The Methodist journey, on the national level, has always been one step forward but two steps back. With the first whiff of queer clergy in 1972, the delegates to General Conference responded with “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching.” A dozen years later, following the ordination of lesbian Joanne Carlson Brown by Bishop Melvin Wheatley, a General Conference resolution decreed, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.” Another dozen years passed, and General Conference delegates responded to “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” or “holy unions” by adding a provision in the Social Principles, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” With painful irony, a UMC pastor noted,
In my not entirely inglorious career, so far, I have blessed motorcycles, packs of dogs, a time capsule, mobile homes, insulation and even a toilet, but were I to bless the union of two Christian people (who were gay or lesbian), it would be an offense, chargeable before a trial.
Over the years, Pastor Jimmy Creech of Nebraska had performed many covenant services without penalty. In September, 1997, he performed a covenant service in the sanctuary of his church, First United Methodist of Omaha, but he then faced ecclesiastical charges based upon the recently enacted provision in the Social Principles. At his trial in March, 1998, his defense argued that because the prohibition was contained in the Social Principles of the Book of Discipline, it was merely instructive and not prescriptive. After all, the preface clearly stated that Social Principles are “not to be considered church law.” No Methodist had ever been tried for any reason contained within the Social Principles. The jury would agree with Creech’s defense, and he was acquitted in March, 1998.
But then, the Judicial Council, the “Supreme Court” of the UMC, overreached by decreeing that the prohibition contained within the Social Principles “has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in [the Social Principles] and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office.” That ruling came too late for the first Creech trial, and the jury acquittal was unaffected. But, when Pastor Creech officiated at another covenant ceremony in April of 1999, a second jury convicted him and defrocked him in November of that year. Pastor Gregory Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church of Chicago was also convicted of presiding at a covenant ceremony. The membership of Broadway UMC was 30% gay when Pastor Dell performed a covenant ceremony on September 19, 1998 for two of his parishioners. Bishop Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference reluctantly filed charges:
Despite my high regard for the Reverend Dell, as a person of integrity, who possesses an enviable record of pastoral faithfulness and effectiveness, my evaluation of The Reverend Dell as an exceptional pastor, and my own theological and pastoral disagreement with this component of church law, I do hereby file a formal complaint.
Pastor Dell was convicted in March, 1999, and he was suspended from his appointment to Broadway UMC. Initially, the suspension was indefinite, unless Pastor Dell signed a written pledge to refrain from further covenant services, but on appeal, the suspension was limited to one year, and Pastor Dell was not forced to sign a pledge. During his suspension, Pastor Dell served as Executive Director of In All Things Charity, and his colleagues in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference showed support by electing him as a delegate to General Conference 2000. He was reappointed to Broadway UMC by Bishop Sprague after his year-long suspension.
Bishop Sprague became an outspoken advocate for the cause of full inclusion, and he was arrested for protesting, not once, but twice, at the 2000 General Conference. Bishop Sprague and Pastor Dell are locked arm-in-arm in this photo. Can someone identify others? In 2011, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Pastor Dell, now disabled with Parkinson’s, near his Chicago home. I also spent an hour with Bishop Sprague in a car ride from his speaking engagement in Rockford to O’Hare airport. He stated that signing that complaint against Pastor Dell was the one regret of his episcopacy. The presiding officer at Dell’s ecclesiastical trial was Bishop Jack Tuell. The experience changed him, and he also became an advocate for LGBT inclusion.
I was wrong. It was experience that showed me I was wrong … Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct. As I understand the Spirit of God, it was wrong … I began to see the new thing God is doing.
Bishop Tuell passed away just a week or so ago. I had visited with him at the 2012 General Conference. During the spirited Friday gathering in the Tabernacle, in which Bishop Melvin Talbert and others roused the crowd, frail Bishop Tuell struggled to make his way through the mass of onlookers to reach the dais to stand in solidarity with numerous other active and retired UMC bishops.
The book is now available!
Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability with online vendors, apparently because shipments have been delayed by January weather, but it is available directly from the publisher or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.
This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.
Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)
1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)
1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)
1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)
1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)