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Individual bishops voice disappointment at verdict


Individual bishops voice disappointment at verdict

March 26, 2004

A UMNS Feature By Linda Green*

Bishops from around the United Methodist Church are stepping forward to reaffirm their support for the denomination's book of laws following the controversial acquittal of a lesbian pastor during a clergy trial.

In individual statements, many bishops are also emphasizing to church members in their areas that the United Methodist positions on homosexuality have not changed. The executive committee of the church's Council of Bishops is expected to issue a more collective statement about the verdict March 26.

The Rev. Karen Dammann was found not guilty of "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings" after a March 17-20 trial in Bothell, Wash. A panel of 13 fellow clergy from the church's Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference cleared her, with 11 jurors voting not guilty and the remaining two undecided.

After the verdict was announced, U.S. bishops from coast to coast addressed their parishioners who, like them, were experiencing a multitude of emotions: anger, disappointment, betrayal, celebration, joy, denial and confusion.

The verdict was the action of one group in one place at one specific time, and it did not represent the position of the church as a whole, several bishops wrote.

General Conference, the only body that speaks officially for the United Methodist Church, has addressed issues surrounding homosexuality for decades. In the denomination's Book of Discipline, General Conference holds the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teachings," though affirming homosexuals as people of sacred worth.

"I believe it is essential that in the midst of such reactions, the United Methodist Church must remain steadfast and faithful to scriptural and theological grounding," said Indiana Bishop Woodie White to the state's United Methodists.

In a statement to Alabama-West Florida United Methodists, Bishop Larry Goodpaster noted that although a contingent in the denomination would like to change some of the church's proscriptions against homosexuality, "that does not mean that anyone can set the Discipline aside in favor of their own preferences."

He said he would pray for God's guidance and "also continue to support and uphold the Book of Discipline as I understand its clear direction concerning these matters." He called upon United Methodists of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference "to be fervent in prayer, gracious in conversation, and committed to making a difference for the sake of Jesus Christ and the glory of God."

White and Michigan Area Bishop Linda Lee said the verdict shows that United Methodists are not of one mind in understanding the complexities surrounding homosexuality and the theological grounding of the church.

The decision "sheds light on how different people understand the Discipline," Lee said. "I believe that the most important thing we can do as Christians and as United Methodists, is to hold fast to the truth that 'there is no longer Jew or Greek.' ... The issue of homosexuality is an issue that the members of the United Methodist Church may never come to agreement about. I do not believe we are required to do so. But, we do need to agree that Jesus Christ makes us one in his spirit," she said.

California-Pacific Bishop Mary Ann Swenson noted that the history of Christian community has been marked by fear, and today is no different. The verdict in the Dammann trial shows that "we fear the loss of certainty, of clear gender roles; we fear different definitions of what it means to be faithful, to be called, to be married," she said. "In all of these, we reveal our fear of the future. In fear, we cling to our past - not the best of our heritage, but rather those things which justify our fear, not our growth."

The trial and the verdict are not a cause for fear, celebration or division, she told church members in her area. "They are the results of our struggling to grow in faith, to move into God's future."

In a joint statement, Georgia Bishops Lindsey Davis and Mike Watson expressed support for the Book of Discipline and disappointment in the acquittal.

"It is a clear sign of rebellion when a group chooses to flagrantly ignore the Discipline, substituting their own perspective for the corporate wisdom of the General Conference," they said.

North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards agreed, saying he "finds it incomprehensible that a clergy jury can place itself above the law of the church."

The decision suggests that the trial court "may have been trying the position of the church and not the pastor charged," said Central Pennsylvania Bishop Neil Irons. He wrote that if his interpretation is accurate, the court failed to abide by the Book of Discipline and the verdict represents "a serious challenge to the order of the church, which every ordained United Methodist pastor has agreed to uphold."

Davis, Watson, Virginia Bishop Joe Pennel and Tennessee Bishop William Morris are calling upon the delegates to the 2004 General Conference to arrive in Pittsburgh ready to discuss the verdict and consider a response supporting the connectional covenant. The assembly, which gathers every four years, will meet April 27-May 7.

"It is my persistent and fervent prayer that the lay and clergy delegates to the upcoming General Conference will find a way to be redemptive while holding steadfast to that which affirms the highest standards of sexual expression," Pennel said. He also said he hopes General Conference finds a way to "hold this jury accountable for its misinterpretation of our Book of Discipline."

The verdict is testing the unity of the church in a new way, said Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker. A breach of the connectional covenant by one part of the church does not destroy it for the entire church, but it could have repercussions, he said.

One violation of the covenant does not amount to schism in the church, nor should schism be a serious danger at this time, he wrote. Nevertheless, the breach "does create anxiety among United Methodists that in the future there could be a breakdown of the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church, which might result in a schism of the visible and physical unity of the church."

Northwest Texas Bishop Max Whitfield said his initial reaction to the verdict was a "less-than-complimentary" emotional explosion, but he also noted that the United Methodist Church is still in place and he remains confident about the church's future.

God's spirit will guide and direct those elected from around the world to appropriately respond, Whitfield said. "Speculating on what that guidance and response is does not advance the kingdom of God," he said. "However, I remain confident God works in our lives and in the church. I wait with anticipation for God's gift prepared for us at General Conference."

Pennel requests that United Methodists remember that those on both sides of "this vexing issue" are God's children, and should be treated with respect and reverence.

"This issue must not cause us to lose our central focus, which is to make disciples," he wrote. "We must stay focused on worship, nurture, missions and evangelism. To be distracted by this one verdict, rather than to be called by our primary mission, is the greater evil."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Linda Green at (615) 742-5470 or

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