Individual bishops from the United Methodist Church stepped forward to reaffirm their support for the denomination’s book of laws and reject the acquittal of openly lesbian pastor Karen Dammann that shocked the denomination.
On March 20, Dammann was found not guilty of “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings” after a March 17-20 trial in Bothell, Wash.
After the verdict was announced, several U.S. bishops from coast to coast addressed their parishioners, who like them, were in disbelief.
In a joint statement, Georgia Bishops Lindsey Davis and Mike Watson expressed support for the Book of Discipline and disappointment in the acquittal.
"It is a clear sign of rebellion when a group chooses to flagrantly ignore the Discipline, substituting their own perspective for the corporate wisdom of the General Conference," they said.
North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards agreed, saying he "finds it incomprehensible that a clergy jury can place itself above the law of the church."
The decision suggests that the trial court "may have been trying the position of the church and not the pastor charged," said Central Pennsylvania Bishop Neil Irons. He wrote that if his interpretation is accurate, the court failed to abide by the Book of Discipline and the verdict represents "a serious challenge to the order of the church, which every ordained United Methodist pastor has agreed to uphold."
Davis, Watson, Virginia Bishop Joe Pennel and Tennessee Bishop William Morris are calling upon the delegates to the 2004 General Conference to arrive in Pittsburgh ready to discuss the verdict and consider a response supporting the connectional covenant. The quadrennial assembly, which wll meet April 27-May 7, is the only body that speaks officially for the UMC.
In past discussions at the General Assemblies, attendants agreed that while homosexuals are people of sacred worth, they must not be considered for ordination, and their lifestyle is one that is incompatible with the Christian teaching. Every minister must vow to uphold these beliefs during their ordination, which is why Dammann’s acquittal was all the more shocking.
"It is my persistent and fervent prayer that the lay and clergy delegates to the upcoming General Conference will find a way to be redemptive while holding steadfast to that which affirms the highest standards of sexual expression," Pennel said. He also said he hopes General Conference finds a way to "hold this jury accountable for its misinterpretation of our Book of Discipline."
The verdict is testing the unity of the church in a new way, said Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker. A breach of the connectional covenant by one part of the church does not destroy it for the entire church, but it could have repercussions, he said.
One violation of the covenant does not amount to schism in the church, nor should schism be a serious danger at this time, he wrote. Nevertheless, the breach "does create anxiety among United Methodists that in the future there could be a breakdown of the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church, which might result in a schism of the visible and physical unity of the church."
Other bishops expressed the need for prayer and faith.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster of Alabama-West Florida, reminded the Methodists in his region that despite the verdict, "that does not mean that anyone can set the Discipline aside in favor of their own preferences."
He said he would pray for God's guidance and "also continue to support and uphold the Book of Discipline as I understand its clear direction concerning these matters." He called upon United Methodists of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference "to be fervent in prayer, gracious in conversation, and committed to making a difference for the sake of Jesus Christ and the glory of God."
Indiana Bishop Woodie White to the state's United Methodists agreed, saying, “It is essential that in the midst of such reactions, the United Methodist Church must remain steadfast and faithful to scriptural and theological grounding."
On March 26, the executive committee of the church’s Council of Bishops released a statement reflecting a similar view: the church must uphold its prescribed laws to prevent chaos and insurmountable schisms.
More than likely, the issue of homosexual ordination and blessings will be the limelight of the upcoming General Assembly. Similarly, the Assembly unfolds may be the decisive factor to maintaining the vast 8.3-million member denomination.