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UM Church looks to court for guidance on homosexuality issue

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    CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE From United Methodist News Service ... Sept. 27, 2001 Church looks to court for guidance on homosexuality issue News media
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 28, 2001
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      CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
      From United Methodist News Service

      ---------

      Sept. 27, 2001
      Church looks to court for guidance on homosexuality issue
      News media contact: Tim Tanton� (615)742-5470� Nashville, Tenn. {426}

      A UMNS Report

      By Tim Tanton*

      When the United Methodist Church's supreme court meets in October,
      the docket item likely to draw greatest public interest will be a
      matter brought by the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference regarding
      rules about gay clergy.

      The United Methodist Church forbids the ordination or appointment of
      self-avowed practicing homosexuals. In the Pacific Northwest
      Conference, however, three clergy members have publicly affirmed that
      they are practicing homosexuals. They don't believe their sexual
      orientation should disqualify them from leading local congregations.
      The annual conference and its leader, Bishop Elias Galvan, are
      awaiting a Judicial Council ruling on two passages of church law
      related to the issue.

      As the court date approaches, Pacific Northwest members on both sides
      of the homosexuality issue have been meeting, praying and trying to
      understand the will of the God whom they share. The council meets
      Oct. 24-27 in Nashville, Tenn.

      "People are waiting for Judicial Council to act and bring some
      clarity to the situation," Galvan said in a telephone interview.

      Thirteen briefs related to the matter have been submitted so far to
      the Judicial Council, according to Sally Curtis AsKew, a council
      member from Bogart, Ga., and secretary for the court. That's the
      largest number of briefs received on one issue in her 14 years with
      the court � except for the 1998 special session, which dealt with
      another church law regarding homosexuals.

      Despite differences of opinion in the Pacific Northwest Conference,
      Galvan perceives that people on both sides of the issue remain
      willing to work together. "There are many other issues, obviously,
      that are important to all of us, and (on) those issues we can work
      together."

      However, lines are being drawn. Advocates for the full inclusion of
      homosexuals in ministry met in Tacoma, Wash., and formed a churchwide
      alliance to work for changing the denomination's rules. The
      evangelicals, historically a quiet minority in the Pacific Northwest,
      met Sept. 6 in Yakima, Wash., and formed their own coalition in
      response, aligning themselves with the unofficial Confessing Movement
      (see related story).

      The Pacific Northwest has been the hot spot this year in the United
      Methodist Church's long-running struggle over issues related to
      homosexuality. In February, the Rev. Karen Dammann wrote to Galvan,
      requesting appointment to a local church. Dammann had led a
      Seattle-area church in 1999 before going on family leave. In her
      letter, she told Galvan that she was living in a homosexual
      relationship with another woman and their son in Massachusetts.

      Galvan, writing to Dammann and the conference clergy members on April
      18, said he didn't see how he could appoint her without violating the
      denomination's Book of Discipline. However, he said, her request
      would be handled through the regular church process, in which the
      conference board of ordained ministry and the annual clergy session
      determine eligibility for appointment.

      The issue became the focal point of the June 13-17 annual conference
      gathering in Tacoma. The Rev. Mark Edward Williams and the Rev. Katie
      Ladd announced at separate times during the conference that they are
      practicing homosexuals. They, along with Dammann, received an
      outpouring of support from many in the conference. Dammann and
      Williams didn't get local church appointments but were placed under
      the supervision of their district superintendent, and Ladd was kept
      on disability leave.

      As they dealt with the question of appointments, the annual
      conference members decided to ask the Judicial Council to clarify two
      paragraphs in the Book of Discipline that many felt were
      contradictory. One passage forbids the ordination of self-avowed
      practicing homosexuals, while the other requires that all clergy
      members in good standing receive appointments. The three gay clergy
      members were regarded as having good standing in the conference.

      For the time being, Williams is serving as minister of congregational
      life at the church where he was pastor, Woodland Park United
      Methodist in Seattle. The position was developed in cooperation with
      the congregation, and the Rev. Bob Hoshibata, Seattle District
      superintendent, was named interim pastor. Galvan said he will review
      Williams' job after the Judicial Council ruling. Conservatives have
      criticized the arrangement.

      Williams' assignment is not lawful, said the Rev. Gary Starkey, an
      evangelical and pastor of Westpark United Methodist Church in Yakima,
      Wash. The will of the church regarding the practice of homosexuality
      is "not ambiguous," he said.

      The conference worked out a position for Dammann in which she would
      assist with ministries at a number of churches, Galvan said. However,
      Dammann declined to accept the position, he said.

      Dammann said that the costs of relocation, health insurance and
      starting the position two months late in the church year, on top of
      taxes and normal monthly expenses, would have reduced her salary to
      the point where she and her family would have been in financial
      jeopardy.

      The outcome of the Judicial Council meeting will be important,
      Dammann told United Methodist News Service in an e-mail note. "At the
      very least, we are hoping that the Judicial Council will find that
      there was an egregious lack of due process in not appointing me or
      Mark E. Williams." She also hopes the court will address the fact
      that she has not received the benefits that go with an appointment �
      the income, the housing, and the health, dental and pension benefits.

      "Beyond these practical personal matters, the decisions surrounding
      the two paragraphs in the Discipline and the definition or lack
      thereof of who is a homosexual will have far-reaching impacts on the
      church and gay and lesbian clergy," Dammann wrote. "The question of
      my status seems to be moot, as there are perfectly sound mechanisms
      in the Book of Discipline that address how to change the status of a
      clergyperson."

      The newly formed evangelical coalition in the Pacific Northwest
      Conference will also be watching the Judicial Council's decisions
      with interest.

      "I think we will have some witness to the Judicial Council," said
      Starkey, a coalition member. At the least, the coalition will support
      Desert Southwest Conference evangelicals, who are asking the court to
      reject any attempt by the Western Jurisdiction to hold a special
      called session, he said. "They are putting forth an objection to any
      Western Jurisdictional special called conference because we know the
      agenda of that event ... would be to network those in favor of
      changing church law, and we believe it would inevitably be used to
      further the spread of disobedience."

      The case is drawing attention from across the church. John Stumbo, a
      layman and the mayor of Fort Valley, Ga., filed a brief on behalf of
      the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability, a group that works
      to enforce the denomination's Book of Discipline.

      Stumbo, an attorney, argues that the two passages are not
      inconsistent with each other. "The predicate for entitlement to an
      appointment is you must be in good standing. In my view, if you
      violate the self-avowed practicing paragraph, you are not in good
      standing," he told UMNS.

      Moreover, he said, the church has a system for dealing with this
      situation. Galvan, as bishop, should file complaints against the
      elders who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals and then let the
      process work, Stumbo said.

      Regardless of how one feels about the issue, Stumbo said, the
      church's members are bound internally by their ecclesiastical law.
      "What really is important to me is the process, that we follow it,"
      he said.

      The reticence of the denomination's authorities to enforce the
      mandates of the General Conference regarding homosexuality "is
      tearing at the unity of the church," Stumbo said.

      "People are growing increasingly resentful of those in authority for
      not following the law."

      Dave Sutton, an Olympia, Wash., layman active in the Reconciling
      Ministries Network, also prepared a brief for the Judicial Council
      meeting. The Chicago-based network advocates the full inclusion of
      gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in church life.

      Sutton argues that one of the passages in the Book of Discipline,
      Paragraph 304.3, is unconstitutional. The annual conference is the
      basic organizing body of the church, charged with ordaining,
      disciplining, assessing the character of and otherwise administering
      the clergy, he noted. Nowhere in the constitution has he found such
      power given to the jurisdictional or General conferences, he said.
      "Unless we're going to change the constitution, it seems to me the
      power lies with the annual conferences."

      If the Judicial Council finds that the paragraphs are not
      contradictory, it will have to say that one passage has precedence
      over the other, Sutton said.

      "The issue for me is very little about homosexuality," he continued.
      "... My interest is in the church and whether we're going to draw
      lines about who gets into the church and who doesn't. It just happens
      that homosexuals are the ... minority that we are still excluding.

      "It seems to me there's a terrible risk of establishing a litmus test
      for ordination, and if it's this today, what's it going to be
      tomorrow?" he said.

      The Pacific Northwest Conference chapter of the Reconciling
      Ministries Network put forth a theological position paper in March,
      "To Plead the Cause," by the Rev. Paul Beeman. The paper accused the
      United Methodist Church's top legislative body, the General
      Conference, of heresy for its policies regarding homosexuals.
      "Contrary to the General Conference, we believe that homosexuality
      and Christian teaching are fully compatible," the document stated.

      The idea of using the document as the basis for a legal challenge in
      the church was considered but dismissed, Sutton said. "Our purpose is
      not to convict our church, but to change it from the errors that have
      produced the present broken state," he said. " 'Reconciling' is not
      only our name, but our desire for the church."

      *Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.




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