After three decades of disagreement over what the Bible says about homosexuality, the church trial of a lesbian minister has sharpened the debate for the United Methodist Church as it prepares for a national meeting that occurs once every four years. The church's general conference, which starts Tuesday in Pittsburgh and lasts until May 7, will take up the question of gays' role in the church amid bitter
feelings over the case of the Reverend Karen Dammann. In March a jury acquitted Dammann--a minister now on leave from her Ellensburg, Wash., church who had disclosed she was in a committed relationship with a woman--of practices the denomination has declared are incompatible with
Christianity. The church prohibits ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. Traditionalists have called the ruling a "schismatic act" that flouted Methodist law. Their anger is expected to infuse the assembly. "There's an enormous sense of upheaval across the church," said the Reverend James Heidinger, publisher of Good News, a magazine and organization for evangelical Methodists.
Adding to the tension is the nationwide debate over gay marriage in courtrooms and state capitols and the growing rifts over homosexuality in other mainline Protestant churches. Among the most dramatic examples is the Episcopal Church, which last year consecrated its first openly gay bishop. The result has been a conservative rebellion and frayed relations with its sister churches in the global Anglican
Communion. No one believes that the 8.3 million member Methodist Church is about to break apart, however. Delegates have rejected proposals more accepting of sexually active gays by about 60% to 40% over the years, said the Reverend James Wood, a Methodist sociologist who researches general conferences. That voting trend is expected to continue among this year's 1,000 delegates. "Are people so energized that they are simply ready to rend the denomination?" asked William Lawrence, dean of the Methodist's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. "Frankly, I don't think so."
However, individual traditionalists could protest by withholding donations and leaving their local congregations if denominational leaders fail to enforce church law in areas where gays openly serve. Traditionalists have proposed censuring the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference--the regional Methodist body that oversaw Dammann's case--and asking the judicial council, the denomination's highest court, to review the trial. They also hope to add language to Methodist law that would make it easier to oust sexually active gay clergy. Groups who support ordaining gays have countered with a proposal to drop language from the Methodist Social Principles calling homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" and replace it with a statement that "faithful Christians" disagree on the issue. The liberal advocates acknowledge it's unlikely they will win a majority vote. Chances for the conservative proposals remain unclear; there is little precedent for their efforts seeking redress for the Dammann ruling. "The folks that disagree with the verdict are just so very angry and hurt that they're coming into general conference out of that position of just being furious," said the Reverend Kathryn Johnson of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a liberal organization. "I think it will make it harder to be able to step back and look at the situation with a little less passion."
Delegates from the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, to which Dammann belongs, attempted to ease the tension in a letter this month to the full assembly. They said their understanding of sexual orientation had been "transformed" through ministries to gays and their families, leading them to reexamine scripture on homosexuality. But they also declared, "We are not a one-issue conference," and restated their commitment to evangelizing and charitable service. "The verdict of the recent trial court does not have the power to break the covenant of our great church unless we, the leaders and members of the church, give it that power," they said. This week delegates in Pittsburgh will form committees to review legislation and then send the measures to the full conference for a vote the