In 2004, a pair of Methodist trials sandwiched the General Conference and an intervening Judicial Council decision. Clergywomen Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud had earlier come out to their congregations and conferences, one on the West coast and one on the East, not so much as acts of ecclesiastical disobedience but because “I could no longer live the life of a closeted lesbian clergyperson (Dammann), and “not telling the whole truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith (Stroud).” For each woman, it was a matter of personal integrity.
The West coast trial of Rev. Dammann came first. On March 17, 2004, Rev. Dammann had her day in court before a jury of her clergy peers. The trial would play out in the pages of the secular press and in daily, sometimes hourly, news releases from the UMC news service that were posted to the UMC website. The issue before the court was whether Pastor Dammann was guilty of “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings.” A few days before the trial, she had married Meredith Savage, her partner of nine years.
An early witness required assistance to take the stand; blind and retired, Dr. Robert Walker had served in parish ministry and also had chaired the Board of Ordained Ministries when Karen Dammann went through the process years earlier. The crowd murmured when Dr. Walker testified that his own ministry was “incompatible with Christian teachings” because he was blind. He referred to Leviticus 21 that decreed that a blind man should not be a priest (not allowed to approach God). The onlookers snickered when he added that the Levitical law-code also prohibited clergy “broken-footedness” because defense counsel Rev. Robert Ward happened to be hobbled with a splint on his foot. So it went for three days. The prosecution essentially relied on Pastor Dammann’s own acknowledgement of her sexuality and relationship status.
On the third day, the jurors began deliberations; after an evening adjournment the deliberations continued the next day (Saturday). For hours the press and the public waited. Dammann, Savage, and their five-year old son prayed in the sanctuary, and supporters milled about in quiet conversation. Finally, at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, the jury verdict was announced. Nine of the thirteen jurors were required to convict, but the prosecution didn’t even get a single vote for conviction; instead, there were eleven votes for acquittal with two abstentions.
The outcry was immediate. Many bishops harrumphed.
“A clear sign of rebellion,” said the statement of Georgia Bishops Lindsey Davis and Mike Watson.
“Incomprehensible that a clergy jury can place itself above the law,” said North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards.
“A serious challenge to the order of the church,” said Central Pennsylvania Bishop Neil Irons.
Emotions hadn’t yet cooled when the 2004 General Conference convened in Pittsburgh a mere month after the Dammann jury nullification verdict. For the gatekeepers, the General Conference provided the means to circumvent the rule that jury acquittals were not appealable. They would ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory judgment to interpret the decision of the trial court.
In a sleight of hand that would make an impartial jurist cringe, the “Supreme Court” accepted jurisdiction and rendered lip service to the principle that the “Judicial Council has no authority to review the findings of that trial court” before proceeding to gut the decision of any import. The Judicial Council stifled the jury verdict and suffocated Dammann under the weight of doublespeak: “[this decision does] not address the case of the Reverend Karen T. Dammann. This decision shall be applied only prospectively … [but] a bishop may not appoint one who has been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.”
Since clergy appointments are made annually, Pastor Dammann was effectively barred from future ministry. It was also a clear warning to the bishops of the church–a shot across the bow of the episcopate– enforce the rules of good order and kowtow to the company line. As a dissenting opinion claimed, it was also a consolidation of authority in the national church at the expense of individual annual conferences. The traditional prerogative of annual conferences to ordain, appoint, and oversee clergy had been effectively usurped by the General Conference.
The Rev. Stroud trial began on December 1, 2004. Three days earlier, on Sunday evening, November 28, 2004, Pastor Stroud celebrated the eucharist with her congregation. The mood was solemn under the pall of the Judicial Council Decision and General Conference actions of the previous summer. Many were aware that this would probably be the last time Pastor Stroud would have authority as minister of word and sacrament. As she began the communion liturgy, she stumbled on the words, then regrouped, “This could potentially be the last time, and I do it wrong!” The congregation laughed, and she continued, “Rejoice …”
Pastor Stroud’s partner, Chris Paige, was there at her side, and both sets of parents attended the trial to offer support. Chris’ mother, Carolyn Paige, wrote of the trial proceedings at Camp Innabah in eastern Pennsylvania:
Camp staff shuttled jurors and family members up the hill to the camp gymnasium, which served as the courtroom. When it wasn’t raining, we walked. Chris and Beth walked, too. Cameras clicked whenever they came up the hill because the press was out in force. Along with Alan and Susan Raymond, who were producing the PBS documentary “The Congregation,” there were reporters from CNN, the Associated Press, United Methodist Church news, local newspapers and TV stations. Whenever we came out of the gym, there were likely to be six TV vans, that many video cameras, and a dozen microphones. The press seemed confounded by Beth’s attitude; they could not understand her not being angry and belligerent.
Many in our church families shared the pain of this trial. I was honored to wear a rainbow stole that had been worn by an observer at Rev. Karen T. Dammann’s trial earlier in the year. Many of the camp staff and other church staff, while upholding the required neutrality, were privately supportive. I was drawn to a woman who worked in the church. She could not show her support publicly. She could not express the pain she felt publicly either. I could. And so I cried for her.*
With jury instructions that left little wriggle room, the jury still barely convicted Pastor Stroud by a vote of 7-6 and stripped her of her clergy credentials. Subsequent appeals did not change the result. The rigidity of the UMC’s actions the previous summer had proved to be unyielding. Pastor Stroud’s congregation immediately re-hired her as a lay minister, and she continued as before but not as celebrant of the sacraments. She remained so employed for nearly four years before she returned to academia to seek a teaching career.
*Reprinted with permission of the author, Carolyn Paige, on the website of Christian Feminism Today, http://www.eewc.com/BookReviews/church-trial/
The book is now available!
Print copies are available from Amazon, the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.
This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)
1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)
1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)
1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)
1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)
2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)
2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)
2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)