November 17, 1999

Jimmy Creech Is Convicted

United Methodist News Service

From the up-to-the-minute coverage of the Rev. Jimmy Creech Trial, Grand Island, Neb., Nov. 17, 1999. These updates have been provided by United Methodist News Service correspondent Daniel R. Gangler. A wrap-up story on the trial will be posted later.

3:45 p.m.

A court of Nebraska United Methodist pastors has removed the Rev. Jimmy Creech's ministerial orders.

The jury of 13 pastors delivered the sentence after two hours of deliberation.

At 1:35 p.m., the jurors had announced that they found Creech guilty of violating the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church for his role in performing a same-sex ceremony last spring. Creech united two men in a service in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The verdict brought a speedy end to the trial, which began at mid-morning today at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Neb. Bishop William Boyd Grove, of Charleston, W.Va., presided over the court.

When the jurors entered the courtroom to announce the penalty, Grove invited Creech to stand, along with anyone else who wanted to stand with him. A number of Creech's supporters and others stood.

The jury foreman announced the penalty: Withdrawal of deacon's and elder's orders.

Grove was visibly moved.

"This is a sad day for all of us and for our church," he said.

He thanked the jurors for their work, then led the courtroom into a moment of prayer. He began by noting that God is present in every circumstance. He prayed for Creech and his family, and he thanked God for the jury pool and its hard work. The bishop prayed for all who are affected by the verdict, and he asked God for healing, peace and unity in the church.

Then Grove prayed for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people who are wounded by the court's decision. "We know they abide in your care," he said.

Then he offered to God this day's work. "We did not choose to do it, we were called to do it," he said.

Grove ended by giving a benediction.

Creech and his wife, Chris Weedy, rose from their table in front of the sanctuary and quietly walked out of the room. Outside, Creech was surrounded by supporters and news reporters.

The jury, consisting of 11 men and two women, remained in place, waiting for transportation to arrive.

Creech's loss of credentials is immediate, Grove said after the sentencing. Creech must submit his credentials to Bishop Joel Martinez, head of the Nebraska Annual Conference.

Removal of ministerial credentials was one of a number of options that the jury had in fixing the sentence. The Book of Discipline provides for expulsion of the respondent, or defendant, from the church, suspension from pastoral ministry, or the assessment of some lesser penalty.

A coalition of five United Methodist caucuses supporting Creech quickly issued a statement after the trial.

"We grieve for the church we love," the coalition stated. "The action of removing the ministerial orders of the Rev. Jimmy Creech is a travesty of justice and a violation of the integrity of the ministry of the church." The coalition consists of Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns, CORNET (Covenant Relationship Network), In All Things Charity, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Congregations Program.

John Greenfell, a board member of the Good News evangelical organization, expressed support for the verdict.

"I am grateful that the jury has given status to the authority of the church and was not intimidated by Jimmy's accusations of bigotry, spiritual violence and hatred if they stood with the law of the Discipline," he said. "I admire Jimmy's courage of conviction, but I am distressed by his lack of respect for the authority of the church and the covenant relationship of his ordination vows."

1:35 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 17

The jury has brought its verdict, finding the Rev. Jimmy Creech guilty of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.

The jury of 13 Nebraska pastors re-entered the courtroom at Trinity United Methodist Church at 1:30. Bishop William Boyd Grove, presiding judge, was handed the written verdict. Then the foreman of the jury declared: "We find Jimmy Creech guilty."

The bishop asked for the count. The trial court's vote was 13 guilty, 0 not guilty. At least nine votes of guilty were necessary to convict.

At that point, the courtroom was dead silent.

The bishop said that now the court would have to deal with the issue of sanctions. There are three provisions under the denomination's Book of Discipline for such situations: The withdrawal of credentials, sanctions or a lesser penalty.

The Rev. Steven Flader, the church's counsel, addressed the jury. Citing Paragraph 2627.1H of the Discipline, he told them they are given the power to make this decision.

"I ask that you withdraw Rev. Creech's credentials," Flader said. "The church does not ask this lightly."

He went on to explain that Creech had been disobedient to the church and "we as elders make a voluntary commitment to uphold the discipline of the church. This blatant disobedience must end." Creech will not abide by the decision of the church as he stated by letter and as he stated here in person today, Flader said.

"This disobedience needs to end and end now," Flader said.

Grove then asked Creech if he would like to address the jury.

"It would be inappropriate for me to do so," Creech said.

The court is in recess. The jury is deliberating now on the penalty.

11:40 a.m.

The jury has left the courtroom to begin deliberation. The court will reconvene no earlier than 1:15. If the verdict isn't ready, the jury can take longer.

10 a.m.

Bishop William Boyd Grove began the trial with a prayer, followed by the Lord's Prayer.

Afterward, the prosecution gave its opening statement. The church's counsel is the Rev. Steven Flader of Blair, Neb.

Flader began by stating the charge against Creech. He cited Paragraph 2627 of the Book of Discipline. Creech is charged with disobedience to the order and discipline of the denomination.

Creech, in response, chose to make no statement. He did not plead guilty or not guilty. Bishop Grove automatically pled not guilty on behalf of Creech in order for the trial to continue.

Flader stated that issue behind the disobedience was a service of holy union for two men in North Carolina. That ceremony constituted disobedience to Judicial Council decision 833, given in August 1998, in which the church's supreme court ruled that the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church could be enforced as law, Flader said.

He went on to note that Creech performed the ceremony April 24 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The church considers this a cardinal offense, Flader said, quoting Paragraph 2624.1 of the Book of Discipline.

The prosecution ended its opening statement.

Asked if had any opening words, Creech replied: "I have no statement."

The prosecution called Creech as its first witness. On the stand, he described his relationship with the United Methodist Church as an elder in full standing and member of the Nebraska Annual Conference. He was ordained as an elder in 1974.

Did you participate in the union of two men? Flader asked Creech.

Yes, Creech replied.

Under questioning, Creech began to speak about the service. Attributing the eloquence of it to the two men, Jim Raymer and Larry Ellis, Creech began to read the liturgy. It begins with the words: "Any union to be complete must be spiritual." He continued to read through the beginning of the service.

Flader posed a series of questions to Creech regarding the service:

Did you give the call to worship?

Did you give the charge?

Did you officiate in the exchange of rings?

Did you commission the two?

Did you give the benediction?

Did you pronounce them life partners?

Creech's response to each question was: "I did."

Several letters were introduced as exhibits. The first, dated March 4, was a letter from Creech to Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez advising him that he, Creech, would be holding a service of holy union for the two men at Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. Creech wrote that he was going to co-celebrate the service with the Rev. Jill Edens, pastor of the United Church of Chapel Hill, which is a congregation of the United Church of Christ.

The next exhibit was a letter dated March 18 from Bishop Martinez, asking Creech to refrain from performing the ceremony because it "would place you in conflict with the Aug. 8 Judicial Council decision."

The third letter introduced as an exhibit was dated March 24, and was from Creech to Martinez. Creech thanked the bishop for his response. The pastor stated that he believed the Judicial Council's decision was unjust and in conflict with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "I will not honor the prohibition," Creech stated. He went on to say in the letter that he felt it was his pastoral duty to perform this union, and that he did not want to honor the culture of dishonor and bigotry.

Flader then asked him: In the future, will you participate in same-sex unions?

"There is nothing that will deter me from doing that," Creech said.

A juror also questioned Creech, asking him whether he understood that he was not to conduct the ceremony on the advice of the bishop.

"It was very clear to me not to participate," Creech said.

"Did you consider this a marriage?" Flader asked.

"I considered it a marriage," Creech said. "It's equivalent to a marriage."

Creech was dismissed as a witness, with no more questions.

The prosecution's second witness was the Rev. James Wesley McChesney, an elder in full connection in the Nebraska Annual Conference. He had filed the complaint against Creech in a May 27 letter. The letter was a complaint that Creech was disobedient to the order and discipline of the church as outlined in Paragraph 2624.1E of the Book of Discipline.

McChesney also based his charge upon Creech's public acknowledgment that he had performed a same-sex covenant service in Chapel Hill. He quoted the prohibition against such a service as given in the Social Principles, Paragraph 65C.

Flader began his closing argument at 10:30 a.m. by giving a recap of Paragraph 65C in the Social Principles. He read the last sentence: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

"A failure to (abide by that rule) is in disciplinary violation," Flader said. The church's ordained ministers must comply with the Discipline, he said.

The rule in the Social Principles has the effect of church law, he said, alluding to the Judicial Council's decision in August 1998. Noting that Creech admitted taking part in the union ceremony in Chapel Hill, Flader said Creech was guilty under Paragraph 2624.1 of the Discipline.

Then Flader told the jurors that the responsibility to enforce the Discipline rests upon them. "It is up to you to enforce the decision of the Judicial Council."

United Methodist pastors are voluntarily bound by a covenant to word, sacrament and order, Flader said. That's why they are to support and maintain the discipline of the church, he said.

"Rev. Creech has broken this covenant."

At 10:40 a.m., Creech began his closing statement, which was nearly an hour in length. He ended by urging the jury of Nebraska pastors to return with no verdict.

"My dear colleagues, this is truly a sad day in the history of the United Methodist Church," he began. "This trial is an act of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people."

He told the jury that they were people of good will and they should uphold just and honorable laws because laws help us live out our lives as United Methodists.

"But this law is unjust," Creech said. "This law contaminates justice. You have been asked to uphold a law which is wrong. You are about to do something that is unjust and violent. The priority as a Christian puts our call above injury, harm and suffering that causes violence against our brothers and sisters. We are called to be beloved in the United Methodist Church."

He went on to say that United Methodist clergy should not mistreat gay and lesbian people. He went back to 1972, when the Social Principles were placed in the Book of Discipline. He recalled how the paragraph dealing with human sexuality was added as an amendment from the floor of General Conference, an amendment stating that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

"This created a major wound in our body," Creech said. He equated "heterosexism" with racism, and said the church makes same-gender orientation a basis for spiritual violence.

Creech said the church's rule represented bad theology, or "dualistic theology." He talked about how the General Conference in 1984 put a prohibition on the appointments and ordination of gays and lesbians. Throughout his remarks, Creech never used the word "homosexual," instead using the terms "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people."

The church's laws condemn people for who they are, he said.

"What we did when we denied ordination, we degraded it," he said. "We said in addition to gifts and graces, one must have the right sexual orientation."

He talked about gay pastors coming to him for counseling in North Carolina. They were tired of living a lie, he said.

Creech went through the jury's options of finding him guilty or not guilty, and he gave a third option. He urged the jurors to return with no verdict, as a sign that they would not participate in this "unjust law of the church."

In his closing argument, he referred to the violence that has been directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender people. He went again over the two same-sex ceremonies for which he has been tried - the 1997 service in Omaha, Neb., which led to his trial and acquittal in March 1998, and the April 1999 ceremony in Chapel Hill, N.C., which led to the current trial. He told the personal life experiences of the people involved. In each case, the couple had thought this step through, and they had come to him, he said.

Putting the church's rules and institution above the ministry to people is idolatry, he said.

"I always place the people of God above the institution of the church."

If the United Methodist Church waits until the General Conference in 2000, 2004 or 2008 to change its rules, more people will die, more families will be broken, more spouses will be broken, Creech said.

"We have today to begin to change," he said.

9:30 a.m.

The Rev. Jimmy Creech came out of the courtroom at Trinity United Methodist Church and told reporters he was not participating in the jury selection process and that he will not put on a defense.

He would not participate in the selection because he felt "the law was unjust and the whole trial is corrupted. The trial is illicit."

He will let the jury selection be determined by the church counsel, he said. He does not want to participate because it gives credibility to the law "and I don't feel morally bound by this law."

"I will not make a plea, guilty or not guilty. I will not put on a defense," he said. "I will testify and answer questions. I will make a closing statement. To put on a defense will give credibility to the law and will say the law's valid and just. I will not give any credibility to the law.

If convicted, Creech said, "I am going to challenge the verdict, to make a witness."

He's also going to ask the jury not to participate in the process or render a verdict, he said. "This will make an opportunity for the jury to make a witness not to go along with the law, to prosecute pastors for carrying out their ministerial duties."

Those ministerial duties, Creech has said, include participating and officiating at same-sex unions.

Creech is on trial for violating the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church by officiating at a union ceremony for two men in North Carolina last April. The denomination's Book of Discipline states: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

The Rev. Greg Dell, who was convicted in a similar church trial last March, is attending the Creech proceeding as a representative of In All Things Charity. The organization is a network of clergy and laity who support full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church. So far, 1,400 pastors have signed the organization's statement, indicating that they would perform or participate in same-sex unions, Dell said.

Creech's words this morning made "a very powerful statement," he said. "It provides opportunity for a great majority of our denomination to say that this system is untenable. There is so much deep feeling around this issue. I believe when we get to General Conference, delegates will say that they will reclaim our heritage of grace in the midst of differences."

General Conference, which meets in Cleveland May 2-12, is the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church.

"Our denomination has never supported the tyranny of the majority," Dell said. "I do believe a majority of our clergy cannot be instructed" to back the rituals of the church, he said.

"This (trial) is a blow to the whole church," Dell said.

Bishop William Boyd Grove, who is presiding over the trial, is expected to give a statement to reporters shortly.

 8 a.m.

Key people in today's clergy trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech arrived at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Neb. Those include: Nebraska Area Bishop Joel Martinez, lead trial judge Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charleston, W.Va., the jury pool of 35 Nebraska pastors,

the Nebraska Annual Conference prosecutor, the Rev. Steve Flader, and assistant prosecuting counsel Stanley Goodwin.

They arrived in one motor coach, which took them to the back door of the church.

There, they encountered Soulforce, a gay-rights group supportive of Creech, who is being tried for performing a same-sex union ceremony.

The contingency was blocked from entering by more than 100 Soulforce members, who had held an all-night vigil at the church's sanctuary doors.

Bishop Martinez addressed the Rev. Mel White, leader of Soulforce, and asked the three rows of arm-locked protestors to let the church proceed with its trial. White asked the bishop not to hold the trial. Martinez asked the group to allow him and the other members of the court to enter the church. The group remained arm-locked and would not move.

Grand Island police were on hand and arrested 74 members of Soulforce, who had prearranged yesterday to be arrested.

The encounter lasted a little more than a minute before police led them across the street for processing. Each received a $45 fine with court costs and was charged with trespassing, according to city assistant attorney Dale Shotkoski.

The bishops, prosecutor and jury pool of Nebraska pastors proceeded into the back of the church building and began their proceedings behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, Creech waited at locked sanctuary doors, greeting his supporters as they arrived for the trial.

Police proceeded to process the 74 arrested protesters during the remainder of the hour.

The jury selection got under way.

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