Gay Clergy Trial Update: the Prosecution Speaks

BOTHELL, WA.— "This is a trial about Karen Dammann. The law of the church is not on trial. This may make your decision more painful to reach.”

The rare church trial of Karen Dammann closed its third day of deliberations with these words spoken by the Rev. James Finkbeiner, who represented the United Methodist Church, March 18, 2004. The jurors in the trial said they would resume at 8 a.m. local time Saturday, March 20.

Unlike the arguments made on Thursday, Friday’s deliberations brought several members of the prosecution to the stand, including Finkbeiner, who recapped the testimonies made by the defense to strengthen his arguments.

Finkbeiner spent the most time discussing the testimony of retired Bishop Jack Tuell, who, on March 18, argued that the UMC’s Book of Discipline, which prohibits homosexuality among clergy, is merely “instructive” and outdated.

Finkbeiner said that although Tuell was persuasive, his opinion was that of just "one faithful United Methodist among 10 million others."

Finkbeiner urged the trial court, consisting of 13 clergy members, to remember their ordination oath to "serve the church and follow the Discipline."

"You are not looking for painless ways out, or easy answers," he said. "Your charge is not to rewrite the law, but to decide if the law has been violated. Clearly, it has,” said Finkbeiner.

Since the trial’s start, whether Dammann is a self-avowed practicing homosexual has not been disputed; in 2001, Dammann wrote a letter to her bishop and fellow clergy member stating that she was living in a “partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship,” and in a later statement that specified that this relationship did indeed involve sexual contact.

The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids the ordination and ministerial appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” since such practices are considered “incompatible with Christian teachings.”

Nonetheless, the moderator of the trial, Bishop William Grove, instructed the members of the rial court to consider Dammann innocent of the charge “unless and until” they found otherwise.

More importantly, Grove emphasized the need for the trial court to rely on the authority of the Book of Discipline, even if they disagree with the law.

Finkbeiner agreed, reminding the jury once again about the issue at hand.

"I remind you again that this is a trial about Karen Dammann," he said. "The law of the church today is not on trial."

“It is the General Conference that sets the law," said Finkbeiner, referring to the denomination’s top assembly. "If we do something radically different here, pretty soon we lose discipline and order."

He then went to say that under this current UMC law, Dammann is “indisputably” guilty

Nine of thirteen votes are needed to convict the lesbian pastor; anything less would be considered an acquittal. If Dammann is convicted, she will lose all her rights as a member of the clergy.

On a broader scale, the jury’s willing will have "tremendous ramifications" on the United Methodist legislative body, which meets next month. The general conference meets every four years and revises the Book of Discipline, which states church law and social principles for the United Methodist Church.

"It will create pressures of fear and anxiety and confusion, particularly if she's innocent. But, if she's guilty as well,” said Finkbeiner.

A big question, Finkbeiner said, is whether the verdict might "ultimately threaten the church in terms of can we hold it together."

Other denominations that are undergoing similar struggles over homosexual ordinations, such as the Episcopal Church USA, Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, are most likely to keep up to date on the trial.