Life in the Methodist Minefield

The Rev. Julian Rush watched the headlines as 13 United Methodist pastors in the Pacific Northwest judged the fate of one of their colleagues.

Few, if any, facts were in dispute. The Rev. Karen Dammann was living openly in a lesbian relationship and leveled with her superiors. And everyone knew, after a generation of bitter strife, that their Book of Discipline banned "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ministry, because gay sex is "incompatible with Christian teachings."

Rush wasn't surprised by the trial and he wasn't surprised by the verdict -- not guilty.

After all, he survived a similar ecclesiastical minefield two decades ago in Colorado.

"What surprised me was the way the news reports brought it all back," said Rush, 67, who rocked the whole United Methodist Church when he left the closet in 1981. "It was spooky, like a flashback. ... I remembered that whole feeling of powerlessness and total vulnerability.

"I think that's probably a good thing. No matter how much progress we've made, we need to be reminded that things aren't settled yet."

Rush eventually retired with his clergy credentials intact. In the mid-1980s, his peers in the Rocky Mountain region twice ruled that there was "insufficient evidence" to bring the AIDS activist and former youth pastor to trial. After all, church law focused on "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals and Rush simply declined to answer questions about his sex life.

"I remember my lawyer saying, 'Make them prove it,' " said Rush, whose easy-going manner still betrays his Mississippi roots. "What were they going to do, hire a private investigator? No one wanted to do such an unseemly thing."

The Dammann jury found a similar technicality. While the Discipline says "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings," the jury ruled that it never formally, legally, makes a "declaration" of this. But the jury did find this declarative statement: "Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.''

Based on decades of experience, Rush knows what will happen next. Furious conservatives will, on April 27, arrive at the two-week national United Methodist General Conference "with their nostrils flared and breathing fire," he said. At the same time, the confidence of the church's progressive establishment will "move up a notch or two" after a much-publicized victory. Both sides will go to Pittsburgh "with their guns loaded," he said.

The Internet is buzzing with drafts of resolutions to fix the Discipline and to force the bishops to get their flocks under control. Leaders on both sides acknowledge that the evangelical, growing churches of the heartland and Bible Belt hold a clear majority. Some of their leaders will call for repentance and reform in the Pacific Northwest.

"Fact is ... we don't need anything more in the Book of Discipline. We just need folks who are willing to abide by it or enforce it," said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of the Good News renewal movement. "We could tweak and tighten, but unless folks are willing to abide by the will of General Conference, they will always find some words to parse or interpret differently."

Strangely enough, Rush basically agrees with this legal opinion. Laws cannot hide the fact that the United Methodist Church contains two radically different approaches to the faith, he said.

Traditionalists believe there is an "established," "infallible" and "permanent core of doctrine that people have to believe if they are going to be Christians," said Rush. But the "liberal side of the church sees itself as open and expansive and its doctrine, quite frankly, is not as well defined. It sees faith as a kind of process and it is constantly changing. ...

"One side knows how to lay down the law and the other side knows how to emote."

But the infighting will continue, said Rush, because everyone is afraid to push the scary button labeled "schism." That would be financially devastating.

"Everyone dances around that button," he said. "They really aren't trying to be clear and specific. They have to keep the Discipline vague enough to keep everyone in the tent. You end up with a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, but it holds things together."