May 1, 2004
By Neill Caldwell
(UMNS) - The United Methodist General Conference has directed its
highest judicial body to re-examine the March acquittal of an openly
lesbian pastor, the Rev. Karen Dammann, and determine if a United
Methodist bishop can legally appoint a self-avowed practicing
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
United Methodist General Conference Secretary Carolyn M. Marshall presents a decision of the Judicial Council to the body.
April 29, the Judicial Council ruled that the practice of homosexuality
is a chargeable offense for clergy. By a 6-3 margin, the denomination’s
supreme court said that the statement "the practice of homosexuality is
incompatible with Christian teaching," contained in Paragraph 304.3 of
the 2000 Book of Discipline, is indeed a declaration of the
General Conference of the United Methodist Church. That statement is
"unambiguous," the ruling said.
after the April 29 ruling was read May 1, on the floor of General
Conference, the Rev. Maxie Dunnam of the Kentucky delegation moved that
the Judicial Council determine what the "meaning, application and
effect" of the decision would be on the outcome of the Dammann trial.
The clergy member of the Pacific-Northwest Annual (regional) Conference
was found innocent of the charge of engaging in "practices incompatible
with Christian teaching" as listed in Paragraph 2702.1(b).
trial has received such widespread national attention," said Dunnam,
president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "Everyone is
waiting for the General Conference to respond to this issue.
"We see ourselves as one family, and we have to live by the same discipline," said Dunnam.
Rev. Frank Dorsey of the Kansas East delegation rose to protest
Dunnam’s motion, saying that it was "striking at our heart with a knife
to … destroy our church." He said he could not trust the Judicial
Council with the ability to make a fair ruling on this important issue.
Dorsey referred to a corrected preface to the Social Principles saying
"they are not church law." The statement is included in "The ERRATA to
the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000."
The General Conference voted 551-345 to approve Dunnam’s motion.
Judicial Council members who voted against the majority decision issued
dissenting opinions on the ruling. The Rev. Larry Pickens and Sally
Brown Geis issued a joint dissent, while Sally AsKew issued an
Judicial Council’s ruling followed a motion by Arkansas delegate Fred
H. Haustein from the floor of General Conference that directed the
council to examine the statement in Paragraph 304.3 of the Discipline
and decide whether or not it constituted a declaration by the United
Methodist Church. And, the motion continued, if it was a declaration,
did that mean it was part of church law?
Paragraph 304.3 of the Discipline
reads: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are
subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures
of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy
living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible
with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to
be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve
in The United Methodist Church."
phrase "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" is included in
Paragraph 2702.1(b) under the heading "Chargeable Offenses" for United
Methodist clergy. That paragraph was approved at the 1980 General
Conference, four years before the language in Paragraph 304.3 was
The April 30 ruling reaffirmed an October ruling that the Book of Discipline
is "the law of the church which regulates every phase of the life and
work of the church." At that time, the council upheld the Discipline
as denominational law and reversed the decisions of two lower-ranking
church bodies, the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals and the
Pacific Northwest Conference Committee on Investigation. In split votes,
both committees had supported the dismissal of charges against Dammann.
October ruling, the council said both committees had committed "an
egregious error of church law" by refusing to apply the Book of Discipline
and earlier decisions to the case. The council ordered the
jurisdictional appeals committee to send the case back to the conference
committee on investigation for a new hearing, which paved the way for
Dammann’s trial. There, a 13-member jury of her peers found Dammann
Following that verdict, the Council of Bishops issued a statement that said the Pacific-Northwest ruling "does not alter the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality or the qualifications for ministry. The Discipline’s authority is unchanged. Nor does this case directly affect other annual conferences as they may adjudicate such cases."
April 29 Judicial Council decision said that chargeable offenses are
defined as "pronouncements adopted by General Conference and codified in
ruling also addressed the use of the word "since" in Paragraph 304.3,
which was a point mentioned by a key witness at Dammann’s trial as
meaning the statement was a part of the church’s Social Principles and not official church law.
inclusion of the word ‘since’ as a conjunction introducing the phrase
does not diminish the import of the statement which follows the
conjunction," the council’s ruling read. "Quite the contrary, its usage
connotes an emphatic declaration." The ruling added that the statement
"the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching"
was in fact a public statement, explicit assertion and proclamation.
their joint dissent, Pickens and Geis wrote that they did not agree
that the statement in Paragraph 304.3 rose to "the status of church law"
but instead made reference to Paragraph 161G of the Social Principles.
"Paragraph 304.3, standing alone, is inconclusive and does not represent
a definitive declarative statement by the General Conference," they
her dissent, AsKew wrote: "I must also confess that I made an error in
concurring with Decision 980. More research and prayerful consideration
have convinced me that I never should have concurred in saying that The
United Methodist Church has made a declaration in Paragraph 304.3 that
homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
*Caldwell is a United Methodist News Service correspondent.
News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.