Late last month, following two days of testimony, an all-clergy jury of nine men and four women, by a vote of 10 to 3, found Pastor Greg Dell guilty of disobeying the discipline and order of the United Methodist Church (UMC). This ruling, as well as the "reassignment" of a conservative Georgia pastor, shows that the multi-front battle within the UMC rages on.
Mr. Dell acknowledged he knew he was violating church law when he performed a union of two males last September, but he said ministry considerations trumped the law. The court disagreed and slapped the pastor with a severe penalty: suspension from the ministry unless he signs a statement pledging not to perform more same-sex unions or until the UMC's General Conference reverses its 1996 ban on them.
"I can never sign such a statement," Pastor Dell, 53, declared in response. He pleaded without success for only a reprimand or censure until the same-sex issue is revisited at the next General Conference in 2000. "Don't start the dynamic of denominational cleansing tonight," he begged.
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago, who has conducted same-sex unions himself and fought to defeat the 1996 ban, and who filed charges against Mr. Dell grudgingly, told reporters he had not expected "such a harsh penalty."
The judgment against Mr. Dell, to take effect July 5, means he will lose his job as pastor of 181-member Broadway UMC in Chicago, including a $35,000 salary and his residence. He claims a third of the members are gays or lesbians. At Palm Sunday services, Mr. Dell told congregants he might leave the UMC, and some members speculated the congregation might bolt, too, and hire him to be pastor.
Mr. Dell's trial was the first since a finding last August by the UMC's highest court that the denomination's 1996 ban on same-sex unions was binding. Violating the restriction is a chargeable offense, the court ruled. The Dell outcome heartened conservatives who had worried that liberal conference bishops and district superintendents could "stack" the juries in upcoming trials, and offenders would get off lightly.
Now the pressure is on Bishop Melvin Talbert and his 375-congregation California-Nevada conference. On March 23, Bishop Talbert reluctantly filed a formal complaint "without prejudice" against Sacramento pastor Don Fado and 68 other conference clergy for co-officiating at a union of two lesbians, both conference leaders, in the Sacramento convention center in January. The bishop denounced the church's 1996 ban as "an act of injustice," but he said he was sworn nevertheless to uphold the UMC's laws. At press time, no trial date had been set.
Scores of other clergy participants in the Sacramento service came from other conferences; some of them face charges in their own districts. In Oklahoma, Tulsa UMC minister Leslie Penrose decided not to face the music. She resigned from the UMC last month and applied for credentials in the 1.4-million-member United Church of Christ, which allows each congregation to decide whether to ordain homosexuals, recognize homosexual unions, and determine other sexuality policies.
Meanwhile, a large evangelical UMC congregation also is up in arms. Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia conference announced last month he would reassign Pastor Charles Sineath of 5,300-member First UMC of Marietta, Ga., to an as yet unspecified post in June. Church board members accused the bishop of retribution for a showdown between First and the denomination last year.
As in many large UMC churches in the South, discontent had grown at First over the increasingly liberal face of the UMC. A task force appointed by the church's board to investigate the denomination reported a lack of doctrinal and scriptural integrity among certain bishops, professors, and UMC executives who advocate full acceptance of homosexuality, espouse feminist theology, and question basic biblical doctrines.
As a form of protest, First's board of stewards redirected $60,000 of the church's 1998 denominational giving away from UMC's national offices to ministries in the local conference. This year, the board withheld $67,000 of $268,087 in apportionments from the national church, but did pay First's obligations to the conference in full. A large majority at First approved the actions, but a noisy minority objected.
Whatever the full reasons behind Bishop Davis's action, the warning to other conservative UMC churches seems clear: You can preach doctrine all you want, but don't meddle with our money, for purse strings really are the ties that bind.