Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

Methodism’s Time of Trials

by Keith Hartman

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 Hell."

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 church’s Book of Discipline. Two ministers have already faced ecclesiastical trials under the new law.

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 Creech’s 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 Creech’s congregation did exactly that, initiating the process that would lead to the trial.

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 Methodist’s pastor-parish relations committee, which wanted Creech back at the pulpit.

Creech’s 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 slaves.

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 Creech’s 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 trial’s 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 God’s 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 Niebuhr’s view, the verdict was "a decision likely to reverberate through America’s 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 Creech’s 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 Methodist’s 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 Creech’s 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 hollow.

The most disappointing thing about the coverage of the Creech trial was the lack of biographical and historical context. No one delved into Creech’s 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, Creech’s 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 Creech’s "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 city’s 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 Times’s 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 God’s 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 denomination’s 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 Creech’s 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 jury’s 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 church’s parsonage.

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 Kloehn’s 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 board’s holdings in firms that dealt with South Africa." Under the circumstances, it was not hard to understand Dell’s 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.