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National | RELIGION: Once again, evangelicals and other conservatives in the 8.3-million-member United Methodist Church are basking in the uncertain glow of victory

Issue: "Iraq: The image war," May 22, 2004

At the United Methodist Church's 10-day governing General Conference, which ended this month in Pittsburgh, conferees fortified the church's official position condemning homosexual behavior and prohibiting noncelibate lesbians and gays from serving as clergy. They also defeated an attempt by liberals to create wiggle room that could enable gays and their backers to skirt church law.

This battle over the homosexuality issue has been going on for three decades in the quadrennial conferences. The conservatives have been on the winning side so far, but by decreasing margins. And they know gays and their supporters will continue to ignore church law and be back next time to fight again. Enforcement of church law is an issue that must be addressed, says Jim Heidinger, head of the Good News renewal movement, part of the UMDecision 2004 coalition that coordinated conservative efforts at the conference.

The shot that started the latest skirmish came in March, when a clergy jury in the Seattle area acquitted Rev. Karen Dammann, 47, of charges related to homosexuality. She was on leave from a church and seeking reappointment. The jury found she was indeed an avowed lesbian living in a relationship with another woman. But the 13 jurors, in a decision many observers branded as laughable, also ruled she was not guilty of a chargeable offense because church law was unclear and in seeming conflict with other church policies. Therefore, they ruled, she was eligible for appointment as a pastor of a church.

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Earlier, a committee of the UMC's liberal-dominated Pacific Northwest conference, citing insufficient evidence, had refused to consider the charges against her. But the Judicial Council-the UMC's nine-member supreme court-ordered the conference to try her. The church's book of laws said: "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 UMC.

The jurors said they found trouble with the word since. Many of the nearly 1,000 delegates who gathered in Pittsburgh for the lawmaking conference were determined to clear the air. By a 579-376 vote, they tightened the language to read: "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." However, they also affirmed God's grace is "available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community." They called on families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. "We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."

Pro-gay forces failed 527-423 to add a sentence to the Social Principles section of the church law book that said: "We recognize that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching." Opponents said this would muddy the church's position and confuse the public.

The delegates by a 674-262 vote also emphatically retained the ban on ordination and placement of practicing homosexuals as ministers.

Prodded by conservatives, the Judicial Council took up the Dammann matter. Under UMC rules, verdicts in regional conference trials cannot be appealed, but that doesn't mean they can't be addressed. In a 6-3 decision, the high court went on record saying that the practice of homosexuality clearly is a chargeable offense for clergy, contrary to the Seattle jury's explanation.

The delegates then voted 551-345 to instruct the court to determine the "meaning, application, and effect of its decision on the outcome of the Dammann trial." The council came back with a two-pronged answer: It had no authority to overturn the Seattle decision, but it also said a local bishop may not appoint "a self-avowed, practicing homosexual" to any ministry post. That answer ignited more debate. Conservatives contended that the ruling means Rev. Dammann's bishop couldn't appoint her to pastor a church, which leaves her in limbo. Rev. Dammann's defenders insisted that the ruling applies only to bishops in future cases, not to the Dammann case. The issue remains unresolved.

As in Cleveland four years ago, gay activists and their supporters demonstrated inside and outside the conference venue. This time there were no arrests. At one point, about 200 marchers paraded up and down the aisles with placards but after a short time left peaceably.

In other actions, the delegates:

-rejected a measure floated by some conservatives to seek an "amicable separation" of warring factions into two separate denominations, and by a vote of 869-41 replaced it with a resolution reaffirming "our commitment to work together for our common mission," even "in the midst of disagreement."

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