MILWAUKEE – A gay Methodist pastor who was suspended for officiating at a same-sex union said Friday that her church trial this week was a positive experience, and that her jurors were deft in balancing the need for justice with the church's longstanding message of inclusion.
The Rev. Amy Delong, 44, was suspended for 20 days starting July 1. She was also ordered to draft a document outlining ways to avert similar church trials, and if she declines she will be suspended for a year.
DeLong told The Associated Press she was satisfied with the suspension and was happy to comply with the writing.
"I'm excited. I feel like I've been sentenced to write and to teach, and that's what I dedicated my ministry to anyhow," she said. "I'm always open to the opportunity to get people together and help us resolve our differences."
The document must address ways that clergy can resolve issues that threaten to divide the church or otherwise produce an adversarial atmosphere. DeLong said she hadn't had time to think about what she might propose.
She said she hoped the exercise would send the message that the United Methodist Church wasn't willing to turn its back on its gay clergy and members.
DeLong sat through a two-day church trial this week after she admitted conducting the lesbian union in 2009. A jury of clergy peers convicted her by a 13-0 vote. DeLong was acquitted of a second charge of being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual," a Methodist term that means gays can serve as clergy as long as they remain celibate.
The acquittal was based in part on DeLong's refusal to answer in court about whether her relationship involved sexual contact.
"It's an indecent question. Nobody should have to answer that when somebody's trying to do them harm," she said. "We don't measure the validity of a heterosexual couple's relationship based upon how they conduct themselves in their private moments."
She said she was surprised when the minister representing the church, the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, recommended a penalty that didn't include defrocking. Lambrecht told the AP he would have done so had DeLong been convicted on the charge of being an active homosexual.
"We're pleased that the penalty recognizes that a violation took place and that there is a consequence for that violation," he said.
There has been a general precedent within the Methodist church of dealing harshly with people convicted of the charges DeLong faced. In 2005, a Methodist minister from Germantown, Pa., was defrocked for being in a lesbian partnership. A senior pastor in Omaha, Neb., was defrocked in 1999 for performing a same-sex union.
However, there's also a growing movement among Methodist clergy to overturn the ban prohibiting ministers from officiating at same-sex unions. Hundreds of pastors in several states have signed statements saying they would be willing to defy the ban, even at risk of discipline.
DeLong said even though her jury was caught in the middle, it devised a creative and meaningful penalty.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins, a DeLong supporter from Minnesota, said the ruling gave the jury the opportunity to express its support and compassion for the ministry while also acknowledging the rift and taking steps to heal it.
While both sides seemed pleased with the outcome, this might not be the last time DeLong faces such a trial. She says she's still willing to officiate at same-sex unions. Lambrecht, the church prosecutor, said if that happens he'd seek a more severe penalty next time.
But DeLong hoped circumstances would be different in the future because the penalty handed down this week showed that the church wants to deal with matters of conscience cooperatively, not punitively.
"Nobody wins in these trials — they're costly, they're bad for the image of the church. There's got to be a better way for people of faith to work together," she said. "I think this is a way to do just that."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
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