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UNITED METHODIST CHURCH:

Trials of Gregory Dell, Mark Williams, & Karen Dammann

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Quotation:

bullet"The church is not of one mind. I expect this issue to continue to be raised until society comes to terms with it." Bishop Elias Galvan after the acquittal of Karan Dammann in 2004-MAR.

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The trial of the Rev. Gregory Dell:

In late summer, 1997, a few weeks after Rev. Jimmy Creech performed the service of blessing for a lesbian couple, Rev. Gregory Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church in Franklin Park IL presided at his 33rd same-sex ceremony. He believes that his obligation "to provide ministry to all people and [to] not discriminate" surpasses his duty to church law. There are allegations that his Bishop, C Joseph Sprague, conducted same-sex blessings when he was a pastor in Ohio.

In 1999-FEB, Bishop Sprague filed a complaint against Rev. Dell for blessing a gay couple's union during 1998-SEP. A committee on investigation for the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference made the charge official after their 1999-FEB-25 meeting. His trial was held at First United Methodist Church in Downers Grove, IL. Retired UMC bishop Jack Tuell of Greenbank, WA presided. It started on 1999-MAR-25.

Rev. Larry Pickens was acting as counsel for Rev. Dell. He quoted Paragraph 204 of the Book of Discipline which says:

"Each local church shall have a definite evangelistic, nurture and witness responsibility for its members and the surrounding area and a missional outreach responsibility to the local and global community. It shall be responsible for ministering to all its members, wherever they live, and for persons who choose it as their church."

About one third of Dell's congregation of 169 members are gays and lesbians. He reasons that to deny union services to gays while conducting marriage services to heterosexuals is not serving all of its members. He commented: "I haven't changed my ministry. It's clear the legislation has changed. I don't know if the heart of the United Methodist Church has changed...I can live in a denomination where there's a diversity of opinion. We've done that for years on other issues. We're saying give us room to minister and give us room to stay in the dialogue."

Church counsel, Rev. Stephen C. Williams, said: "We are now required to act with integrity on behalf of the church. Our judicial process will ask a jury of Rev. Dell's peers to determine if he broke the church law which prohibits celebrating homosexual union ceremonies and, if so, what penalty might be imposed for deliberately breaking that law and disobeying the order and discipline of the church."

The Rev. Dell was convicted after a two day trial, by a vote of 10 to 3. He was suspended, effective 1999-JUL-5. His status could be normalized if he first signed a statement promising to stop performing union ceremonies. He has said that he will not do that. On 1999-SEP-19, he issued a press release stating: "Approximately 30% of the congregation I serve is gay or lesbian. My ordination requires me to be in ministry to all persons without discrimination based on their identities. I will not withhold a ministry from some which is available to others solely because of an unjust church law grounded in bigotry and exclusion." 1

He filed an appeal on 1999-APR-21 to overturn the decision of the trial court. On 1999-JUL-5, Dell became "director of 'In All Things Charity,' an unofficial network of clergy members and others who support the full inclusion of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the life of the church." 2

On 1999-SEP-17, the UMC Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals issued a ruling "That Respondent be suspended from ministry dating from July 5, 1999 through June 30, 2000. The suspension may be terminated earlier at such time as Reverend Dell signs and submits a document to the Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference which states that he will comply with para, 65C of the Discipline." 1

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Disciplinary proceedings against Mark Williams:

Mark Williams is the minister of Woodland Park United Methodist Church. He went public with his homosexual orientation in 2001-JUN at the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. His congregation supports Williams and wants him to continue as their minister. Bishop Elias Galvan of Seattle said he felt that he had to file an official complaint, charging him with "practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching." A committee of investigation composed of seven clergy and two lay members conducted a hearing in Seattle on 2002-MAY-31. They voted unanimously that there was insufficient evidence to bring formal charges against Williams.

Amory Peck, coordinator of the Pacific Northwest Reconciling United Methodists, said: "Today we are rejoicing as Mark Williams is freed to continue his calling. Now we look forward to working within this invigorated spirit of justice and reconciliation in the United Methodist Church."

Marilyn Alexander, Executive Director of the national Reconciling Ministries Network said: "We applaud Bishop Elias Galvan’s affirmation of Mark’s effective ministry and Mark’s courage to speak openly and with integrity. Our hope is that more bishops and LGBT clergy will work together to find prophetic and innovative solutions to this unjust system."

Rev. Paul Beeman of the Parents Reconciling Network said: "The Seattle decision will have a positive impact on thousands of United Methodist clergy nation-wide." 3 As of 2002-AUG, the investigation committee's decision has not been appealed.

This essay continues below.

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The trial of Karen Dammann:

Rev. Dammann is a former pastor at Woodland Park United Methodist Church in Seattle, WA, and more recently served as pastor at a 200-member rural congregation in Ellensburg, WA. She and her partner, Meredith Savage, have been together for ten years. They the parents of a five-year-old son. On 2001-FEB-14, Valentine's Day, she applied for a new church appointment and revealed her relationship to her bishop, Elias Galvan. She stated that she lived in a "partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship." She told reporters during her trial that she had revealed her sexual orientation to her bishop partly as a political act that would challenge the church's policies. But the main reason was that she was a "parent of a toddler who was becoming verbal and getting a sense of right and wrong, and we decided we did not want to teach him anything other than how to be truthful." Galvan was required by church rules to file a complain against Dammann. During 2002-JUL, an investigative committee for the UMC's Pacific Northwest Conference voted to retain Dammann and decided to not send the case to trial. A representative of the church, Ref. Jim Finkbeiner appealed that decision on 2002-AUG-21, citing "grievous errors of church law or administration." On 2002-AUG-23, Karen said: "I'm hoping to get some understanding very quickly on what steps I might be able to take. I'm hoping we might have the opportunity to give input to the committee who hears the appeal." 4The Judicial Council of the church reversed the earlier decision and voted in 2004-JAN to place her on trial.

Karen and her partner married each other during the week of 2004-MAR-7. Her trial started on 2004-MAR-17 at Bothell United Methodist Church in Bothell, WA, a suburb of Seattle. She was charged with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings." She pleaded not guilty. The trial was overseen by a retired bishop who sat by a single candle, representing the presence of the Holy Spirit. During the trial:

bulletAbout a hundred individuals who support her case protested outside the church. Many tried to block church officials from entering the building. Police arrested 33 of them when they refused to move. In an obvious reference to the denomination's $18 million TV advertising campaign which used the slogan "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors: the People of the United Methodist Church," some demonstrators carried signs stating: "Closed Minds, Closed Hearts, Closed Doors."
bulletAbout twenty members of Karen's church were present during her trial. In a reference to the church's doctrine that "homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth," many wore signs stating that: "My pastor is of Sacred Worth." Carmen Knoke referred to Dammann, her partner, and son as "a perfect pastoral family." She said: "I find it really disturbing that if you're gay and have multiple partners and don't tell anybody, it's okay for you to be a pastor. But if you're like Karen and have a committed relationship and are open about it, you can't serve." But another church member, Richard Tate, said that "Karen the person is very likable...Karen the symbol is where I have a problem. When she gets up in the pulpit as a symbol, she's in conflict with Methodist law, religion and religious values."
bulletMary Ann Tolbert, professor of biblical studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and executive director of its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies said that the denomination is has applied its Book of Discipline inconsistently. For example, in the past, divorce was not permitted. The church has since changed its stance. She said: "It seems to me that, with all due respect, you are acting as a hypocrite." Noting that Jesus was executed because he disagreed with the religious norms of the day, she said: "We have to be very careful, you have to be very careful, that you don't replicate the crucifixion of Jesus in what you do."
bulletKaren's church counsel, Rev. Bob Ward, compared the current struggle of gays and lesbians with the past civil rights struggle by women and minorities. He said that the difference is that: "with gays and lesbians, they are encouraged to hide, as we have adopted a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell....Karen has chosen not to live the lie."
bulletThe Rev. James Finkbeiner, who represents the church at the trial, noted that Dammann had disclosed her homosexuality to the bishop and to the rest of the church. No additional evidence is required to prove her guilt. He said: "It is not the law of the church that is on trial here."
bulletRetired Rev. Gilbert Caldwell testified on behalf of Dammann. He drew a parallel between the church's past racist policies, and its present discriminatory policies against same-sex couples. Both were supported by biblical passages. He said: "I, being an African-American, was incompatible, both in the nation and within the church....Hammer out justice for Karen Dammann. Let your voice ring out all across this church. Let it ring out all across this land of ours." He said that the church must leave its focus on homosexuality and deal with more important matters, like hunger and war. A tearful Dammann hugged Ward as he sat down.
bulletDuring a break in the trial, Karen said: "God called me into ordained ministry and I just can't believe that God makes a mistake."
bulletIn his closing argument, the Rev. Robert C. Ward said:  "We need to be careful about creating rules that exclude people. You are faced with a choice to make love practical, to make love plain, and to do what is right."

According to SFGate.com: "After about 10 hours of deliberations, a jury of 13 pastors ruled in favor of the Rev. Karen Dammann, 47, who disclosed three years ago that she was in a homosexual relationship." The vote was 11 for acquittal, two undecided. None found her guilty of the charge. Nine guilty votes would have been required for a conviction.

After the decision was reached:

bulletThe jury issued a statement saying that the church "did not present sufficient clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge....We realize that the church is divided regarding issues related to homosexuality. We, the Trial Court, are far from unanimous regarding biblical and theological understandings."  They said that the decision was made "after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberations, and listening for and to the word of God."
bullet"Dammann said she was happy and relieved. 'It's been heart-stopping at times, too exciting at times,' she said."
bulletBishop Galvan appeared to make a surprising admission that the denomination is following public opinion on matters relating to homosexuality, rather than leading it. He said: "The church is not of one mind. I expect this issue to continue to be raised until society comes to terms with it."

The Rev. James Heidinger, president of Good News, a conservative Methodist renewal movement, predicted that the verdict "will be shocking to most United Methodists, because there is no question about what the Rev. Dammann is doing. It was assumed by most of us that we were just going through due process to make sure her rights were protected, but that she obviously was in violation of church law."

Dammann has been on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, WA.

The denomination's next General Conference begins on 2004-APR-27. The results of this trial had a profound effect on that meeting. 5 to 10

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References:

  1. "Rev. Greg Dell appeal update," at: http://people.goplay.com/padre2/appeal.htm
  2. Linda Bloom, United Methodist News Service, news release, 1999-MAY-14.
  3. "The United Methodist Church drops charges against "out" Gay pastor," Reconciling Ministries Networ press release, 2002-MAY-31.
  4. "Church Appeals Gay Pastor Decision," Associated Press, 2002-AUG-24, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/
  5. "Methodist church tries lesbian minister," CNN.com, 2004-MAR-18, at: http://edition.cnn.com/
  6. Gene Johnson, "Closing arguments pit church law against inclusiveness," Associated Press, 2004-MAR-20, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  7. "Gay pastor acquitted in church trial; can continue ministry," SFGate.com, 2004-MAR-20, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  8. Alan Cooperman, "Methodists acquit lesbian minister. Church trial's outcome surprises conservatives," Washington Post, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  9. Melanthia Mitchell, "Methodist officials testify church law on homosexuality is vague," Associated Press, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  10. Alan Cooperman, "Methodist Jury Ponders Lesbian Minister's Fate," Washington Post, 2004-MAR-20, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Copyright © 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Date of last update: 2004-MAY-3
Author: B.A. Robinson
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