Jack Tuell, Methodist bishop who changed mind on gay ordination, vows, dies

Jack Tuell, 90, a prominent clergyman who emerged Jack Tuell, 90, a prominent clergyman who emerged late in life as an eloquent voice for change in his church's views of homosexuality, died at the Wesley Homes Health Center in Des Moines, Wash. Photo Credit: MCT

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When retired Methodist bishop Jack Tuell was asked how he changed his mind on issues of gay ordination and gay marriage, he explained it simply: "I changed my mind when I changed my heart." But the answer was more complicated.

Tuell, 90, a prominent clergyman who emerged late in life as an eloquent voice for change in his church's views of homosexuality, died Friday at the Wesley Homes Health Center in Des Moines, Wash.

For decades, Tuell, an attorney who became an ordained minister at 35, worked his way up the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. He was a pastor, wrote a highly regarded text on church governance and served as bishop in Portland, Ore. From 1980 until his retirement in 1992, he was the Los Angeles region's bishop -- the top official for 195,000 members in more than 400 churches.

Along the way, he hewed to the church's line on gay issues.

In a 2003 sermon at Claremont United Methodist Church in California, he recalled a meeting 20 years earlier with two other bishops and a church executive. "A particular concern being raised was: 'How do we screen out homosexual persons from being ordained ministers?' " he said.

Tuell proposed a seven-word requirement: "Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." The phrase, which was added to church policy guidelines, "had the advantage of not singling out homosexual persons but being generic, applying to all candidates regardless of sexual orientation," Tuell said in his sermon. "This is by way of confession," he added.

As bishop in Los Angeles, Tuell advocated immigrant rights and signed a protest letter calling U.S. arms policy "idolatrous." But he shuffled a gay clergyman to a nonpastoral job, and his stance on gay issues continued to reflect official policy as stated in the church's Book of Discipline: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," although gay people, like all others, have "sacred worth."

For years after he retired, Tuell, still a sharp attorney, acted as a judge in church hearings. In 1999, he presided over the trial of Gregory Dell, a Chicago minister accused of disobeying church law by performing a commitment service for two gay parishioners. Dell was suspended from the ministry for a year.

For months, Tuell reflected on the conviction.

"Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct," he later wrote. "As I understand the Spirit of God, it was wrong."

"Is it reasonable to believe that God would create some with an orientation toward the same gender, put them within the same strong drive of sexuality and love which is present in heterosexual persons, and then decree that such a drive is to be absolutely repressed and denied? This not only defies reason, but it is cruel, unfeeling and arbitrary." Tuell expressed his change of heart during a guest sermon at his Seattle-area church in February 2000.

"I stated flatly that I was wrong and called on the church to prayerfully seek a new inclusiveness," he later wrote.

Tuell brought his advocacy to the church at large, showing up even in frail health at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., to protest church policy.

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