Pastor facing church trial says denomination's stand on homosexuality compromises its integrity

by United Methodist News Service

Feb. 16, 1998

The United Methodist pastor who faces a church trial for performing a same-sex ceremony says the denomination's integrity is compromised by its stand against homosexuality.

For the Rev. Jimmy Creech, the suspended pastor of First United Methodist Church of Omaha, Neb., next month's trial will put the denomination and its principles to the test.

"The upcoming trial is not a case about Jimmy Creech, but it is the United Methodist Church that is on trial," he told United Methodist New Service. "This is about the integrity of the church, and it is my desire to see the church have integrity."

Creech said he welcomes his trial as an opportunity to both make his case and challenge the "unjust position of the United Methodist Church."

"I question strongly the antigay stance against homosexuality in the United Methodist Church," he said. "I'm challenging the antigay stand in the Social Principles."

Creech will stand trial for performing a Sept. 14 covenanting service in which he united two lesbians in his congregation. An investigative committee recommended after a Jan. 23 hearing that the pastor had been disobedient to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

Bishop Joel Martinez, head of the Nebraska Annual (regional) Conference, set the trial for March 11-13 at First United Methodist Church in Kearney, Neb., 186 miles west of Omaha.

Contacted by United Methodist News Service, Martinez declined to comment.

Creech has been suspended with pay from all pastoral duties at First Church of Omaha since Nov. 10.

"I performed the service because it is what the women wanted," Creech explained. "I acted in a way consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with my calling as a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

"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," he said.

He also presided over the service as an act of conscience supported by First Church of Omaha's Vision Focus, which states: "We welcome and celebrate the diversity of God's children. . . . We are inclusive of those associated with all economic levels, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, marital states, abilities and age levels."

In 1996, the United Methodist Church's top legislative body voted that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted in our churches." That decision was placed in the Social Principles, a part of the 1996 Book of Discipline.

By performing the same-sex union, Creech committed a "chargeable offense," the investigative committee decided.

The Discipline lists as "chargeable offenses" immorality; practices declared by the church to be incompatible with Christian teachings; crime; failure to perform the work of the ministry; disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church; dissemination of doctrines contrary to the church's established standards of doctrine; relationships and/or behavior that undermine the ministry of another person; racial harassment; child abuse; and sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual abuse.

Creech claimed the investigating committee had no real evidence a violation occurred.

"There's been no precedent for anyone being prosecuted under the Social Principles," he said. "As far as I know, I am the first United Methodist to be tried based on the Social Principles."

A key issue that Creech wants the trial to address is whether the Social Principles are enforceable law or simply guidance for conduct and decision-making. He also hopes the verdict will lead to greater openness, justice and acceptance for homosexuals in the church.

According to the Discipline, the Social Principles "are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in the United Methodist traditions. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice."

Creech said a guilty verdict at his trial could set a precedent for cases involving people who support capital punishment, oppose affirmative action, or have other stands contrary to the official policy of the denomination.

"The church has proscriptions against alcohol," Creech said. "Does this mean that this would open the door to prosecuting United Methodist clergy who drink? Does this mean that the church would prosecute a United Methodist for supporting capital punishment (or) reproductive choices? This action would open the door to a broad range of issues."

The trial will be presided over by retired United Methodist Bishop Leroy Hodapp of Evansville, Ind., who has handled five church trials during his career. Thirteen clergy members from the Nebraska Annual (regional) Conference will serve as jurors, and at least nine votes are required for conviction.

Trials are closed unless the defendant requests that they be open. Creech is calling for an open trial.

Although he is not gay, Creech began championing gay rights and working to get homosexuals included as full participants in the life of the United Methodist Church "after the 1984 General Conference passed rhetoric against homosexuals," he said.

After the General Conference added the prohibition against ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals to the Discipline, a member of the Warsaw (N.C.) United Methodist Church told Creech that he was withdrawing his membership because he felt he could no longer belong to a church that condemned him for what he was.

"I was totally oblivious to the church's stance on homosexuality, and this led me to read, talk and learn about sexual orientation," said Creech, who served as pastor in Warsaw.

The last known time that the United Methodist Church had a trial related to the issue of homosexuality was in 1987. The Rev. Rose Mary Denman, a pastor in the former New Hampshire Annual Conference, admitted to the bishop that she was a lesbian. Charges were filed against her, and she was given the choice of withdrawing from the ministry under complaint, being involuntarily terminated, or going to trial.

Denman chose the trial in an effort to bring the issue of homosexuality and ministry into the public eye before the 1988 General Conference. She was found guilty of violating church law, which prohibits self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ministers. The proceeding marked the first trials of a pastor charged with violating the denomination's 1984 ban on openly gay and lesbian clergy.

Homosexuality is an emotional and divisive issue for many religious groups.

In recent weeks, the Rev. Steve Sabin, a homosexual pastor in Ames, Iowa, was defrocked by a disciplinary committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for openly violating church rules that prohibit gay clergy from forming sexual relationships. The 5.2 million-member denomination allows gay ministers to be ordained only if they vow to abstain from same-sex relationships.

The action stripping Sabin of his clergy credentials came Feb. 3 after a two-day, closed-door church trial.

If found guilty at the upcoming church trial, Creech said he will appeal to the eight-state South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals. "If they uphold the church trial's decision, I will appeal to the Judicial Council."

The nine-member council -– the denomination's supreme court –- would be asked to weigh the covenant of the lesbian couple along with the power the Social Principles have in everyday life. The principles apply to all members of the church, including the clergy.

Creech said that if he exhausts his appeals, he will remain in the United Methodist Church.

"I will not leave voluntarily," he said. "I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and I am committed to it."