Thursday, March 12, 1998
"Jimmy Creech, you are charged with disobedience to the discipline and order of The United Methodist Church. How do you plea?" Rev. Creech responded, "Not guilty."
The church trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech resumed Thursday morning at First United Methodist Church of Kearney. Retired Bishop Leroy Hodapp told the thirteen jurors and two alternates that they must find "clear and convincing evidence" that Creech had committed a chargeable offense. Bishop Hodapp told them they must be able to positively answer two questions: 1) Did Jimmy Creech on September 14, 1997 at First United Methodist Church of Omaha celebrate a covenant ceremony between two women? And 2) If he did perform that ceremony, did he disobey the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church?
In his opening statement, Church counsel Rev. Lauren Ekdahl said, "This trial is not about the matter of homosexuality – whether it's a genetic or chosen behavior. This trial is about an action taken by Jimmy Creech that is clearly forbidden by the Discipline of the United Methodist Church." The issue, Ekdahl said, is not whether Creech altered text in the Book of Worship, but whether he changed ritual to create a rite that does not exist in The United Methodist Church. "We're not talking about a simple prayer or blessing here."
Ekdahl told the jury that Creech tried to deceive the church by naming the service a "covenant ceremony", disclaiming his disobedience knowing that his action would be challenged. Ekdahl told jurors they must "filter out the distracting rationalization that would ask you to excuse Jimmy Creech's behavior."
Creech's counsel Rev. Doug Williamson asked jurors to keep uppermost in their minds that the Book of Discipline states the church has the burden of proof. And when it comes to proving whether Jimmy disobeyed the "order and discipline" of the Church, that phrase is undefined. A "homosexual union" referred to in Social Principle 65c is also not defined. Williamson said, "We do not believe the Church will put on evidence to prove its case."
The Church called its first witness, Rev. Jimmy Creech. Rev. Ekdahl: Did you conduct a covenant ceremony celebrating the homosexual union of two women? Jimmy Creech: No. Ekdahl: Did you celebrate a covenant ceremony between two women? Creech: Yes.
Creech said he celebrated the two women's commitment of love and fidelity for one another. While news reports may have described them as lesbians, he has never described them as such. As for whether he ever denied that the ceremony was a "homosexual union", Creech said he had never been asked. Ekdahl suggested Creech could have had the ceremony made official by going through the church's charge conference. Creech responded he had never heard of that procedure.
On cross examination, Creech confirmed that he realized he may be in conflict with some of the Social Principles. But he said he takes the freedom to resist evil and oppression very seriously. He understood the covenant service to be a "living out" of his ministry to the local church.
The Church then called retired Bishop Ken Hicks to testify. Hicks said if a situation arose where a pastor were asked to conduct a covenant ceremony, an appropriate response would be: First, how much do I want to be a United Methodist minister, and second, as a minister I must uphold the position of the church. Hicks said it would be appropriate to ask a pastor outside The United Methodist Church to conduct a covenant service somewhere else. But Hicks said a United Methodist minister performing a covenant ceremony within the church would contribute to the "unraveling of the fabric" that makes our church as strong as it us.
On cross examination, Bishop Hicks admitted that the Social Principles are generally "instructive and persuasive", but "once in awhile something creeps into the Social Principles that is a ‘mandate'." He said the coercive language of the prohibition on homosexual unions, "shall not conduct", makes it mandatory regardless of where it is contained in the Book of Discipline.
But what about the 5 provisions voted down by the 1996 General Conference that would have made the prohibition on homosexual unions chargeable offenses? Williamson asked doesn't that indicate that the General Conference had no intention of "mandating" the prohibition. Hicks admitted the legislation would have been better served had it been placed in the "order and discipline", but with its coercive language, it doesn't make any difference where it's found in the Book of Discipline.
After only two witnesses for the Church, the defense called its first witness: Rev. Glenn Loy of First United Methodist Church in Ogalalla, Nebraska, the minister who filed the complaint against Jimmy. Rev. Loy said that not all Social Principles carry the same weight, but when a Social Principle contains the words "shall not", he believes it is legally binding.
Williamson asked Rev. Loy how he knew that a homosexual union had taken place. Loy said he wasn't there, but he had read about it on the Internet and had talked about it on the telephone. Williamson asked him, "Would you file a complaint against a minister who favored the death penalty?" Loy answered, "If he pulled the switch." Williamson asked how Loy knew the sexual orientation of the couple. Loy responded with a question, "Why would they want a ceremony like that if they weren't homosexual?" Williamson: "Could they be asexual?" Loy, "I don't know." Williamson: "Could they be celibate?" Loy, "I don't know that either."
The defense called Rev. Don Bredthauer of First United Methodist Church of Omaha. Bredthauer testified that ten years ago, First United Methodist was seen as a "tall steeple church", perhaps aloof from the community. But in recent years, the church has been very intentional about reaching out to the community. It passed a vision focus statement that celebrated diversity. Bredthauer said Jimmy brought integrity to this vision – Jimmy brought a sense of hope and possibility that we could bring this vision into reality.
On cross examination, Rev. Ekdahl asked Bredthauer whether it ever occurred to him that the covenant ceremony was in violation of the Book of Discipline. Bredthauer said no and that he does not believe the Social Principles carry the same weight as the laws of the Church.
The defense called two former chairpersons of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, Joan Byerhof and Joanie Zetterman and its current chairman Bill Jenks. All three agreed that the appointment of Jimmy Creech to First United Methodist Church is a good thing. They were aware of his past involvement in gay rights, and realized that his involvement was the reason why he had previously been kicked out of a United Methodist Church. But all agreed that Jimmy Creech is not a "single ministry" pastor, and that his ministry to gays and lesbians is just one part of his ministry. They listed some of his greatest gifts: His loving, caring, and nurturing of all people, his administrative abilities, and his strong beliefs clearly articulated by his actions.
The defense called Jimmy Creech back to testify. He told the jury how important his call to First United Methodist Church was to him. Having been ousted from a church in North Carolina for his strong stance on gay/lesbian rights, he had been working for the North Carolina Council on Churches for five years. Serving a church is so important to him, when the call came from First United Methodist Church in Omaha, he was willing to uproot his wife and daughter, and move away from home to take the appointment. Partly because it was such a major move, Jimmy said he did his best to reveal his "controversial" past to the leaders of First Church in Omaha.
Jimmy said covenant ceremonies grew out of his role as a pastor rather than social activism. He does not consider himself a social activist. His passion to serve gays and lesbians stems back to a man who came out of the closet to Jimmy in 19 84. The man told him that he could no longer be a member of a church that abused him. After much study and prayerful dialogue, Jimmy performed his first covenant service in 1990. He performed a number of other covenant ceremonies before the General Conference added the provision on homosexual unions.
When asked why he doesn't leave the church, Jimmy said he was raised in the Methodist church, he loves the church. But he considers it to be suffering from a loss of integrity. He said he doesn't leave his family very easily – "I have to be told to leave. I have to help this family that I've grown a part of regain its integrity."
As for the theology behind the covenant ceremony, Jimmy said it's based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "I consider it a witness to God's grace and God's love without condition. Jesus wanted everyone to sit at the same table. I believe we are still in the process of opening the doors to welcome all to the communion of God." Jimmy said the covenant service caused pain for some, but opened up hope of new possibilities for others.
Under cross examination, Rev. Ekdahl questioned, "You claim to love a church you refuse to obey?" Jimmy answered, "I do not refuse to obey the order and discipline of the church." Rev. Creech said he gave prayerful thought and study to be so informed that he believes the Social Principles are wrong – to act with integrity with the gospels, he could not abide by the Social Principles. When asked, "If you're allowed to come back, do you intend to continue to do covenant ceremonies?" Jimmy answered, "Yes."
The defense then called Rev. Dr. Roy Reed, an expert on United Methodist liturgy. He talked about danger of charging ministers on the basis of the Social Principles – it could open pastors up to capricious charges. Dr. Reed says the covenant ceremony could be interpreted as simply a "blessing" of two people who love each other. When asked if he would do a covenant service, Reed said yes. Ekdahl questioned, "On what authority would you do that?" Reed, "On the authority of the Gospel. The Gospel will win out in the end."
Finally, the defense called Roy Wright, a member of First United Methodist Church of Omaha. As a gay man, Wright said he had struggled with his sexuality throughout his life. He was exorcised twice, was told God didn't love him, cried his eyes out many nights as a boy. At one point, he was close to suicide.
The Vision Focus statement of First United Methodist Church attract him there. Today the congregation's acceptance for his is mixed. For the most part he feels included. He feels very good about the role of Jimmy Creech as his pastor.
Following Wright's testimony, the trial adjourned for the night, and will resume Friday morning, with concluding defense witnesses, followed by closing arguments. The case is scheduled to go to the jury Friday afternoon.
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