An ecumenical coalition of gay and lesbian organizations has instituted an annual award to be given to a US heterosexual religious leader who has championed the cause of homosexual rights.The award is named after the man who is also its first recipient, Paul H. Sherry, recently retired president of the United Church of Christ.The Dr Paul H. Sherry Leadership and Courage Award will be given each year by the Interfaith Assembly of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Caucuses and Affirming Organizations during the annual general assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC), the principal ecumenical organization in the US.The Interfaith Assembly represents caucuses in more than a dozen US churches.Dr Sherry received the inaugural award last month during the NCC's general assembly and 50th-anniversary celebrations in Cleveland, Ohio. At a prayer breakfast on 11 November, he told Interfaith Assembly members that those who deserved the award most were the members themselves.Expressing surprise at receiving the award, Dr Sherry said: "I know the exclusion and pain you have felt. But I truly believe that through your efforts God's purpose will be fulfilled."In an interview with ENI, Dr Sherry said he had always believed it was a "Gospel imperative" that the church embrace all, including sexual minorities. "Gays and lesbians have been so put upon," Dr Sherry said, particularly within the church. He felt the issue had to be addressed directly by a church leader.The 1.4 million-member United Church of Christ, whose roots are in the US Congregational church—the church of the American Puritans—has gained a high profile for its progressive views on many social issues. About 300 of its congregations welcome gay and lesbian members, and the church is among the few US churches to ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy.Dr Sherry has been one of the most prominent US church leaders to call for full participation of gays and lesbians in the church. He has repeated his appeal not only in the US, but also in international ecumenical meetings.He told ENI he was optimistic about the cause of gay and lesbian rights, but acknowledged that numerous obstacles remain. "I continue to hope that there will be leaders in our communions who will fight for what I believe is right," he said.But he suggested that the NCC and its member denominations continued to give "mixed signals" on the issue of homosexuality.Questions related to homosexuality remain a cause of tension and division for some NCC member churches, including several of the biggest Protestant denominations in the US, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Recently the United Methodist Church has argued over the blessing of relationships for same-sex couples, while the Presbyterians have for years debated the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy."There's hardly a communion within the council that is not dealing with the issue of 'what do we do with these homosexual folk'?" said Gwynne Guibord, US ecumenical officer of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay and lesbian denomination. She chaired the Interfaith Assembly's prayer breakfast in Cleveland.The NCC itself has repeatedly called for equal rights for homosexuals in the public sphere, but the MCC has not been allowed to join the NCC. Earlier this decade the NCC declined to take action on a request by the MCC for "observer status" at NCC meetings. Opposition by several US churches—including Orthodox and mainly black congregations—has often been cited as the reason for the NCC's refusal to recognize the MCC. (The NCC has since cancelled "observer status" for non-member churches.)However, the continued internal debates over the issue of homosexuality within NCC-member churches had also been an important factor in the NCC's reluctance to formally embrace the MCC, said Eileen Lindner, NCC associate general secretary.Both Lindner and Guibord said the MCC has been making quiet inroads within the US ecumenical movement. "Informally there have been great advances," Lindner said.But Lindner said full acceptance of the MCC and even the Interfaith Assembly itself was still some way off for many within NCC-member denominations. However, pointing out that she was speaking here as a church historian and not as an ecumenical official, Lindner added: "Can anybody doubt that time is not on the side of those who have an exclusionary view of the church?"A United Methodist minister from Nebraska has been defrocked by a church court for performing a "holy union" for a male couple. Jimmy Creech was stripped of his credentials by a 13-member United Methodist jury in Grand Island, Nebraska. He was found guilty of violating church law by performing the ceremony in North Carolina last year. Creech immediately criticized the 17 November decision, calling it "a scandalous day for the United Methodist Church," the Associated Press reported. The jury foreman said the jury was simply following church law, which prevented clergy from performing such ceremonies.