As hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians are forced from their homes in Kosovo, Rev. Greg Dell sees a similar human tragedy playing itself out on a smaller scale within the United Methodist Church, as it prosecutes its clergy for openly violating a church rule that they see as unjust.
“We’re seeing denominational cleansing,” he told Whosoever shortly after a church panel convicted him in March of “disobedience of the order of the United Methodist Church.” His crime? Performing a wedding for Keith Eccarius and Karl Reinhardt on September 19, 1998, in violation of the church’s ban on same sex marriages.
Dell, pastor of Chicago’s Broadway United Methodist Church, is the second pastor to be put on trial for conducting a holy union. Rev. Jimmy Creech was acquitted last year by a church judicial panel after successfully arguing that the Methodist prohibition against gay marriage was only a guideline, not a church law. Several months later the United Methodist Church’s highest judicial council ruled that ministers who conduct “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” are liable to be brought to church trial. That set the stage for Rev. Dell’s conviction, and almost assures conviction of 69 clergy who took part in a wedding between two women in Sacramento in January.
“If they remove those 69 clergy they’re removing about one quarter of the clergy in that area,” Dell said. “Then the denomination will have to say ‘is it worth this cost’? Do we really want denominational cleansing?”
Rev. Dell joins Rev. Creech as the first refugees exiled by the United Methodist Church. Neither Dell nor Creech have been defrocked, but both have been forcibly removed to the refugee camps that lie just outside of full participation in the church. Rev. Creech languishes in North Carolina after the bishop refused to renew his appointment at his Iowa church. Rev. Dell will begin an indefinite suspension on July 5th. He can rejoin the fold if he signs a pledge to no longer perform same-sex weddings or until the church no longer bans such ceremonies.
“The church told me, ‘You have a choice, Rev. Dell: your integrity or your job, you can’t have both.’ There’s not much choice,” Dell chuckled softly, resigned to his fate after July 5.
He will not go quietly into that good night, however. When his suspension begins he’ll become director of In All Things Charity, a clergy- and laity-based organization in the United Methodist Church that is working to change the Church’s official position on homosexuality. He hopes to raise enough money through the group to travel the country talking to pastors and congregations about his recent experiences.
“My intention is to remain as a suspended pastor within UMC until May 2000 until we see what impact my trial and others has on general conference. If this rigid rule is reaffirmed, I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay in this denomination.”
Those who disagree with Rev. Dell are just as resolute to leave the denomination if the rule banning gay unions is stricken from church law. No matter how the general council rules, Rev. Dell believes there will be a mass exodus of some sort out of the denomination.
“There’s no way to keep everybody in the church now,” he reasoned. “The Religious Right has backed them into a corner saying ‘either you kick these people out or we’re leaving.’ There’s only a choice of who leaves the church, they don’t have a choice about keeping everyone together because the other side has said anything that promotes toleration is unacceptable.”
While the fight simmers on the backburner, waiting for May 2000 to roll around, how are gays and lesbians to continue to exist in what can seem to be an increasingly hostile denomination? Rev. Dell has some advice:
“You don’t leave a relationship because it’s painful, but you never stay in a relationship that is abusive. I think we’re called to stay with it to see if we can work it through, but when it becomes abusive and destructive of your spirit and there’s no room left for you to be a person without being violated again and again, you have a responsibility to get out.”
For now, Rev. Dell embraces the pain of his refugee status, knowing that if the church votes in 2000 to reaffirm its intolerance of gays and lesbians, it will be his responsibility to leave. No doubt many will follow him, refusing to let an abusive church destroy their spirits. But, Dell is not without hope for the Methodist Church, and trusts, ultimately it will do the right thing.
“My sense is that the real church always finds a way to emerge,” he said with confidence. “The church that’s built on compassion and love will eventually win out.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.