Tale of two churches

National | Presbyterians, Methodists react differently to challenges posed by demands from gay activists

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

Homosexual activists and their supporters this month racked up a win in the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church but went down to defeat in the 2.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA).

In the former case, Jimmy Creech is back in the pulpit as senior pastor of 1,900-member First United Methodist Church in Omaha. He was suspended with pay by Bishop Joel Martinez last November after performing a "marriage" ceremony for two lesbians two months earlier. The bishop reinstated him this month after a "jury" of four women and nine men in a two-day church trial agreed 11-2 that he had conducted a homosexual union ceremony, but then failed by one vote to find him guilty of violating the order and discipline of the denomination. Nine votes were needed for the guilty verdict; the vote was 8-5. More than 200 attended the trial, held in a church gymnasium in Kearney, Neb.

At issue is the binding force of the "Social Principles" section of The Book of Discipline, the UMC rule book. In 1996, the church's General Conference rejected a proposal to allow practicing homosexuals to be ministers. It also added a single sentence to the Social Principles section: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

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Some scholars and church leaders called to testify in Mr. Creech's defense asserted that "shall not" is "advisory."

Conservatives and backers of homosexuals alike agreed that a wave of same-sex unions is likely in the aftermath of the decision. Leaders of evangelical renewal movements in the UMC predicted many church members either will leave the church or withhold their offerings.

Bishop Martinez said he will seek to have the UMC's Judicial Council, the nine-member "supreme court" of the denomination, rule on the language in The Book of Discipline related to the trial. In any event, the Creech verdict would remain, church officials said. Outraged leaders of the Good News renewal movement formally asked UMC bishops to call a special session of the general conference to deal with the crisis.

In the matter involving the Presbyterian Church (USA), a majority of the denomination's 172 regional presbyteries rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given congregations leeway to ordain practicing homosexuals as deacons, elders, and clergy. As of March 12, 99 presbyteries had voted against the change, and 47 for it.

In 1996, the PCUSA General Assembly narrowly passed an amendment to the Book of Order, the PCUSA constitution, requiring all ordained members to "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Ratified by the presbyteries 97-75, it added specifics to a vague Book of Order rule requiring clergy to "lead a life worthy of the gospel."

Last year, Laurie Kraus, a Florida coordinator with Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, introduced Amendment A at the General Assembly in Syracuse to alter the language of the 1996 addition to the Book of Order. It would have required simply "fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness." The liberal-dominated General Assembly approved it. However, grassroots voting tallies indicated there is greater support for keeping the 1996 language than there was in adopting it in the first place.

The grassroots are thinning, however. The PCUSA has lost members during the 1990s; the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America has grown substantially.

Robert Mills, associate editor of Presbyterian Layman, an independent conservative bimonthly in the PCUSA, wants the rogues-not the more conservative members-to leave.

"The question now is whether all [PCUSA] Presbyterians will either live under the constitution or in good conscience withdraw from the church."

"Syracuse," says renewalist Parker Williamson, "was an aberration" at a time of conservative resurgence in the pews.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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