On January 16, 95 Methodist ministers gathered in Sacramento to bless the union
of a lesbian couple. They were joined by 71 more Methodist ministers who lent their names
in absentia. Across the street, 500 supporters demonstrated in support of same-sex unions,
while 20 protesters led by Rev. Fred Phelps waved signs reading, "God Hates
Fags" and (in reference to slain gay college student Matthew Shepard) "Matt in
The ceremony was organized by Reverend Don Fado, who described it as "an act of
ecclesiastical disobedience." It was the latest challenge to a rule voted into effect
at the Methodists most recent General Conference in 1996. The rule-"Ceremonies
that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers or in our
churches"-was added to the "Social Principles" section of the churchs
Book of Discipline. Two ministers have already faced ecclesiastical trials under the new
Coverage of the two trials is worth looking at. The first case began in July 1997, when
Rev. Jimmy Creech of First United Methodist Church of Omaha was asked by two lesbian women
to bless their relationship in a ceremony before family and friends. The request was
hardly unique. A number of Methodist clergy have been quietly officiating at same-sex
unions for years. What was unusual was that word of this ceremony reached the newspapers.
The first story in the Omaha World-Herald ran September 10, four days before the
ceremony took place. Staff writer Julia McCord described the nature of the ceremony and
noted that Creechs superior, Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez, had firmly instructed
him not to perform it. (Stephen Braun of the Los Angeles Times would elaborate on the
point in a later article, stating that although the Bishop had been informed of the
impending event in July, he had not indicated his opposition until September 4, well after
Creech had committed himself to officiating.)
Two days after the ceremony, the World-Herald ran a second article outlining the
possible ecclesiastical repercussions of the ceremony and stating that "[Bishop]
Martinez could file the complaint but would prefer not to so that he can remain in a
pastoral rather than a disciplinary role. Any Methodist pastor or layperson who disagrees
with Creech, however, can lodge a complaint...." The same day a member of
Creechs congregation did exactly that, initiating the process that would lead to the
Over the next month, several meetings were held at First Methodist to resolve internal
disagreements over the appropriateness of same-sex unions. Extremely unproductive and
bitter, these revealed a sharp division within the congregation itself. On November 5,
Bishop Martinez suspended Creech for 60 days, citing the increasingly rancorous internal
conflict in his church. On January 10, the bishop renewed the suspension over the vocal
objection of First Methodists pastor-parish relations committee, which wanted Creech
back at the pulpit.
Creechs ecclesiastical trial, which began March 12, drew the attention of the
national media. In general, the national coverage overplayed the big conflict (liberal vs.
conservative views of homosexuality) at the expense of the narrow legal question of
whether the rules in the "Social Principles" were binding on Methodist clergy.
Few papers went into any detail on the "Social Principles," which includes both
advisory stands (on the use of alcohol and tobacco) and a firm rule against the owning of
In fact, the legal hairs were split so fine that at one point the prosecution was
reduced to arguing that what separated the advisory instructions from the ban on unions
was merely the single word "shall." By failing to explain these points, the
media coverage reduced Creechs defense to the seemingly absurd statement that a law
did not apply to him because of its location in the rulebook. It also made the
trials outcome seem like a sweeping win for pro-homosexual union forces rather than
the relatively narrow technical decision that it actually was.
The trial lasted two days, and Creech was acquitted on March 14, the jury having come a
single vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict. New York Times religion
writer Gustav Niebuhr quoted Creech as calling the decision an "historic moment"
for his denomination. "It is a courageous witness on behalf of this jury and this
court. We are guided more by Gods grace than institutional regulations." By
contrast, a Methodist on the other side of the issue was quoted as saying that the verdict
"sends a message across the country that culture had triumphed over
church doctrine and rules." In Niebuhrs view, the verdict was "a decision
likely to reverberate through Americas major Protestant churches."
Locally, however, it was a very different story-and one that was far from over. On
March 29, the World-Herald reflected that "the dissension surrounding Creechs
actions and the verdict are, if anything, heating up rather than cooling down." In
March, conservatives filed a petition with Bishop Martinez demanding the ouster of Creech
and his two assistant pastors, both of whom had stated their willingness to do same-sex
marriages before Creech was even assigned to the church. Liberals filed a counter petition
asking that the three stay.
In April, the conservatives launched a judicial broadside: Five ministers and 30
laypersons filed complaints against Bishop Martinez, claiming that he had discriminated
against them for being evangelicals and demanding his removal. They also filed complaints
against three District Superintendents and a number of clergy who had supported Creech.
The complaints were received by Bishop A. Frederick Mutti, who promised to process the
charges "in a timely manner."
In May, Bishop Martinez, over the strong objections of First Methodists
staff-parish relations committee, decided not to reappoint Creech to the church, or to any
other church in his district. Essentially, Creech was left without a job, and migrated
back to his home state of North Carolina. One of his assistant pastors took a leave of
absence from the church, while the other recanted his position on same-sex unions, stating
that while he disagreed with the rule prohibiting them, he would not break it. Ten days
later he was appointed head pastor of First Methodist.
Then, in August, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled that the prohibition on
same-sex unions was indeed a binding law, and that performing them was a punishable
offense. And in September, Rev. Doyle Burbank-Williams, one of Creechs earliest
supporters, was reassigned from a relatively desirable urban posting in Omaha to a pair of
rural churches, the leadership of which then refused to accept him because of his stand on
same-sex unions-leaving him, too, temporarily unemployed. In October, Bishop Martinez
granted the conservative members who had left First United after the verdict the right to
form a new Methodist church of their own, with an evangelical pastor. In the long view,
the pro-homosexual union victory touted in the national press in March of 1998 looks
The most disappointing thing about the coverage of the Creech trial was the lack of
biographical and historical context. No one delved into Creechs past. Even the
World-Herald, which devoted hundreds of column inches to the controversy, never profiled
Creech to explain where he had come from and what events had shaped his belief.
Particularly puzzling was the failure to look into events at Fairmont United Methodist in
Raleigh, North Carolina, Creechs previous posting.
The parallels between Fairmont and First Methodist are striking. In both cases, Creech
had been brought in specifically because of his "real world" concerns with
social justice. In both cases, this exacerbated a pre-existing generational split in the
congregation. And in both cases, the "dialog" meetings held after the first
signs of trouble only served to expose underlying divisions and harden the positions of
both sides in the congregation. Yet the World-Herald never went further into the situation
at Fairmont than to note that Creechs "activism on behalf of homosexuals had
split the church"-an unfair characterization of a much more complicated situation.
The national press did manage to find a few interesting pieces of history that eluded
the Omaha paper. Los Angeles Times staff writer Stephen Braun captured the underlying
split at First Methodist nicely, describing it as a place where "many of the
citys bankers, insurance men and political candidates mingled on Sundays." But
as Omaha grew, Braun wrote, "First United began losing its affluent core membership
to suburban chapels. Older defectors were replaced by younger recruits who were more
predisposed to taking stands than to standing around."
In another pretrial story, the New York Timess Niebuhr reported that before
Creech arrived at First Methodist, the church had drawn up a "Vision Focus" that
said members would "welcome and celebrate the diversity of Gods children,
including all economic levels, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, marital
states, abilities, and age levels." He had come to the church, said one
parishioner, "knowing this was the vision we had, and had no inkling there were
people who disagreed with it." Taken together, these suggest a conflict with deeper
roots than was generally reported.
The second Methodist minister to be tried was Rev. Greg Dell of Broadway United
Methodist Church in Chicago. In October of 1998, Bishop Joseph Sprague filed charges
against Dell for performing a union ceremony for two men the month before. This time
around, however, there were several major changes. First, the denominations judicial
council had by now ruled that the ban on unions was a firm law, not a guideline. Second,
in performing the union Dell had the unified support of his congregation. Finally, he
enjoyed strong backing from his bishop, who-although he felt compelled to obey Methodist
rules and file the charges-nonetheless repeatedly stated his objection to the ban on
same-sex marriages and described Dell as "an exceptional pastor."
Deprived of Creechs defense that the ban was merely advisory, Dell argued his
case in broad terms, stating that blessing a loving union between two of his parishioners
was a part of his duties as a responsible pastor. On March 25, 1999 he was found guilty,
the jurys vote this time being one more than needed to convict.
The next day he was suspended until such time as he agreed in writing not to perform
homosexual unions or until the denomination repealed the current rule against them.
"I will never sign such a pledge, Dell defiantly stated. "That would be a
violation of what I believe the spirit of God and all these people signify." His
congregation however, found a way to insure that he could stay with them by hiring him to
remain on as the director for "In All Things Charity," an advocacy group he had
started two years before. They even arranged for him to continue living in the
Although much more limited, media coverage of the Dell case was markedly superior to
that of the Creech case. Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald (based in
Arlington Heights) ran illuminating biographies of Dell that showed the evolution of his
beliefs through his personal experiences. Particularly telling was Tribune religion writer
Steve Kloehns report that Dell had been arrested in 1986 "for chaining himself
to the entrance of the General Board of Pensions of the United Methodist Church in
Evanston, to protest the boards holdings in firms that dealt with South
Africa." Under the circumstances, it was not hard to understand Dells
willingness to take the stand he did.
Kloehn also profiled Bishop Sprague, providing insight into his journey from a self
described "jock" who "knew all the fag jokes" to a minister who later
"turned his college parish into a sanctuary for gays and lesbians at a time when
anti-gay violence on campus was rising" and finally to a Bishop advocating a change
in the rules of his denomination.
There was also a strong effort to place the trial in the context of the larger debate
within the denomination. Niebuhr did a spot-on job of explaining to New York Times readers
the peculiar vulnerability to this sort of conflict of the Methodist church, which
"lacks a single, central authority like the Pope, but at the same time does not
permit its congregations the sort of autonomy found in Jewish synagogue organizations and
some other Protestant denominations." And Kloehn did a thoughtful piece examining the
realignment that has taken place in American religion, where conservative-liberal
divisions have become more important than denominational divisions, and analyzing the
possibly schismatic effects of this change on the Methodists.
Overall, coverage of the Dell trial was distinctly superior to coverage of the Creech
trial, marked by deeper historical research and a more nuanced understanding of the
organizations involved. One reason for this was a simple accident of geography: Dell
happened to be located in Chicago, a city with strong local papers and a first-rate
religion writer in Kloehn. Timing, however, also played an important role, with the Dell
coverage benefiting from coming so closely on the heels of the Creech verdict and the
initial complaints in the Sacramento case.
The Creech trial had no antecedent. (Methodist ecclesiastical trials are extremely
rare, and usually center upon an accusation of sexual misconduct by the minister.) The
unprecedented nature of the case made it difficult for reporters to grasp its context,
leading them to misjudge the issues on which the trial would be decided and to overplay
the importance of the resulting verdict. Coming second, the Dell case was easier to place
in the context of an ongoing organizational conflict within the Methodist church, and was
relieved of the burden of being perceived as "the" trial on which the issue of
homosexual unions would be settled.