ELLENSBURG, Wash. (AP)–The acquittal of a lesbian Methodist pastor charged with violating church doctrine drew praise and scorn Sunday across a denomination that may see its divisions over homosexuality laid bare at a major conference next month.
Saturday’s acquittal of the Rev. Karen Dammann was celebrated Sunday at the church where she used to preach in Ellensburg, a small town in central Washington.
“I’m very pleased,” said Dodie Haight, a member of the congregation who sat through Dammann’s trial about 95 miles away in the Seattle suburb of Bothell. “I don’t think the jury had an easy task, but I think they gave it long, thoughtful, prayerful consideration.”
A 13-pastor jury acquitted Dammann, 47, of violating a church ban on ordaining “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” If nine jurors had voted to convict, Dammann could have lost her ministry.
At one point during Sunday’s service, during the sharing of joys and concerns, choir member Charlie McKinney said Dammann had taught the congregation about the power of truth.
“She did a courageous thing and a difficult thing,” McKinney said. “She did this as a way to pull bricks from the age-old wall of prejudice, fear and exclusion.”
But there was concern about the fallout for the United Methodist Church, the nation’s third-largest denomination with 8.5 million U.S. members. The United Methodist Church has repeatedly voted against loosening policies on homosexuality.
“I believe the vast majority of United Methodists are in grief and shock today. I’m personally heartbroken,” said Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement, a conservative movement within the church that claims more than 600,000 members.
“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.”
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.
The church’s stance on homosexuality is on the agenda of the church’s next 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.
Church law prohibits the ordination of open homosexuals and the church’s Book of Discipline declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” However, the denomination’s social principles support gay rights and liberties.
Saturday’s acquittal of Dammann “will not resolve the conflict within the United Methodist Church,” Bishop Elias Galvan of Seattle wrote in a letter read at Sunday’s service in Ellensburg. “As long as this issue is important to society, the church must continue to reflect theologically and biblically and lead in ministries of justice and peace.”
Since the late 1980s, Pacific Northwest Methodist leaders have petitioned for eased policies on homosexuality at each of the denomination’s General Conferences, held every four years, but most delegates have opposed change.
“These are not easy issues to agree upon,” said Rev. Jim Finkbeiner, who prosecuted the case against Dammann but said he was personally glad she won. “Frankly, we in the Northwest are still in the minority, but it’s a growing minority.”
Miller, of the Confessing Movement, said she could not predict how the tensions within the denomination will play out.
“We’re just praying about what is the proper response to what has occurred,” said Miller, a state senator from Indianapolis.
Dammann declared her sexual preference in February 2001, when she sought a new church appointment. She and her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, married this month in Oregon. They have a 5-year-old son.
Dammann said she and Savage planned to stay out of the public eye for a few days rather than join her congregation, but said she hopes to return to Ellensburg as pastor. She’s been on family leave for more than two years, caring for her son, who has a respiratory illness.
Associated Press writer Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis contributed to this report.