Saturday’s verdict, which acquitted lesbian United Methodist Church pastor Karen Dammann of violating church and biblical law, ignited a firestorm of criticism from church members and leaders across the nation, who clarified that despite the biased ruling, the denomination as a whole rejects the ordination of active and open homosexuals.
"I'm just stunned at this decision," said James Heidinger, president and publisher of the Methodist publication Good News. He said the jury committed "intellectual dishonesty" by claiming church standards regarding homosexuality are unclear.
The 13-member jury from the highly liberal Pacific Northwest Conference resolved that Dammann was not guilty of breaking church laws, despite explicit statements written in the Book of Disciplines that say otherwise. The jury also claimed that the bible was unclear on its stance on homosexuality, despite the many passages that condemn the sinful act.
"Everyone knows what the standard is, they just don't agree with it," said Heidinger, whose publication in based in Wilmore, Ky.
Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement, a conservative movement within the church with more than 600,000 members, agreed with Heidinger.
"I believe the vast majority of United Methodists are in grief and shock today. I'm personally heartbroken," said Miller. "I think the issue is, a part of the jurisdiction has broken covenant with the rest of the church and has decided to go the way of the world, as opposed to being faithful to and abiding by church law."
While most Methodists doubt Dammann’s ruling will overturn the current church law banning the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, everyone predicts that homosexuality will be the first on the list of issues to be discussed at the upcoming quadrennial UMC General Conference, which begins April 27 in Pittsburgh. The conference, made up of nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world, is the denomination's top lawmaking body.
"We'll be tackling the question" again in Pittsburgh, said the Rev. Joel Garrett, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in McMurray, south of Pittsburgh. "I'm sure it will be included in the discussion."
"We believe homosexual people to be people of sacred worth, but we don't believe the practice is compatible with Christian teaching. Because of that, homosexual candidates are not supposed to be considered for ministry or ordained," Garrett said.
The debate over homosexuality has been tearing at the seams of the United Methodist Church since 1972. In the last two conferences, the delegates voted to retain the current church doctrine by a margin of 2-to-1 or more.
Rifts over homosexuality have developed in other Christian denominations — most notably the Episcopal Church, which confirmed an openly gay bishop last year. Since then, several conservative parishes have threatened to break ties with the denomination, and 13 of 28 international archdioceses have issued statements rejecting the ECUSA from their family. Additionally, funding and membership to the denomination dropped significantly.
At that end, Miller, of the Confessing Movement, said she could not predict how the tensions within the denomination will play out.
Said Miller, “We're just praying about what is the proper response to what has occurred.”