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Committee dismisses complaint against lesbian pastor

7/30/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By United Methodist News Service

A United Methodist committee has dismissed a complaint against a Seattle area pastor who told her bishop that she is living in a same-gender relationship, an admission that put her in conflict with a church law barring practicing gays from ordained ministry.

The complaint against the Rev. Karen Dammann was dismissed after a two-and-a-half-hour hearing July 24 in Tacoma, Wash., before the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference's committee on investigation. In a Feb. 14, 2001, letter to Bishop Elias Galvan, Dammann had stated that she was living in a "partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship." Dammann had been on family leave and had written the letter to inform Galvan that she wanted to return to leading a local congregation.

At the direction of the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court, Galvan filed a complaint against Dammann last November, citing "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." The church's Book of Discipline holds that "since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."

The complaint was forwarded to the conference committee on investigation, which was responsible for determining whether grounds existed for sending the case to a church trial. At the hearing, the committee fell short of the five clergy votes needed for a trial. Three of the committee's clergy members supported such a move, three others opposed it, and one abstained. Church law prevented the panel's two lay members from voting.

The next day, Galvan said he was reviewing the committee's decision "to make certain that there were no errors of church law or administration that might warrant an appeal."

Any appeal would have to be made by the counsel for the church and submitted to the Western Jurisdiction's committee on appeals, according to conference officials.

"This decision confirms the Rev. Dammann's status as a clergyperson in good standing, with the right to a full-time pastoral appointment," the annual conference said in a statement.

Dammann said the committee's decision not to send the case to trial left her "in shock" for a while. "I wasn't expecting it," she told United Methodist News Service.

During the hearing, she presented what she described as "an expanded version of my letter to the bishop." She told the committee that she felt called to the life and work of a pastor, and that her sense of calling did not change after she discovered she was gay in 1995. She described for the panel how she went through the stages of discovering her sexual orientation and then settled down "to living life in the closet."

When her partner had complications while giving birth, Dammann said she found herself lying in order to get more time off to care for the mother and their son. She realized she couldn't lie again, she said.

She told the committee about the conflict she had felt. "I addressed the underlying problems of being an effective pastor when you're in the closet," she said. "For me, I was not an effective pastor. ... I was not the pastor I could be and am called to be. We tell one another that the truth will set us free, and … I was not allowing the truth to set me free."

She and her partner don't feel ashamed of their sexuality, she said. She still feels called as an elder, and she believes the church is wrong for not acknowledging that God has called and will continue to call gay people to ordained ministry, she said.

The July 24 hearing was closed and the proceedings were confidential. In a statement afterward, the committee said: "The hearing and subsequent deliberations included consideration of scriptural and theological issues as well as church law. "

The committee looked at the "broader context" of the case, beyond the question posed by the complaint, said the Rev. Patricia Simpson of Seattle, chairwoman of the panel. The members were guided by The Book of Discipline, which states, "The judicial process shall have as its purpose a just resolution of judicial complaints, in the hope that God's work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Jesus Christ."

In addition to Dammann's letter to Galvan and a Judicial Council decision related to the case, the committee considered other materials, Simpson told UMNS. "Rev. Dammann provided a much more detailed explanation. … We also interviewed other witnesses who provided further insight. We did ask all the committee's witnesses during the investigation hearing to give us their biblical and theological insights on the questions at hand as well as church law and the facts of the case."

In a prepared statement, Simpson said the committee members "conducted the investigation and made our decision in good faith according to the procedures laid out in the Discipline. Though the details of our deliberations are confidential, I can say with complete confidence that each member's vote was cast with integrity, after full and prayerful consideration."

Simpson abstained from voting, explaining later that she believes The Book of Discipline is wrong on the issue. "After hearing Karen Dammann's response and the other witnesses at the hearing, and after long discussion in the committee afterwards, I was unable to vote either yes or no," she said.

"I have deep respect for the rule of law in society, and for the role of the Discipline in our church," she said. In this case, her legal reasoning based on the church's rules "would have led me to vote for a trial," she said. "My moral reasoning would not allow that vote. I pray each day as Jesus taught us, 'your will be done.' I am convinced that it's God's will to keep Karen Dammann -- a pastor of proven effectiveness and moral courage -- in ordained ministry in our church. My decision to abstain honestly reflected this impasse."

Another committee member, the Rev. Sanford Brown of Everett, Wash., said the panel had "the unattainable task of trying to uphold two contradictory passages" in The Book of Discipline. One passage bars "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ordained ministry, while the other requires the committee on investigation to work "'in the hope that God's work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Jesus Christ,'" he said in a statement. "I voted against forwarding the relevant charges to trial because I could envision no other decision that would lead to God's work of justice being done in this and similar cases," he said.

"During the hearing, it became clear to me that The Book of Discipline sets our church up for painful conflicts within and among good people when it effectively tolerates the presence of gay and lesbian ministers, but forces them to deceive the church about their sexual identity," Brown said. The denomination's top legislative body, the General Conference, must remove the "internal inconsistencies from our church's policies that force members like me to weigh some portions of our covenant against others," he said.

Ordained in 1994, Dammann had served Pacific Northwest churches from 1992 until going on family leave in 1999. Her request for an appointment last year was put on hold while the annual conference awaited a Judicial Council ruling related to her case. After the court ruled that the bishop couldn't deny appointment to a clergy member without due process, Dammann was appointed to Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle and worked on a research project for the conference from her home in Amherst, Mass. Since the committee's action, Seattle District Superintendent Robert Hoshibata has been in consultation with her about an appointment.

Dammann said that she and her partner are exploring their options. "I do feel like God's hand has been in it throughout this whole process, and things will become obvious about what we should do and how we should do it and when."

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