The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church ruled this weekend that church law states the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and a "chargeable offense" for Methodist ministers. The declaration runs counter to a March trial verdict that said a practicing homosexual minister was not guilty of practices contrary to church teachings.

The UMC's quadrennial General Conference is the stage for the latest denominational showdown over homosexuality. After admitting to being in a homosexual relationship, Karen Dammann was acquitted by a UMC court of the charge of a lifestyle conflicting with Christian teachings. The jury said, "We searched the [Book of] Discipline and did not find a declaration that 'the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching'."

The Book of Discipline says, "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."

Responding to a request from Arkansas delegate Fred H. Haustein, the Judicial Council said that the practice of homosexuality actually is "incompatible with Christian teaching," and it will now review Karen Dammann's acquittal. A statement is expected before the General Conference ends this week.

"Delegates have consistently voted by large margins to reject proposals more accepting of openly gay clergy," the Associated Press says. However, conservatives have had a hard time encouraging the church to enforce its rules. Scott N. Field, coordinator for a coalition of conservative and evangelical Methodist groups, said the ruling "does not end the debate [over homosexuality] because people of conscience who disagree with the church's current stand will continue acts of noncompliance, and therefore the real issue before the denomination is whether we can enforce the covenant within the clergy, and that will require additional legislation."

Such legislation is before the General Conference this week. There is a proposal to give the Judicial Council power to overturn verdicts like Dammann's. Currently the Council has no power to do so. Another proposal asked the Council to rule on whether Dammann can be reappointed when her term is up this June.

Saturday's Judicial Council ruling will make it harder in the future to dodge disciplining gay clergy at church trials, the Washington Post said. Conservatives are elated with the ruling and see it as a positive sign that the council would rule against the Dammann verdict, according to the Houston Chronicle. Though such a ruling would not overturn the trial verdict, it would accomplish almost the same thing by denying her reappointment and preventing other appointments of gay clergy.

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"This affirmed what the vast majority of United Methodists believe, namely that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christianity," said William Hinson, president of the church's conservative Confessing Movement.

No one is talking of a church split yet, but if conservatives don't get their way, leaving the 8 million-member church is an option. "There are many, many congregations who have let us know they are watching closely, and the decisions by the General Conference will determine whether they are staying or leaving," Field said. However, with this ruling it seems that conservatives have a lot of room to maneuver, and perhaps those who reject the church's beliefs might find it necessary to leave.

The United Methodist News Service has more information.

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