February 11, 2000
Chicago, Ill. A Committee on Investigation within the United Methodist Church today refused to bring charges against 67 clergy who celebrated a service of Holy Union for a lesbian couple in January 1999. "This decision of the California-Nevada Annual Conference marks a watershed moment in the life of the church as it struggles with issues of sexual orientation," Rev. Gregory Dell, Director of In All Things Charity, said.
"This Committee's determination clearly shows that our rule prohibiting Holy Union services is unclear and subject to mixed interpretation," Rev. Dell said. "We take a vow as clergy to minister to all people in the congregations we serve, regardless of identity. Yet our current rule requires that clergy discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. The California group is telling us they see a very real conflict here."
The California Committee's decision marks the first change in application of church law regarding these controversial services. The Rev. Dell faced a similar complaint in his own Northern Illinois Conference, which advanced to a church trial that attracted national attention in March of 1999. The Rev. Jimmy Creech of the Nebraska Annual Conference experienced two trials under the same circumstances.
Like the 67 clergy in California, Rev. Dell and Rev. Creech claimed that their ordination vows demanded that they not discriminate based on identity in the practice of their ministry. Both pastors insisted that to comply with the recent (1996) rule of the denomination regarding Holy Unions would be the "true disobedience" to the church and to the faith. The 67 California clergy made the same claim but prevailed in their position following a three-day hearing conducted by their Committee on Investigation. Rev. Dell's and Rev. Creech's hearings each took less than one day to complete.
"The California decision calls the United Methodist Church to review its current position not in terms of technical legalisms but in terms of: What kind of ministries can our denomination accommodate?" Rev. Dell said. "The denominational inquisition of pastors on one side of this debate must stop. We are a broken denomination because of our hurtful rules. And we run the risk of becoming further broken if we cannot agree on the extent to which pastors can minister fully to the people they serve."
The Rev. Dell was found guilty of "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church" for conducting a service of Holy Union in September 1998 for two men in the congregation he served, Broadway United Methodist Church, in Chicago.
The Trial Court imposed an indefinite suspension that could be terminated only by Rev. Dell's agreement to cease conducting Holy Unions for same sex couples or by an action of the denomination to change the rule that prohibits such services. A later appeal of the trial court's decision modified the suspension so that it will terminate on June 30, 2000.
The Rev. Creech was acquitted in his first trial in March 1998 because the denomination's rule was not binding at the time. His second trial after conducting another service occurred in November 1999, after the trial of Rev. Dell. A Trial Court found him guilty and removed his ordination credentials.
The United Methodist Church will meet as a denomination in May 2000 to address legislation on issues of sexual orientation. A growing sense among United Methodists is that the church must resolve some aspects of this issue or find itself in chaos. While the church has had negative policies regarding sexual orientation since 1972, none of those policies was treated as church law for judicial proceedings.
Historically The United Methodist Church has struggled with but celebrated its diversity. In neither the struggles around slavery and racism nor the ordination of women were judicial procedures and church law applied so punitively. "Now, it is clearer than ever that the church must reclaim its character and get on with discerning and responding to the will of God for our time and world," Rev. Dell said.
The Rev. Dell currently serves as Director of In All Things Charity, a national movement sponsored by Broadway United Methodist Church that seeks to change the church's discriminatory policies against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals.
For more information, contact:
The Rev. Gregory Dell, (773) 935-9354
Courtney Cosgrove, (773) 868-4022
In All Things Charity