DeLong trial outcome offers hope for UMC

In a church trial that concluded yesterday, Rev. Amy DeLong was found not guilty of the charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of having performed a same-sex holy union. The penalty for the holy union, which the jury decided in a 9-4 vote after six hours of deliberation, is a 20-day suspension, “to be used for spiritual discernment in preparation for a process seeking to restore the broken clergy covenant relationship,” in the words of the trial court (what the jury is called in UMC jurisprudence). The penalty also requires DeLong to write document on ways to address harm done to the clergy covenant; if the discernment and writing process is not complied with, it will result in a one-year suspension.

The trial outcome is being widely hailed as a victory for those seeking to change the UMC’s unjust doctrine and discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the very fact that someone can even be brought to a church trial simply for being gay or for marrying a gay couple is still an outrage. As the Committee on Investigation in the Wisconsin Annual Conference that reluctantly brought the charges against DeLong in December 2010 put it, “these charges present a fundamentally unjust circumstance.”

The charges and trial came about as a result of DeLong disclosing to church officials in early 2010 the facts that she had performed a 2009 holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple and had registered her own domestic partnership with another woman in November of that year. She refused to lie, by omission or otherwise, about who she is and the ministry to which she is called.

The church’s case on the “self-avowed practicing homosexual” charge ran aground on its inability to prove that DeLong is a “practicing” homosexual. UMC jurisprudence – which has tied itself in knots trying to reconcile the indisputable reality that gay and lesbian clergy are faithful Christians and gifted ministers with its bigoted doctrine asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – requires proof that “genital sexual acts” have been taken place in order to convict someone as a practicing homosexual. On the stand during the trial, the church’s counsel, Tom Lambrecht, asked DeLong, “Does your relationship with your partner include genital contact?” (Is it us or does this question just feel like it belongs in Salem ca. 1692?)

“There is no way, when are you trying to do me harm, that I am going to answer that question,” DeLong responded, as reported by reporter Michael Louis Vinson. She went on to say, “you’re fishing for facts that should have been established (before the trial).”

The outcome on this charge appears to signal that it’s possible for gay and lesbian clergy to be out about their sexual orientation, as DeLong is, and not be prosecutable under the Incompatibility Clause as long as neither they nor anyone else documents the details of their sex lives. While a long way from justice, this circumstance does create breathing room for LGBT clergy in the meantime while the fight to abolish the underlying doctrine continues.

The facts surrounding the holy union that DeLong performed were not in question; hence the guilty verdict on the second charge. But the UMC Book of Discipline is full of self-contradictions on the issue of sexuality. While declaring that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,” it also says “sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society.” Moreover, clergy vow at their ordination to “seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people.” Within these conflicting mandates, DeLong chose to honor the need to minister to all people. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King famously wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963. Including unjust church laws.

The 20-day suspension is a relatively light penalty, and the discernment and writing requirement is a creative response that can potentially be used to move the church forward by addressing the real dilemmas of the clergy covenant under the present unjust circumstances. As RMN Executive Director Troy Plummer put it, “So Amy is tasked with writing a transformational resource for clergy to better understand their covenant with one another? I can’t think of anyone else more up to the task.”

The verdict and the potential of the discernment document combined with the national groundswell of clergy defiance of the ban on same-sex weddings – some 740 clergy in seven annual conferences have pledged to marry all couples as part of the spreading marriage initiative movement, and several other conferences are organizing similar efforts – are a great sign of hope in the UMC. The church can change – the church is changing – even if the rule book isn’t.