By TOM DOLAN -
A Wisconsin United Methodist Church panel has brought charges against a lesbian minister that could end in her removal from the clergy - but the same committee praised her courage and criticized the church laws that required that the charges be issued.The case has helped inspire a letter from 32 retired Methodist bishops urging the church to drop its ban on "self-proclaimed practicing homosexuals" serving as ministers.A church trial has been set for April in the case, the first of its kind in Wisconsin.The Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola, in northwestern Wisconsin, precipitated the case in 2009 when she agreed to preside at a holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple, and then separately registered with her partner of 15 years under Wisconsin's Domestic Partnership Law. She reported both actions to the church's Wisconsin Annual Conference, the governing body for the church in the state, as part of her annual accounting of her ministry.
She said she knew her actions would have consequences.
"I want to help the church to be true to its proclamations," she said in an interview. "We don't have to earn our way into God's heart. We've already been accepted."
The United Methodist Church, the nation's third-largest denomination, prohibits ministers from performing same-sex unions and allows gay or lesbian ministers only if they're celibate, or if they don't reveal their sexual orientation.
Sue Laurie, one of a team helping DeLong with her case, says that works out to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in states where the church is friendlier to gay clergy. In less-friendly places, for example western Pennsylvania when Laurie was in the seminary years ago, prospective clergy members may be asked about their sexual orientation and excluded if they're practicing homosexuals, she says.
The Wisconsin committee that charged DeLong appeared almost reluctant in doing so, suggesting in a statement with its charging document that it had no choice under church laws. It praised her courage and described the charges as "fundamentally unjust."
"The Committee fears that the United Methodist Church . . . is at grave risk of forever losing the infinite talents, gifts and grace that gay and lesbian clergy bring to make the (church) a better, stronger, more vibrant place," the statement says.
DeLong's case is not the only one active in a Protestant church in Wisconsin.
Scott Anderson, executive director of the Sun Prairie-based Wisconsin Council of Churches, is trying to return to the Presbyterian ministry. He resigned 20 years ago after he was outed as a homosexual in the California church he was serving.
A judicial commission upheld his ordination in October, and a final appeal to the church's national court is expected to be heard in April.
Debates about gays serving in clergy have also roiled the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, among others, in recent years.
The denominations have had intense theological disagreements over gay ministry, with more conservative members interpreting scripture as being in opposition to homosexuality.
DeLong, who has been a clergy member for about 14 years, is well-known in United Methodist circles in Wisconsin as a progressive advocate on issues affecting the church, including homosexuality.
She spent eight years on the church body that credentials clergy. She pastored parishes for eight years until 2006, after her appointment to a Milwaukee congregation was abruptly withdrawn - she believes because of her homosexual relationship. She's since worked in ministry outside of parishes.
She's also a co-founder of a group called Kairos Commotion, which she describes as a network providing advocacy and education about progressive issues in the Methodist church.
Born in Rhinelander, she was raised in the United Church of Christ, but became a Methodist when she joined a congregation in River Falls while she was in college.
Bishop Linda Lee, who heads the United Methodists' Wisconsin Annual Conference, on Monday appointed a presiding officer, retired Bishop Bruce Blake, and set April 11 as a trial date for DeLong. A jury of 13 clergy members and two alternates will be selected to hear the case.
The conference has declined to discuss the case, calling it a personnel matter.
The letter from the 32 retired bishops also doesn't mention DeLong's case, but retired Bishop Donald A. Ott, who lives in Pewaukee, says that the case helped inspire the letter. He co-authored the letter with retired Bishop Sharon Z. Rader, who preceded Lee as bishop of the Wisconsin Conference; the other signers are retired bishops from all over the United States, with one each from Europe and Africa.
Scott Campbell, a Massachusetts elder in the church who will serve as counsel for DeLong at the trial, said the defense won't deny that she's a self-avowed practicing homosexual or that she performed the union.
But he said the court has leeway in punishment.
Defrocking is a possibility, but the penalty could be as little as a day's suspension or a reprimand, he said.
There is precedent for more serious consequences.
In a case that drew national attention, Irene Elizabeth Stroud was defrocked in 2005 after she announced to her Philadelphia church's congregation that she was in a committed gay relationship.
The issue comes up at the denomination's General Conference - the meeting of its world governing body - every four years, but so far liberals have been unsuccessful in their attempts to remove the "self-avowed practicing homosexual" rule.
A group within the church called Good News has favored that rule, based on what members say are biblical strictures against homosexuality - strictures debated by theologians on the other side.
Thomas Lambrecht, pastor of Faith Community United Methodist Church in Greenville and a board member of Good News, says the church couldn't have avoided filing a complaint against DeLong after her admissions.
"What we are doing is not discrimination," he said of church law. "We are maintaining the biblical understanding of sin."
"I think that our church rules are faithful to the teachings of scripture," he said. "There are certain moral boundaries within which our sexuality can be expressed."