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Creech found guilty; loses ministerial credentials

11/18/1999

NOTE: Photographs are available for use with this story.

By Daniel R. Gangler*

GRAND ISLAND, Neb -- A Nebraska church court unanimously convicted the Rev. Jimmy Creech on Nov. 17 for blatantly disobeying the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church and defrocked him of his ordination.

During the dawn to dusk trial at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, a jury of 13 Nebraska clergy unanimously agreed with the church's prosecution that Creech had disobeyed Bishop Joel N. Martinez (Nebraska Area) by performing on April 24 a same-sex union ceremony in Chapel Hill, N.C. for Larry Ellis and Jim Raymer against the bishop's written prohibition. Such an action by a United Methodist minister is forbidden by the Book of Discipline,
the church's book of laws.

Following his early afternoon conviction, the trial's judge, Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charleston, W. Va., sent the jury back to determine a punishment. According to church law, they could expel Creech from the church, withdraw his ordination credentials, suspend him or give him a lesser sentence. The jury of 11 men and 2 women deliberated for two hours before determining that Creech's ordination should be withdrawn, both elder and deacon orders. This sentence means that he is no longer an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church.

Creech's loss of credentials is immediate, Grove said after the sentencing. Creech must submit his credentials to Martinez.

When the jurors entered the sanctuary 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.

Visibly moved by the jury's sentence, Grove said to the 300 people attending the proceedings: "This is a sad day for all of us and for our church." He then ended the trial by praying for Creech and his family, offering thanks for the jury, praying "for all who are affected by the verdict," and "for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people wounded by the verdict. We know they abide in Your care."

The large sanctuary remained hushed as Creech's supporters continued to stand in stunned silence. Without words, Creech and his wife, Chris Weedy, slowly turned and walked down the center aisle of the sanctuary. They proceeded outside and were greeted by 125 of his supporters and a bank of TV cameras and reporters.

Throughout the fast-paced trial, Creech received the support of Soulforce, a national interfaith group of gay-rights activists led by the Rev. Mel White of Laguna Beach, Calif., and members of five unofficial United Methodist caucus groups who disagree with their church and its prohibition of same-sex union ceremonies. The United Methodist coalition 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, to change the discriminatory policies of the United Methodist Church toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons." 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.

Creech was tried and acquitted by a Nebraska jury in March 1998 for performing the same-sex union of two lesbians in Omaha at First United Methodist Church, where he was pastor until June of last year. When Martinez chose to appoint him elsewhere, he took a leave of absence and returned to North Carolina.

Differing in his response from Creech supporters, the Rev. John Grenfell of Port Huron, Mich., a board member of Good News (unofficial evangelical renewal movement within the United Methodist Church) said, "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. 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."

Soulforce members, who supported Creech with an around-the-clock vigil on the steps of the church, brought national media attention to the trial. They began their day at dawn by blocking the back entrance to Trinity Church with 74 volunteers decked in white sweatshirts which read: "STOP the spiritual violence."

At 8 a.m. Martinez led Grove, the Rev. Steve Flader of Blair who prosecuted Creech and the 23-member Nebraska clergy jury pool up to the back door of the church. Three tiers of Soulforce activists with arms locked blocked their entry. Martinez asked that they be allowed to pass, but the group refused. Within a few minutes, Grand Island police arrested and led away 74 activists, who had blocked the entry. They were charged with trespassing, paid their $48 fine and returned to continue their protest of the trial, which they called the "church's violence against gays and lesbians."

While Soulforce supporters were being processed, the jury selection went on behind closed doors. Within the hour, Creech came out of the jury room at Trinity United Methodist Church and told reporters he would not participate in the jury selection process and would not offer a defense.

He would not participate in the jury selection because, he said, because "the law was unjust and the whole trial is corrupted. "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 is valid and just. I will not give any credibility to the law."

If convicted, Creech said he would make a witness by challenging the verdict. He said that he planned to ask the jury not to participate in the process or render a verdict. "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, he said, include participating and officiating at same-sex unions.

The Rev. Greg Dell, who was convicted in a similar church trial last March, attended the proceedings 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 position provides an opportunity for others in the denomination to protest an untenable system, Dell said. "I believe when we get to General Conference, delegates will say that they will reclaim our heritage of grace in the midst of differences." The church's top legislative body meets May 2-12 in Cleveland.

"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."

The 13 jurors were selected and seated by 10 a.m. Grove began the trial with a prayer and closed with The Lords Prayer.

Afterward, the prosecution gave its opening statement. Flader cited Paragraph 2627 of the Book of Discipline and charged Creech was charged with disobeying the order and discipline of the denomination.

Creech, in response, chose to make no statement. He did not plead guilty or not guilty. Grove automatically pled not guilty on behalf of Creech in order for the trial to continue. The bishop also appointed the Rev.. Richard Carter, a retired minister from Omaha, to be Creech's counsel in accordance with the Discipline of the church so the trial could proceed.

Creech's disobedience was for a holy union service he performed April 24 for two men in North Carolina, Flader stated. 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.

When Grove asked Creech if had any opening words, he 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, he began to read the opening portion of the liturgy.

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 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 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, dated March 24, was from Creech to Martinez. 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. In a May 27 letter, he formally charged that Creech had disobeyed the order and discipline of the church.

McChesney 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, in
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."

Flader told the jurors that the responsibility to enforce the Discipline rested 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. Such 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 and said the church's position calling the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" had "created a major wound in our body." He equated "heterosexism" with racism, and said the church makes same-gender orientation a basis for spiritual violence.

Creech went through the jury's options of finding him guilty or not guilty, then 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 transgendered 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 couples had thought this step through, and they had come to him, he said.

Putting the church's rules and institution above ministry to people is idolatry, he said. "I always place the people of God above the institution of the church."

Flader reminded jurors that the trial was about the actions by an ordained elder of the church in blatant disregard that existed on April 24 and now blatant disobedience this morning.

Grove instructed the jury to select a foreman, charged the jurors and recessed the trial until 1:15 p.m.

The jury returned to the sanctuary at 1:45. Grove was handed the written verdict. Then the foreman of the jury, the Rev. Jeffrey Kelly of Nebraska City, 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 were necessary to convict.

The sanctuary courtroom became quiet. The bishop explained to the jurors their responsibility in selecting a punishment to fit the conviction.

Again 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."

Creech was again offered an opportunity to address the jury but he said, "It would be inappropriate for me to do so."

During the trial's noon recess, Riley Case, representing the Confessing Movement, an unofficial caucus of United Methodists to reclaim the doctrinal integrity the church's Wesleyan heritage, said he thought the surprise of the trial was in Creech's new strategy which does not deny the loopholes in the Discipline, rather the law of discipline should be disobeyed because there is a higher law. "There is a great deal of arrogance because Scripture and 2,000 years of church history that are in all Christian denominations in all countries has been disregarded. Creech renders invalid everything taught about truth of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. All of this is in jeopardy if we are to follow the plea of Jimmy Creech."

On the other hand, the Rev. Doug Williamson, a pastor in Lincoln, Neb., and former defense counsel in Creech's first trial, sees Creech as a prophetic voice for our time. "He needs to follow his heart and where he felt the Holy Spirit was leading. One of the reasons Jimmy is dangerous to us all is because he is willing to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ-- no matter what that might do to his personal ministry, his career. I believe someday we will look on Jimmy Creech as a hero in the faith."

The 13 jurors were: the Rev. Samuel Rathod, Hastings; the Rev. Patterson Culligan, Bloomfield; the Rev. Timothy Pratt, Crawford; the Rev. Glenn Emert, Laurel; the Rev. Anderson Kwankin, Red Cloud; the Rev. Gary Aten, Sidney; the Rev. Jeffrey Kelly, Nebraska City; the Rev. Lyle Schoen, Chappell; the Rev. Joyce Savage, Oshkosh; the Rev. Michael Burgess, Omaha; the Rev. James Johnson, Cozad; the Rev. Harold Backus, Superior; and the Rev. Melanine Adams, Adams.

# # #
*Gangler is a free-lance writer from Grand Prairie, Texas.

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