A United Methodist panel has dismissed charges against the Rev. Mark Edward Williams of breaking church law that forbids "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" to serve as pastors. The investigation committee of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference determined there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to church trial.

The decision follows last summer's annual conference, where the Woodland Park United Methodist Church pastor read into record that he was "proudly as much a practicing gay man as [he was] a practicing United Methodist."

After the announcement, Williams continued to serve the Seattle church, where he had been appointed since 1999, but under supervision. In December, Bishop Elias Galvan filed formal charges. The subsequent investigation could have led to a Judicial Council trial and possible expulsion.

Maggie Brown, chairwoman of the church's staff-parish relations, said the congregation supported the pastor and celebrated the complaint's dismissal. "This shows that sexual orientation has nothing to do with performance," she told Christianity Today. "This year has led our church through a path of realizing what he has done for us. We all are on different levels of our journey with this issue, but we'll all backing Mark."

During the investigation, Williams refused to answer specific questions regarding his statement or homosexual practice. The committee decided it could not find "reasonable cause" for trial without further evidence of homosexual practice.

"It's been a long year for all of us," Williams said in a sermon shortly after the decision. "But I hope that we take this opportunity to make a fresh start. Perhaps we can make a commitment to treat each other with more compassion and respect than we ever have before."

Williams said in a press release that the denomination has a long way to go in its acceptance of homosexuals. However, he hopes his success is a positive step.

Mark Tooley, executive director of United Methodist Action, said that instead of opening the denomination to homosexual clergy, this case marks a widening gap between positions within United Methodism. "Although the church law remains firm, this particular conference is deciding not to abide by it," Tooley told CT. "The official laws of our denomination will remain firm but some areas, especially in the West Coast, will become more and more separated from the mainstream of the church."

There may be repercussions in Methodist churches across the country as well. "This is going to be very hurtful because it is undermining the ministry of every other pastor in the Methodist church who supports the Book of Discipline," said John Grinfell, a retired United Methodist pastor and a former district superintendent. "The willy-nilly leadership of the Pacific Northwest Conference nurtures disappointment and disillusionment in our laity. There is already frustration over the lack of accountability."

Though the dismissal of the case by the investigation committee cannot be appealed, some conference pastors may raise the issue at this week's annual conference. They say Williams's refusal to answer questions in the inquiry is not a lack of evidence but a rejection of the covenant of trust as an ordained minister.

Thomas Oden, theology professor at Drew University, told CT that the case has broad implications outside of Seattle. "The basic issue here is whether we can even enforce the good polity we have," he said. "The law of the Methodist church is clear. But it was simply ignored, and the case was treated as if there was not an offense at all."

Todd Hertz is online assistant editor for Christianity Today.