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Suspension over, Dell returns to pulpit at Chicago church

7/5/2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By United Methodist News Service

The Rev. Gregory Dell returned to the helm of Broadway United Methodist Church on July 1, a year after being suspended for violating church law by performing a same-sex union service.

Dell told United Methodist News Service that he "intends to be a full pastor to all the people" in his Chicago-area church. About one-third of his 220-member congregation is gay or lesbian.

"My plan is that I will not restrict ministry to any one in the congregation because of their identity," he said. " ... As long as I'm doing weddings for heterosexual couples, as long as I'm celebrating those relationships, I intend to do those for gay and lesbian couples.

"My intention is not to engage in a kind of in-your-face challenge" to the denomination, he said. " ... My intent is to be a pastor. I think the point has been made. The real place for changing the policy of the church is on the floor of the General Conference."

Dell was convicted of disobeying church law following a two-day clergy trial that ended on March 26, 1999. A panel of 13 Northern Illinois Annual Conference pastors found him guilty of violating the denomination's Book of Discipline, which states that homosexual union services shall not be conducted by United Methodist ministers nor held in United Methodist sanctuaries.

At first, Dell was suspended indefinitely, or until he might sign a statement vowing not to perform same-sex ceremonies. However, the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals decided later that Dell's suspension should have a definite term, and that it would end on June 30.

Afterward, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague announced he would reappoint Dell to Broadway when the suspension was concluded.

No conditions were placed on Dell's return to the pastorate, the bishop said. "Greg understands that as a United Methodist pastor he is appointed under the mandates of the Discipline," he said.

"I've made it very clear in the letter that I wrote and in conversation with Greg that the expectation is that if he is going to remain at Broadway, then he must practice ministry within the confines of the Discipline," Sprague said.

The denomination's top legislative body, the General Conference, upheld its policies regarding practicing homosexuals during a May 2-12 meeting in Cleveland. Sprague, Dell and others were arrested during General Conference as they demonstrated against the church's policies.

The General Conference's votes on homosexuality-related issues caused "great disappointment across the (Northern Illinois) annual conference," Sprague said. Despite the annual conference's disappointment, "we intend to live within that covenant," the bishop said. "Though we have to say no in some instances to people we dearly love, we're going to do that as a demonstrated act of fidelity to the covenant, and that is hurtful."

Sprague said he has publicly asked all Northern Illinois clergy not to do same-sex services. If a letter of complaint were filed about Dell or another pastor performing a same-sex service, the bishop said he would request that pastor's credentials. The bishop does not foresee another church trial in Northern Illinois on the issue. "It's clear the church has spoken on this issue, and therefore for a person to perform such a union is tantamount to surrender of credentials."

While suspended, Dell was director of In All Things Charity, an unofficial network of clergy members and others in the denomination who support full inclusiveness of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the life of the church. Much of the group's work had been directed toward last May's General Conference, and a committee is considering the organization's future.

About 200 people turned out at Broadway on July 2 for Dell's return sermon, titled "A Declaration of Interdependence." "I talked about how our Christian faith moves us to understand the ways in which we're connected to one another and dependence on God, and also independent of any institution or power that would cause us to abandon our integrity and our faith."

During his suspension and work at In All Things Charity, Dell said it became clear to him "how much we need each other, to keep challenging and supporting one another." But it was also clear "that no institution, whether it's government or family or job or even church, has a right to deny that which is loving and faithful, and we can't be controlled by those forces."

The Broadway congregation responded with "a lot of enthusiasm," Dell said. However, the members feel anxiety as well. They have been of one mind about being in ministry to all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, he said. Now the congregation sees that it "could begin to experience a kind of revolving door of pastoral appointments," he said.

Even in his absence, Broadway continued to grow during the past year - in membership, community involvement, apportionment and "second mile" giving, he said. And despite its anxiety, the congregation is clear about its identity, he said. "There is a lot of very clear energy to move forward with what the folks at Broadway feel is real faithfulness to the Gospel."

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