SPECIAL REPORT:
OUR CRISIS, OUR RENEWAL


On September 14, 1997, The Reverend Jimmy Creech, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, NE, presided over a "Covenant Ceremony" (Rev. Creech's phrase) of two women, who are members of the congregation he pastors. The United Methodist Church officially stands against the performance of such ceremonies, for the 1996 Book of Discipline plainly states: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches" (Paragraph 65C). Furthermore, prior to the September 1 4th ceremony, Bishop Joel N. Martinez, the United Methodist bishop of Nebraska, had warned Rev. Creech not to preside over such a service. Neglecting the guidance of the Discipline and the warning of his bishop, Rev. Creech pushed ahead and led the aforementioned Covenant Ceremony.

Because of his defiance of disciplinary and episcopal authority, Rev. Creech was suspended from his pastoral duties at First Church/Omaha, charged with "disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church," and brought to a church trial, which recently took place in Kearney, NE.

On March 13, 1998, Rev. Creech was found not guilty of the charge he faced. Of the thirteen Nebraska ministers who were members of the jury, only eight voted guilty. Five voted not guilty - probably because they accepted the argument of Rev. Creech's defense that, since Paragraph 65C appears in the Discipline's Social Principles (which are understood as guidelines and not as hard law), it was not considered binding on the church. Because nine votes were required for a conviction, Rev. Creech was acquitted.

(Perhaps the twenty-second Article of Religion, "Of the Rites and Ceremonies of Churches," should have been relied upon more heavily by the prosecution in the church trial. It states, in part: "Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, that others may fear to do the like, as one that offendeth against the common order of the church, and woundeth the consciences of weak brethren." This article, of course, has binding authority in the denomination.)

The conclusion of this church trial -- which withheld discipline from a pastor who had performed a same-sex-union service - sent shock waves throughout The United Methodist Church. Among both clergy and laity, responses ranged from praise to puzzlement to outrage. Immediately after the decision was announced, special meetings - of the Council of Bishops, of bishops and their district superintendents, and of district superintendents and their pastors—were called. A nearly audible buzz, created by this decision, could be heard throughout the denomination.

HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?

It is a reasonable question to ask. In a church fathered and first led by John Wesley, in a church dedicated to the advancement of "scriptural holiness," how could this occur?

The roots of the Kearney decision could probably be traced deep into the history and theology of American Methodism. However, a more contemporary source of the problem comes to mind—Methodism's handling of the problem of abortion. For in the early 1 970s, in establishing its pro-choice position on abortion, official American Methodism became less comfortable with the idea of moral truth and more comfortable with the idea of moral choice. Over time, the ideology of choice could not be contained. It spread to the church's doctrine, for in the early 1 990s re-imaginers began re-imagining God, the Gospel, and the Church. Though advancing teachings that ridiculed and undercut the faith of the Church, the re-imaginers were not disciplined in any way, shape, or form in The United Methodist Church. And now there is the Kearney decision, which indicates that clergy who perform Covenant Ceremonies in United Methodist sanctuaries might well do so, at least in some annual conferences, without fear of being disciplined.

Notice the trajectory. First, with the rise of the pro-choice perspective on abortion in The United Methodist Church, the denomination's morals weakened. Then, with the advent of the re-imagining community in The United Methodist Church, the denomination's doctrines took a hit. Now, in 1998, with the unwillingness to halt Covenant Ceremonies in The United Methodist Church, the polity has unraveled. First, morals. Then, doctrine. Now, polity. Truly, ours is a denomination in need of renewal in the authoritative Gospel of Jesus Christ.

THE DISCIPLINE IS NOT THE FINAL WORD

The ministry of Rev. Creech and the ministry of Lifewatch have an interesting and surprising similarity: both contradict the Social Principles of The Book of Discipline. Opposing the straightforward Paragraph 65C on marriage, Rev. Creech, as noted above, has presided over a Covenant Ceremony (actually, over several Covenant Ceremonies). Similarly, opposing the ambiguous Paragraph 65J on abortion, Lifewatch contends that The United Methodist Church should be consistently and unqualifiably protective of unborn children and their mothers. Therefore, both Rev. Creech and Lifewatch are at odds with certain of United Methodism's Social Principles.

However, there is a distinction to be made. Rev. Creech, in performing a Covenant Ceremony, is adopting a practice that is alien to classical Church practice. To be sure, when he attempts to justify his participation in such a ceremony, he speaks of Jesus, love, and justice. However, Rev. Creech's Jesus, love, and justice are not the Jesus, love, and justice of the Bible and the Church's Tradition. Therefore, he is smuggling into The United Methodist Church a way of thinking and living that is alien to the faith of the Church through the ages.

On the other hand, Lifewatch, in opposing Paragraph 65J and in witnessing for protection of the unborn child and mother, tries to make its case from the Bible and the Church's Tradition. Lifewatch, however imperfectly, strives to speak from the heart of the Church's faith, as transmitted through the ages, to offer corrective to The United Methodist Church of our day. (Here, recall that Vincent of Lerins wrote, in 434, that basic Christian belief was '@that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.")

The surprising similarity of Rev. Creech and Lifewatch should remind us: The Book of Discipline and especially the Social Principles of the denomination need to be critiqued and reformed. But they need to be critiqued and reformed according to Biblical and Traditional standards - not according to an ideology, philosophy, or theology alien to the faith of the Church.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

Shortly before the verdict was announced, a petition, with the names of 92 United Methodist ministers, was distributed in Kearney. The petition declared that its listed ministers would gladly celebrate Covenant Ceremonies, as had Rev. Creech. With Rev. Creech acquitted, one can only guess that the number of ministers willing to perform such services will increase. After all, the Kearney decision, at least in the short run, declares to The United Methodist Church at large that participation in same-sex-union services will not lead to disciplinary action in this church. In other words, the Kearney decision opens the door to future Covenant Ceremonies in The United Methodist Church.

To be sure, there is talk of appealing the Kearney decision. However, in the meantime, the denomination is being beckoned and bent, pushed and pulled, toward the legitimization of Covenant Ceremonies in particular and toward the legitimization of homosexual practice in general.

This creates a dangerous situation for The United Methodist Church of our day. Some clergy and laity will walk, will leave the church. Many congregations, on the other hand, will bury their collective heads in the sand, act like there is no problem, and drift toward an ingrown, selfish congregationalism. Some congregations will opt to withhold their payments of apportionments to the general church. And the talk of divisions of schism, is becoming increasingly common. The Kearney decision, if it goes uncorrected, just might provide the unfortunate occasion for schism to materialize.

A GRAND OPPORTUNITY

Strangely, the Kearney decision also presents The United Methodist Church with a grand opportunity. For this is an occasion for United Methodism to consider anew what it means to be the Church - the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church (Nicene Creed). To be the Church is to be one - that is, unified by basic practices such as services of Christian marriage. To be the Church is to be holy -- that is, set apart from the moral confusions of the general society and capable of transforming people (including thieves, apathetic husbands, practicing homosexuals, and the self-righteous) into people of authentic Christian holiness. To be the Church is to be catholic -- that is, connected with Christianity around the world and through history in the truth of basic Christian doctrines and morals.

And to be the Church is to be apostolic -- that is, descended from the community of the Apostles, who received the faith directly from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Being participant in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church reminds us United Methodists of many things. It reminds us that the Gospel is not ours to invent. It reminds us that the moral shape of life in Christ is not ours to define. It reminds us that the Church is not ours to shape as we please. It reminds us that the care of souls is not the satisfaction of all felt needs.

Furthermore, being participant in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has very hopeful consequences at the local-church level. As Gary, a young man dying of AIDS, once put it: "Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged." (Richard B. Hay's "Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies," Sojourners, July 1991, and Transforming Congregations, January-March 1998)

Gilbert Meilaender, who teaches Christian ethics at Valparaiso University, reminds us that, regarding the problem of Covenant Ceremonies, the Gospel finally is at stake: "We dare not permit the church's public teaching, on the matter of homosexuality or any other matter, to be taken over and determined by a desire -- however sincere and well intentioned - to 'affirm' every person in whatever state he or she may be. That is not the Gospel. To articulate the Christian norm for life is not the church's only task, but it is a necessary task. If we fail here, affirmation of and compassion for those who fall short mean little. Indeed, once we can no longer say what it means to 'fall short,' we have little need for compassion and few problems for pastoral practice. But then we also are poorly positioned to take seriously the law written in our hearts, the desire of human beings for what is noble and God-pleasing, the good news that we have been set free from captivity to our own distorted images of what it means to be satisfied and fulfilled. For the sake not only of those who have been baptized into Christ's body, but also for the sake of a world, which, even if only inchoately, wants to follow the way of life, we have a responsibility to conform our public teaching to what we have ourselves been taught by Scripture about our creation as male and female and about marriage as the first of institutions. We have no authorization to do otherwise." (Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1997)

Brothers and sisters in the Lifewatch community, stand firm in the faith. Stand firm in Jesus Christ. Pray for The United Methodist Church and her bishops, district superintendents, and pastors. Speak and write the truth in love. Speak and write about the forgiving love of Christ, conveyed through faithful congregations, for all people. Speak and write about the transforming power of Christ who renews, and empowers in righteousness, all repentant people. Live the holy life, even as you "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." (Baptismal Covenant) And allow God to bring renewal to The United Methodist Church -- even out of Kearney, NE.

-Paul T. Stallsworth, Lifewatch (6/1/98, Special Edition)


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