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Methodist Church To Try Homosexual Minister

August 22, 1987

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ A United Methodist Church trial starts Monday for a lesbian minister who is battling her dismissal by challenging church law that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

″That’s a pretty broad statement to make,″ said the Rev. Rose Mary Denman. ″If church law said homosexuality is incompatible with current United Methodist teaching, then I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.″

The law was refined in 1984 at the quadrennial United Methodist general conference to make explicit the ban against ordination or appointment of homosexual ministers.

At the time, Denman had not accepted that she was a lesbian and supported the ban, telling her superiors she might even leave the denomination if homosexuals were allowed to become pastors.

Denman, 40, says she went from ″blatant, raw, fear-filled homophobia″ to acceptance of her own lesbianism in a matter of months. She confided this to her superior, Bishop George Bashore of Boston, and the church granted her two one-year leaves from her two parishes in Conway, N.H. She moved to Portland, Maine, with her lover, the ex-wife of a minister.

Denman plans to transfer in November to the Unitarian Universalist Association, which she finds more accepting of her lifestyle, and she sought a third leave to cover the period until then.

United Methodist law allows up to five consecutive leaves, but the church’s Board of Ordained Ministry denied her another leave.

Then the church’s New Hampshire annual conference ordered a trial on whether to defrock Denman. The trial, with a jury of 13 ministers, starts Monday in Durham.

In a telephone interview last week, Denman said she is fighting her ouster on principle. The United Universalist Association has told her that, barring other complications, she will be accepted as a minister regardless of the outcome of the Methodist trial.

″Who wants to leave with the governing body saying that you are unacceptable, that your behavior is inappropriate and that they have no regard for you as a member of the clergy? That’s what happens if I don’t put up a fight,″ Denman said.

To buttress her argument that church law too broadly labels homosexuality as inconsistent with Christian teaching, Denman plans to call three witnesses, all theologians from non-Methodist Christian denominations, one a lesbian.

But Denman said the trial’s presiding bishop, Neil Irons, has asked her counsel, the Rev. John McDougall of Enfield, not to call the witnesses. Church law allows the presiding bishop to refuse any witness.

″John insisted it was his right to call them. Also it is Bishop Irons’ right not to allow them, but John was going to force the issue″ on the record Monday, Denman said.

A spokeswoman at Irons’ office in Pennington, N.J., said Friday the bishop had no comment.

Church law also requires that all trial sessions be closed unless the accused asks otherwise, and then, only United Methodists may be allowed in. The presiding bishop also may close the trial at any time.

Irons has granted Denman’s request to open the trial. Fifty United Methodists will be allowed in, although that number might be increased, a church spokesman, the Rev. William Humphrey, said Friday.

The United Methodist-only rule goes for reporters, too, and cannot be waived. Irons said in a letter to The Associated Press, ″I do not have the kind of authority which allows me to contravene the law of the church.″

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