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Pastor who performed same-sex ceremony acquitted on charges of violating church law

3/16/1998 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

Photos are available for this story. This article is also accompanied by a sidebar, UMNS #151.

by Linda Green*

KEARNEY, Neb. (UMNS) -- The United Methodist clergyman who performed a covenanting service uniting two women last fall has been acquitted of the charge that he was disobedient to the order and discipline of the denomination.
After the verdict was announced at 6:41 p.m. Friday, March 13, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, 53, was reinstated as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, where he preached the following Sunday. He had been suspended by Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez in November after presiding over the covenanting ceremony Sept. 14.
After more than three hours of deliberation, eight of the 13 jurors -- all clergy peers from Nebraska -- voted that Creech had violated the order and discipline of the church, but nine votes are necessary in a church trial to convict.
The trial began here in the large gymnasium of First United Methodist Church with the selection of jurors early Wednesday afternoon, March 11. Retired Bishop Leroy C. Hodapp of Evansville, Ind., presided over the trial.
Following the verdict, Martinez said the Creech case was closed.
"He is an elder in full connection in the Nebraska Conference and is immediately reinstated," the bishop said.
Asked by a reporter if this meant same-sex marriages will now be permitted, Martinez said he would advise his clergy not to conduct the ceremonies.
"This trial had to do with this case and this case only," he said.
Martinez also announced that he planned to ask bishops of the church's eight-state South Central Jurisdiction to formally request the Judicial Council -- the church's "Supreme Court" -- to rule on the status of the Social Principles, a key issue at this trial. The principles have never been accorded the same legal weight as the rest of the church's Book of Discipline -- the denomination's book of rules and procedures.
Standing on a chair after the verdict, Creech was jubilant.
"We have a victory to celebrate, a victory for the church tonight," he said.
"The jury voted to affirm the grace of God to all people and the integrity of the pastoral role to be in ministry to all people," he continued.
Once the verdict was read, shouts of joy and expressions of dismay erupted within the courtroom. Roy Wright, a gay man, jumped about shouting, "We won! We won!"
He heralded the victory as a time of justice and freedom.
"The church is open to everyone, no matter what their abilities and sexual orientation are," he said. "The civil rights of gays and lesbians were established here. In the future, I hope the church can be even more open, and hopefully something like this trial will never happen again."
Creech's return to the pulpit was not met with universal enthusiasm.
Mel Semrad, a member of the 1,900-member Omaha church, said it was unfair for 13 Nebraska ministers to decide an issue that has impact across the nation.
"The rest of the world needs to know how something like this can happen locally to them," he said.
Some members have already left and others are visiting other churches, Semrad said. About 500 members have signed a letter opposing Creech's actions, he said.
"I do believe it sends a message across all of United Methodism to really dig down to see what are our foundations . . . and if the Book of Discipline is of any worth at all.
"We do not worship or hate Jimmy Creech," Semrad said. "We hated to see our church used as a pawn to advance his personal cause over the care of the congregation."
Casey Biehl was another member expressing disapproval of the verdict.
"I feel betrayed," she said tearfully. "The bishop and cabinet were betrayed because I don't think they were given all the information about Creech."
Creech was once labeled "unappointable" as a pastor in North Carolina because of his advocacy for homosexual rights. Creech himself is not gay.
During his testimony, he told the court that he "was as open as possible" about himself and his ministry with Nebraska Conference leadership before being appointed to First Church two years ago.
Biehl said, "Until we can start dealing honestly with each other, it does not matter what we as lay people say . . . when you shut the billfold, the people whose salaries we are paying will listen to you."
The acquittal was an emotional time for Helen Howell, a member of First Church for 54 years. She said a small percentage of the congregation had agreed with Creech's actions.
"Regardless of what happened at the trial, we will lose members," she said. ". . . I will probably leave the denomination."
Her brother Robert Howell has been an outspoken critic of Creech.
"I will have to go to another church," he said. "Creech's agenda does not follow what the United Methodist Church believes."
Peggy Sonnard, a member at First United Methodist Church in Kearney, asked in dismay: "When the church cannot uphold rules, how can parents?" She expressed concern that the denomination would be torn apart and the target of ridicule.
Before the verdict, Martinez announced plans for asking the Judicial Council to speak on the issue of homosexuality and the Book of Discipline. "I am hopeful that everyone in the church will have clearer guidance on this matter," he said.
The church charged Creech with violating the Social Principles and creating unauthorized liturgy. However, Creech and his counsel argued that the Social Principles are not binding law.
When the 1996 General Conference added a sentence asking that clergy not perform same-sex ceremonies and that United Methodist churches not be used for such ceremonies, the placement in the Book of Discipline was an issue. Delegates referred the question to the Judicial Council, which in turn said it was not responsible for determining placement of legislation. Therefore, delegates left it in the Social Principles as recommended in the original petition.
The General Conference, which meets every four years, is the top legislative body of the church and is the only group that can speak officially for the denomination.
It is not known when the Judicial Council will take up the matter, but its next regular meeting is set for April 22-25 in Seattle. The council's president is attorney Tom Matheny of Hammond, La.
In the testimony phase of the trial, witnesses for the defense said that pastors often create rituals not found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Rev. Roy Reed, a lyricist and former professor of worship and music at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, testified that services of healing and ceremonies to celebrate the death of an unborn child were performed by pastors long before being placed in the denomination's Book of Worship.
When asked if he would perform a covenanting service, Reed said, "I would, but it may not have the same shape as the service officiated by Jimmy Creech."
Immediately before the verdict was announced, jury foreman Grant Story, pastor of Rockbrook United Methodist Church in Omaha, issued a collective statement from the jurors saying they had gathered in "prayer, silence and respectful dialogue" to consider their decision.
"Our vote reflects the difficulty the general church has experienced with this issue," he said. "We have struggled - no, agonized -- together in a spirit of love, and our hope is that United Methodists everywhere will receive our verdict in the spirit of love and respect."
The counsel for the church, the Rev. Lauren Ekdahl, expressed his sadness at the verdict.
"We tried to get the United Methodist Church to be the church in the midst of conflicting circumstances," said Ekdahl, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lincoln.
The trial process was not initiated by either the Rev. Glenn Loy, the Ogallala, Neb., pastor who filed the complaint against Creech, or the bishop, Ekdahl said. "The trial was initiated by Jimmy Creech when he did something that he knew was disobedient to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.
"I am not disappointed, and I am not despairing. The church went through this trial with a sense of dignity, Christian love and respect for people," Ekdahl said. "I tried to model for the church a behavior that shows that we care. We don't cast people out of the church.
"I am thankful for a process of peer review, and I pray that the church will find a way to receive this verdict and continue to work to resolve this in a spirit of thoughtfulness for our future."
Mark Bowman, executive director of the Reconciling Congregations Program in Chicago, said the verdict was an affirmation for reconciling congregations to continue being "on the cutting edge of the church and ministry today."
"Our church is still divided about homosexuality, and we pray that God will continue to lead toward reconciliation," he said. Reconciling congregations are those that publicly invite the participation of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation.
The Rev. Phil Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., described the decision as a "healing verdict" and "a reflection of honesty in the face of some ambiguous questions." He said the jury was not willing to convict Creech for violating church law "because the state of the law is confused."
In a related vote, but not the one that decided Creech's fate in the church, the jury agreed 11-2 that Creech had performed a homosexual union at First United Methodist Church Sept. 14.
Creech said the jury's verdict tells homosexuals that they are welcome in the United Methodist Church.
"The church is willing to stand for the acceptance of gay men and lesbians," he said. "I have to tell you that this is just one step. There is still a part of our tradition that continues to express a real prejudice and discrimination against gay men and lesbians."
The verdict, Wogaman said, "sends a positive signal to people in deeply committed and caring relationships to know that the church will not turn its back on them. In the end, this was not about sex, but love."
The Rev. Mel White, who is spokesperson for about one-quarter of a million gay and lesbian members in the Metropolitan Community Churches across the nation, welcomed the decision.
"God's gay and lesbian children are welcome in the United Methodist Church," White said. ". . . When the jury voted to keep Jimmy Creech, they voted to keep us."
Advocates and opponents of Creech all seemed to agree that the verdict has national implications for the church and sets the stage for what will likely be an emotional debate at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.
"Proclaiming the Vision," a group of Creech supporters represented by about 70 people at the trial, announced that 92 United Methodist pastors from across the country have declared their intent to perform union ceremonies for couples, regardless of gender.
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*Green is news director of United Methodist News Service's Nashville, Tenn., office.

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