Despite a groundswell of protest, the United Methodist Church (UMC) council of bishops has rejected a request to hold a special session of the denomination's top legislative body to deal with the issue of same-sex "marriage."

The bishops, however, may already be taking a stronger stance. Bishop Joel Martinez of Nebraska announced on May 6 that he will not reappoint Jimmy Creech as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha. Creech had been acquitted by a jury of UMC pastors in March for performing a same-sex marriage (CT, April 27, 1998, p. 14).

Martinez indicated Creech has lost support from his congregation in the aftermath of performing the lesbian ceremony. Last month's announcement pleased conservatives in the denomination, including Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement (CM), an evangelical organization representing 1,100 UMC churches and 500,000 members. "It says that there will be repercussions if the United Methodist doctrine is not upheld."

Creech told CT he is extremely disappointed with Martinez's decision. "I will continue to celebrate covenant ceremonies," Creech says. He does not believe that removal will stop the UMC from becoming "a more inclusive and open church."

SPECIAL SESSION SOUGHT: The only special session of the general conference, the denomination's highest legistlative body, took place in 1970, when Methodists considered issues relating to the union with the Evangelical United Brethren. General conferences consist of 1,000 delegates, half laity and half clergy, elected by the annual conferences. The general conference meets every four years, with the next session scheduled for 2000 in Cleveland.

Nevertheless, there has been pressure for a special session to consider the Creech verdict and the issue of same-sex marriages. Those advocating such a move include Asbury Theological Seminary president Maxie Dunnam (a theological adviser to CT), North Carolina bishop Marion Edwards, Georgia bishop Lindsey Davis, the evangelical magazine Good News, and the CM.

In addition, the south-central College of Bishops, one of five such groups in the UMC, has requested that the judicial council, the denomination's top court, consider whether a statement in the denomination's Book of Discipline prohibiting same-sex unions is a punishable offense. The judicial council will consider the issue August 7-8 in Dallas.

Among all the objections, the most serious came from the evangelical CM, which met in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in April. At the conference, about 1,000 CM members unanimously adopted a statement to be sent to all UMC bishops "to hold each other accountable in teaching and defending the doctrinal and ethical standards of the Book of Discipline."

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In a separate statement to the UMC on homosexual rites, the movement warned, "If there is any weakening of these biblical and disciplinary standards, we will be forced to reconsider our commitments to the existing structures of the United Methodist Church."

The bishops, however, indicated calling a special session would be unwise in light of the imminent judicial council meeting. The bishops also vowed to proclaim and defend the doctrine, order, and mission of the church, including the statements on homosexuality in the denomination's Book of Discipline that prohibit homosexual-union ceremonies. Despite requests from prominent denominational leaders, bishops made no reference to the Creech trial.

PULLOUT RUMBLINGS: Even with reassurances that the denomination's views on homosexuality have not changed, the CM warned that unless the church's stance on same-sex marriages is clarified during the judicial council meeting, then "we are fearful that there will be a radical hemorrhage of members leaving the denomination."

"We're disappointed that they did not deal with the Creech issue," Good News editor Steve Beard told CT. "The church needed something far more decisive on Creech." Beard also wonders why at least three bishops who are outspoken supporters of homosexuality agreed to abide by the Book of Discipline. He notes that one of these bishops, Melvin Talbert of California, allowed same-sex marriages to be performed by pastor Karen Oliveto of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

Beard is also concerned about 184 UMC clergy who had signed a declaration in support of conducting same-sex marriages.

SEISMIC SHIFTS? The denomination is likely to grapple with fallout from the Creech affair. Some United Methodists call the recent events an unprecedented crisis. Others are leaving the denomination, organizing protests, or withholding funds.

"The failure of our judicial system on this one case has spread life-threatening frustration and confusion in our church," Georgia bishop Lindsey Davies says. "Our people deserve to have this issue clarified as soon as possible. To wait until 2000 would only result in spiritual damage to our church."

At least 300 demonstrators met UMC bishops as they left a service at Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, on April 26. The demonstrators urged the bishops to uphold the Book of Discipline and carried placards reading, "God's law, not man's law." Bishop council president Emerito Nacpil of Manila indicated that the demonstration was the first he had witnessed in 18 years of attending council meetings.

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The May/June issue of Good News displays a cover picture of a sinking Titanic with the headline, "Will homosexuality sink United Methodism?" Editor Jim Heidinger says United Methodism is reeling amid unprecedented waves of distress and turmoil because of the Creech trial.

DENOMINATIONAL DEPARTURES: The fallout from the Creech issue is also leading to an exodus of committed evangelicals who believe they can no longer remain in the denomination. While some former members of Creech's congregation are attending other United Methodist churches, 300 former members are holding an alternative service in an Omaha high school.

Another 22 evangelical UMC ministers in California and Nevada have asked to separate from the denomination, stating they are "beyond reconciliation" after some of the conference's leaders expressed support for Creech.

Two congregations in Georgia are withholding monies to "churchwide" causes while waiting for further developments in the case. Churchwide causes include supporting the work of bodies such as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. A third Georgia congregation approved a similar move due to problems with the denomination's "doctrinal integrity," not merely because of the Creech verdict.

WAKE-UP CALL? William Abraham, professor of Wesley Studies at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas sees the verdict as a wake-up call to UMC moderates and conservatives. "They realize for the first time what their church will look like if those committed to theological and moral revisionism get their way," Abraham says.

According to Abraham, the Creech trial "triggered awareness of a network of differences concerning revelation, mission, and theology. For the first time these differences are being squarely identified and faced."

Abraham does not know how—or if—such vital divisions will be resolved. "Many believe that the differences can be contained within the one body over time," he says. "This consensus is now being challenged by liberals and conservative incompatibilists who argue that it is impractical. Only time will tell how the debate will play itself out."

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