NEWS STORY: Historic church trial of Methodist pastor begins

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

KEARNEY, Neb. _ Billing itself as the”Crossroads of the Future,”this small city of less than 25,000 people sitting in the center of Nebraska _ indeed, the center of the nation _ bids to become a crossroads for the United Methodist Church in its decades-long and divisive battle over homosexuality.

On Wednesday (March 11), Kearney’s First United Methodist Church became the site of a rare church trial in which the Rev. Jimmy Creech is charged with”disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church,”the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination.

The charges against Creech, 53, stem from his officiating at a same-sex”covenanting”ceremony for two women last September at his 1,900-member First United Methodist Church in Omaha against the expressed wishes of Nebraska Bishop Joel T. Martinez and in violation of the denomination’s Social Principles.

It is the first time since 1987 that the denomination has faced a church trial over the volatile issue of homosexuality, an issue that has embroiled the 8.5 million-member denomination since 1972. In the 1987 trial, the Rev. Rose Mary Denman was found guilty of violating church law barring self-avowed practicing homosexuals from the ministry.

Creech’s trial, which will be presided over by retired Indiana Bishop Leroy Hodapp, began Wednesday afternoon with efforts to select a 13-member jury from a pool of his peers _ 35 Nebraska pastors reflecting the ethnic and gender make-up of the state’s Methodist pastors. The jury selection process was expected to take most of the day, with testimony beginning Thursday. A decision is expected Friday or Saturday.

To be found guilty, nine of the 13 jurors must vote for conviction.”I hope this trial doesn’t divide us any more (than we are) but in some way will provide some healing,”Hodapp said in an interview. But he acknowledged church trials”do tend to divide people.” A key issue in the trial is the legal status within the denomination of the church’s Social Principles, a set of moral and ethical guidelines for church members.

In 1996, delegates to the church’s General Conference, it’s top decision-making body, by a vote of 553-321, inserted a statement into the Social Principles declaring”Ceremonies that celebrate … homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Creech faces a number of possible outcomes, ranging from acquittal to conviction. If convicted, he could have his ministerial credentials removed, which would bar him from performing any ministerial actions, such as administering the sacraments. The jury could also fix a lesser penalty, and Creech retains the right of appeal.

On Tuesday night, Creech and about 30 of his supporters gathered for an hour-long service in the choir room of Kearney’s First United Methodist Church, where they were led in a”ritual of social exorcism”by the Rev. George McClain, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, one of the denomination’s liberal interest groups.

As an invocation, McClain read from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s”Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”and _ using a text from the New Testament Gospel of Mark _ urged Creech supporters to perform”a kind of cleansing of the temple”prior to the trial.”This house is a house of prayer for all people,”the tiny congregation chanted in response.

At the end of the service, the congregation recited a prayer of exorcism bidding the”spirits of fear, ignorance, arrogance and control”to”depart from the United Methodist Church and surrender before God.””A lot of people think the word Christian means conservative,”said the Rev. Jeanne Knepper, a co-spokeswoman for Affirmation, the denomination’s gay caucus.”They think it means anti-gay, that it means being able to bash people with the Bible. But there are a sizable number of people in the United Methodist Church who don’t believe that, who believe the gospel means to reach out to all people.” Creech is one of an estimated 1,300 United Methodist clergy who have signed the statement”In All Things Charity,”which originated with a group of bishops at the 1996 General Conference and which expresses dissent from the church’s teaching on homosexuality.

That teaching, in addition to barring the blessing of same-sex unions, also says that while”homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth … we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also calls for”basic human rights and civil liberties”for gays and lesbians but bars their ordination and bans the use of any church money that might”promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” As the two sides squared off Wednesday, one Creech supporter said no matter the outcome, the issue won’t go away.”Jimmy Creech may be found innocent or guilty,”said the Rev. Fred Richart, pastor of Maplewood United Methodist Church in Omaha and a leader of the Nebraska Methodist Federation for Social Action.”But local congregations will continue to struggle with these issues.”

DEA END REEVES

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