The Rev. Amy DeLong, a Methodist pastor from Osceola, Wisconsin, decided to come clean. She brought to the attention of her local bishop that she had officiated over the same-sex union of a lesbian couple. It is a rite prohibited by her religion and having performed it, DeLong could be put on trial by the church. She also told the bishop that she might as well be prosecuted for something else: she is in a lesbian partnership.
And so, last week, DeLong, 44, faced a jury of church elders in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. At issue was whether she violated the Book of Discipline, which guides the church's teachings, by blessing the same sex union and for being a "self avowed, practicing homosexual." The 13-member jury acquitted her on the second charge. But it also found her guilty of the first. But that's where something historic happened. The elders handed down the first sentence in 20 years of United Methodist jurisprudence that did not indefinitely suspend or defrock an elder for officiating a same-sex union.
Instead, DeLong's sentence is a 20-day suspension that also calls on her to draft a document that will outline procedures for the Methodist clergy to resolve issues that "harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit or lead to future clergy trials." She is pleased with the ruling. "They certainly had every opportunity to be punitive and throw the book at me," she says. "My hope is that this is the very last time that somebody is put on trial for acts of conscience. Most people hope to be first; I hope this to be last. Dealing with matters of conscience in a punitive, legalistic way doesn't serve anybody well."
DeLong's trial materialized just as hundreds of U.S. Methodist clergy have been signing petitions declaring they would officiate over same-sex unions. It's creating a rift in a church that's increasingly looking more conservative than its mainline Protestant peers, which have become more accepting of gay leaders and practices. Meanwhile, Methodist membership is declining in a U.S. society that's now roughly evenly split on the issue of gay marriage, according to the most recent Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life poll. Ten years ago, that poll showed Americans opposed gay marriage by a 57% to 35% margin.
The most startling part of the sentence, DeLong says, is that she has kept her clergy credentials. DeLong had testified that she would refuse to sign a document promising to never officiate a same-sex union again, calling that discrimination. In an interview with TIME, DeLong says she would marry a same-sex couple again if she had confidence in the couple's commitment to each other, applying the same standards she does to heterosexuals.
That DeLong got off relatively easy doesn't delight everyone in the church. Rob Renfroe, a pastor in Texas' Woodlands United Methodist Church, argues that falling back on conscience is an easy trump card. For Renfroe and conservative Methodists, he says the issue of gay marriage is one of scriptural authority. "Can we go to the Bible to find God's revealed truth to human kind?" he says. "Never does it mention homosexuality in the human form in a positive way. Those of us who are orthodox Christians, what we understand is that this is a battle about whether or not the Bible can be trusted. And it's not just sexual practice." He believes the jury should have put DeLong on suspension until she promised never to officiate another same-sex union.
The Book of Discipline welcomes Methodists of any sexual orientation, but forbids sexual activity between people of the same gender. A turning point in the trial came when DeLong testified that she would not answer whether she engaged in genital sexual contact with her partner. "Our position was that's an inappropriate question to ask," says Rev. Scott Campbell, who served as DeLong's council. "The Church doesn't ask that of heterosexuals. Amy refused to answer, citing privacy and decency." The jury decided it was unable to compel DeLong to testify, and acquitted her on the charge of being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.
DeLong and Renfroe both say the Book of Discipline's policies on homosexuality will be a contentious issue when the General Conference the top legislative body of the church composed of laymen and clergy from across the globe that meets every four years convenes next April. During the 2008 General Conference, delegates voted 501-to-417 to uphold the Book of Discipline's statement that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Yet due to Methodist demographic shifts worldwide, same-sex marriage advocates in the church might not have the votes to change its rules on homosexuality. The ranks of professing U.S. Methodists have been shrinking, with 2009 membership down 1.22% from 2008, at 7.8 million. Meanwhile, the 12 million-member church grows in places like Africa, where membership shot up by nearly a million in five years ending in 2009 and where homosexuality is looked upon more conservatively than in the U.S. "My trial doesn't change anything at all," DeLong says. "We just don't have the votes to overturn the rules right now."