The Rev. Dr. Rose Mary Denman was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family living in the small town of Rumford, Rhode Island. She attended St. Margaret’s parish grade school and Sacred Heart High School. Upon graduation from East Providence High School, Denman enlisted in the United States Air Force. While in the military, she met and married Robert Denman.
Spirituality was always a key component in Denman’s life. As a teen, she attended daily mass, and continued to do so during her years in the military. The Roman Catholic Church was all she knew until she and her husband met and befriended another young couple. They were invited to attend a Sunday service, and that first visit was the catalyst that took Denman into the Protestant tradition.
When her marriage disintegrated, Denman found solace in her faith and her new church community. She planned to use the G.I. bill to get a degree in English so that she could teach and have a schedule that would work well for her as a single mother. But her pastor asked a question that would change her life: “What would you do if time, money and circumstance were not an issue.” Denman told her pastor she would become a minister. That very next month, she enrolled as a freshman at Barrington College and graduated four years later with a degree in Biblical Studies.
Graduate school at Assumption College and then Bangor Theological Seminary rounded out her education. During her ten years in school, Denman worked as a Youth Director, then as a Christian Education Director, and finally as a Student Associate Minister. In 1981, Denman was ordained in the United Methodist Church. She was appointed as pastor of two small churches in Maine. Denman served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church for four years before meeting and, eventually falling in love with, another woman. This was a personally tumultuous time in Denman’s life. Before she came to understand her own sexual identity, she had stood with her denomination in its stance against the LGBT community.
Denman knew that she would never be able to live a closeted life. For her, being open and forthcoming about who she was and not seeking to be secretive about her relationship with another woman was a matter of personal integrity. Rather than put her congregation in the middle of what she suspected would eventually become an explosive issue with the denomination, Denman took a leave of absence. While on leave, Denman and her partner moved to Portland, Maine and visited other Protestant churches. Eventually, they became members of one of the Unitarian Universalist Churches in the area.
In the spring of 1986, Denman wrote a letter to her bishop in which she revealed that she was a lesbian. The bishop asked to meet with her. In their conversation, Bishop George Bashore made it clear that he stood behind the denominational policy regarding homosexuality and exhibited no willingness to explore a different understanding. Denman requested, and was granted, a second year’s leave of absence. During that time, she decided to seek to transfer her ministerial credentials to the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The process of arranging for a transfer of ministerial credentials was extensive; early in 1987, Denman asked that her leave be extended for a few more months to allow her the time to finalize ministerial standing in the UUA. Bishop Bashore wrote a response to Denman in which he indicated that he would not renew her leave of absence and, instead, suggested that she surrender her ministerial credentials and take a voluntary termination. Denman’s letter of April 18, 1987 stated that she would not surrender her ministerial status and instead requested that she be allowed to exercise her right to address her peers at the next clergy gathering at Annual Conference. Annual Conference was scheduled to begin on May 20th. The bishop responded by filing a formal complaint against Denman for violating church law as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” In a May 11 letter, the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry told Denman that the executive session of the Conference clergy would be asked to terminate her clergy affiliation – unless she chose either to resign or to request a trial.
With the support of fellow clergy John and Priscilla MacDougall and her partner, Denman decided to request a trial. She also secured the services of Elizabeth Cazden, a Quaker attorney, who donated her expertise as legal counsel out of her own sense of social justice. Denman’s case received significant notice and coverage from the media around the world. Often she spent whole days being interviewed by reporters from newspapers, magazines and television shows. When 1,000 United Methodist clergywomen gathered in mid-August in New Jersey for a national consultation, they extended an invitation to Denman to join them as their guest. She told her story in an impromptu gathering that was attended by over five hundred of the participants. Their response to Denman’s speech was overwhelmingly supportive. She also participated in a worship service in which anonymous statements from over two dozen lesbian clergy were read.
The trial was scheduled for August 24, 1987 at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Dover, New Hampshire. The bishop who presided over the trial (chosen by Bishop Bashore), Neil Irons, refused to allow testimony of three prominent theologians and scholars: Dr. Burton Throckmorton and Dr. Marvin Ellison, both professors at Bangor Theological Seminary, and Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a feminist theologian and scholar. Interestingly, Throckmorton, Ellison and Mollenkott all came to the trial to support Denman, even though they were forced to stand outside the church along with a large number of reporters and other supporters. Only those who were United Methodists were allowed to enter the space where the trial was being held. Denman had requested that the trial be held in the sanctuary, yet Bishop Irons denied this request and the trial was held in the church hall.
Presiding Bishop Irons ruled that only testimony addressing whether Denman had violated church law would be allowed at the trial. The witnesses to testify were Ann Partner, the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry: Bishop George Bashore, and Denman. After deliberating for one hour, the jury (comprised of other United Methodist clergy in the Annual Conference) issued their finding that Denman was in violation of church law. The vote was 11-2 with two abstentions. The Presiding Bishop’s subsequent instructions to the jury to determine the sentence limited them to three options: 1) suspending Denman’s ordination: 2) terminating her ministerial status: or 3) expelling her from the church. In response to a question from a jury member, the bishop instructed that they could not extend her leave of absence as Denman had requested.
After three hours of deliberation, the jury members returned to the room and stood in solidarity around the foreperson as she read their statement:
“We affirm the Social Principles of the 1984 Book of Discipline, which states, “Homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth, who need the guidance and ministry of the church in their struggles for human fulfilment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self.” In is not clear to us that the Reverent Rose Mary Denman has received the adequate spiritual and emotional care of such a reconciling fellowship within the United Methodist Church.
We now seek the spirit of such a reconciling relation, by recommending that the Reverend Rose Mary Denman be suspended of the exercise of the ministerial office until the next regularly scheduled executive session of the New Hampshire Annual Conference, scheduled for June, 1988. We wish to have it recorded that our vote was 12 to 1. (There was one abstention.)
The jury, in effect, decided not to immediately terminate Denman’s ministerial status and gave her ample time to complete the transfer of her credentials to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). On November 12, 1987, Denman was granted preliminary ministerial affiliation with the UUA. It should be noted that the stance of the UUA toward all of this was overwhelmingly supportive. Denman was told that the UUA was prepared to accept her ministerial credentials as valid for transfer, regardless of what actions were taken by the United Methodists. They also said that they were prepared to ordain her, if that would feel like a more healing action to her. They left the decision on how to handle the transfer up to Denman. She chose to ask that her ministerial credentials be recognized as valid and transferred.
Denman was the first United Methodist clergyperson brought to trial for her identity as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” She received no support from the LGBT community on the local, state or national level. Dale McCormick, a leader of the LGBT community in Maine, made it clear to Denman that she was on her own. The LGBT agenda was about getting LGBT rights passed at the voting polls and they decided that supporting Denman could do their agenda harm with Christians who might otherwise vote in their favour.
In the aftermath of the trial, Denman travelled extensively throughout the U.S. and Canada speaking at many venues about her experience. Among them were many United Methodist churches as well as colleges and universities around the country: Harvard Divinity School, Brandies University, Case Western Reserve University, Bowdoin College, Boston University and Boston College among them. She was a guest on seventeen television talk shows, including one satellite interview to Sydney, Australia. Her book, Let My People In: A Lesbian Minister Tells of Her Struggles to Live Openly and Maintain Her Ministry was published by William Morrow & Company in 1990. In 1993, Denman’s book was given The Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in the United States, “for her outstanding work on intolerance in the U.S.” A producer from a movie studio visited with Denman to talk about the possibility of making a movie.
Denman eventually earned a Ph.D. in Metaphysics and spent fourteen years as an adjunct professor teaching in both the English and Psychology departments of – what was at the time known as – Southern Maine Technical College. She then moved to South Korea and taught ESL (English as a Second Language) until her retirement. She presently lives as an Interspiritual Solitary on a small island in the Philippines where she spends her time in study, writing and producing art.
(This biographical statement was provided by Rose Mary Denman)
Biography Date: March, 2014