Features

Holding the line?

National | Mainline church battles over homosexual ceremonies continue

Issue: "Top 100 Books 1999," Dec. 4, 1999

in Grand Island, Neb., & Edward E. Plowman - Candles, exchanges of vows and rings, a kiss, even a version of the Lord's Supper. The "recommitment" ceremony at a hotel in Grand Island, Neb., on Nov. 16 looked deceptively Christian in some ways, but both participants were men, and Jimmy Creech, the United Methodist clergyman who co-officiated, was an ex-clergyman the next day, stripped of his credentials by a jury of fellow clergy. Even though Mr. Creech, 55, was clearly violating the United Methodist rule that same-sex ceremonies "shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," he had escaped discipline before. He acknowledges performing up to 15 same-sex unions, but was acquitted by a jury last year. The United Methodists' highest court then ruled that the ban on conducting the ceremonies was enforceable church law, and after Mr. Creech broke the rule again this year, he went on trial again. The trial began in a Methodist church on the morning of Nov. 17 only after police arrested 75 protesters (connected with a California-based pro-homosexual group, Soulforce) for blocking the entrance. The protesters each paid a $48 fine (underwritten by an anonymous donor in Des Moines) and were released. At the trial Mr. Creech declared his desire to continue performing same-sex ceremonies, and then launched into a 50-minute oration without notes. "This trial is an act of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people," he declared. Following a break for lunch, the 13 jury members, all clergy, affirmed they had reached a unanimous verdict: "Guilty." They spent much of the afternoon deliberating about the penalty, which could range from a reprimand to defrocking. Most Soulforce participants waited outside, on and below the steps. (Their "Stop Spiritual Violence" sweatshirts weren't allowed in the church.) After two hours, a bearded young man went to the piano and began playing hymns; soon a sing-along was under way. A plainclothes police officer hovered near Mr. Creech, who remained in the sanctuary throughout the day. Just before 4 p.m. jury members reentered the sanctuary and the foreman announced their decision: "Withdrawal of the credentials of ordination, including both deacon and elder." "It is a sad day, it is a scandalous day," layman Creech told reporters outside. He said he would not appeal the decision. The action cheers many Bible-believing United Methodists who have been disturbed by the way similar cases have been handled. In Chicago, UM Bishop Joseph Sprague, who has fought to have the same-sex ban removed, is allowing Gregory Dell to serve out a one-year pulpit suspension as paid full-time director of an organization based in his church and dedicated to overthrowing the ban. In California, the leader of a mass clergy rebellion in a union of two lesbians last winter remains unjudged, and charges are quietly being dismissed against co-officiants. Undeterred by the Creech verdict, Soulforce promises to keep pressing churches on behalf of homosexuals. Mel White, once a prominent writer in evangelical circles, heads the group. This year he resigned a volunteer post in Dallas with the homosexual-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches and moved with his partner to California to work full time to help Soulforce "evangelize" churches and church leaders. Meanwhile, other denominations are also making decisions regarding homosexuality. For example, officials of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Nov. 22 released by email a decision of a synod-wide church court in Newark, N.J., that allows same-sex "holy unions" to be performed by PCUSA ministers and on PCUSA property-as long as none of the parties consider the unions to be marriages. (In PCUSA law, marriage is between a man and a woman.) Evangelicals in the denomination said they will appeal. Mainline denominations aren't the only ones affected. In Georgia, the Southern Baptist state convention last month booted out two churches (Oakhurst Baptist in Decatur and Virginia-Highland Baptist in Atlanta) for allowing open homosexuals to serve as leaders and a gay wedding to take place. The convention changed its constitution last year to exclude congregations that "affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior." It was "heartbreaking" to be forced to make such a decision, said convention president Gerald Harris, but "we just had to draw the line."

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