Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Driving the wedge

This weekend in Seattle, methodist Church elders dealt a major setback to the right-wing campaign to divide the churches over the issue of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the ministry:
Gay pastor can continue ministry

A lesbian Methodist pastor will be allowed to continue her ministry after she was acquitted Saturday in a church trial over her sexual orientation.

After about 10 hours of deliberations, a jury of 13 pastors ruled in favor of the Rev. Karen Dammann, 47, who disclosed three years ago that she was in a homosexual relationship. Two pastors were undecided and the rest found her not guilty of practices "incompatible with Christian teaching."

It was an interesting ruling, because United Methodists (particularly those in the West), with a long history of progressivism, have been among the most tolerant in ministering to gays and lesbians. But the larger church -- particularly those congregations in the South -- have refused any changes in the church's national rules regarding allowing gays and lesbians into the ministry itself. It represented a real conflict between two competing impulses within the church:
Church law prohibits the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. But the church's social principles support gay rights and liberties.

"We, the trial court, reached our decisions after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberations, and listening for and to the word of God," the jury said in a statement released after the verdict. "We depended upon the prayers of the whole church, which undergirded our process. We depended on the leading of the Holy Spirit."

Of course, this is only the early stages of this particular fight. See the P-I's story the following day:
United Methodists grapple with gay ban

... But the battle over homosexuality in the Methodist ministry is sure to be rejoined April 27 in Pittsburgh, when representatives of the 117 regional conferences around the world assemble in the General Conference, which meets every four years and determines church doctrine.

Homosexuality has been on the agenda every time since 1972, when the General Conference adopted a committee statement that "homosexuals not less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth. ..." -- but only after a floor vote added the phrase "... although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

That started what a church panel on homosexuality recently called "a long and painful struggle ... which continues down to the present time."

It should be clear what Methodist progressives are up against. Indeed, the response from church officials in other parts of the country was fairly ominous:
From the other side of the struggle, the Rev. James Heidinger II of Lexington, Ky., said that decision amounted to "jury nullification" of church doctrine.

"It seemed to so many ... that this was an open-and-shut case," said Heidinger, who leads a conservative, traditionalist movement in the church. "There was never any question about what Karen Dammann was involved in. She admitted that.

"I am stunned by the decision of this trial jury. That is a group, clearly, in the annual conference out there in Washington state, where they're really not -- they don't personally, themselves, embrace the church's position on this issue."

And of course, the faction that has fomented this fight from the beginning -- notably, the Scaife-funded Institute for Religion and Democracy weighed in with its own harsh condemnation of the ruling:
"The church trial for the Rev. Karen Dammann in Washington state was farcical," noted IRD United Methodist spokesman Mark Tooley. "Every United Methodist General Conference since 1972 has declared homosexual practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Yet a jury of 13 clergy decided the church in fact has no position on this topic."

What was especially striking about the IRD release was the way it sought to marginalize the Western churches, making all too plain just how it intends to use the issue as a wedge to weaken the larger church:
The Western Jurisdiction of the 10 million member United Methodist Church (8.3 million in the U.S.) is the denomination's most liberal region and the most resistant to upholding church teachings about marriage and sex. It is also the fastest declining part of the church and now comprises only about four percent of the church's membership. The jurisdiction comprises the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states, which include some of the fastest growing areas of the U.S. population.

"Here is the irony," Tooley said. "Liberal church leaders, who emphasize tolerance and open doors, are largely unable to attract new converts to the faith. When they succumb to the surrounding secular culture, the secular culture does not embrace them, it merely responds with an indifferent shrug."

In this case, he may be right. The secular left needs to wake up and begin defending its Christian allies -- and too often, it is blind to their very existence.

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