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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Can't win for losing some days

Here is the latest installment of a story that has haunted me for twelve years.

1500 evangelical Methodists are organizing to purge the denomination of LGBT
clergy and same-sex marriage rites.

At the turn of the century, when fires were first being it under the cauldrons by those keen to purify the United Methodist Church, a lesbian minister contacted me. She'd come out. Her bishop had flipped the switch to engage the church's judicial process and remove her from ministry.

Everyone said the case was impossible, so I took it.

I spent over two years on it, and, with a retired Methodist minister as co-counsel, won it. The trial, which lasted nearly a week, drew international press coverage (I realized my life's ambition: an interview for what was then still the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour. But events in Iraq clouded over the fifteen minutes that trickster Andy Warhol promised me: I was booked and cancelled four mornings in a row by Good Morning America, and the never-shown PBS interview is locked in a cupboard at Oregon Public Broadcasting, whose librarians get snippy when call to ask, every few years, if I can see it. "Fame is fleeting," Napoleon observed. "Obscurity is forever"*).

So my client retained her ministerial credentials, and has served congregations with distinction ever since, from what I read.

Because secular counsel is not permitted to speak on the record in church trials, I wasn't quoted in the papers, so there was no business bounce from the case. I worked free, keeping my firm afloat with the proceeds from the unrelated sale of my home. I helped out promoting the efforts to raise funds for my client and her family. I came out tapped out.

The trial over, the Methodists went back to their quadrilaterals. Not being of that denomination, I stopped hearing from them.

The UMC changed its rules to try to block the defense I devised from ever being used again, and over the coming years clergy trials on the issue became models of efficient processing, rubber-stamping and expulsion of ministers who heard a more inclusive calling: one that did not maintain God silences the gifts of a few for the comfort of the exclusive.

For some time- the news cycle was longer then- I got lots of interesting phone calls and mail- and emails, which were coming into broader use. None thought I had done a good job. I heard that a member of my family was very distressed when an article about the verdict (very bad) appeared in her local paper. I wasn't mentioned it either, but she worried someone would puzzle out who was behind this resurgent vision of Sodom anyway.

My favorite of those folks was the editor of a Catholic newspaper in Poland. She scheduled an interview and called me on the phone.

After her first few questions revealed I was neither repentant nor an idiot who knew not what he'd done, she summoned the full range of ESL to describe the horrors waiting for me in Hell, and hung up.

I never did see the story she wrote. And in due course, the spite mail dropped away, too.

I lasted two more years practicing law, then shut the doors and walked away. I spent eight years wandering in a sort of Hell Preview before casting up on a rather barren shore called Bookseller's Beach. But I look the part, and it is generally considered a harmless trade.

All these dozen years, though, I have followed the growing firestorm in the Methodist Church and wondered if my case should, at least, be remembered as the very model of a pyrrhic victory. While I won my battle for my client, I see little good, and much bad, that my win wrought for so many others who have come after.

"Well now", you may think, "aren't you grand? A regular Robert MacNamara, you."

No, I don't think that. History is full of well-meaning bumblers who played walk-on parts in what became Big Deals In History.

Jenkins, triggering a war over his ear. Gavrilo Princip. Mrs O'Leary's cow. That was, and always will be, my pay grade.

Before my case, there had been two others in the UMC: one in New England in the 1980s, and one in Nebraska in 1997 (the minister in that case, Jimmy Creech, was a fellow North Carolinian who went on to make a career in faith-based LGBT organizations).

I called the lawyers who handled those cases, seeking advice.

Neither wanted to talk about their cases. In time, I understood why. Putting the God on trial is flying awfully close to the sun.

Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers coach, would have made a great trial lawyer (I had a case once, in Seattle, with his grandson, another Vince. He cleaned my clock). The Coach was famous for saying winning isn't the most important thing- it's the only thing.

That's how I saw my case before a jury of twelve UMC ministers and the judge/bishop who'd made short work of Jimmy Creech and was damned if anyone was gonna break his 1.000 batting average.

After I slapped the asterisk to his name, he exercised his discretion to seal the trial record. No one will ever read what was achieved that week in Bothell, Washington, lest it corrrupt more minds, or reveal the spiritual emptiness of the prosecution's case.

The folks in this new UMC rump seem to be Lombardi fans, too. As Gore Vidal said of his enemies, "It is not enough to win. Others must lose."

In the end, someone will be wrong, even though everyone is sure he is right. Any bets?

*In the one photo I can find from the trial that isn't about the protesters from Soulforce- which saw it as a PR bonanza- I make a cameo, top left, between the camera man and the green jacket man.

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