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NEWS STORY: Complaint filed against Methodist pastor over gay union ceremony

c. 1997 Religion News Service UNDATED _ To the Rev. Jimmy Creech, it was”a very simple and very meaningful service.”But to others, the ceremony uniting two lesbian members of his United Methodist congregation was a slap in the face of church policy. Since performing the”covenanting”ceremony Sept. 14, a member of Creech’s congregation has filed a […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ To the Rev. Jimmy Creech, it was”a very simple and very meaningful service.”But to others, the ceremony uniting two lesbian members of his United Methodist congregation was a slap in the face of church policy.

Since performing the”covenanting”ceremony Sept. 14, a member of Creech’s congregation has filed a formal complaint against the pastor, the first step in a disciplinary procedure that could lead to a church trial _ as yet unchartered waters for the denomination on an issue that has haunted and divided it since the early 1970s.

The ceremony _ attended by 30 to 50 family members and friends _ addressed”what it means to be the church,”said Creech, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb.”I cannot imagine as a pastor saying `no’ to two people who say they want to make a commitment to each other in the context of their faith,”said Creech, despite the denomination’s ban on such practices.

During its 1996 General Conference, the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church, the nation’s second largest Protestant church, added to its set of Social Principles a statement saying,”Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in churches.” Official church policy is set by the General Conference, but it is uncertain whether the Social Principles have the same status as church law, contained in the Book of Discipline. On the issue of homosexuality, the Discipline simply states that it is”incompatible with Christian teaching”and makes no mention of same-sex unions.”I don’t think that I’m in violation of church law, but I do stand in opposition to the church’s unjust position that singles out and discriminates against committed members of this denomination,”Creech said.

Creech said he informed _ but did not ask_ Nebraska Area Bishop Joel N. Martinez in July about his decision to perform a same-sex ceremony at the 1,900-member church. According to Creech, he did not receive a response from Martinez until”10 days before the ceremony.”Martinez is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

According to the Book of Discipline, a complaint can be filed about the”performance or character of a clergy person”or”claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties.” An investigation, carried out by an elder from the conference _ or local jurisdiction of the congregation _ in conjunction with the bishop’s office, is expected to begin in mid-October when Martinez returns, Creech said.

The congregation’s two associate pastors _ Susan Mullins and Donald Bredthauer _ supported Creech’s decision.

In February, Creech and the two pastors also endorsed the”In All Things Charity”document, a statement of conscience opposing what it considers discrimination against gays and lesbians by the United Methodist Church. Supporters of the statement have gathered signatures from hundreds of United Methodist clergy.

Another statement,”The More Excellent Way: God’s Plan Re-Affirmed,”supports the denomination’s position on homosexuality and has been endorsed by both clergy and laity.”The More Excellent Way”also suggests those seeking acceptance of homosexual practice find venues other than Methodist pulpits, boards, agencies and other affiliated entities to express their views.

During the last six years, Creech said he has”celebrated”nearly 12 same-sex ceremonies while at the North Carolina Council of Churches and as pastor of the Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C. Then, he said, there were no complaints filed against him because there”were no church prohibitions.”Creech was not reappointed at Fairmont, however, after the church lost financial support because of his activism in gay and lesbian rights.

Creech said the congregation of First Church was already moving toward the”total inclusiveness”of lesbian and gays before he arrived in 1996.

But his decision to go forward with the recent covenanting ceremony has split the congregation.”Some people have been very supportive and others are angry and hurt,”he said.”I hope this will help us become stronger as a church, but it’s difficult now to tell if and when that will happen.” (OPTIONAL TRIM _ STORY MAY END HERE.)

An”action group,”known as the Covenant Relationships Network (CORNET) was created this summer to support the right of United Methodist clergy like Creech to celebrate same-sex relationships.

The group, organized by Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns, plans to develop strategies and theological resources against denominational attempts to block United Methodists from being in”ministry for and with all persons,”said the Rev. Jeanne Knepper, an Affirmation spokeswoman.

Church officials say they do not know how many same-sex ceremonies have occurred in United Methodist churches.

The controversy over such practices is unfortunate, said Mark Bowman, executive director of the Reconciling Congregation Program, an independent organization of the United Methodist Church that publicly welcomes all persons, including lesbians and gays.”The controversy focuses on the issue of the covenanting services when the real issue is personal, which is how a congregation should recognize the committed relationship of two women or two men who are active members of the church,”said Bowman.

MJP END HAWKINS