May 2004 – The recent ecclesiastical trial and subsequent exoneration of a United Methodist Church (UMC) lesbian minister made it painfully clear that a cultural and spiritual divide is threatening to split the denomination.
The facts of the case would appear to be straightforward and unlikely to generate much controversy. In 2001, Rev. Karen Dammann, a lesbian minister in the UMC’s Pacific Northwest Conference, sent a letter to Rev. Elias Galvan, Bishop of the Seattle Area, requesting a new appointment to pastor a church. However, in the letter Dammann admitted that she was a lesbian and that she was “living in a partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship.”
In response, Galvan had Dammann brought up on charges under the denomination’s ecclesiastical laws, set forth in the UMC’s Book of Discipline. It states: “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 UMC.
After several initial proceedings, Dammann found herself on trial before a jury of 13 ministers, taken from her own UMC conference. On March 20, 2004, Dammann was acquitted.
Conservative Methodists were stunned. As UMC layman Jim Lane wrote in a commentary following the Dammann verdict, “How can you be ‘not guilty’ of something you have confessed to?”
Rebellion in the camp
The short answer is that the jury intentionally looked for a way to ignore the clear statement of The Book of Discipline. Instead, the 13 clergy members latched onto the argument of Rev. Robert Ward, Dammann’s defense counsel, that they should not elevate “a few, select paragraphs” of the Discipline above another passage that spoke in vague terms of “inclusiveness.”
The jury agreed, angering conservatives. In their joint statement about the acquittal of Dammann, Georgia bishops Michael Watson and Lindsey Davis revealed their dismay: “[I]t is a clear sign of rebellion when a group chooses to flagrantly ignore [The Book of Discipline], substituting their own perspective for the corporate wisdom” of the church.
Rebellion, in fact, is at the heart of this entire mess. In an interview with The Advocate, a magazine that serves the homosexual community, Dammann made clear that her letter to Galvan was an attempt to create a face-off against the UMC’s Book of Discipline. She said that, with the encouragement of some gay-friendly Christians, “I decided to challenge the prohibition against homosexual clergy.”
Like many homosexuals, Dammann seems bitter that society and the church refuse to celebrate her same-sex predilections. Dammann told The Advocate that she was outraged that the UMC would have a problem with whether or not she and her lesbian lover had had “genital contact.” She said, “That’s barbaric. … [I]t is a violation of anyone’s rights to ask them about their sexual activities. It is none of the church’s business ….”
For a supposedly Biblically literate person to argue that ordination should be detached from a consideration of sexual conduct is startling. Yet, this defiance is characteristic of the homosexual movement, even within Christianity. Out of their sexual rebellion against nature comes an equally vigorous mutiny against spiritual authority. This is why UMC ecclesiastical law has been continuously challenged at the denomination’s quadrennial General Conferences – the only forum for altering church law – for more than 30 years.
What’s exasperating is that those who are continually beating the drums to confront and overturn UMC policy on homosexuality act as if their agitation is proof that the UMC is not really settled on the issue.
For example, in an article in Circuit Rider, a Methodist publication, Bishop Michael J. Coyner stated that “any objective observer … would agree that our denomination is still struggling with this issue. The issue of homosexuality keeps coming to the forefront of General Conference” gatherings.
That assertion, however, comes immediately after Coyner admitted that “every General Conference since 1972 has voted to re-affirm our denomination’s stance that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching’ and yes, those votes have been strong ones.”
That doesn’t sound as if Methodism is “struggling” with the issue of homosexuality – it sounds as if homosexuals are refusing to accept the UMC’s verdict.
However, in order to sanctify this insurrection, some sort of spiritual-sounding justification must be established by activists; and this, they have been busily doing.
In the Dammann trial, for example, the 13-member jury said they reached their decision “after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberation, and listening for and to the word of God. … We depended on the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
This is the language of those who make obscurity the cloak under which they simply can do whatever they please. About what could they possibly have spent hours deliberating and praying? The Bible is abundantly clear in its condemnation of homosexuality, and so is the UMC’s church law.
The “leading of the Holy Spirit,” then, becomes the artificially created loophole that is used to set aside plainly written texts. If one wants to reject the clarity of both Bible and church law, what better way to do it than to claim that the Holy Spirit has decreed a change in direction?
This is exactly what Dammann’s supporters did following the verdict. Rev. Jeanne G. Knepper, a pastor and former spokesperson for Affirmation, a caucus of homosexuals within the UMC, said the verdict “represents God doing a new thing.”
Dammann herself claims that God is behind the battle to change the Methodist position on homosexuality. She has referred to those who supported her stand as “reformers” within the UMC, “for through them and through their decisions on this matter, surely the Holy Spirit is speaking clearly and strongly for the church to hear.”
When conservatives raise doubts that the Holy Spirit would contradict Holy Writ, activists merely shrug off such sentiments. Rev. Peggy R. Gaylord, current spokeswoman for Affirmation, said she believed “a fundamental message of Christ is that the church is open to all. We get hung up on doctrine.…The doctrine was not what Jesus was about.”
Bible-believing Methodists should recoil in horror from such postmodernism, which advocates a retreat from orthodoxy and then claims divine approval for it. How convenient that, when doctrine speaks clearly against the practice of homosexuality, Gaylord exhorts us not to worry about it. If Jesus was not “hung up” on doctrine, neither should we.
Scuttling the ship
So what is the answer? Knepper asserts that Methodists “do not, cannot, and will not agree on the subject of homosexuality.”
However, seeing that it is Knepper and Gaylord and Dammann who refuse to agree with UMC law, why don’t they simply depart in peace for a denomination that is open to their peculiar interpretation of Scripture? Why must the heretics always insist on the church changing its orthodoxy to suit the devil?
The answer is simple: Homosexual activists, by virtue of their blind rebellion against God’s Word and those who seek to faithfully present it, have no problem scuttling the ship if they are not allowed to captain it.
“I see the split in the church between those seeking full inclusion and those seeking exclusion getting worse,” Dammann warned ominously in The Advocate.
Knepper hinted that what the wider Methodist community witnessed in the Dammann trial will only grow more explicit. The UMC jurisdiction that acquitted Dammann, she said following the trial, “is increasingly unwilling to shape its practices by that discriminatory language” found in The Book of Discipline.
Knepper then issued a thinly-veiled threat in anticipation of a conservative backlash at the General Conference coming up at the end of April. She said that if delegates choose to make the Discipline’s language prohibiting homosexual clergy “more specific,” “more forceful,” and “more narrow,” that it will lead to “widespread dissension and probable schism.”
It is apparent that those demanding acquiescence from the UMC have no problem holding the denomination hostage by virtue of a threatened rupture within Methodism. These activists see themselves as a new breed of sailor seeking a brave New World. If the ship must be run aground on the reefs and destroyed to make a point, so be it.
Conservatives would do well to quell the mutiny before that happens.