7:00 A.M. EST June 21, 2011
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.