceremonies celebrating same-gender unions.
DeLong, 44, has been a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference for 14 years and serves as director of Kairos CoMotion, an education and advocacy group on progressive theological issues. She did not deny that she is a lesbian. Her counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued successfully that church authorities had not proven she engaged in prohibited sexual activities.
Campbell is pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus advocating for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.
DeLong acknowledged she officiated at the union of Carrie Johnson and Carolyn Larson on Sept. 19, 2009, in Menominee, Wisconsin. Both women testified on DeLong’s behalf.
Larson told reporters she thinks the penalty provides an “opportunity for Amy to help the church make some sweeping changes.”
There have been six similar trials over the past 20 years.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The book bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church. It also says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and forbids United Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex unions.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the counsel for the UM Church in the case, urged the jury to suspend DeLong indefinitely until she agreed in writing not to perform any more same-sex unions or the denomination’s law banning such unions is changed.
Lambrecht is pastor of Faith Community Church in Greenville, Wisconsin, and a board member of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus in the denomination. He began working for Good News in July.
The Rev. Greg Dell, now retired, faced a similar indefinite suspension in 1999 unless he agreed not to officiate at such unions. Dell refused, but the North Central Jurisdiction committee on appeals later amended the penalty to a one-year suspension.
DeLong, in her testimony during the trial’s penalty phase, said she would not make such a pledge. “Performing the holy union for the couple was one of the great joys of my ministry,” DeLong told reporters. “To sign such a document would say to the couple I married, ‘Your marriage is not valid.’”
The trial court did not explicitly require DeLong to decline future requests to officiate at same-sex unions, but it did instruct that she use her 20-day suspension as a period of spiritual discernment in preparation for a process of restoration.
The restoration process includes:
1. “Open and collaborative communication” between DeLong; Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee; the Rev. Jorge Luis Mayorga Solis, the district superintendent who supervises DeLong, and the complainant in the case; the Rev. Richard Strait, chair of the Wisconsin Conference board of ordained ministry; and a Wisconsin United Methodist elder of DeLong’s choosing.
2. A written document initiated by DeLong that will outline procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that “harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit or lead to future clergy trials.” The document, the jury wrote, must be informed by the Bible, the 2008 Book of Discipline, Judicial Council rulings, and other relevant materials.
3. The first draft by DeLong in collaboration with the individuals named earlier is to be presented to the board of ordained ministry by January 1, 2012.
4. After review and editing by DeLong and the other designated church leaders, the final document is to be voted on in the clergy session of the 2012 Wisconsin Annual Conference.
The trial court added that failure to comply with their requirements will result in DeLong’s suspension from her ministerial functions for one year beginning June 3, 2012.
Lambrecht called the jury’s penalty “very creative.”
“It recognizes that there was a violation, in terms of offering suspension,” he said. “It creates a process that allows Rev. DeLong to reflect on this whole experience and to share some of what she has learned with the rest of the annual conference.”
The penalty, he added, “recognizes that there was harm done to the clergy covenant and that an adversarial spirit was created, and it asks her to reflect on ways to move forward that won’t lead to more church trials down the road.”
Like DeLong, Lambrecht expressed hope that the penalty portends “a positive thing for the future.”
Leaders of the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference knew for more than a decade that the Rev. Amy DeLong was “a lesbian living in a loving, partnered relationship,” her counsel said in a pretrial statement on the morning of June 21, 2011.
In action and word, two bishops promised DeLong no charges would be forthcoming, said her counsel. Campbell contended that the church trial she was about to face was a violation of that promise and DeLong’s civil rights.
DeLong had acknowledged her lesbian partnership to Wisconsin conference leaders for more than a decade, Campbell said. She specifically told retired Bishop Sharon Z. Rader and current resident Bishop Linda Lee. “Because the church did not work in a timely manner, it cannot use what it has agreed to for many years to now cause her harm,” Campbell said.
“What is really at stake here is whether we as clergy will live in integrity under the terms of a covenant that we voluntarily agreed to,” the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the church’s counsel, told the jury in his opening statement.
“Rev. DeLong had the choice of living with integrity within the qualifications and requirements of our clergy covenant or of honorably withdrawing from that covenant when she found she could no longer live within it,” he said. “Instead Rev. DeLong has chosen to willfully violate the terms of our covenant and yet still seek to remain within it.”
Campbell said that DeLong does not dispute officiating at “a sacred service of covenant” for two women on Sept. 19, 2009. He argued that doing so was in keeping with the “highest laws” in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.
DeLong’s defense did not dispute that she is a lesbian and she has been with her partner, Val Zellmer, for 16 years. But, Campbell said, DeLong has never “self-avowed” to a bishop or district superintendent anything that happens in the privacy of her relationship.
“Some of this may feel like nit-picking to you, and I can understand that,” Campbell told the trial court. “We are forced into such conversation because of the way the law of our church defines homosexual relationships.”
The Rev. Jorge Mayorga Solis is the district superintendent overseeing the conference’s extension ministries and is DeLong’s supervisor.
Mayorga Solis testified that DeLong gave him documents that showed the same-sex union service at which she officiated was similar in wording and structure to the wedding service in the United Methodist Book of Worship. The ceremony included a blessing, vows, exchange of rings, lighting of unity candle, and introduction of the couple.
DeLong also told her district superintendent of her domestic partnership. In May 2010, Mayorga Solis issued a formal complaint against DeLong.
As her supervisor, he said, “it was my responsibility to do it.” He did so, he said, “with a heavy heart.” However, he testified that he thought the holy union and her domestic partnership were both violations of the Book of Discipline.
“My understanding is that it is something sacred,” Mayorga Solis said. “When we are ordained, I believe we enter into covenant to uphold church laws.”
When questioned, DeLong declined to answer repeated questions from the church’s counsel about whether her relationship included “genital sexual contact.”
DeLong’s counsel contended that church leaders had failed to establish before the trial that DeLong engaged in prohibited sexual activities.
“Val is the love of my life; I can’t imagine my life without her,” DeLong said when asked to describe her relationship with her partner. “I have committed myself to her, and she has committed to me. We make a lot of our heterosexual friends jealous because they would like a marriage as fine as ours.”
She balked at Lambrecht’s questions about her sexual activity, which he said he was reluctant to ask. DeLong said such questions should have been asked during the fact-finding investigation before the trial.
After about 15 minutes of consultation among both counsels and the trial’s presiding officer, retired Bishop Clay Lee Jr., Lambrecht posed the question one more time.
“While I don’t fully understand what the word self-avowed and practicing means, I do know when it feels like a forced avowal, and that is what this is feeling like,” DeLong said. “My answer is still I will never, to anybody who is trying to do me harm, talk about the intimate, private behavior of my partner and me.”
She did testify that she has called herself “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” because that is what Book of Discipline calls her.
Lambrecht addressed DeLong’s refusal in earlier testimony to answer his questions about her sexual activity. The Book of Discipline, he pointed out, allows witnesses to decline answering a question at a church trial only if the answer would incriminate them under state or federal law or if that testimony is based on a confidential communication with a clergyperson. Neither situation was the case here, he said.
“Therefore, the church would argue that Amy’s refusal to answer the relevant questions entitles us to assume that her answers would be adverse to her case,” Lambrecht said.
DeLong’s counsel countered that while DeLong has long acknowledged that she is a lesbian, the church has not established that she has engaged in prohibited sexual practices. Campbell also argued that her blessing of a same-sex union was in accordance with the denomination’s social principles.
“She knew that the social principles of our church implore us not to reject our gay and lesbian members and friends,” he said. “And so she said yes.”
During the penalty phase of the trial, Campbell called on three people identified as experts on church law and ethics:the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, retired pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington and former dean of Wesley Theological Seminary; the Rev. Tex Sample, retired professor of church and society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Rev. Janet Wolf, an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference.
Wogaman, Sample, and Wolf have advocated for the denomination to change its position on homosexuality. In 2000, Sample and DeLong co-edited The Loyal Opposition: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality.
Wogaman testified that he hoped the jury would consider proportion in determining DeLong’s penalty.
He said there are forms of homosexuality that are “incompatible with Christian teaching,” echoing the wording in the Book of Discipline. Specifically, he mentioned promiscuity as a problem.
The question in same-sex unions, he testified, should be whether the two people involved “are God’s grace to each other.”
“We probably have been prone to take too harsh an attitude in these cases,” Wogaman said.
Sample testified that the Book of Discipline is not comprehensive on sexual issues. He said that the church law book says nothing about polygamy, even though it is a practice that many African United Methodists are trying to combat in their communities.
“If you are going to think about penalty, I would ask you in the name of fairness to say to yourself that we are really coming down hard (on) the issue of homosexuality and same-sex practices in the West,” he said.
“But the church is not being evenhanded here when it comes to polygamy and those kinds of expressions, and I think that is a serious problem in the church…,” he said.
Wolf, who works on church reconciliation issues, testified that she hoped the trial court could consider “restorative rather than retributive justice” in determining DeLong’s penalty. She asked the jury to be creative in considering resolutions and even suggested DeLong might be asked to lead “listening circles” for people on various sides of the homosexuality debate.
Penalty closing arguments
The United Methodist Church’s counsel asked the jury to suspend the Rev. Amy DeLong indefinitely until she agrees in writing not to perform same-sex unions or the denomination’s law on such unions is changed.
“Contrary to the statements of some of those who testified…, this is not some insignificant violation of the terms of the Book of Discipline,” Lambrecht told the jury of 13 clergy in his closing statement.
He reiterated that at stake is the covenant all United Methodist elders make to uphold the Discipline and abide by its provisions.
Lambrecht pointed out that as the church’s representative, he was not asking for DeLong to be expelled from church membership, nor does he want to deprive her of her credentials or remove her as a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference.
“The church’s main interest in terms of a penalty is that the requirements of the Book of Discipline are honored and complied with,” he said. “We want to make sure that DeLong will conform her future behavior to the requirements of the Book of Discipline so we are not back here in the future.”
In his closing statement, DeLong’s counsel countered that the jury has full discretion to determine the penalty. He mentioned a recent nonbinding resolution recently approved at the Northern Illinois Annual Conference that calls for clergy to receive a 24-hour suspension if they officiate at a same-sex union.
In previous trials regarding same-sex unions, he said, the Book of Discipline had been used as a club.
“We seek to terrorize compassionate pastors into withholding blessings from those whom the Discipline calls them to serve,” Campbell said. “This is not right, dear friends.”
DeLong’s actions were “not a violation of covenant but the vindication of conscience,” he asserted, drawing murmurs of “Amen” from a crowd of many DeLong supporters.
After Campbell spoke, Lambrecht offered a rebuttal in which he told the jurors that they should consider the harm that will be done if they fail to adequately penalize DeLong. He said a lack of accountability will prompt some United Methodists to leave the church.
He also urged the jurors to keep in mind “our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world.
“There is no disputing that becoming a more gay-affirming church would severely harm our church’s witness in other countries where our brothers and sisters are confronted with life-and-death circumstances in their conflict with radical Islam,” he declared.
Lambrecht also said only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, has the authority to expand the church’s definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. General Conference, he noted, consistently has voted against such an expansion.
The trial was the latest development in a longtime dispute within the United Methodist Church. Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, can change the Book of Discipline.
The subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at every session of the quadrennial General Conference since 1972. Delegates consistently have voted to keep the restrictions.
The church’s division on the issue was evident during the DeLong jury selection.
The presiding officer, retired Bishop Clay Foster Lee Jr., asked all potential jurors whether any prejudice, bias, or opinion would prevent them from fairly applying the law in this case.
“I don’t know how one fairly applies an unfair law,” one said. Another announced strong support for the denomination’s stand on homosexuality.
Fifteen of twenty-three prospective jurors expressed reservations. Lee dismissed anyone who expressed strong opinions one way or the other.
Neither Lambrecht nor Campbell could say what the unusual penalty means for the 2012 General Conference.
Lambrecht expressed confidence that the church’s laws on homosexuality would be upheld. He noted that the next General Conference will include more delegates from outside the United States—particularly from Africa, where delegates tend to be more supportive of the denomination’s standards than their U.S. counterparts.
Campbell speculated that the verdict and penalty could affect General Conference discussions in various ways.
“There may be some who move to tighten laws,” he said. “There may be others who recognize that the time has come for us to stop trying to deal legalistically with matters of the heart, the spirit, and the soul.”
Singing with one voice.
DeLong’s trial drew more than 100 supporters, including some from as far away as Massachusetts and Oregon. They began and ended each day with prayer and singing.
While the jury deliberated on the penalty, the crowd of mostly DeLong supporters and a handful of those who support maintaining the church’s stance on homosexuality sang hymns and folk songs together. The presiding officer joined in some of the hymns.
The Rev. Ethan Larson, pastor of two United Methodist churches near Viroqua, Wisconsin, said before the penalty was announced that he thought DeLong should be under suspension “until she is willing to abide by the Book of Discipline.”
Larson is the president of the Wisconsin Association of Confessing United Methodists, an unofficial evangelical group in the denomination that advocates keeping the current stance on homosexuality. He said that he did not know DeLong well but the two usually spoke to each other at gatherings.
Larson said the split verdict “came down the way it should,” given the limited information the church’s counsel was able to present in making the case. However, he found the arguments by DeLong’s defense team frustrating.
“To me, it felt as if verbal games were being played,” he said. “It was like ‘tag you’re it,’ but I wasn’t ‘it’ to begin with.”
Wisconsin’s Bishop Linda Lee said in a statement after the penalty was announced that a trial is a heart-wrenching and painful process. “Yet, we have hope because of our common faith in Jesus Christ, and trust that some growth and good can come from this,” she said.
“There continue to be difficult questions with no ready answers as we face the months between now and General Conference in 2012. My prayer is that, as Christians, and as United Methodists, we will use this experience as a gateway to reconciliation, healing and restoration of our relationship with one another and with Christ.”
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
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.
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.”