Jack Tuell knew the law before he learned the gospel.
Following law school and two years of legal practice, he entered seminary and became an ordained Methodist clergyman. He would eventually become a bishop, and he delivered the episcopal address at General Conference 1988, and he served as President of the Council of Bishops in 1989-90. But, because of his prior legal training, he would also be asked to provide legal assistance to the church from time to time. The first instance was when he was asked to draft a resolution that would prohibit gay clergy, and the infamous “self-avowed, practicing” language of General Conference 1984 was the result of his input.
Between the first and second Jimmy Creech trials of the late nineties (acquitted in the first, defrocked in the second), Pastor Greg Dell of Broadway UMC in Chicago performed a covenant ceremony for two of his parishioners. Broadway had an estimated 40% gay membership, and Pastor Dell believed his pastoral responsibilities to his congregants outweighed restrictive denominational policies.
Though Bishop Joseph Sprague also disagreed with the denominational prohibition of covenant ceremonies, he felt the tug of episcopal duty and followed through with a trial of Pastor Dell, who was convicted and suspended. Bishop Sprague later reduced the suspension from “indefinite” to one year. Later, Bishop Sprague would be hounded by the same Thomas Lambrecht of “Good News”, the Methodist self-appointed gatekeepers, who would be the prosecutor in the Amy DeLong trial. I have a luncheon date with Pastor Dell upon my return to Chicago, arranged by mutual friend, Pastor John Alan Boryk.
Back to Jack Tuell. Bishop Sprague asked lawyer/bishop Tuell to serve as judge at the Dell trial, and Bishop Tuell agreed, but that experience would result in a change of heart. By then, he was back in parish ministry, and on February 20, 2000, Bishop Tuell delivered a sermon to his congregation; “I was wrong,” he said:
God is ever ready to do a new thing … the God we worship is not a static God, capable only of speaking to us from two, three or four thousand years ago. Rather, God is living, alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now … I believe that God is about to do a new thing among us.
[O]ur real tradition is ignorance. In another way, however, we have a long tradition of change … In the long run, we have always been able to discern when God is doing a new thing in our midst. This capacity to change is among the noblest of our traditions.
What is the role of experience in the issue we speak of today? It is the personal encounter with the anguish, the pain, the hurt, the suffering, the despair which harsh and judgmental attitudes can have on persons of homosexual orientation.
I was wrong. It was experience that showed me I was wrong … A year ago, when Bishop Joseph Sprague of Illinois asked me to come and preside over a church trial [of Pastor Greg Dell], experience made its compelling points with me. Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct. As I understand the Spirit of God, it was wrong … I began to see the new thing God is doing.
It is impossible to predict what actions [future General Conferences] may take, because the Spirit moves at its own pace– “the wind bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8).” But I believe that if the delegates are listening carefully, above the competing pressures of this group and that, they will hear the still, small voice whisper, “I am doing a new thing,” and they will respond faithfully.
A Sermon by Bishop Jack M. Tuell, Des Moines, Washington, Sunday, February 20, 2000. Bishop Tuell repeats this story, with much more information, in the Wednesday edition of the Common Witness Coalition Newspaper, Love Your Neighbor