Court gives clarity in dealing with gay pastors, bishop says
Court gives clarity in dealing with gay pastors, bishop says


From United Methodist News Service.

Oct. 31, 2001
A UMNS Report

By Tim Tanton*

Following the latest United Methodist Judicial Council decisions regarding gay clergy, a few things have become clearer to Bishop Elias Galvan, leader of the denomination's Seattle Area.

First, statements made by two pastors regarding their sexual orientation are sufficient to initiate a review process of their ministerial standing and relationship to the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, Galvan told United Methodist News Service on Oct. 30. The Seattle Area comprises the annual conference.

Second, the bishop said it's clear that he cannot deny the two pastors ministerial appointments. "Therefore, they will be appointed immediately, as soon as possible," he said.

Meeting Oct. 24-26 in Nashville, Tenn., the Judicial Council clarified for Galvan's conference the relationship between two passages of the denomination's Book of Discipline. The Pacific Northwest members had asked the church's supreme court for a declaratory decision on what they viewed as conflicting rules: One states that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" should not be ordained or appointed to serve in the church; the other requires that all clergy members in good standing receive appointments. The two pastors, the Rev. Karen Dammann and the Rev. Mark Edward Williams, were deemed in good standing.

In a lengthy and complex decision, the nine-member court ruled that the passages are not contradictory. Neither Williams nor Dammann was mentioned by name in the decision.

"We certainly have a little more clarity now as to how those two paragraphs relate, given the Judicial Council decision," Galvan said.

The decision has given the conference a sense of direction about how to proceed, he said. "We're going to begin to implement the decision of the Judicial Council as best we understand it at the present time. It's a long decision, and I'm not sure we understand all the implications at this time, but there are a few things that are clear to us."

Williams is being reappointed pastor of his congregation, Woodland Park United Methodist Church in Seattle, Galvan said. Williams, who had served as pastor, was assigned to a different staff position at the church following his announcement at the Pacific Northwest Conference's annual gathering last June that he is a practicing gay man. The Rev. Bob Hoshibata, Seattle District superintendent, was named interim pastor.

Negotiations are under way with Dammann for an appointment, Galvan said.

Dammann had led a Seattle-area church in 1999 before going on family leave. In a Feb. 14 letter to the bishop, she asked to be taken off family leave and given an appointment with a local congregation. She also told the bishop that she was in a covenanted same-gender relationship. Galvan responded that he didn't see how he could give her an appointment without violating the Book of Discipline, but that her case would be handled through the appropriate process. During the annual conference clergy session in June, she was taken off family leave, effective July 1, and Galvan did not give her an appointment.

Following the annual conference, the bishop's office negotiated with Williams and Dammann to ensure that they had church work, though not clergy appointments. The conference was willing to give Dammann an assignment with the full salary and benefits that a pastor would receive, but she declined, based in part on the expense involved in relocating and the tenuousness of the job pending the Judicial Council meeting. Dammann is living in Amherst, Mass., with her partner and their small son.

A third clergyperson, the Rev. Katie Ladd, declared her same-gender orientation during the Pacific Northwest's June meeting, but she didn't state that she was a practicing lesbian. She was kept on disability leave.

In an Oct. 30 interview, Dammann said Hoshibata had contacted her and that they would be discussing her situation.

"I don't want to shut any doors. I do want to be honest, though, and say we have commitments here now," she said, explaining that her partner started a new, permanent job two months ago.

Besides the expense of moving, an additional factor is the awareness that "there are people waiting to file charges."

"The (court's) decision seems to say that my membership should be reviewed in light of my revelations," Dammann said. "I think that there's a mandate for it in the decision, so I know some sort of process will certainly be initiated."

Though gratified that the court ruled she should be appointed, Dammann said, "I certainly don't want to receive an appointment in Seattle and then be suspended immediately or shortly thereafter. That doesn't seem to be very reasonable."

The court stated that while the review is under way, "the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry, shall place the clergy person on suspension" in accordance with the Book of Discipline. "The clergy person shall be relieved of all clergy duties, but not from appointment during such suspension. If the process is not concluded within the period of suspension, then the clergy person should be placed on an involuntary leave of absence."

How quickly the review processes for Williams and Dammann will unfold is unclear. No one has filed complaints against either pastor, Galvan said. The council has said that the bishop or district superintendent should file complaints if no one else does.

A review takes time, and the Book of Discipline specifies a process designed to protect the rights of the person involved, Galvan said. "We're dealing with the lives of persons and their careers. We want to be careful and responsible and follow the Book of Discipline and be fair."

Damman said she was pleased that the Judicial Council came out strongly in favor of fair and due process "for people like me." However, she also encountered again the strong language of incompatibility, she said, a reference to the denomination's official stand that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. "My family and I are being told again ... 'you are not compatible with Christian teaching,'" she said.

"There are some ominous parts to the decision," Dammann continued. "I think the mandate to ask questions about genital sexual activity is going to be interesting. ... I, for one, don't intend to answer questions about specific genital practices with anybody." Such questions would be an "incredible invasion of privacy," she said.

In the decision, the council stated: "If, in the course of such (ministerial) review, such person affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender, she would have openly acknowledged ... that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual."

Dammann put the court's decision in the context of the nation's current problems. "The thing that really is sad is I think the world is watching," she said, "and I think the country is watching, and I think they're watching in the backdrop of the real issues of our time - terrorism and war and peace and justice. I think it's going to be a blow to the church, ultimately." She said people are going to ask: What is the United Methodist Church's message?

Trained in Army chaplaincy, Dammann believes her background would be valuable at a time like this. "I have skills that I would love to put to work in this time, in this day and age."

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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service

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