United Methodist Church court okays homosexual minister
Here's what the United Methodist Church, America's third-largest Christian body (after Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention) says about homosexuality and the clergy, according to its Book of Discipline:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

Ah, but the United Methodist Church has crafty ministers. And at the church trial of self-avowed practicing homosexual minister Karen Dammann, her defenders said unto the jury, Yea, hath the United Methodist Church said, homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?

Oh, it's all so confusing! Or so said Dammann's defenders and The Washington Post:

On one hand, the church's Book of Discipline says that because "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" as pastors. On the other hand, it also says that sexuality is "God's good gift to all persons," that homosexuals "are individuals of sacred worth," that "God's grace is available to all," and that "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons."

For the last 2,000 years, Christians have taught that those concepts are not contradictory, though there has been disagreement over what human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. Orthodox believers say that because "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth," the church has an obligation to teach what Scripture says is ultimately the most healthy, fulfilling, and reconciling expression of sexuality.

The Book of Discipline is right on target when it says, immediately following that sentence on sacred worth, that "all persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self." That is to say, the church offers something that the individual cannot attain on one's own, and that only by submitting oneself to the ministry and guidance of the church can one grow into the person God wants them to be; to become, as The Book of Discipline's human sexuality section puts it, "fully human."

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God's grace is truly available to all, and it's crucial to understand the church's teaching on sexuality as part of God's grace. Yesterday, Methodists around the world (as well as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and others) read the parable of the prodigal son—one of the best biblical examples of grace. In that story, the father's grace is apparent when the son returns from his prodigality, saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Grace is also apparent in the father's allowing the son to "squander his property in reckless living," but only because it brought the son to an understanding of his father's love and grace. As the father tells the older brother, "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." The father's displeasure with the son's spending his inheritance on prostitutes is plainly evident, but is outweighed by his delight in the son's repentance. Grace requires both God's displeasure and his pleasure.

But this was not the teaching supported by the United Methodist jury on Sunday. In finding Dammann not guilty of the charge of "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings," the jurors seem to have been very swayed by the testimony of retired Methodist bishop Jack Tuell. Recounting his testimony to The Seattle Times, Tuell said that the Book of Discipline "used 'soft words' such as 'consider' and 'condone,' and roundabout phrasing in its statements condemning homosexuality." In contrast, he points to another line from the book: "We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than from men in marriage."

"The United Methodist Church knows how to declare something incompatible," Tuell said. And rather than doing so on homosexuality, it instead chose language that's "fatally ambiguous and uncertain."

The jury bought this line of argumentation, and said that since the charge brought against Dammann was that she engaged in "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings," the question wasn't Methodist teachings on homosexuality, but whether those teachings were declared or not.

"We searched the Discipline and did not find a declaration that 'the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,'" said a statement by the jury, read by member Karla Fredericksen. "We did see in the Discipline many declarative statements. An example is: 'Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.' … Although we, the trial court, found passages that contain the phrasing 'incompatible with Christian teaching,' we did not find that any of them constitute a declaration."

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Conservatives in the denomination are flummoxed by the decision, which cannot be appealed. "How can there be a not guilty verdict when what she's done is public and she has confessed it?" Asbury Theological Seminary president Maxie Dunnam told The New York Times. "I'm very surprised and I'm very disappointed because it's another sign of anarchy in the church. … We can't continue to live with a whole segment of the church that is deliberately disobeying the church's law."

James V. Heidinger, president of the Methodist renewal group Good News, agrees. "There is no question about what the Reverend Dammann is doing," he told the Post. "It was assumed by most of us that we were just going through due process to make sure her rights were protected, but that she obviously was in violation of church law."

It's likely that the court proceeding will be criticized, especially prosecutor James Finkbeiner. He only called one witness: Bishop Elias Galvan, who praised Dammann's "good work," appointed her as pastor of Ellensburg United Methodist Church in 2003 (more than two years after she wrote to him, "I am living in a partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship with another woman"), and only brought the charge against her under direct orders from the denomination's national Judicial Council.

After the verdict, Finkbeiner told reporters, "I'm glad I lost, on a personal basis." While he says he still believes the jury disregarded church teachings, he added, "I don't feel bad about that."

Next month, the United Methodist Church will hold its quadrennial conference in Pittsburgh. Pundits seem to be unanimous in predicting that the Dammann verdict will mobilize both sides of the gay clergy debate, and that the Book of Discipline's language on homosexuality will be hotly debated—as it has every four years since 1972.

The church's liberals have issued a challenge to orthodox Methodists: the Book of Discipline's language on homosexuality is weak, they have said. Too weak, they say, to be enforceable. May the General Conference, then, embrace a stronger statement of biblical truth, so that no one can doubt what the United Methodist Church has truly declared.

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