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. He had been in failing health for several years, his daughter Cynthia Tuell said.
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 on those increasingly uncomfortable occasions when questions cropped up.
In a 2003 sermon at Claremont United Methodist Church, he recalled a meeting 20 years earlier with two other bishops and a church executive in the airport at Albuquerque.
“A particular concern being raised was: ‘How do we screen out homosexual persons from being ordained ministers?’” he said.
To filter out gay candidates, 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, signed a protest letter calling U.S. arms policy “idolatrous” and marshaled clergymen against a national lottery game show. But he shuffled a gay clergyman to a non-pastoral 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. Dell, a minister he described as “dedicated, energetic, compassionate, caring and able,” had been ousted. Anguished friends had been telling him their gay and lesbian children didn’t feel at home in the churches where they were raised.
“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. “I was 76 years old.”
His change of heart was widely publicized.
“There was a great deal of courage involved,” said Seattle-based Methodist Bishop Grant Hagiya. “Someone who is so steeped in our polity and administration to have a prophetic word like that probably made a big impact, opening people up on that issue.”
In 2004, Tuell appeared as a witness for the defense in the church trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann, a minister accused of violating church doctrine by living openly as a lesbian. She was acquitted.
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.
Born in Tacoma, Wash., on Nov. 14, 1923, Jack Marvin Tuell served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and received his law degree from the University of Washington in 1948. He practiced for two years in Edmonds, Wash.
He later graduated from the Boston University School of Theology with a master of divinity degree.
As bishop in Los Angeles, Tuell inherited lawsuits demanding $366 million after the bankruptcy of Pacific Homes retirement facilities in three states. He was instrumental in negotiating a settlement of the complex litigation.
Tuell is survived by his wife of 67 years, Marjorie; children Jackie Joday of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cynthia Tuell of Upland and Jim Knowles-Tuell of Albany, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.