Church Trial

June 21st, 2011
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The Casey Anthony trial is getting non-stop coverage right now, but there’s another trial taking place in Wisconsin that’s getting a different kind of national attention. Amy DeLong, a United Methodist pastor, is facing two charges of violating church law--for officiating at a same sex union and for being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual." Clergy members can have their ordination revoked in the United Methodist Church if convicted on either charge.

Many people probably don’t even realize that there’s such a thing as a church trial. They happen occasionally in the United Methodist Church, which, like the United States government, consists of three branches--the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But some United Methodists who probably don’t have a problem with the legislative and executive branches are beside themselves over the prospect of a church trial. Prominent United Methodist blogger Dan Dick, for example, had this to say about the DeLong trial:

...a child of God, a sister-in-Christ, and a member of the family of humankind is going through a stressful and excruciating process of having not only her conduct, but her very personhood judged by the church she feels called to serve. I don’t care what an individual might feel about sexual orientation and the vagaries of human sexuality in general. I care little at the moment about the legalism of the Book of Discipline and a church that runs its most important business by parliamentary procedure law rather than Spirit-filled grace.

The fact is, church trials are part of the package when you try to run a denomination like a republic--so let’s not try to paint this trial as another Inquisition. Without the judicial branch, General Conference legislation would have no teeth, and bishops would probably have too much power (or perhaps too little!) Church trials aren’t an embarrassment, and they shouldn’t be a cause for fear. If anything, the United Methodist Church and other denominations should probably have a few more of them. The problem is, these trials only seem to happen (or we only hear about them) when it’s something related to sex or sexuality. There are plenty of other chargeable offenses in the Book of Discipline, including heresy. And laypeople can be tried too. (How many of you knew that?)

The United Methodist Book of Discipline says that “church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.” I agree, and I believe that’s been the approach in this case. Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that the denomination has looked the other way for years instead of dealing with Rev. DeLong’s violations. News sources say she told denominational officials about being in a same-sex relationship a number of years ago, and it’s been two years since she performed the same-sex union. Since Rev. DeLong has admitted to both violations, the only way she can be acquitted is through jury nullification. But that would set a terrible precedent and undermine our entire United Methodist system.

A minority of United Methodists disagree with church law on this issue--I understand that. But if you disagree with church law, you should work to change it in the appropriate venue--General Conference--not the judicial branch. No matter where you stand on the issue of homosexuality, this is an open and shut case. A court is no place for activism.

Dan Dick writes that the United Methodist Church “runs its most important business by parliamentary procedure law rather than Spirit-filled grace." But it’s unreasonable to think that the Holy Spirit can move through Bishops and General Conference delegates but not through a jury. The United Methodist system is far from perfect, but it works fairly well if each branch of government is running the way it should. That means if we throw out one part, we may as well throw out all of it.


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