January 26, 1998
Editor's Note: If you are not familiar with the background of the Reverend Jimmy Creech's statement, read the news releases on this web site, including Pastor who conducted same-sex union faces church trial by United Methodist News Service.
On September 16, 1997, a judicial complaint was filed against me, alleging that I am in "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church" because I "performed a 'covenanting ceremony' that celebrated a homosexual union between two women," based upon Paragraph 65C of the Social Principles and Article IV, Paragraph 15.6, of The Book of Discipline.
On January 23, 1998, the Committee on Investigation of the Nebraska Annual Conference referred the complaint to a church trial to be prosecuted as a chargeable offense. I welcome the trial as an opportunity to both make my case and to challenge the unjust position of The United Methodist Church regarding lesbians and gay men. It is my hope that when the final verdict has been determined, the Social Principles will be affirmed as "advisory and persuasive" and that there will be greater openness, acceptance and justice for gay men and lesbians in the United Methodist Church.
I contend that I have not acted in disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church, but, after "prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice," have acted in a way consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with my calling as a pastor in The United Methodist Church. It is my intention in this response to describe what led to this discernment.
On September 14, 1997, I celebrated a Covenant Ceremony for two women, I will call them "Mary and Martha", in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Approximately thirty family members and friends came to be with them as they spoke vows of love and fidelity to each other. Mary's two sons and daughter and Martha's daughter and brother stood with the them during the ceremony.
The liturgy consisted of essentially the same rubrics as in the "Service of Christian Marriage" found in The United Methodist Book of Worship:
The reception was held at the church, prepared and hosted by members of The United Methodist Women of First United Methodist Church.
In short, it was a very moving, intimate, simple, beautiful and holy occasion, a true celebration of love and lifelong commitment these two people have for one another in the context of their faith and in the presence of God, their families and friends.
I was honored and privileged to be a part of this occasion. It was an occasion of worship that all United Methodists and people of faith should celebrate.
Yet, I was aware that all would not. When I accepted the invitation to celebrate this covenant ceremony for "Mary and Martha", I was aware that there was strong feeling within The United Methodist Church against "practicing" lesbians and gay men. I was aware that language had been added to the Social Principles at the 1996 General Conference advising against that the celebration of "homosexual unions." Also, I had been instructed by my bishop, Joel Martinez, not to celebrate this ceremony. I felt Bishop Martinez had to so instruct me because of the institutional pressures placed upon him by virtue of his office. So, I knew that what I was doing was potentially in conflict with an official position of The United Methodist Church articulated in the Social Principles.
However, it is my belief that the position taken by The United Methodist Church regarding same-sex unions, as well as that regarding "the practice" of homosexuality, is wrong, unjust, discriminatory and inconsistent with the spirit of Christ and our Wesleyan and Methodist traditions. As a pastor, I could not in good conscience say "no" to the invitation. To do so would be to give my assent to this unjust position of the Church and, consequently, to give it power. This would be a failure on my part to be true to my calling as a minister of the gospel and a loyal United Methodist. To say "no" would be tantamount to forfeiting my calling as a pastor.
In addition, while I respect the opinion of Bishop Martinez, I believe his instruction to me not to celebrate the covenant ceremony was based upon his interpretation of the Social Principles as Church Law, an interpretation I believe to be insupportable and erroneous. Consequently, I did not believe his instruction to be compelling.
To explain my reason for accepting the invitation to celebrate this covenant ceremony, I must go back to 1984. I was serving Warsaw United Methodist Church in Warsaw, North Carolina. General Conference had just adjourned, having added the prohibition of the ordination of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" to The Book of Discipline. A member of the church came to my office and told me that he was withdrawing his membership from the church. When I asked for his reason, he explained that he could no longer belong to a church that condemned him for who he was and that considered him unworthy to be ordained.
"Paul" was a longtime member of the Warsaw church. He had served as its organist on several occasions. I did not know that he was gay. It was not his ambition to be ordained. Nonetheless, the prohibition was offensive to him as a general condemnation and attack upon all persons who are gay or lesbian.
Sexual orientation had never been a concern or interest of mine. I was unaware of the condemnatory language regarding "homosexuality" that had been added to The Book of Discipline in 1972. I was unaware of the assault by the church upon a targeted group of people referred to as "homosexuals."
Paul and I talked a long time. At the end, I supported his decision to withdraw his membership because of the abuse he felt. I promised that I would continue to be his pastor as long as he wanted or needed me to be, even though his membership in the church would end.
In this pastoral context, Paul's coming out to me (he remained in the closet to all except close friends and confidants) was a challenge to study the whole issue of sexual orientation, and the church and society's treatment of persons who are lesbian and gay. It was no longer possible for me to be naive about this, especially as a pastor.
Since that day, I have talked with and studied the works of biblical scholars, ethicists, psychologists, historians and social scientists in regard to issues related to sexual orientation, specifically same-sex orientation. I have learned that there was no understanding of sexual orientation in the culture and time when scripture was written. There was not even a word for "homosexuality" or "homosexual" in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, the original languages of scripture.
There are biblical references that condemn same-sex sexual behavior, but they are all within contexts related to violence, idolatry, promiscuity and exploitation. Careful reading within the historical setting reveals that it is the violence, idolatry, promiscuity and exploitation that is condemned, not the same-sex sexual behavior. The same condemnation is given to opposite-sex sexual behavior that is violent, idolatrous, promiscuous and exploitative. Although, it must be observed that there is much less tolerance for violence against and exploitation of men and boys by men in the Bible than there is violence against and exploitation of women by men in the Bible. This relative intolerance has to do with patriarchy, not an anti-homosexual bias.
There is no condemnatory biblical reference to same-sex sexual behavior between two people who are in a mutually loving, nurturing, caring and supportive relationship. There is no general condemnation of "homosexuality" in scripture. Certainly, there was no obsession with it in any of the books, and Jesus never talked about it.
In the early church, I learned by reading historical studies, covenant ceremonies were celebrated liturgically between persons of the same sex at the same time that "marriage" between persons of the opposite sex remained a civil contract with no liturgical sanction. Same-sex unions were considered to more perfectly reflect ideal, Platonic love because it was between "equals." The celebration of marriage between men and women did not become a sacrament until the 11th century.
I learned that the church was ambivalent or neutral regarding same-sex relationships until the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas codified for the Roman Catholic Church an ethic that still persists today. This was an ethic, based on the natural philosophy of Aristotle, that considered procreation the only justifiable purpose for sexual behavior. Sexual behavior that did not have as its goal producing offspring was denounced as sin. Consequently, in Aquinas' ethics, masturbation and same-sex sexual relationships were more sinful than rape because there was the potential for offspring with rape, and none with the other behaviors.
Within one hundred years of the acceptance of Aquinas's ethics, death became the punishment throughout Europe for same-sex sexual relationships. The result of this move from ambivalence and neutrality to condemnation and hostility has become deeply ingrained in our culture and collective psyche. It is significant that the original basis for the condemnation and hostility of same-sex relationships came not from the early church's interpretation of scripture, its theology or traditions, but from an ethic based on the philosophy of a non-Christian.
The knowledge of sexual orientation, and consequently heterosexuality and homosexuality, did not develop until the last part of the nineteenth century with the advent of psychoanalysis. The language we now use to talk about sexual orientation has its origin with the discovery of this knowledge. This new insight into human nature and personality identified sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular as essential parts of what it means to be human. Sexual relationships, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, came to be understood as more than a choice of behavior, but as an innate predisposition. While the cause or origin of sexual orientation has not yet been determined, it is a variation of the same factors for heterosexuality and homosexuality. In other words, heterosexuality is not a norm of which homosexuality is a perversion. Each is equally natural, normal and healthy.
Sexual orientation, whichever form it takes, is understood to relate to the whole of the persons' personality. It is more than just sexual behavior. A person does not practice her or his sexual orientation at one time and not practice it in another. A person is not heterosexual only when engaged in sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex. Likewise, a person is not homosexual only when engaged in sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex. Sexual orientation cannot be turned on and off.
Furthermore, a person has a sexual orientation whether or not she or he is sexually active. Consequently, homosexuality and heterosexuality are descriptions of who people are, not descriptions of their behavior. Sexual behavior, of course, should be expected to be consistent with and appropriate to sexual orientation of a person. It is unnatural for a person who is heterosexual to engage in same-sex behavior. It is just as unnatural for a person who is homosexual to engage in opposite-sex behavior.
Sexual orientation is not a moral issue; it is morally neutral. Sexual ethics are simple: sexual relationships should be mutual, non-exploitative, nurturing and loving. What is immoral are unequal, exploitative, abusive and unloving sexual acts toward another person. This is true regardless of the orientation of the persons involved. I believe that sexual activity which is considered moral when practiced by two people of the opposite sexes, is no less moral when practiced by two people of the same sex. The crucial test is whether the activity is mutual, non-exploitative, nurturing and loving.
The 1988 General Conference authorized a four-year long study of homosexuality, with a report to be brought to the 1992 General Conference with recommendations regarding the related position of the United Methodist Church. The report that was produced focused upon biblical, ethical, theological, historical, traditional, medical and psychological issues related to homosexuality. A majority of the study commission members recommended that there were no grounds to maintain the negative, exclusionary language placed in the Social Principles and The Book of Discipline in 1972 and after. Unfortunately, the General Conference rejected the recommendation of the majority and accepted the recommendation of a minority to maintain the negative, exclusionary language. Nevertheless, the findings of the whole commission and the recommendation of the majority of the commission members repudiating the current hostile position of The United Methodist Church confirmed all that I had discovered through my own study.
As instructive as all of this academic investigation was, of more importance have been the personal stories I have heard from hundreds of gay men and lesbians, and their families and friends. I have heard lesbians and gay men tell about their "discovery" of sexual and affectionate attraction to persons of their own sex, how afraid this made them, how the messages of a heterosexist society made them believe themselves to be "different" and even "unnatural, sinful and perverse."
I have heard the stories of sons and daughters being banished from families. I have witnessed persons being told to leave the churches they grew up in because they discovered themselves to be gay and confided this new knowledge to their pastors whom they thought they could trust and who would be supportive. I have experienced the bitterness expressed by gay persons toward the church for being condemned and rejected. I have heard a gay man tell me, "I know I'm going to hell because I'm queer. I learned that in church, and nobody can convince me otherwise. I can't change, so why should I worry anymore about it. God doesn't love me. Why should I love God?" He died within the year from complications related to AIDS, believing he was accursed and damned.
I have seen the isolation families experience from friends and their churches because they have a family member who is gay, because they cannot talk about it, because when they do talk about it they are shunned. I have listened to stories about persons who took their own lives because they could not reconcile who they were with what our society, families and churches told them they should be. I have heard stories about, and observed first hand, the violence, harassment and discrimination gay people experience in our society.
I have heard stories told to me by United Methodist clergy, gay and lesbian, about living in fear of being "outed" and losing the opportunity to fulfill their calling by God to ministry. And, I've heard stories from gay persons about living a lie in a heterosexual marriage in order to hide their true identity.
Along side the painful stories, I have heard the wonderful stories of parents whose love for their daughter or son prevailed over the fear and prejudice our culture had taught them, embracing their children in arms of unconditional acceptance. I have seen incredible acts of courage, integrity and dignity by lesbians and gay men in the face of rejection and persecution. I have witnessed the love and devotion of gay couples. I have watched the tender care given by one man to another, his spouse, who was slowly dying because of AIDS. I have celebrated with a lesbian couple their adoption of an infant girl, and looked on over time as they parented with love their daughter. I have learned of the pain and the miracles of love that are hidden in our society because of fear and bigotry aimed at persons who are gay.
As a pastor, these stories, along with the studied investigation, have made it impossible for me to give assent and support to the prevailing condemnatory attitudes of our culture, including those embodied by policy, doctrine and practice within the Christian Church in general, and The United Methodist Church in particular. I cannot perpetuate the sin of heterosexism in the church through my pastoral office.
I have seen this kind of bigotry before. I grew up in the South during the 1950's and '60's when the leadership of Christian churches called upon scripture, tradition, experience and reason to justify racism, just as United Methodists do today to justify heterosexism (the value system that holds sexual activity to be natural, normal and moral only when it is between a man and a woman, and that considers all other sexual activity not to be normal, and to be perverse and immoral). This was done in spite of the obvious violence against African Americans, and is done today to gay men and lesbians in spite of the obvious violence committed against them. Any biblical interpretation, tradition, experience or reason that allows for the persecution of any person or any class of persons is bankrupt and not of God.
I believe that the sin of heterosexism is no less a sin than that of racism. While some of the dynamics may be different, they are fundamentally identical in nature as an expression of a dominant culture over another. To be gay is a status just as it is a status to be African American, Native American or Asian American or Latin American: it is a description of a person's fundamental and essential nature.
The Social Principles defines racism as "the combination of the power to dominate by one race over other races and a value system that assumes that the dominant race is innately superior to the others. Racism includes both personal and institutional racism." The Social Principles observe that "racism plagues and cripples our growth in Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself. Therefore, we recognize racism as a sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons." This same analysis applies to heterosexism as a destructive system of prejudice that has both personal and institutional dimensions.
Just as racism holds one race superior to another, so does heterosexism hold heterosexuality to be superior to being gay. This is played out in many ways: racist whites claim they are more moral than blacks; similarly non-gay people claim that they are more moral than gay people. While Blacks are considered less human than whites by racist whites; gays are considered deviant and unnatural by non-gays. Racism considers what white people do to be the norm that blacks should follow; heterosexism considers what non-gay people do to be the norm that gay people should follow. Racism holds that if you are not white, you are inferior in every way, even in relationship with God; heterosexism holds that if you are not heterosexual, you are inferior in every way, even in relationship with God (except with heterosexism, the belief is that gays are despised and condemned by God). If you are black, you are not quite human and therefore you can be physically, mentally and spiritually violated without compunction; the same is true if you are gay.
Just as it was the church in the South that perpetuated racism so that slavery and white supremacy could have legitimacy, the Christian Church has been responsible, more than any other institution, for perpetuating the sin of heterosexism as a form of control over what is feared within all of us: the mystery of human sexuality and intimacy (sexual or non-sexual) with persons of the same sex.
Because of the heterosexism taught and practiced by the institution of the Christian Church, countless young people have committed suicide, adults have lived lifetimes of lies, families have been destroyed, gay men and lesbians have been cruelly treated and murdered, the spirit and lives of millions of gay people have been crippled, and they have been told that the love of God is denied to them because of who they are, and will continue to be unless they become other than who they are. (continued in part 2)
My father was a good, honest and kind person. So, it came as a great shock to me when his only response to the brutal murders in 1964 of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers in Mississippi was, "it was their fault; they shouldn't have meddled." It was a sobering wake-up call for me. I began to understand how good people do evil by holding onto injustices they believe represents the "will of God" because it is "the way things have always been." Most often, good people maintain such injustices when they silently condone them or remain silent in disagreement with them. I learned that evil is not only actively supported by malevolent people, but also passively supported by good people who resist change.
Just as The United Methodist Church renounces racism; so, too, should it renounce heterosexism. Both bear the fruits of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and dehumanization. Both are value systems contrary to the Christian gospel because they deny integrity, dignity and wholeness to persons who are children of God created in God's image. People of faith and conscience must address both for what they are: evil. The United Methodist Church must no longer be allowed to continue its destructive positions regarding homosexuality. Good people can no longer passively support and condone this evil through silence. If there is any hope for us being saved from our egregious error, it is for us to speak and act against the evil of heterosexism, just as we must against racism, within The United Methodist Church as well as within society.
With all that I came to understand from reflections upon the dynamics I witnessed growing up in a racist society, along with my study of sexual orientation and my firsthand observations about the experiences of gay men and lesbians in society and in the Church, it was no longer possible for me to be quiet about the injustices perpetuated against lesbians and gay men. Once there is understanding, behavior has to change or there is no faithfulness, no integrity. It does not serve God to uphold injustice for the sake of preserving an unhealthy and destructive peace. It does not serve the Church to maintain its sinfulness for the sake of an order and discipline that is betrayed by the sinfulness. To be faithful to my calling as a Christian, to my calling as an ordained United Methodist pastor, I could not but agree to offer God's blessing upon "Mary and Martha" as they committed themselves to each other.
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus reads a passage from the scroll of Isaiah which serves as a hermeneutic of his ministry: "The Spirit of God is upon me, who has anointed me to bring good news to those who are poor, who has sent me to proclaim release to those who are captive and recovery of sight to those who are blind, to let those who are oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's favor." It was the ministry of Jesus to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery and to set people free from the powers that oppressed them and denied to them the fullness of life. Jesus announced that in his presence the "year," the time of God's favor, of God's compassion, justice and mercy, God's grace, the jubilee time was fulfilled. As the Body of Christ entrusted to continue this ministry, we are compelled to live out our life of faith in jubilee time, when all who are denied wholeness and suffer oppression are offered the good news of God's favor: release, recovery and freedom. We are not to continue the oppression, but are to announce in word and deed its end.
To be faithful to the ministry of Christ, no longer can I as a pastor allow the oppression of heterosexism to deny two persons who love one another the opportunity to form a lasting lifelong covenant within the context of their faith in God, and to be assured of God's blessing upon their union. Just as scripture is the written proclamation of God's grace, and the sermon is the spoken proclamation of God's grace, the liturgical blessing of such a covenant is God's grace in deed. It is a powerful expression of God's favor upon two persons that nurtures and sustains their love and fidelity.
Judaism of the first century was an exclusive sect defined by race, culture and religious practice. In the early days of the Christian community, who was to be included was much debated. As a Jewish movement, Jewish exclusivism continued to hold sway. In the gospels, while emphasizing the priority of the Jewish nation as the focus of Jesus' mission, Jesus had significant contact with gentiles, collaborators with gentiles and people called sinners by pious Jews. Jesus began to open up the doors to all persons regardless of distinctions.
Once when asked about this by the Pharisees, Jesus answered by challenging them: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" Jesus explains that God desires mercy: compassion, justice, forgiveness; not ritual rightness or purity. He explains that he has come to call not those who consider themselves to be righteous because of their religious piety, but those who have been excluded from among the religious community and, as a consequence, feel separated from God. It is to the outcast, those on the margins, those mistreated that he announces God's gracious invitation to fellowship.
The momentum continues into the Acts of the Apostles. Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch, one who would not have been included in the Jewish community because of the mutilation of his body. Peter has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven filled with "unclean" animals, and hears a voice telling him to eat, for: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Peter then is called to the home of Cornelius, a gentile, who receives the gift of the Holy Spirit in advance of being baptized by Peter. Paul persuades the community to include the gentiles at the conference in Jerusalem. And, in Galatians, Paul proclaims: "...in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer enslaved or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
The Christian movement became a universal religious movement, not tied to race, ethnicity, gender, nationality or any other status that is conferred on people by social or cultural distinctions. The unifying realities for the Christian Church are faith in Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit present within the community.
The progressive movement within the Christian Church away from an exclusive community toward an inclusive community continues into our own day, our own history. It has been a painful struggle from the beginning, for it has challenged our notions of who is acceptable to God and who is not. While the scriptural message of inclusivity is clear, the practice of the Christian Church has been to use religious and cultural distinctions to hinder or deny access. Creeds and rituals, as well as race, gender, socioeconomic class and sexual orientation have all served as criteria for inclusion and exclusion, informally if not formally. Certainly, there have been other distinctions, as well, that have functioned in the same way.
The brokenness of the Body of Christ is expressed not only by the plethora of denominational bodies that exist today, but in the fracturedness of society as well. The exclusion by The United Methodist Church of gay men and lesbians from the full rights of membership is evidence of this. Ecclesiology is too often defined by social considerations instead of Christology as it should be. It is to the atoning work of God through Jesus Christ that all people are called, not to the endorsement of cultural prejudices and divisions.
The Social Principles (Paragraph 65G) treat "homosexuals" as persons of status within The United Methodist Church; i.e., "We insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.... Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." And, in Paragraph 66H re. Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation, the Social Principles again acknowledge "homosexuals" as having status: "Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons.... Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians."
In each of these citations, persons who are homosexual are granted a status within The United Methodist Church that is to be recognized and respected. The Constitution calls for the full inclusion of all persons without regard to status. However, the advice against same-sex unions violates this constitutional principle by denying same-sex couples the right to participate in services of worship that celebrate their love and commitment to one another.
Denying the right of couples to celebrate their love and fidelity through a commitment ceremony in the context of their faith community because they are of the same sex is not an expression of God's grace. Denying ordination to persons called by God because they are in a committed relationship with someone of the same sex cannot be justified on the basis of scripture or early church tradition. Denying the integrity of pesonhood by contriving a division of "who" a gay person is into "being" and "doing," i.e. "homosexual" and "homosexual practice," and then affirming the "being" while condemning the "doing" is not ontologically or ethically valid. Rather, each of these is an expression a of cultural prejudice that has infected the community of faith, has institutionalized bigotry in the name of God, and has classified an essential, normative aspect of personality as sinful.
I consider the following language in the Social Principles ( Paragraph 65G) to be an expression of evil: "Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching...." It is on the basis of this language that the prohibition against the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" (The Book of Discipline, Paragraph 304.3) and the advice against United Methodist clergy conducting ceremonies that celebrate "homosexual unions" (the Social Principles, Paragraph 65D) are justified. This value judgment is institutionalized prejudice and bigotry, classifying as sin sexual acts of intimacy and love, expressions of "God's good gift to all persons." On this basis, the right of a couple to conscientiously covenant together in the context of their faith community and in witness to their faith in Jesus Christ is denied. Pastors and congregations are restricted from giving support to gay couples who intend to live in a committed relationship as a family.
In contrast to this negative, judgmental language, Paragraph 65G also contains language that I find moves me to give support to gay men and lesbians in very specific ways. "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." The understanding I have gained through my careful study and experience makes it impossible to understand this statement in any way other than to recognize that sexual orientation, no matter what it is, is normal, natural and healthy in and of itself.
"We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society." Clearly, this guidance celebrates sexuality in its most broad (i.e., wholeness of personality) and most specific (i.e., sexual behavior) terms as an essential part of being human. It gives to the church a mandate to acknowledge and affirm this for all persons, which of course includes lesbians and gay men. I believe that recognizing the natural and normal role sexuality plays in our humanity and affirming it as good is a part of my calling as a pastor. It is one way we are called to give support to persons in their relationship with God as whole persons.
"We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift.... Further, within the context of our understanding of this gift of God, we recognize that God challenges us to find responsible, committed, and loving forms of expression" (emphasis added). It is clear that we believe that human sexuality is intended by God to be fulfilled in disciplined and responsible ways. What more compelling mandate could be given to me as a pastor to encourage the commitment of two persons to each other in a covenant (a responsible, committed and loving form of expression) of love and fidelity, whether they be of same or opposite genders? How can we accept this advice and not support and encourage covenant ceremonies for gay men and lesbians in the context of Christian worship?
"(W)e affirm that God's grace is available to all." Believing and truly trusting that to be the case, I could not as a pastor, deny the liturgical signs of God's grace to "Mary and Martha" when their faith led them to covenant together.
It is ironic that the Social Principles advises against "(c)eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" in Paragraph 65C, while at the same time supports legal contractual relationships between lesbians and gay men in Paragraph 66H: "Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationship, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law." This inconsistency affirms legal protection to same-sex covenant relationships, yet denies to them God's blessing: we offer civil rights, but no grace.
The vows of Christian baptism begin with these questions: "Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" As a baptized Christian, I am compelled to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, most especially within the policies, doctrines and practices of The United Methodist Church.
During my ministry in North Carolina, I joined with other clergy to publicly challenge the herterosexism infecting the Church and society. I felt compelled not to be silent about the persecution, discrimination and harassment of gay men and lesbians. These clergy and I formed an organization called "The Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality." Our work focused upon annual educational conferences which brought nationally known figures to Raleigh to speak and teach on topics related to homosexuality and scripture, culture and church polity.
One of the significant areas of ministry that developed for me during this time and following was my role of being pastor to many lesbians and gay men who were estranged from the Church. I co-facilitated with my wife a support group for people with HIV/AIDS. I also counseled and supported lesbians, gay men and their families in overcoming the cultural barriers that acted to cause tension and division in their relationships. And, I had the great joy of celebrating with many couples of women and of men who joined themselves together by covenanting together in love and fidelity. Over the past six years before coming to Omaha, I celebrated covenant ceremonies with at least twelve couples. I considered each one to be a true witness of God's grace breaking into and shattering the evil prejudice of society that would deny these couples respect, support and affirmation, that would deny their full humanity.
When I was invited to come to First United Methodist Church, Omaha, the history of my efforts to open up the church and society to lesbians and gay men was well known to Bishop Martinez and to the Nebraska cabinet. My continuing commitment to this cause was understood.
From the very first, I have been completely open and candid with the First Church congregation of my disagreement with the position of The United Methodist Church regarding gay men and lesbians, and have advocated change. I have consistently advocated that First Church be open and inclusive of gay men and lesbians.
In January of 1997, I signed the statement of conscience, "In All Things Charity." My colleagues, pastors Donald Bredthauer and Susan Mullins also signed the statement. Our decisions were made independently after consultation together. Each of us gave prayerful and careful thought to the implications of our signing. Clergy from across the United States added their names to the statement, which now has been endorsed by approximately 1,300 United Methodist clergy.
This statement commits the signatories to give liturgical support to same-sex couples in their commitments to one another. We informed the congregation of our signing the statement in a Pastor's Message I wrote for our church weekly newspaper. I also wrote to Bishop Martinez, and copying Susan Davies, a letter informing him that we had signed the statement, included a copy of the statement with the letter and specifically pointed out that if asked to celebrate a covenant ceremony, we would. In February, we informed the Board of Trustees and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee about the significance of our decision as it relates to covenant ceremonies. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee gave us their support, with the exception of one member.
In April, Bishop Martinez asked me to let him know if and when I accepted an invitation a covenant ceremony. I agreed to do so.
In July, I was asked by a "Mary and Martha" to celebrate their covenant ceremony for them in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church. I agreed and the date was set for September 22. Immediately following my meeting with the couple, I wrote to Bishop Martinez, again copying to Susan Davies, informing him that I had agreed to celebrate a covenant ceremony and giving him the date. When there were complications with the original date, the ceremony was rescheduled in August for September 13. I wrote once again to Bishop Martinez to inform him of the new date. This date, too, was ultimately changed to September 14.
In August, I informed the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of the scheduled covenant ceremony. Once again, the committee was very supportive except for two members.
On September 1, Bishop Martinez telephoned me to discuss the covenant ceremony. He was very collegial and respectful. He explained that he understood my commitment. Yet, because of his understanding of The Book of Discipline, he would have to instruct me not to do the ceremony.
I explained to Bishop Martinez that as a pastor I could not say "no" to this couple. I explained that I believed the advice against same-sex unions to be unjust and that I could not give support to it. I explained that I meant no disrespect to him, that it was for me a matter of my understanding of my calling to be a pastor and a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
On September 4, I received Bishop Martinez's letter instructing me not to celebrate the covenant ceremony. As earlier stated, his instruction upheld what I consider to be the unjust and discriminatory guidance in the Social Principles. On September 14, the ceremony took place as planned. As pastor to "Mary and Martha," I witnessed them speak vows of love and fidelity to each other, and I prayed God's blessing upon their covenant.
I believe I acted faithfully as a witness to the grace of Jesus Christ. While my action was in conflict with the prohibition of same-sex unions within the Social Principles, it was consistent with Our Theological Task (Paragraph 63, section 4): "As United Methodists, we are called to identify the needs both of individuals and of society and to address those needs out of the resources of Christian faith in a way that is clear, convincing, and effective.... Conferences speak and act for United Methodists in their official decisions at appropriate levels. Our conciliar and representative forms of decision-making do not release United Methodists as individuals from the responsibility to develop sound theological judgment.... (T)heological reflection is energized by our incarnational involvement in the daily life of the Church and the world, as we participate in God's liberating and saving action.... We seek an authentic Christian response to these realities (perils, injustices, misuse of resources, secularism) that the healing and redeeming work of God might be present in our words and deeds. Too often, theology is used to support practices that are unjust. We look for answers that are in harmony with the gospel and do not claim exemption from critical assessment."
I acted out of loyalty to The United Methodist Church. I am devoted to it. I came to awareness of God and Jesus Christ as a child growing up in it. It nurtured me in my faith journey through Sunday School, worship, Bible School, Methodist Youth Fellowship into young adulthood. It was within a summer youth ministry program that I was called to ordained ministry. I attended Duke Divinity School, a United Methodist related institution. I have served The United Methodist Church in ordained ministry for twenty-seven years. I remain United Methodist because I love The United Methodist Church, even though I am in strong disagreement with its position regarding lesbians and gay men. Had I not this love for The United Methodist Church, it would have been easy and convenient to leave when I began to understand its sin. My hope is, by being faithful to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ, I can serve The United Methodist Church by calling it to turn away from the sin of heterosexism and to faithfulness.
While a judicial complaint has been brought against me, I believe that in this case it is The United Methodist Church that is being placed on trial. Does the Church really want to judge me wrong for praying God's blessing upon Mary and Martha in their commitment to each other? Would such a judgment bear witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus for all the world to see?