SEATTLE -- There is nothing ambiguous about the United Methodist Church law that forbids the appointment of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" as pastors.
Yet complaints against two ministers from Seattle who openly declared they are gay have been dismissed this year, allowing them to continue to preach and fueling a fierce national debate within the church.
The decisions have galvanized Methodists who say it's time for church doctrine to make room for gay pastors and be more accepting of gays, in general. Others are crying foul, saying church law should be upheld.
"People of genuine Christian faith disagree about this," said the Rev. Elaine Stanovsky, spokeswoman for the Seattle district of the church's Pacific Northwest Conference. "Both sides feel the church is going the wrong way, so everybody's in pain about it."
The conference's committee on investigation dismissed a complaint last month against the Rev. Karen Dammann, former pastor at Seattle's Woodland Park United Methodist Church, rather than sending the case on to a church trial.
Less than two months earlier, the same panel cleared Dammann's successor, the Rev. Mark Edward Williams, who declared himself "a practicing gay man" in June 2001 at the annual meeting of the denomination's Pacific Northwest Conference, which includes Washington state and northern Idaho.
"God works in mysterious ways," said Williams, 32, and pastor at Woodland Park since 1999. "I think that the process Karen and I have gone through has had some real moments of grace, as well as painful, frustrating moments."
In Dammann's case, Bishop Elias Galvan of the Pacific Northwest Conference filed the complaint after she wrote him a letter disclosing she was gay.
"I was not going to lie, and I was not going to be evasive," said Dammann, 45, who now lives in Amherst, Mass., with her partner, Meredith Savage, and their 4-year-old son. "I wanted to tackle the question rather than force them to ask it."
Three committee members voted to send the case to trial, three voted no, and one member abstained. Five votes are needed to send a complaint to trial.
The Rev. Pat Simpson, committee chairwoman, said if law had governed her decision, she would have felt compelled to vote for a trial. But in moral terms, she said she couldn't bring herself to cast a vote against "a pastor of proven effectiveness and moral courage." She abstained.
The Rev. Sanford Brown, who voted against sending the case to trial, said the panel was faced with "the unattainable task of trying to uphold two contradictory passages" in The Book of Discipline, which outlines the laws that govern the United Methodist Church.
One passage bars the appointment of openly gay pastors and another says "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."
Church counsel could appeal the decision if Galvan determines the committee made any mistakes. Galvan's review is expected to wrap up later this month, Stanovsky said.
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