National headlines greeted the recent acquittal of a lesbian United Methodist minister by a church court in Washington state.  Is America’s third-largest religious denomination going the way of the “gay”-friendly Episcopal Church, secular reporters wondered?

The answer is: probably not.  The trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann was more a reflection of liberal and demographically dying Methodism on the West Coast.  The church’s growing areas in the South and overseas show no sign of compromising with the times on the issue of homosexuality.  Dammann’s acquittal, even after she “married” her female companion in Portland in time for the trial, will only help conservatives in the church as they seek to bolster policies against homosexual clergy.

The trial however, cast a spotlight on mushy ecclesial thinking and the flabby reasoning of the Zeitgeist, which demands religious conformity to the latest sexual fads.

Crucial to the trial’s verdict was the testimony of retired Bishop Jack Tuell, former United Methodist bishop of Portland and Los Angeles.  Presented as a “scholar” on church law, Tuell claimed his 8.3-million-member denomination has no official stance on homosexual clergy.  The church’s Book of Discipline, however, declares:

Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

Tuell mendaciously argued that this sentence does not really say what it appears to say, because it does not “declare” homosexual practice to be wrong.  Instead, the first clause makes an assumption that relies on the church’s Social Principles, which are considered advisory and not binding as church law.  Therefore, the rest of the sentence is not enforceable.

Every governing General Conference of the United Methodist Church since 1972 has voted on this language.  The prohibition language used to be found exclusively in the Social Principles.  In 1998, the church’s top court, the Judicial Council, ruled that the prohibition against homosexual clergy was clearly intended to be church law and should be treated as such.

To remove all doubt, the delegates at the 2000 General Conference voted to move the prohibition language from the Social Principles into the Book of Discipline’s main body.  This action makes Bishop Tuell’s claim even more unsupportable.  Even further, the Book of Discipline declares that clergy are expected to show “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”  The prohibition on homosexual clergy was reaffirmed at the recently held 2004 General Conference.

Tuell once supported the church’s teachings on marriage.  How did he come to help a church jury of clergy clearly already sympathetic to Dammann’s cause play semantic games to justify their defiance of church law?  He has explained his “conversion” in sermons over the last several years.  Those sermons reveal not so much a church scholar as a wayward bishop searching for therapeutic justification for his own journey away from historic Christianity and toward cultural accommodation.

“How I Changed My Mind” is a sermon Tuell gave in May 2003 in Claremont, California.  In it, he recalls as a “confession” that he helped to develop the current church law requiring “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”  He now believes that he and others involved were motivated only by “institutional protection” and fear.

Remembering his own limited contact with homosexuals throughout his life, Tuell said his stance remained unchanged when he retired as a bishop in  1992.  “What is it that makes this mindset so powerful that it can last most of a lifetime?” he asked.  First, most people, on the “gut level,” have an “instinctive, negative reaction against homosexuality” coming from “subliminal sources.”  This is fueled by a “pervasive cultural taboo” in society against homosexuality.

Interestingly, Tuell did not question why there is an overwhelming—and universal—taboo against homosexuality.  Traditional Christians would say it is the law of God written even on unbelieving hearts.  How would Tuell explain it?

Second, inertia and fear of change prevent different policies and attitudes toward homosexuality, Tuell complained.  He is “personally” convinced that this is what motivates most votes at church governing conventions that uphold traditional teachings.

Tuell recalled that he came to the light after retirement through his exposure to people with homosexual children who had decided they were “not good enough” to be in the United Methodist Church.  The “culminating experience” for Tuell, however, was his service as presiding judge at a church trial for the Rev. Greg Dell.

Dell is a Chicago pastor whose celebration of a same-sex union in 1998 led to a trial in which he was found guilty of violating United Methodism’s prohibition against same-sex unions.  Dell was sentenced to a one-year leave of absence, though he remained in the church parsonage and received full salary.  This trial had a “profound” effect on Tuell.  Dell was a “faithful” pastor and a victim of the church’s “destructive” “anti-homosexual bias.”

Citing the so-called Wesleyan “quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, Tuell declared that “experience trumps all the rest in questions like this.”  He asserted that the conversion of Methodism’s founder John Wesley from an ineffectual Anglican priest to an effective evangelist stemmed from his “life experience” and not from “further reading of Scripture, nor of the church fathers, nor through the power of reason.”  (Tuell did admit that Wesley ascribed his own conversion to hearing a commentary of Martin Luther on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.)

“Oh, we don’t neglect dealing with scripture and tradition and reason, because all of these can be enlisted in the struggle for inclusiveness,” Tuell concluded.  But changing the heart is a “prerequisite” for changing the mind, as it was for him personally.

In short, Tuell’s reason for changing his stance on Christian sexual teaching is that he befriended homosexuals and their parents.  They were kind and engaging people who were hurt and offended by the United Methodist Church’s disapproval of homosexual practice.  For Tuell, the solution was simple: The church must change her teaching so these people will be hurt and offended no longer.

This sermon is jarringly flaccid in its lack of theological substance and its quick dismissal of both Scripture and Christianity’s continuous historic teaching on marriage and sex.  A sermon of four years ago on the same topic, preached by Tuell in Des Moines, Washington, provides a little more substance.

“God is revealing new truth in many areas of life,” Tuell said.

The new thing that God is doing in our midst right now is to show us that homosexuality is not simply an act or acts of willful disobedience to God’s law . . . but it is a state of being.  It is an identity that God has given to some of His children.

Tuell then related this “new thing” to Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.  As for Scripture, he declared that “all powerful love” overrides everything else, including “specific prohibitions in the context of the time and place and situation in which they were written.”  The overwhelming love of God in Christ “sweeps some specific prohibitions away, even though they are in the Bible.”  As examples, Tuell cited divorce, women speaking in church, and eating pork.

Concerning tradition, Tuell argued that the church has been “covering up” homosexuality or treating it as an unspeakable topic.  “Our real tradition is ignorance,” he surmised.  Besides, Tuell remarked, Methodists once supported slavery and opposed dancing, theater-going, and card-playing.  The “capacity to change” is the noblest tradition, he claimed.

As for experience, Tuell cited the “anguish, the pain, the hurt, the suffering, the despair which harsh and judgmental attitudes can have on persons of homosexual orientation.”  And as for reason, Tuell asked, would God reasonably create homosexuals and then “decree that such a drive is to be absolutely repressed and denied?”  He denounced this notion as “cruel” and “unfeeling.”

This second sermon actually attempted some theological justification for endorsing homosexual behavior.  Once again, however, its reasoning was vapid.  Tuell said scriptural prohibitions can be ignored in favor of “love.”  He seemed to promote a pure antinomianism that ignores morality in favor of faith, narrowly conceived.

Tuell’s dismissive tone toward church tradition shows shocking ignorance.  Christians 2,000 years ago and 1,000 years ago were as familiar with the full range of human sexual behavior as we are today.  Human nature has not changed.  The historic Church, in seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and to confine sexual expression to marriage, fully understood the uphill battle that men face against human lust.  She knew, however, that it was a battle informed by and demanded by God’s love.

Perhaps Tuell’s argument that God created homosexuals as they are, though  common almost to the point of cliché, is really his most disturbing.  If God made certain people to be homosexuals, then did He not also make certain people to be adulterers, thieves, and liars?  Tuell and others who make this argument cavalierly ignore Christian teachings about Original Sin, free will, and the universal need for redemption.  If all of us are, by nature, already as God means for us to be, then the whole message of transformation and salvation through Jesus Christ is quite unnecessary.  This is why the pro-“gay” arguments in the Church are really so subversive to the Gospel and are about so much more than simply sex.

Tuell is disappointingly similar to scores of other liberal Church leaders who, having cut their moorings loose from the historic Church, are now swaying with the enigmatic tides of secular public opinion, basing their deepest convictions on transitory experiences and the endless therapeutic need for approval from the world.  The church they seek to create is feckless, powerless, chameleon-like, and ultimately empty of both serious thought and any significant number of followers.

It was this “scholar” who helped to persuade a jury that really did not need all that much persuading to ignore United Methodist church law, the Scriptures, thousands of years of Church tradition, the teachings of the Church universal, and even common sense, as they endorsed a Christian pastor whose quest for erotic fulfillment takes priority over faithfulness to the Gospel.

Eventually, demography will largely (if not entirely) solve the problem of Tuell’s theology.  Liberal religion is dying around the world.  Historians may someday study the Dammann trial and Tuell’s testimony as footnotes to that death.