NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The United Methodist Church’s supreme court has ruled that the denomination’s book of laws does not contradict itself regarding the appointment of openly gay and lesbian clergy to congregations.
The United Methodist Judicial Council, meeting Oct. 24-26, affirmed that the denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids the appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as pastors of local churches. The nine-member court went on to say that declaring involvement in a same-gender relationship would be enough to subject a pastor to a review of his or her standing as a minister.
The case was one of 12 heard at the semiannual session of the Judicial Council. Three of the docket items decided by the nine-member council related in some way to the church’s policies on homosexuality.
The Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference had asked the council to make a declaratory decision on what its members saw as an apparent conflict between two rules found in the church’s Book of Discipline. One states that “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” may not be accepted as a candidate for the ordained ministry, become a clergyperson or, if already a pastor, be appointed to serve a congregation. The other rule guarantees ministerial appointments to all clergy in good standing.
A clergywoman in the conference had written a letter last February to Bishop Elias Galvan of Seattle, declaring that she was “living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman.” The conference asked whether that statement was sufficient to make her ineligible for an appointment.
The clergywoman, Karen Dammann, did not receive an appointment from the bishop last summer. A second clergy person, Mark Edward Williams of Seattle, also did not receive an appointment after announcing at Pacific Northwest Conference’s gathering last June that he was a practicing gay man. Instead, he was placed in a staff position at his church, and his district superintendent was named acting pastor pending the Judicial Council’s decision. Neither Dammann nor Williams were mentioned by name in the council’s Oct. 26 decision.
The Judicial Council ruled that the clergywoman’s statement is a sufficient declaration to subject “her ministerial office,” or status as a minister, to review. “If, in the course of such review, such person affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender, she would have openly acknowledged … that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual,” the council said in its decision.
“However, the prohibition of appointment … must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership,” the decision continued. The council said that the bishop may not take unilateral action to deny her a church appointment.
Only the annual conference can determine a change in a clergyperson’s status, the council said. “The annual conference must be informed of the declaration, and the annual conference and/or the resident bishop or district superintendent must initiate proceeding to subject her membership in her ministerial office to review.”
The decision briefly sketches the steps meant to provide “fair and due process,” as specified in the Book of Discipline. On recommendation of the executive committee of the conference board of ordained ministry, a bishop places the person on suspension while the process moves forward. Suspension relieves the person from clergy duties but does not remove him or her from an appointment if the person is already serving a church.
“At all times, the [church] constitutional right of the clergy person to trial by a committee and an appeal shall be preserved … and fair and due process shall be observed,” the council stated.
“If at the end of the process, the conference relation of the clergyperson is not changed, then the clergy person remains in good standing and, if an elder in full connection, shall be continued under appointment by the bishop,” the council said.
Four council members signed a supplementary opinion: Larry Pickens, Sally Curtis AsKew, Rodolfo C. Beltran and Sally Brown Geis. They agreed with main points of the decision but added that “in essence the United Methodist Church has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with respect to gay and lesbian clergy. This reality is heightened when fair process provisions are overlooked or violated.”
Before deliberating and deciding the case, the council heard oral arguments during an open hearing Oct. 25. Williams spoke on the issue, describing how much his ministry meant to him and asking that the council observe fair process. Two others also addressed the court: Susan Griffin, an attorney representing Dammann, and Jon Olson, a member of Williams’ congregation in Seattle.
Purdue is news director of United Methodist News Service’s Washington office. Provided by United Methodist News Service, at http://umns.umc.org.