The United Methodist Church and Spiritual Violence: The Trial and Defrocking of Rev. Jimmy Creech

No one was surprised when a jury comprised of 13 United Methodist clergy members convicted Rev. Jimmy Creech of violating church law prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex unions. The guilty verdict was sure thing.

“He certainly was guilty,” said Rev. Mel White, who led a contingent of nearly 150 Soulforce participants to Grand Island, Nebraska to protest the trial. “He broke a law, but the law is unjust. People have been martyred for centuries by simply breaking unjust laws. Creech stood in the noble tradition of historical figures who have said, ‘the law is unjust and I will pay the penalty, because I can’t just do my duty to the institution.’ People who stand up and say ‘I’m not going to do my duty anymore,’ are the ones who change history.”

Be that as it may, Creech himself, though not surprised by the November 18, 1999 verdict, was disappointed.

“I had hoped that at least some of the 13 jurors would refuse to vote or vote for acquittal,” Creech told Whosoever. “I had hoped there could be, among the clergy on the jury, an opportunity to make a witness that they were not going to participate in what was an act of violence against gays and lesbians. It was a unanimous vote and that was a real disappointment.”

The guilty verdict was not the end of Creech’s punishment at the hands of the United Methodist Church. The jury defrocked Creech, removing his right to pastor a church within the 9.5 million-member denomination. Creech, however, is more worried about what the verdict means to the church, not his career.

“The jury’s verdict says ‘we will disregard the discriminatory nature of this law and the fact that the law is unjust and immoral in order to enforce it.’ That is the real meaning of the verdict,” he emphasized. “What happened to me in terms of the penalty is not as important as the big picture. The decision of the jury to withdraw my orders is another statement that says ‘we are willing to remove people from the clergy who are willing to give support and affirmation to GLBT people and honor their relationships.’ It certainly has a personal impact, but a larger impact is that it says to clergy that they must support what is unjust and immoral in order to remain clergy. That is a scandal.”

Rev. White is equally critical of the church’s willingness to prosecute its clergy for extending fellowship and love to its GLBT members.

“We felt this trial is literally doing the work of Fred Phelps. He holds up signs saying “God hates fags” but this trial held up the sign in Methodists hands and that is much more dangerous than Phelps.”

Soulforce in Action

Rev. Creech did not face his trial alone. Nearly 150 people, coordinated by Rev. White and his Soulforce organization, accompanied Rev. Creech to protest the trial.

“We went there to give the church and bishops a chance to not have that trial,” Rev. White explained to Whosoever. “We circled the Trinity UMC sanctuary where the tribunal was held with 3 circles that conscience draws and asked them if they were sure they wanted to do this.”

The United Methodist Church responded by holding the trial. But, they had to go through the Soulforce protestors to do it. In a largely symbolic move, the group blocked the door to the church in pairs, each standing there long enough to make their point before being led off by police and arrested. 74 protestors were taken into police custody. One of those taking part in the protest was the associate minister of Trinity United Methodist Church.

“Del Roper read our appeal and went in and resigned from trial committee and stood with us in vigil for the rest of the 24 hours,” Rev. White recounted. “He said ‘I can’t do it.’ The pastor [of Trinity UMC] read the letter, too, and said ‘I think Mel is right.'”

The Soulforce action may not have prevent the trial from being held, but Rev. White counts the protest a success. “I think a lot of people’s minds and hearts are being changed. What would have been awful would have been not to have anyone doing these symbolic things. Jimmy’s trial would have been buried on the fifth page of the last section. By being there we brought out Fred Phelps who got the press. We’ve got to keep doing it. We’ve got to keep being arrested and standing against these things. Gandhi says it’s as much our moral obligation not to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good. GLBT people have been too willing to cooperate with evil.”

Rev. Creech agreed, and was impressed by the Soulforce people who were “willing not to just speak about it but to put their bodies on the line and stand as a barrier to block the process of spiritual violence.”

In the end, Rev. Creech believes the message of the protestors was loud and clear. “The United Methodist Church might like to characterize this trial as a process of punishing or trying one of its clergy because the clergy disobeyed the rule,” Creech explained. “But it’s really all about the UMC taking a stand and passing rules that target GLBT people, discriminate against them and dishonor their relationships. They deny clergy the opportunity to be in full ministry to GLBT people. What UMC is doing affects not only UMC, but affects every person — GLBT and non-gay people — who are committed to justice and believe in the dignity and humanity of all people.”

The Fallout

In the wake of the trial, Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star reported that United Methodist ministers in the state hadn’t “heard an uproar from their congregations” over Creech’s trial and subsequent defrocking.

Creech said that’s to be expected.

“People in Nebraska are tender about it,” he explained. “Since the first trial in March 1998 and all the animosity and anger that preceded it and followed after I was acquitted made everyone afraid it would just blow up. I think they’re afraid to react or respond very much at all in fear of igniting a major rupture in the conference there.”

The message is clear, Creech concluded, and his trial and conviction is a warning to other congregations in the conference that this law will be fully and swiftly enforced. Not everyone has heeded the warning however.

“There were 6 clergy in the Nebraska conference who participated in Soulforce disobedience and blocked the jury from entering the church,” Creech said. “The Nebraska bishop went face to face with the Nebraska clergy who were participating and the clergy did not back down and were arrested. I thought that was a significant witness within the conference.”

Also making a significant witness in the denomination as a whole are a group of ministers known as the “California 68.” These ministers could possibly be put on trial for participating in the January 16, 1999 holy union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton at the Sacramento, California Convention Center. The service was lead by the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento.

Creech said the UMC Committee on Investigation meets next year to consider the complaints filed against the clergy and may throw the charges out.

“The charge is disobedience to the order and discipline of UMC,” Rev. Creech clarified, “not the charge that they violated this prohibition [on performing same-sex marriages]. It’s a subtle distinction that is significant.”

What is also significant is that the committee will hold an open hearing on the matter in February 2000. The committee usually meets in private when considering complaints. Creech believes this move may signal that the committee is leaning toward dismissing the complaints and “using the hearing as a way to expose the bigotry of the law” against performing same-sex marriages.

Those cases may be decided before the United Methodist General Conference set to be held in May 2000 in Cleveland, Ohio. Rev. Creech says not to expect big changes from the General Conference, but homosexuality will be a big issue.

“It’s not realistic to expect major positive changes,” he said. “I don’t think the General Conference will allow more restrictive and exclusive legislation because of what has happened with this prohibition. I think the General Conference in 1996 had no idea what they were doing when they approved this legislation.”

It is this legislation that has cost Rev. Creech his credentials, the suspension of Rev. Greg Dell and may result in the punishment of the 68 clergy members in California. The rift growing in the United Methodist Church over this issue seems to only get wider and wider with no resolution in sight.

Rev. White believes even though the work of reconciliation is hard, it’s what GLBT Christians must be committed to doing. “Jesus didn’t say go out and get it all done, he said go out and just start it,” White emphasized. “In the starting we are ennobled. In loving our enemies we are ennobled. In working toward peace we become the children of God. Any of these obstacles are horribly difficult but that’s what we’re called to do. It gives us new life.”

Rev. Creech agrees.

“This is not the time to give up. This is the creative moment for us to work to bring about change. It looks dark and hopeless, yet this is the moment, in this kind of chaos, when God does God’s best work. I think that’s what’s happening.”