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Trial of lesbian elder gets under way

 
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7:00 A.M. EST June 21, 2011


The Rev. Amy DeLong. Photo by Amy Zellmer.
The Rev. Amy DeLong. Photo by Amy Zellmer.
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For the seventh time in 20 years, The United Methodist Church will wrestle with the issue of homosexuality in a public church trial.

The Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference, faces two charges of violating church law and the possibility of losing her ministerial credentials this week. Her trial begins June 21 at Peace United Methodist Church in Kaukauna, Wis.

DeLong, who has been an ordained clergywoman for 14 years and now serves as director of an education and advocacy group, initiated the case in 2009 when she officiated at the  union of a lesbian couple. That same year, she and her partner of nearly 16 years registered under Wisconsin’s domestic partnership law. She reported both actions to the Wisconsin Conference.

As her trial date neared, DeLong expressed no regrets.

"As the months have passed, I have only gathered more strength and courage," she said the week before the trial. "No matter the outcome of my trial, we have already won because we know it is the fate of oppression always and everywhere to be defeated by the slow progress of freedom and justice."

Church law on the matter is clear, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, pastor of Faith Community Church, a United Methodist congregation in Greenville, Wis. He is the counsel representing The United Methodist Church in the case.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The book bans "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. It also says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and forbids United Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex unions.

Possible outcomes

"It is important to have the trial in order to maintain the integrity of our church's covenant and discipline," Lambrecht said. "To ignore a violation of the covenant would be to devalue it and detract from the discipline and accountability we see as part of what it means to be United Methodist clergy."

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht. Photo courtesy Faith Community Church.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht. Photo courtesy Faith Community Church.
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Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee appointed retired Bishop Clay Foster Lee Jr., of Byram, Miss., to be the trial’s presiding officer. A jury of 13 Wisconsin clergy members and two alternates will hear the case.

The Book of Discipline gives the trial court a range of penalties if there is a conviction, including suspension or a lesser penalty. The court also could revoke DeLong's credentials as a member of the United Methodist clergy.

In the last public case that went to trial on this issue, Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud was defrocked in 2005 after she told her congregation in suburban Philadelphia that she was in a committed gay relationship.

DeLong knows she could share the same fate.

"Over the years, I came to realize that hiding who I am and living a divided life was taking a toll on my soul and psyche in ways I was afraid couldn’t be repaired," she told UMNS in February.

"I still love the church. But my calling to serve the church will no longer come at the expense of denying who I am, and my love for the church will not supersede my love for my partner."

An intensifying debate

The trial comes at a time when the denomination's longtime debate over homosexuality has reignited with the approach of the 2012 General Conference. Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, can change The Book of Discipline.

In February, 36 retired bishops signed A Statement of Counsel to the Church, urging the denomination to end its ban on gay clergy. About 42 percent of the denomination's 85 retired bishops signed the statement.

Retired Bishops Sharon Z. Rader and Donald A. Ott, who circulated the document, both have served in the Wisconsin Conference. Rader is a former bishop of the conference, and Ott entered the ministry in Wisconsin and now lives in Pewaukee.

The Rev. Scott Campbell.  Photo courtesy Harvard Chaplains.
The Rev. Scott Campbell. Photo courtesy Harvard Chaplains.

Ott said in February that DeLong’s case helped inspire the statement, but the bishops would have written the statement even without her specific situation. Neither active nor retired bishops are allowed to vote at General Conference, which meets every four years

The subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at each General Conference since 1972, and delegates consistently have voted to keep the restrictions. Regardless of the DeLong trial verdict, the topic of the church’s stand on homosexuality will surface again when General Conference meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. Regional conferences in the United States will conclude their 2011 meetings by July, and some of those conferences have taken up the issue and will offer changes to The Book of Discipline.

An increasing number of Christian denominations are opting to allow the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, including the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, most recently, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

However, polling suggests such views are in the minority among United Methodist clergy. The 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey, conducted by Washington-based Public Religion Research, found a quarter of United Methodist clergy support same-sex marriages, and less than a third back gay and lesbian clergy.

Trial preparations

DeLong, who lives in Osceola, Wis., spent eight years in pastoral ministry. Since 2006, she has been executive director of Kairos CoMotion, a group that provides advocacy and education on progressive theological issues.

The Rev. Scott Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., will be DeLong's counsel. He is a member of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus in the denomination that advocates for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.

He agreed to take the case, he said, because he "felt very moved by her commitment to justice not only for herself but her willingness to really pay the price personally for helping the church move toward a greater understanding of justice."

Lambrecht took on the role of church counsel at Bishop Linda Lee's request. He also is a board member of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus in The United Methodist Church that advocates for maintaining the church's current stance regarding homosexuality. He will begin working for the group full-time in July.

His goal as counsel, he said, is to demonstrate the truth of the charges facing DeLong and "to hold Amy accountable to the covenant which we all share as clergy and the commitments that she made to live within that covenant."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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  • melnjohnc 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    You may find what a friend said to a group of people while running for mayor of our town. When asked what was his stand on LGBTG, he said, God made them & if it's good enough for God, it good enough for him. BRAVO
  • Susan Wilson 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I am disappointed in the WI conference for bringing this to trial at his point in time. With many of our churches unable to meet our apportionments and in some cases other expenses as well, I disagree with spending money on this. Why could this not have waited a year until the conference brought it up for vote? The per diems and imported bishop have got to cost a pretty penny. We need you to watch every dollar right now, we are hurting personally and as a church in many instances. I had a gay friend. When you get to know someone personally and see how they try to live a heterosexual life, you understand this. How wonderful that she is in a long term relationship. What was she to do, just date casually? Not what any of us seek. Being a minister is kind of going it alone. You have a lot of issues to deal with and need support in your life. I was reading the discipline one day, an old copy to be sure, but it talked about leading a life of taking care of your body and said clergy should not smoke. We had a minister that smoked. Does anyone know is that still in there? My next comment is going to make you uncomfortable. Not a UMC camp, but a Pete Newman was charged with doing horrible things to boys at a church camp in Missouri. He spoke at sentencing, sounded gay to me, and said he had been dealing with this since he was twelve. My guess is he was abused himself, did it with boys his own age and when of age felt he could not be gay because of the vocation he wanted to pursue, his twin brother was a minister and he came from a family where it was all about religion. How sad. My gut feeling was if the Christian community was more accepting, this likely would not have happened. Don't get me wrong, he made some very bad choices. He is paying with two life sentences plus thirty. With this trial here in WI, I guess I see why students in classes always seemed to have to present on gay issues if they were gay. At the time, this made me uncomfortable. I wanted to say, be quiet and live your life. What they told me is it is about who you feel an emotional connection to, not a matter of sexuality. If you are gay, please come to church with your partner so we get to know you as human beings and friends. This is the only approach that will change our minds. Difficult topic to be sure. But we have more important uses for the money being spent on this at this time.
  • Dorothy 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    "Upholding the discipline" can also mean hearing God's call to perfect our covenant, instead of worshiping the religious idol of the BoD
  • Dorothy 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Allen, what is that log in your eye?
  • MarieS 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    It's about time a church stood on the firm foundation of the Truth instead of the "feel good" version of the gospel. Good work. I will pray for the UMC-I'm sure there will be many more developments on this front.

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