Leveling the Ground at the Foot of the Cross: The Struggles of 3 Congregations

Healing is not what they’re looking for the First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

Their pastor, Rev. Jimmy Creech, was charged with disobeying the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church by violating one of its Social Principles when he conducted a commitment ceremony that united two women last September.

On March 13th, eight of the 13 jurors hearing the case found that his actions were disobedient “to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.” But nine guilty votes were required to convict Creech, who could have lost his credentials as a United Methodist minister.

He remains in his pulpit, and says if he’s asked again to conduct a holy union for a gay couple, he will. That could mean some heavy deja vu.

“The Bishop says this verdict applies only to this case and that any other clergy conducts same sex ceremonies would be liable to go to trial,” Creech emphasized during a recent telephone interview with Whosoever. “It’s not being treated as precedent or being understood as a go-ahead to clergy for conducting same-sex covenants. We are still at risk of being prosecuted.”

Despite the threat, Rev. Creech and his congregation persist. There’s been some criticism of Creech within his congregation. Some members say their opinions opposing gay marriages are being ignored. Creech accepts the dissent, but refuses to be swayed.

“This is not a matter of respecting opinion this is a matter of the self worth and dignity of people being upheld,” he said. “I have no problem with diversity of opinion as long as those opinions do not personally attack anyone or cause any injury or harm in terms of self-esteem, respect and spirituality.”

When asked how a congregation begins to heal from the wounds brought by such a divisive issue, Creech bristled.

“The issue is not healing, but growing,” he explained. “Growing always involves pain because it pushes us beyond where we’re comfortable, what we’re used to. It challenges us. Healing always implies returning to a previous state, going back to where you were before an injury took place. I think we’re moving toward something new. It does involve pain.”

That pain is being felt in other congregations around the country. If Creech’s assessment is right, there is a lot of growth happening now in the church at large, as evidenced by other recent struggles.

On February third, the Evangelical Lutheran Church voted to revoke The Rev. Steve Sabin’s ministry for violating a church policy that prevents practicing homosexuals from being ordained.

Lutherans allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers — but only if they take a vow to abstain from having relations with others of the same sex.

Sabin, minister of the Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, says it’s that inconsistency that drove him to fight his ouster. He points out that the ELCA voted in 1991 to welcome gays and lesbians, even those in relationships, into their churches.

“On one hand it’s okay for [gay and lesbian] laypeople [to be in a relationship], but not clergy, that is not in the Lutheran tradition,” he said. “The priesthood of all believers basically means we’ll soon find that position untenable.”

Sabin was scheduled to be removed from the list of the church’s ordained ministers in April, but has won a delay while he appeals the decision. A defense fund has been set up to help Rev. Sabin and his partner Karl stay afloat financially while the appeal proceeds.

Another Lutheran pastor has not had such luck. Jane Ralph sacrificed her part time pulpit at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Independence, Missouri when she came out.

“I invested my life in a church that’s abandoned me,” she told the Kansas City Star.

She can reapply for ordination, but says she’s not optimistic.

But, optimism seems to be the watchword for congregations dealing with gays and lesbians in their midst. At University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, the mood is upbeat, despite being removed from the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

“We’re having a revival,” Rev. Larry Bethune told Whosoever. “The event has re-energized the church in reclaiming its progressive heritage as a church that opens its doors to all persons.”

University Baptist was already known for being a church ahead of its time. In 1948, the church voted to end segregation, and welcomed people of color into their pews. In the 1950s they again played the role of pioneer and allowed a woman into ministry.

Such stands are not without a price.

University Baptist lost their place in the state convention. Rev. Creech nearly lost his pulpit, and Rev. Sabin could still lose his.

None of them would have it any other way.

“If I were to do it in secret it would be another way of letting the fear of this particular prohibition have power,” Rev. Creech said. “It would not be a way of challenging it. It would be a way of upholding the law even if I defied it. It’s better to be open about it and say to the church, ‘if you want to be a church that prosecutes clergy for giving pastoral support to gays and lesbians then you’ll have to do it in public.’ I think this is part of the process. It’s a way of holding the church accountable and pointing out that what they are doing is wrong.”

Rev Sabin agrees.

“The larger church doesn’t realize what the silence and ignoring of the discussion is costing us in terms of pastors and distress of congregations. By going through the disciplinary process and pointing out that the church’s policy is costly in terms of talent and pain and division in the life of the church, I could bring back into active discussion the whole issue of human sexuality.”

Rev. Bethune believes his church’s public struggle with the Texas Baptist Convention has opened dialogue within other congregations.

“There are some churches who will not change their opinion that homosexuality is a sin, but have been confronted with how they have treated homosexual persons and treated that sin as being somehow worse than any other. They’re having to think about how they can be compassionate in their ministry with gays and lesbians. I’m encouraged by that.”

But a backlash looms. In North Carolina, a group of Methodist churches has asked the national Council of Bishops, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, to call a special session of the General Conference to pass an outright ban on same-sex ceremonies. That would tie Rev. Creech’s hands permanently.

The Bishops have decided a special session would be unwise. Their next meeting will be in 2000. In the meantime, they issued a statement defending the doctrine, order and mission of the church.

Rev. Creech and Rev. Sabin have both been the target of virulent homophobe Fred Phelps. He’s made special trips to Ames and Omaha to parade at the two churches.

Rev. Creech says such actions keep things in perspective for him.

“People must understand what the Christian message is. Was it the message Phelps gave on the street or was it a congregation that welcomes people regardless of sexual orientation. I think that’s a very clear contrasting position. Which is the true expression of the gospel?”

That perspective has turned to humility for all three men.

In each interview, they took pains to turn the story away from themselves, insisting on focusing on the big picture.

“This is not about me it’s about the church and how it has been infected by cultural prejudice,” Rev. Creech explained. “All I’m trying to do is act with some integrity and the church has been reacting.”

Rev. Sabin is equally humble about his role:

“My call as a pastor is to speak up for the gospel, to speak up for those who are normally voiceless. People are reminding me that what I say matters and that I am providing them some hope that they can be welcome in God’s family. That makes it all worthwhile. That’s why I became a pastor.”

The congregation at University Baptist keeps Rev. Bethune’s ego in check.

“The real story is a 79 year old woman putting her arm around a gay man and saying, ‘I love this guy, he’s one of my best friend.’ Or a young couple with a baby saying ‘we’re glad this lesbian couple is working in our nursery.'”

It is these kinds of revelations that leads Rev. Creech to declare that the salvation of the United Methodist Church, indeed the church at large, will be the gay and lesbian members “who remain part of it and continue to fight for its change and redemption.”

Change is something all three pastors believe is inevitable for the church.

“I am convinced God looks out for the church,” Rev. Sabin reflected. “The one promise we have is that the church will endure. It doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes or problems, but the finger of God leads the church. The issue will keep coming up because God’s will for the church is that we become more open and accepting. I don’t know the time frame. It may be centuries from now, but I’m convinced the power of the gospel will win out in the end. These kinds of divisions and bigotries will be put down.”

Rev. Bethune agrees the divisions and bigotries will be defeated, but it will take the dedication of a few to reform the church.

“The truth is a minority report all through the Bible,” Rev. Bethune said. “You have old Testament prophets against the kings and leaders of their day, you have Jesus against Pharisees and leaders of his day, and you have Paul against other parts of the church over whether the gospel should include those filthy Gentiles. That kind of prophetic spirit has been central to reformation of the church.”

Until that reformation comes, brave clergy like Revs. Creech, Sabin and Bethune say they will proudly proclaim the gospel for all of God’s children.

“The testing point of the gospel is always where we as the church assume it doesn’t apply. As soon as we determine there is a group beyond God’s concern and membership in the church, that’s precisely where the gospel needs to be at work, because that’s where you fall back into being a Pharisee again,” Rev. Sabin emphasized. “In each generation there’s been a testing period. The church dealt with racism, sexism and now it’s homophobia and heterosexism. I hope and pray that one day we’ll get it right so that we recognize that we don’t have to approach human beings on a case by case basis but that we’ll understand that God’s loving address in the gospel is addressed to every human creature.”

Perhaps Rev. Bethune summed it up best.

“The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”