by Barbara Nissen*
OMAHA, Neb. (UMNS) -- The senior pastor of one of the largest churches here has announced he is planning to conduct a covenanting ceremony in the church for two lesbian members during the week of Sept. 14.
"I am doing this as part of my understanding of the Church, of Jesus, and what all people need to do," said the Rev. Jimmy Creech, pastor of First United Methodist Church at 7020 Cass Street here. "I cannot imagine as a pastor saying 'no' to two people who say they want to make a commitment to each other in the context of their faith."
Addressing what it means to be the church, he said, "For me, gay or lesbian people who are saying, 'we have a right to be here,' are challenging us to a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to be the church ... the body of Jesus Christ in ministry to all people."
In light of the United Methodist official stand that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," the proposed action has sparked considerable debate and dialogue within and outside the First Church congregation. The 1996 General Conference, top legislative body of the denomination, added to Social Principles of the church a statement saying, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in churches."
The General Conference is the only body that can speak officially for the denomination but whether or not the Social Principles have the status of church law has not been determined. While no official action was taken by the First Church congregation or boards, Creech said the ceremony is part of the 1,900-member church's dynamic process of coming to terms with what it means to be in ministry with people who are gay and lesbian. Those discussions also have a broader context, he said.
Performing the rite is not without consequence. In a formal statement, Nebraska Area Bishop Joel N. Martínez said he counseled Creech that "to proceed with the ceremony would place him in noncompliance with the United Methodist Discipline and in conflict with previous church rulings."
Martínez, who is currently out of the country, said in the written statement that should Creech proceed with the ceremony, "he could anticipate a written complaint against him in accordance with Para. 358 of the church's Book of Discipline." That paragraph states that a complaint can be filed about the "performance or character of a clergy person ... claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties." Such a complaint would begin a process of review as described elsewhere in the Discipline (Para. 358).
Creech and the other two pastors serving the church, the Revs. Susan Mullins and Donald Bredthauer, signed in February the "In All Things Charity" document, a statement of conscience opposing what it considers United Methodist discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
Mullins pointed out that Creech does not stand alone as a "solo renegade," that the staff is in solidarity with him. "To be in ministry with all persons means blessing people at all points in their lives," Mullins said. "I see our decision as pastors as a witness to the injustice of our denomination's inconsistency in proclaiming God's love for all persons." The Discipline prohibits the church from ordaining or appointing "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." On the other hand it affirms "God's grace is available to all," declares "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth," and commits the church "to be in ministry for and with all persons."
Creech, who was appointed to First Church in 1996, said he believes that performing the ceremony for the lesbian couple is consistent with the church's journey in defining itself. In 1995 committees and leaders of the church endorsed a conscious effort to be an inclusive body of faith, according to Creech. A 1995 statement of purpose declared the church "to be the Body of Christ welcoming and celebrating the diversity of God's children in the Omaha Community."
In 1996, the church conference endorsed a vision focus even more intentionally inclusive, stating: "We are the body of Christ. As such,we welcome and celebrate the diversity of God's children; we are a healing community where all people can seek to become whole persons in Christ ... "
Last summer the vision became more specific. "A conscious statement of what being inclusive means by adding to it [the vision statement] 'regardless of sexual orientation, marital status, financial status,' all that, was another incremental step," Creech said.
Part of the church's movement, he said, was his approval by the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, who knew he was an activist for gay and lesbian rights in his home state of North Carolina. His district superintendent agrees.
It is a "total picture for the church," not just about gay and lesbian ministry, according to Omaha District Superintendent Susan P. Davies. "That's the point. Not just that they're moving toward becoming a gay and lesbian church ... they're moving toward becoming an open and accepting church. That's what those steps are all about," she said in an interview.
Creech was active in gay men and lesbian rights as pastor of the 1,000-member Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C., for the three years he served there. In 1990 the church's Staff Parish Relations Committee asked that he not be reappointed because of the loss of financial commitment to the church due to his public activities.
Now in Omaha, Creech feels he is part of First United Methodist Church's direction that was already in place when he was appointed to the position.
Not all of the congregation agree with Creech nor the direction the church is going. It has been reported to Creech that members have been meeting in homes to discuss ousting him. He admits that members have left and others have withdrawn their financial support.
On the other hand, "church lay leaders have also been very supportive," he said. The chairpersons of the church's administrative council and the board of trustees have publicly expressed their support.
"When 'All Things In Charity' was signed by the three of us, we went to the Staff Parish Relations Committee and told them, and told them the significance of it," Creech said. "I went then to the trustees, also, because it had to do with property and to let them know the implications and what responsibilities we as pastors have as far as church property and what worship services go on."
Despite the prospect of a complaint being filed against him, Creech is determined to perform the ceremony. "My agreeing to celebrate with these two persons their commitment to each other has to do with my understanding," Creech said. "This is something they are doing as part of their relationship, not to be in the public eye, which I think underscores the intimacy and the spiritual nature of the ceremony," he said.
* Nissen is the director of communications for the Nebraska Annual Conference.