Jan. 12, 1998
The 60-day suspension of an Omaha United Methodist pastor who performed a same-sex union ceremony Sept. 14 has been extended indefinitely by Nebraska Bishop Joel N. Martinez. In a statement released Jan. 9, end of the suspension period, the bishop said "Upon recommendation of the Committee on Investigation of the Nebraska Annual Conference, I have determined to extend the suspension of the Rev. Jimmy Creech from all clergy duties at First United Methodist Church in Omaha."
Creech was suspended as pastor of the 1900-member congregation Nov. 10, 1997, after a complaint was filed that he violated church law by presiding at a covenant service uniting two women in the congregation. The initial suspension was described by the bishop as a time for "continuing prayer, thoughtful reflection and respectful dialogue about its (First Church) current and future mission in Omaha."
Martinez said his decision to extend Creech's suspension is authorized by the 1996 United Methodist Book of Discipline. The length of suspension under the provision is at the discretion of the bishop while the judicial process is underway. A Nebraska Committee on Investigation is assessing the validity of the complaint against Creech and deciding if his actions represent a "chargeable offense" within the church.
Acknowledging that progress has been made within the First Church congregation to heal divisiveness, Martinez said more work needs to be done. The bishop said another primary consideration for making his decision to extend Creech's suspension was based on the continuing widespread concern among clergy and laity in the Nebraska Annual Conference. "It is my best judgement that additional time will serve the best interest of all, considering the continuing volatility of the climate both at First United Methodist Church and in the Nebraska Annual Conference," he said. Martinez said the judicial process "continues to move forward in an orderly and deliberate fashion" and that a "fair resolution" will be made as early as possible.
Creech, who had prepared to resume his pastoral duties at First Church on Monday, Jan. 13, told United Methodist News Service he was "shocked and disappointed" at the bishop's decision. "There was no warning," he said. "This is a real disservice to First United Methodist Church and the extension of my suspension is not going to contribute to any reconciliation regarding to my presence there." He said the extension, "simply delays any opportunity for work on reconciliation."
Creech said the staff parish relations committee at First Church made it clear to the bishop that it wanted him returned as pastor. "The bishop made this decision in spite of the fact that they wanted me to return," he said.
Now that he has been suspended indefinitely, Creech said he has no ending point to prepare for. "Sixty days was a long time," he said. "Now the bishop has added more pain and he has not indicated any measurable goals before suspension can be lifted or a length of time that it will be in place."
According to Creech, a hearing with the Nebraska Annual Conference's Committee on Investigation has been set for Jan. 23. The hearing is comparable to the work of a Grand Jury. If the complaint filed against him is determined to be the basis for a chargeable offense, Creech could face a church trial and the complaint could possibly move to the church's Judicial Council. The nine-member "supreme court" could be asked to rule upon several questions. A key issue is whether the Social Principles of the church are enforceable law or simply guidance for conduct and decision-making. The top legislative body of the denomination, the only group which can set official church policy, voted in 1996 that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." That decision was placed in the Social Principles, a part of the Book of Discipline.
Martinez said he will continue to be in conversation with the leadership at First United Methodist Church and with Creech as the extended period of suspension begins.
"As always, the first vocation of a Christian is to pray for those of our brothers and sisters who are facing especially difficult times in their life," the bishop said. He expressed his appreciation for the prayers offered for him, the annual conference, First Church and Creech.
Two days before the suspension was to end, it was announced that 1,300 United Methodist clergy had signed an "In all Things Charity" statement of conscience since it was first circulated in late 1996. The statement disagrees with the church's position that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." It also supports covenantal commitments between same-gendered couples and ordination of gay men and lesbians. In all other matters regarding homosexuality, the signers "are committed to charity, grace, and accountability of the same character as applies to heterosexuality." According to the Rev. Greg Dell, a Chicago pastor who is coordinator for the "In All Things Charity" effort, "We feel this is a moment for our movement to go public in support of Jimmy Creech and all United Methodist clergy who seek to extend pastoral care to persons without discrimination as to sexual orientation."
Other groups that have enlisted support for Creech include CORNET, the United Methodist Covenant Relationship Network, which is a program of Affirmation, the caucus of United Methodists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered concerns. In a statement released after Creech's Nov. 10 suspension, CORNET said it regretted that the issue of a covenanting service was moving toward an either-or standoff with "winners and losers." The group said it believes that United Methodists such as Creech "have a right to conscientiously object to any unjust and unloving principle or law and to participate in nonviolent acts of resistance."