Social Principals

Last March, the Rev. Jimmy Creech was tried and acquitted for marrying two women in a United Methodist church. The senior pastor of First United Methodist in Omaha, Neb., was charged with violating a church ban on celebrating "homosexual unions." The ban had been established by the denomination's chief ruling body, the General Council, in 1996. When a Nebraska newspaper published an article about Creech's intention to perform a covenant ceremony for two lesbian members of his congregation, Methodist leaders rose up against him, leading to a rare and highly publicized trial in Kearney, Neb.

A clerical court, however, dismissed the charges against Creech, persuaded by the minister's arguments that the prohibition against Methodist clergy performing gay unions was not technically an administrative law of the church, but rather a pastoral guideline. Creech explained that, as instructed, he had indeed taken these principals under "prayerful consideration" but had come to a different conclusion: He disagreed. In weighing the matter carefully, he added, he'd fulfilled his pastoral obligation to consider the advisory.

Despite his vindication, Creech left First United Methodist in June, after the regional bishop failed to reappoint him to his post. The 53-year-old minister and his wife have moved to Raleigh, N.C., where he plans to write a book about his experience and the treatment of homosexuals within the Methodist church. He'll also continue to speak at churches around the country. On Oct. 25, he'll visit All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis (see Q calendar for details).

In August, the United Methodist Church (UMC) removed any ambiguities regarding the gay-marriage ban: The church's highest court ruled that Methodist ministers who conduct gay unions are in violation of church law and may be subject to disciplinary measures.

The ceremony that led to your trial wasn't the first you'd performed. When did you begin blessing gay unions?

I began to do covenant ceremonies in 1990, and before going to Nebraska I'd done more than a dozen such ceremonies. It's something I believe strongly in: It's a way of affirming, within the context of faith, the integrity of individuals and their relationship. It's a way of offering the support of the church community to couples.

Explain how you came to do this covenant ceremony in Omaha.

The lesbian couple that approached me were new members who'd begun attending church at Easter in 1997 and felt very welcomed and affirmed. They asked if I would agree to celebrate a covenant with them. I agreed to do so.

Did you discuss the possible repercussions?

Someone had suggested to the couple that if I celebrated the commitment ceremony, it could cost me my position there at the church. They didn't want that to happen and they said they were willing to withdraw their request. I said we couldn't let the fear of what might happen control us or prevent us from doing what we knew to be right.

What was the ceremony like?

We had about 30 people for the ceremony--a small gathering in a sanctuary that seats about 1,000. There were family members and friends and a few members of First Church who'd been invited. It was a typical service that followed the traditional marriage ceremony--a prelude with a classical guitarist, greetings, prayers, scriptures, a homily. The couple exchanged vows and rings as a sign of their commitment. I prayed God's blessings upon them. A friend sang the Lord's Prayer, we served Eucharist, and there was benediction and postlude. Afterward, there was a reception in the church hall hosted by the members of the United Methodist Women of the church.

It sounds traditional. What moved church leaders to intervene?

In April 1996, while I was still in Raleigh, the General Conference met and passed legislation that they put in the Social Principals prohibiting clergy from conducting "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" in UMC churches.

So, when I was called to be given the official invitation to First Church in Omaha, I told the district superintendent that I was very unhappy with the decision of the General Conference in passing that legislation, and that I would not be bound by it. The superintendent told me that we would walk that road together when the time came. I began as pastor at First Church in July 1996.

I also wrote to the bishop in January 1997, informing him that if I were asked to do a commitment ceremony, I would. He didn't respond until spring, when he said he didn't know what position he would take in that situation.

When did you first learn of the bishop's objections to the union?

The bishop called me on Labor Day of 1997, less than two weeks before the ceremony. In July, I had written to tell him that I'd agreed to do this covenant ceremony and told him of the date. But I didn't hear from him until the early part of September. He called to tell me that he had concerns and that he was going to have to tell me not to do it. I told him that I could not refuse to celebrate the ceremony, that it would be a violation of my understanding of what it means to be a pastor. He said he understood that, but that if I did the ceremony, a complaint could be filed against me.

A complaint?

In the UMC, if someone is thought to have violated the order and discipline rules of the church, a complaint can be filed against that person. It then goes before an investigation committee, and if they believe that the complaint is valid, then it is converted into a charge and goes to a trial.

News reports about the ceremony appeared in papers the day after you conducted the ceremony and an official complaint was filed immediately. How did your congregation react?

There was some immediate support. There was also a reaction from some people in the congregation who objected and were very offended. They began a process of retaliation by withholding their contributions to the church. The people in protest had the louder voice in the very beginning. The congregation, by and large, was caught off guard by this reaction, I think, and it took about a month for those who were supportive to overcome the negative impact of the protest.

Were you surprised at your acquittal?

I was. I believed in my responsibility as a pastor to provide support and care to this couple, but I felt that because it was unprecedented and because we don't have trials in the UMC except on very rare occasions, the jury would probably be afraid to acquit me. I thought they would convict me, knowing that I would appeal and go on to a higher court where the decision could be made. Politically, I thought it was going to be hard for them to vote for acquittal.

Have you considered leaving the Methodist church?

I don't think I could help the church change if I left it. It would be convenient for me, perhaps, and easy for me to be a part of a church that was open to all people regardless of sexual orientation and was truly affirming. But to leave is, I think, self-serving at this point.

When did you first become an advocate for gay equality within the Methodist church?

The moment when I woke up and stepped out of the Ice Age into the sunshine was in 1984, when the General Conference voted to prohibit the ordination and appointment of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals." A man who was a member of the church that I was serving in North Carolina came to me without an appointment and said, "I'm withdrawing my membership in this church, because I can't belong to a church that considers me to be unworthy to be a minister." He didn't necessarily want to be a minister, but if he had, he and others like him could not be. They would be condemned.

Do you have any advice for people who remain frustrated with the Methodist church's position on gay marriage?

Do the right thing, do what has integrity, do what needs to be done, do what is just and fair and compassionate. There will be negative consequences, but your actions will bear the fruit of positive change in the future. I would hope that GLBT persons in all churches would demand to be treated fairly, to be allowed to have full participation. I think the greatest political power that any gay person has is to let it be known that they are gay or lesbian. That facilitates more change than any sermon, any reading, any action anybody else can take.

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