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Rev. Creech Repeats Raleigh, NC Woes


"Rev. Creech again the center of a storm"

Former Raleigh pastor performs a lesbian 'wedding,' could face discipline from the United Methodist Church.

By YONAT SHIMRON, Staff Writer
Raleigh News and Observer - September 26, 1997


The Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was dismissed as pastor of Raleigh's Fairmont United Methodist Church after marching in a gay pride march nearly a decade ago, has thrust himself into the public spotlight -- once again as a champion of gay rights.
     This time, Creech performed a covenant ceremony for a lesbian couple in his new church, First United Methodist in Omaha, Neb. He did so against the advice of Bishop Joel Martinez of Nebraska, who told him he would be violating the denomination's ban on gay unions.
     Shortly after the Sept. 14 ceremony -- a private affair with about 50 friends and family members present -- a church member filed a complaint against Creech with the bishop.
     As a result of the complaint, Creech could be the nation's first United Methodist pastor to face charges for violating the church's ban on gay unions. At the very least, he is forcing United Methodists to confront one of the most volatile issues facing Christian churches today.
     In a telephone interview earlier this week, Creech defended his actions.
     "Gay men and lesbians are the only people identified by the official policies of the United Methodist Church as ineligible for full rights of membership," Creech said. "They are denied the right to be ordained and to have covenants or holy unions. That's pure discrimination. It's unjust."
     But many church members said they believed Creech defied the bishop and flagrantly disregarded the denomination's principles.
     "I would like to see his credentials taken away so he can't do this to any other church," said Helen Howell, a member of the Omaha church for 53 years.
     Last year, the church's highest legislative body, the General Conference, voted to codify a ban on gay unions in the church's social principles. The ban states: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in churches."
     What's not clear is whether the so-called "social principles," constitute church law or serve as a general guideline.
     Creech, who has preached two sermons on gay discrimination since his appointment to the church more than a year ago and has referred to the issue half a dozen other times, said he's committed to the fight. If the Nebraska church punishes him for violating the church rules, he will appeal the decision to the national body, he said.
     "I have no doubt Jimmy acted out of his conscience and what he feels the gospel calls him to do," said Collins Kilburn, the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches. "He's inclined to do what's right no matter the consequences. I just hope his ministry doesn't get consumed in controversy."
     The son of a Goldsboro furniture store owner, Creech developed a reputation as a moral crusader soon after graduating from Duke Divinity School in 1970. Creech once said the basic tenet of his faith was to call the church to challenge systems that oppress people. That, he said, was the central message of Jesus' gospel.
     As pastor of Warsaw United Methodist Church in Duplin County, Creech started a mission to migrant farm workers. Later, as a legislative lobbyist for the North Carolina Council of Churches, Creech was a staunch opponent of the death penalty and a spiritual guide to several death-row inmates.
     He was first confronted with discrimination against gays when a member of his Warsaw church stepped into his study in 1984 and told him he was quitting his membership in the church because of the denomination's stand on homosexuality. Earlier that year the church had adopted a position -- still held -- that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings.
     Creech remembered the man after his appointment to Fairmont United Methodist. In 1988, when half a dozen pastors joined Raleigh's first-ever Gay Rights March, Creech walked alongside them.
     His congregation soon asked for his removal, and Creech quit the ministry to work for the Council of Churches.
     The Rev. Mahan Siler, who also walked in the march as pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, said he understood how deeply Creech's convictions run.
     "It's an act of civil disobedience," Siler said. "He's so clear about what he feels. When that happens you can't sidestep it and live with yourself."
     Last year, after a national search, Creech was offered the position of senior pastor of Omaha's largest United Methodist congregation, a church of 1,900 members. District Superintendent Susan Davies knew of his views of gay rights and supported him.
     In a written statement following the covenant ceremony, Davies said: "I believe that the decisions about ministry with gay men and lesbians are to be made within the context of a local congregation."
     First United Methodist of Omaha has a reputation as a church open to gays. A support group of parents of gays and lesbians meets in its classrooms and the church has a mission statement saying it reaches out to all people regardless of sexual orientation.
     This year, Creech, his two assistants at First Omaha, and 1,300 other United Methodist clergy signed a statement called "In All Things Charity," which calls for supporting gay unions.
     The statement says in part: "To withhold rituals of support and accountability for committed relationships is unconscionable."
     The Rev. Jeanne Knepper, a co-spokesman for Covenant Relationships Network, a group of United Methodists formed in July to resist the ban on gay unions, said she admired Creech's stand.
     "I have a great deal of appreciation for Jimmy's willingness to be the person who personifies this issue," Knepper said.
     Bishop Martinez will likely initiate an investigation into the complaint against Creech when he returns from a visit to Spain this week. A spokesman for the bishop said there would be no immediate action.
     Creech said although many church members oppose his action, he hoped it would strengthen and clarify the mission of the church in reaching out to all people.
     "This culture discourages commitment of same-sex couples because of our fear of sexuality," he said. "If this can bring about a national discussion, I would welcome that opportunity."
    

Yonat Shimron can be reached at yshimron@nando.com


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