SEATTLE (AP) -- 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.
The May 30 decision to dismiss the complaint against Williams was unanimous, and the bishop found no grounds for appeal, Stanovsky said.
In the eyes of critics like the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, the committee erred in both cases by letting their personal convictions cloud their judgment on a clear judicial issue.
''When two pastors have publicly admitted that they are self-avowed and practicing (homosexuals), anybody looking at that with any sense of understanding of church policy would say that should be passed along for church trial,'' said Heidinger, president and publisher of ''Good News,'' a magazine for an evangelical renewal organization headquartered in Wilmore, Ky.
To ignore church laws ''or act as if those don't matter opens the church really to near lawlessness and moral chaos,'' he said.
With 8.4 million members nationally, the United Methodist Church is the country's second-largest Protestant denomination.
At the church's national meeting in 2000, a majority of Methodist leaders supported a ban on ordination of gays and on same-sex unions. Church leaders also retained language in its doctrine stating that homosexuality is ''incompatible with Christian teaching'' -- wording added to Methodist doctrine in 1972.
The Rev. Kathryn Johnson, executive director of Methodists for Social Action, lauded the committee's clearing of Dammann and Williams.
''The rulings in these cases demonstrate that the church is moving, albeit slowly and with a great deal of controversy,'' Johnson said. ''But my feeling is that we can't hold back the tide, that more and more people in the church are becoming aware of the tremendous gifts that gay and lesbian clergy bring to the denomination.''
The Rev. Betty Gamble, associate general secretary for the church's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, said the struggle to reach consensus not only on the issue of gay pastors but homosexuality in general remains a daunting challenge.
''We don't look at this as a problem,'' Gamble said. ''We look at this as something that needs to be discussed so we can find out more about where God is leading us, so we can find out more about who we are as a church.''
On the Net:
United Methodist Church: http://www.umc.org/index.asp
Pacific Northwest Conference: http://www.pnwumc.org/
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