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Lesbian elder faces church trial


2:00 P.M. EST February 9, 2011

The Rev. Amy Delong. A UMNS photo by Amy Zellmer.
The Rev. Amy Delong. A UMNS photo by Amy Zellmer.
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A lesbian clergywoman in Wisconsin will face a church trial that could result in her removal from United Methodist ordained ministry.

The Rev. Amy DeLong’s trial has been scheduled for April 11 at First United Methodist Church in Appleton, Wis.

DeLong, who has been a clergy member for 14 years and currently serves as director of an advocacy group, triggered the case in 2009 when she agreed to officiate at a union of a lesbian couple. That same year, she also registered with her partner of nearly 16 years under Wisconsin’s Domestic Partnership Conference. She reported both actions to the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference.

“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 said in an interview.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

The Book of Discipline also says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman. The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, ruled in 2009 that it is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy to perform ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions, even in states where such unions are legal.

The Wisconsin committee of investigation that charged DeLong almost seemed reluctant to do so. In the charging document issued on Dec. 10, 2010, the panel extolled her “extraordinary courage” in openly acknowledging her sexual orientation and called the situation “fundamentally unjust.”

“The Committee is required to consider whether reasonable grounds support these chargeable offenses, yet chargeable offenses based on sexual orientation are inconsistent with Social Principles in the Discipline that address Human Sexuality and Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation,” the document said.

The panel, however, also noted that the part of the Book of Discipline dealing with chargeable offenses represents church law and is unambiguous.

“I still love the church,” DeLong said. “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.”

A continuing debate

The subject of homosexuality has sparked contention every four years at the gathering of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. A majority of delegates has consistently voted not to change the Book of Discipline.

The issue came up again on Feb. 1 when 33 retired bishops released a Statement of Counsel to the Church urging the church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy. Nearly 40 percent of the denomination’s 85 retired bishops have signed the statement.

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

A communion chalice, broken in protest of the church's stance on homosexuality, is mended and returned to the 2004 General Conference altar in Pittsburgh. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
A communion chalice, broken in protest of the church's stance on homosexuality, is mended and returned to the 2004 General Conference altar in Pittsburgh. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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Ott said by e-mail that DeLong’s case helped inspire the statement, but the bishops would have written the statement even without her specific situation. DeLong said she appreciates what the bishops have done.

However, the denomination’s current policy on ordination has many supporters among both clergy and lay members.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, pastor of Faith Community Church in Greenville, Wis., said the Book of Discipline honors and respects people while at the same time maintaining scriptural standards. He is a board member of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus in the denomination.

“I think Scripture is very clear that our expression of the good gift of sexuality is to be reserved only within heterosexual marriage,” he said.

The Rev. Ethan Larson, pastor of two United Methodist churches in and around Viroqua, Wis., agreed. He said that the denomination’s laws on homosexuality are in keeping with historic Christianity as well as the Bible.

He is president of Wisconsin Association of Confessing United Methodists, part of another unofficial evangelical group in the denomination.

“It doesn’t mean people aren’t valuable, aren’t of great worth,” Larson said. “But all of us have things in our lives that we need to check to see if they are within what God says is acceptable or not.”

His Viroqua congregation in the past seven months has welcomed new members, who transferred from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They were unhappy with that denomination’s decision in 2009 to reverse its ban on noncelibate, homosexual clergy.

Larson worries that regardless of how DeLong’s case is resolved, there will be United Methodists on both sides of the debate who will say “Enough’s enough,” and leave the church because they don’t like the denomination’s direction.

“There are many people who are getting tired of the conversation on both sides,” Larson said.

A personal decision

DeLong, who lives in Osceola, Wis., said she hopes her case will help the church be more authentic to its mission.

She 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.

“As long as the church holds discrimination in its heart against gay and lesbian people,” she said, “it’s not being true to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s not being true to its proclamations.”

DeLong grew up in the United Church of Christ, but she said she found her spiritual home in The United Methodist Church in college.

Years later, she met her partner in a United Methodist congregation’s Bible study. In that same Bible study, she said, she discerned God’s call to ordained ministry.

She knew the church’s stand on homosexuality when she was ordained, but she said no one in the process ever asked her about her sexuality.

“If I were going through the ordination process now, I probably wouldn’t get as far,” she said. “But then I felt called to be ordained. Those callings were simultaneous — a calling to love my partner and a calling to be ordained. I did not know how to choose.”

Possible outcomes

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference on Jan. 31 set the trial date and appointed retired Bishop Bruce Blake to be the trial’s presiding officer, according to the conference. A jury of 13 clergy members and two alternates will be selected to hear the case.

DeLong said she will not deny that she performed the union or that she’s a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

The Discipline gives the trial court a range of penalties with a conviction, including suspension or a lesser penalty.

However, the court also could revoke her credentials as a member of the United Methodist clergy.

There is precedence for that result.

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

*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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