March 30, 1998 (revised)
What is a church trial?
A trial is considered the last resort in the settlement of disputes between an individual clergyperson and the church. Trials are uncommon in the church. No statistics are kept on the number of church trials in the denomination, but they are rare. Most cases are settled before the scheduled trial.
The format of a church trial is much like that in the public courts with certain significant differences.
Clergy trials are conducted by the annual (regional) conference in which a person has his/her clergy membership. In the case of the Rev. Jimmy Creech, it was the Nebraska Annual Conference.
The jury consists of 13 people, all clergy members from the conference where the defendant has membership. Members of the jury are chosen much like in a public court, where counselors for the defendant (respondent) and the plaintiff (church) have four turn-downs each in the selection process from a pool of 35 potential jurors.
One significant difference between a church and public trial is the number of votes needed for conviction. Church trials require nine of 13 votes for conviction. This fact had particular significance for the Creech trial.
Clergy members of the Nebraska Conference served as counsel for the defendant and the plaintiff (the church) in the Creech trial. Each side also had an attorney as assistant counsel, but that person could not speak during the trial.
A bishop from another annual conference presides at a church trial. Retired Bishop Leroy Hodapp, Evansville, Ind., presided over the Creech trial. Hodapp had already presided over five other church trials.
What was unique or significant about the trial?
The trial was the first challenge to action taken by delegates to the 1996 General Conference regarding same-sex unions. The trial also questioned the status of the denomination's Social Principles. Some people unfamiliar with church trials were puzzled by Creech's acquittal, even though eight of 13 jurors voted to convict. Church trials require nine votes for conviction.
When and where was the trial held?
Selection of jurors began at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 11. The jury reached a verdict late Friday, March 13. The trial was held in a gymnasium at First United Methodist Church, Kearney, Neb., a community of 19,000 near the middle of the state. Kearney is 186 miles west of Omaha on Interstate 80.
Why was Creech on trial?
The senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha performed a covenanting service at the church Sept. 14 for two women against the advice of Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez and the expressed position of the 1996 General Conference delegates.
The General Conference delegates had voted 553 to 321 to insert into the church's Social Principles the following statement: "Ceremonies that celebrate the homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
Ten charges for which a clergyperson can be tried are outlined in the denomination's Book of Discipline. The specific charge against Creech was "disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church."
He was suspended with pay as pastor of First Church in Omaha Nov. 10. 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 told United Methodist News Service.
What was the trial verdict?
Did he perform a homosexual union ceremony? The jurors voted yes, 11 to 2.
Did he disobey the order and discipline of the church? The jurors voted yes, 8 to 5. Nine votes were necessary for conviction, so he was acquitted.
What happened after the verdict, and what lies ahead?
Creech was reinstated immediately as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha. He remains an elder in full connection with the Nebraska Annual Conference.
Bishop Martinez announced at the trial that he would ask the bishops of the eight-state South Central Jurisdiction to request a ruling from the Judicial Council, the church's nine-member "Supreme Court."
The court will be asked to rule on the legal status of the Social Principles, particularly the sentence added by the 1996 General Conference asking that ministers not perform homosexual unions and that United Methodist church buildings not be used for such ceremonies.
As of March 26, the Judicial Council had received no formal request. The council's next meeting is April 22-25 in Seattle. The Judicial Council does not make policy for the denomination, but if asked, it may rule on constitutional matters and determine if acts of official bodies of the church conform to the Book of Discipline.
The Council of Bishops has not met since the trial, but a large number of individual bishops have issued statements affirming the Social Principles. Other points common to their statements include:
What about calls for a special session of the General Conference?
Several groups, including at least one bishop and his cabinet, have asked the Council of Bishops to call a special session of the General Conference to deal with the issue of same-sex unions.
The Book of Discipline gives authority to the Council of Bishops to call a special session.
If called, a special session of the General Conference would include delegates from the previous General Conference, although annual conferences could elect new delegates if they wished.
What would a special session cost?
Cost of such a conference would be at least $1 million, according to General Council on Ministries officials. The expense would be apportioned to local churches for the balance of the 1997-2000 quadrennium.
When and where do the bishops meet next?
By coincidence, the next semi-annual meeting of the Council of Bishops will be in Nebraska only a few weeks after the trial. The international body, including 50 active bishops from the United States and 17 active bishops from other countries, will be meeting in Lincoln April 25-May 1. About 65 retired bishops also attend and participate fully but cannot vote. President of the council is Bishop Emerito P. Nacpil of the Philippines.
Have there been special sessions of the General Conference before?
Yes, but always dealing with issues related to church union, according to Charles Yrigoyen of the General Commission on Archives and History. The most recent special sessions were held two years before and two years after the 1968 conference, which united the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches.
What is the United Methodist Church going to do about this trial?
This frequently asked question reflects a lack of understanding of United Methodist history, organization and polity.
The only body that can speak officially for the denomination is the General Conference. Following each quadrennial conference, the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions are revised. The next conference is in Cleveland in the year 2000.
The United Methodist Church has no central office. No archbishop. No pope. No executive secretary or president. It has no office higher than that of a bishop. The Council of Bishops has no full-time staff. Presidents of the council serve only one-year terms. The church has 14 boards and agencies, which carry out their work as mandated by the General Conference. Each of these agencies is governed by an elected board of United Methodists - lay and clergy - from across the church.
So whom can I talk to about this?
If you are looking for factual information, call InfoServ, the nationwide, toll-free telephone service of the denomination administered by United Methodist Communications. Its number is 800-251-8140. Or you may wish to check the United Methodist World Wide Web page at www.umc.org A detailed report of the Creech trial is available there.
News reporters and editors may contact United Methodist News Service or check United Methodist Daily News on the Web page.
If you want to express your opinions, contact your pastor, district superintendent or bishop. A directory of church leaders - including bishops, churchwide agency staff and governing members - may be ordered from Cokesbury (Item Stock Number 727413).
Have there been other trials on this issue?
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 a 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 trial of a pastor charged with violating the denomination's 1984 ban on openly gay and lesbian clergy.
What are the church's official positions on homosexuality?
Regarding homosexual unions
(Part of a larger statement on "marriage" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles, Para. 65C).
"We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman . . . Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
Regarding the practice of homosexuality
(Part of a larger statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community" a section of the church's Social Principles, Para. 65G).
"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
Regarding equal rights
(Section H, Para. 66, of the Social Principles under "III. The Social Community.")
"Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation - 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 relationships, 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. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians. We also commit ourselves to social witness against the coercion and marginalization of former homosexuals."
(From the Book of Discipline section dealing with "The Ordained Ministry" Para. 304.3)
"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.
Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals* are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
*Footnote - "'Self-avowed practicing homosexual' is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual."
Regarding use of church money
(From the Book of Discipline section on "Administrative Order" dealing with the responsibilities of the churchwide Council on Finance and Administration paragraph 806.12.)
"The council shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures.* This restriction shall not limit the church's ministry in response to the HIV epidemic."
*Reference is made to a Judicial Council decision (491) that authorized the right of an
annual conference to use funds to study homophobia and another (592) that gave the General
Conference the right to create and fund a study of homosexuality.
Regarding homosexuals in the military
Regarding homosexuals in the military
(Added to the Book of Resolutions by the 1996 General Conference. Page 112).
Homosexuals in the military
Basis: The United States of America, a nation built on equal rights, has denied the right of homosexuals to actively serve their country while being honest about who they are. The United Methodist Church needs to be an advocate for equal civil rights for all marginalized groups, including homosexuals.
Conclusion: The U.S. military should not exclude persons from service solely on the basis of sexual orientation.