Trial: Beginning to End
Amy counseled Carrie and Carolyn, as she would any couple coming for marriage and reports that they were the only couple who has ever publicly thanked her for the counseling process. Carrie and Carolyn were overjoyed to be treated like everyone else.
In 2010, Amy reported her pastoral act of celebrating a Holy Union in her annual extension ministry report. This triggered the beginning of a process that would lead to a supervisory process from the Episcopal Office and eventually a complaint, charge, and trial.
In February, 2010, the first meeting about the Holy Union occurred with the Assistant to the Bishop. At this meeting Amy noted the strangeness of being complained about for a Holy Union without also having a complaint about her sexual orientation. She offered her certificate of Domestic Partnership as one piece of evidence that she was a lesbian living in a loving and partnered relationship.
A month later there was a supervisory meeting to see if a resolution of a complaint was possible. Amy did not retract or deny either the Holy Union or her own sexual orientation. The District Superintendent for Extension Ministries indicated at the trial that he could have brought a complaint in March 2010.
At Annual Conference in June 2010 a question was raised about a potential trial and conversation about it ensued in the Clergy Session. A day after the Annual Conference, the District Superintendent finally submitted his complaint about both the celebration of a Holy Union and, in the words of the discipline, the being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual”.
Soon after the complaint a church counsel (prosecutor) was identified to Amy and soon thereafter resigned. As a deadline for furthering the complaint/charge neared, a second counsel was identified. This counsel added a third complaint but retracted it before the Committee on Investigation could act.
The Committee on Investigation finally met in December after being pushed to follow the Disciplinary timeline. Upon the completion of their hearing, the church counsel resigned.
The report of the Committee on Investigation showed the first sign of reluctance on the part of the church to pursue this matter into a trial. They did certify the charges (as required by a Judicial Council decision), but went beyond the minimum and also reported their discomfort with the charges, claiming, “Rev. Amy Delong has shown extraordinary courage to step forward and freely acknowledge her sexual orientation, and her commitment to be in ministry to all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Approaching a deadline for action, a third church counsel was announced, along with a first presiding officer (similar but different than a judge), venue, and time of trial.
Within a month the third church counsel resigned. In addition, a jury pool of 35+ Wisconsin United Methodist clergy were selected by the District Superintendents. Also, the presiding officer recused himself for personal reasons rather than Amy’s trial team question about being biased because of his advocacy to make a ban on Holy Unions in our Social Principles into actual church law.
With only a jury pool, but no church counsel or presiding officer, the Bishop postponed the trial.
Amy’s trial team found out about a change in venue by reading the newsletter of the church where the trial was first announced to be located. Shortly after that, in April 2011, a fourth church counsel and a second presiding officer and a second trial time and place were announced.
Amy objected to the new much smaller venue with poor communication options to the outside world, but did not ask for a change because to do so would automatically move the trial outside of Wisconsin, to who knows where.
As we moved toward trial, one by one, rulings were made by the presiding officer that continually narrowed Rev. Amy’s Trial Team in the presentation they could make at a trial. Trial strategy changed on a regular basis as witnesses were denied and exhibits were not allowed.
In June, 2011, a very difficult Annual Conference occurred (given the adversarial relationship of a trial, how can Rev. Amy and 35+ of her peers have significant conversation). Additional clergy session issues added to a tension-filled Annual Conference held one week before the church’s trial of Rev. Amy.
The first action at the trial was a presentation of a proffer indicating what Amy would have presented through witnesses and exhibits had they not been ruled irrelevant. The proffer also indicated procedural anomalies that could be used for an appeal.
The trial began with the local church and presiding officer seeming to anticipate disruption of the trial by supporters of Rev. Amy. None ensued and by trial’s end the presiding officer appeared to appreciate the spirit and singing of Rev. Amy’s supporters.
During the trial, two presentations appeared to be key for the jury. One was an opening statement by Amy’s counsel that this was a significant trial that went beyond internal church dynamics but would shape the perception of the many we are called to “make disciples” about the United Methodist Church and would affect their willingness to hear our appeal from Jesus and draw near to add their gifts to the “transformation of the world”. A second was the presentation of a witness regarding the possibility of a restorative justice response from the jury.
The jury dismissed the charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” because the church could not prove its case and had neglected all along the way to ask a mandated question about genital contact. It was a shameful question and the reviewers appropriately avoided asking it. Amy proudly affirmed she is a lesbian in a loving, covenanted, partnership, but that she would not respond to a question that was designed to harm her.
Amy affirmed that she had celebrated the Holy Union of Carrie and Carolyn and the jury concurred with a 13-0 verdict of guilty. The key question is what decision they would make in what the Discipline calls a “penalty phase” of the trial.
The jury worked for 7 hours to make a decision that would speak to Rev. Amy, to the church institutional, and to the world. Their vision seems to have been to transform this trial into more than a judgment on the past. They desired to begin a process that could leave the church better than it currently is. Even though Rev. Amy’s Witness Team was not allowed to enter the statement of Committee on Investigation into the record, the jury followed its lead by stretching beyond an eye for an eye to a creative opportunity – to not simply repeat the past, but prepare for a better future.
The Jury decision was that Amy needed a time of preparation before proceeding to prepare an proposal for the clergy of the Wisconsin Annual Conference to act upon at their session at the next Annual Conference. This time was labeled a suspension, but it might more accurately be called a retreat to prepare one spiritually for a significant task – to outline procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that harm a clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit, or lead to future clergy trials.
Since the trial the religious right in the form of spokespersons for the para-church organizations of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, Good News, and Confessing Movement have made unsubstantiated statements to the press that focus only on the word “suspension”. That word is interpreted to supposedly prove that the jury felt Rev. Amy’s actions severely harmed some currently ambiguous “covenant of the clergy”. Rather, the words of the jury were that the suspension was not a “penalty” (not helpful language for a restorative justice process) but an “opportunity” for Rev. Amy to participate in a spiritual discernment process to guide her in assisting the church to better deal with internal conflicts. A scripture story (Acts 6:1-7) about Greek-speaking widows not receiving an adequate share of assistance and so the apostles put the injured party (the Greek-speakers) in charge of the food distribution, for they would know how it felt to be set outside and would best care for all. This was done so their experience of dismissal would not be repeated. This story reports that the number of disciples grew as better care for all was demonstrated.The jury seems to desire this same growth calling us to better care for one another, leaving none behind.
May you interpret to those in your sphere of influence, the dramatic breakthrough this trial has made in allowing GLBT people a place to stand, proud of their orientation and partners and not having to give-in to badgering intended to reduce them to one aspect of their relationship with their loved one. Thank you for your support that has led to this new hope for a church that will better reveal our love of Jesus – “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35)
What began as a hungering by two women who had been rejected by the church for being lesbians and who had left the church because of the harm it was doing to them, turned into a marvelous opportunity by the jury – those who had been deemed “last” or “lost” to were called to lead everyone in drawing closer to Jesus and to one another. We thank all concerned, including those who brought a complaint that it might be transformed. We have experienced another moment of resurrection, restitution, reformation and renewal.
Amy’s Support Team