The case of Rev. Karen Dammann, a minister in the United Methodist Church in the northwest of the United States has not exactly been “headline” news. Most of the headlines regarding the Church in terms of gay and lesbian issues have been on the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, and the threatened split within the world-wide Anglican Communion.
But while Anglicans have been wrestling very publicly with the sexuality of a number of their priests, the Methodists have been having their largely unreported problems.
Two years ago, Rev. Karen Dammann told Seattle area Bishop Elias G. Galvan, resident bishop of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, that she was in a committed relationship with another lesbian, Meredith Savage.
That set off off a chain of events which could start to come to a conclusion on Monday (January 12).
Bishop Galvan brought took the pastor to the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Committee on Investigation. She was accused of “practices declared incompatible with Christian teaching” as stated in the Methodist “Discipline”, or rule book.
A committee of investigation is like a “grand jury” which decides on whether a case should go to trial. In a split decision (3-3, with one abstention) the Committee of Investigation outcome was that there was no case to answer.
But the bishop then appealed the decision to the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals which found no fault in the previous decision. Again the bishop appealed, this time to the Church’s “Supreme Court”, the United Methodist Judicial Council.
After deliberations in October, the Council ruled in Decision 980 the appeal upheld and ordered the matter back to the Annual Conference Committee on Investigation with what amounts to a direction that the matter goes to church trial. Additionally, the Council made it clear that anyone serving on the Committee who was not willing to send the case to trial should step down and be replaced with someone who was. [The actual ruling is: “Should members of the Pacific Northwest Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience or otherwise, such members must step aside in this matter and either alternate members or others who are willing to uphold the Discipline must be appointed to the Committee to enable it to complete its responsibility.”]
After postponing the meeting last month, the Committee meets on Monday (January 12).
Ellensburg is a small city nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. When Rev. Karen Dammann arrived to take up her present position last summer, she found a caring and inclusive community.
It is the sort of community that has sons and daughters serving with the US Forces in Iraq who write letters home to their parents tell them of the plight of the Iraqi children.
The sort of community that when Fred Phelps arrived to picket outside the local theatre that was presenting “The Laramie Project”, there were a couple of hundred townsfolk on hand to picket the picketers.
And above all, the sort of community where Rev. Dammann is accepted by her congregation and judged not on her sexuality, but on her ministry.
Larry Lowther is one such member of the Ellensburg United Methodist Church as he told the local newspaper, The Daily Record that the sexuality of the minister made no difference to him. “She is doing a good job with the congregation,” he said. “She’s very popular.”
And another church member, Dodie Haight said the United Methodist Church could hurt itself if it presses forward in taking the minister to trial. “The denomination is in danger of losing not only a gifted pastor I know personally but also others because of its stand,” she told Pat Muir of the Daily Record.
Following last month’s meeting of the Committee when a decision was postponed, Rev. Dammann told Paul Beaman of the Pacific Northwest Reconciling Ministries Network: “Today I feel even more called to Christian ministry than I did a year ago. This wonderful congregation has affirmed my call and welcomes my ministry. The members have been totally supportive, as together we form a community of Christ.”
Writing in the church newsletter Christian Visitor in November, Rev. Karen Dammann said: “The decision of the Judicial Council makes it almost certain that I will face a church trial.
“My first concern is for the congregation. As I wrote in the newsletter, there has always been the possibility that I would be an interim pastor for this church. The possibility is very much a given at this time.
“Interim work is often very valuable and helpful, especially following a minister who has been pastor for a long period of time-which is the case here. As the church process surrounding my case grinds away, I will continue to work with you on the critical areas identified mutually by the congregation and myself. Let’s keep working hard to prepare this congregation for a great period of ministry ahead.
“If the time we have together is to be short, I want to make it as fruitful and productive as we possibly can. We have been entrusted with the work of the church. There is much we can yet do!
“Thank you for your many words of encouragement and support. Meredith [her partner], Beckett [their young son] and I appreciate you so very much,” she concluded.
The good people of Ellensburg are probably considering it ironic that the latest hearing about their popular pastor is being held a day before the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, arrives in town to give a speech on the campus of the city’s Central Washington University.