New York Times

March 27, 1999

Methodist Minister Is Convicted of Breaking Church Law With Gay Rite


By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
A United Methodist Church minister in Chicago was found guilty Friday of breaking church law by having blessed the union of two gay men, in an ecclesiastical trial that drew national attention to an increasingly controversial issue among many Protestants.

After deliberating more than three hours, a jury of Methodist clergy members voted 10 to 3 to convict the minister, the Rev. Greg Dell, 53, of violating the United Methodists' "order and discipline" in having officiated at the ceremony, which took place at his urban church last September. Methodist rules require nine jurors for a conviction.

Shortly after announcing the vote, the jury began hearing witnesses to decide a punishment. Penalties can be as severe as loss of ministerial credentials.

How to relate to gay churchgoers is a question that has deeply roiled many American religious organizations, just as it has proven highly contentious among many secular institutions, like the military. Roman Catholics and Jewish rabbinic and synagogue organizations have debated the issue.

But the controversies have been particularly intense within major Protestant denominations, like the United Methodist Church.

Much debate has turned on whether to allow noncelibate gays members to serve in clerical positions. Three years ago, for example, a retired Episcopal Church bishop was brought before an ecclesiastical court, accused of having violated church doctrine for having ordained a gay man as a deacon; the court dismissed the charges.

But within the United Methodist Church -- with 8.5 million members, the nation's second-largest denomination after the Southern Baptist Convention -- controversy over homosexuality has included the issue of same-sex unions, particularly since the denomination's top policy-making body, in 1996, placed a statement in the Methodist rule book barring such ceremonies being held in Methodist churches or performed by Methodist ministers.

Dell, whose trial was held in a church in suburban Downers Grove, Ill., with a retired bishop as judge, was the second Methodist minister brought to trial for having performed a same-same union.

In March 1998, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, of Omaha, was narrowly acquitted after his lawyers argued that the rule book statement was purely advisory. But Creech's bishop did not reappoint him to his pulpit. Five months later, the Methodists' Judicial Council ruled that the statement was binding.

Dell officiated at a service for two men, one of them a member of his congregation in Chicago, a month after the council's ruling. During his trial, he argued that his pastoral responsibilities, as a minister to a congregation with many gay members, required that he break the rule.

Creech, a friend of Dell's since their student days together at Duke University Divinity School, attended the trial. After the verdict, Creech said "the only thing Greg was guilty of" was "being a pastor to members of his church."

The Rev. Jeanne G. Knepper, a spokeswoman for Affirmation, a Methodist caucus supportive of gay members of the church, said in a telephone interview, "I really grieve for the position the church has put itself in, when it feels called upon to take its very best pastors to trial for doing ministry."

But a quite different perspective was offered by Paul Lewis, a lay member of a Methodist church in Aurora, Ill., who testified for the prosecution as the jury began hearing arguments in the penalty phase late in the afternoon. Lewis said many church members had been upset by Dell's conducting the same-sex union, and were holding back on financial contributions and personal commitment to the church.

"There is a feeling among many that if the clergy don't have to obey, Why should we?" Lewis said. "The damage to the fabric of our church here is severe."

Neither Dell nor the Rev. Stephen C. Williams, chief counsel for the church's Northern Illinois Conference, the area which Dell serves and which brought the charge against him, could be reached for comment after the verdict.

But about 70 supporters of Dell gathered in a park across the street from the Downers Grove church, singing, holding hands and praying. One woman, Caroline Presnell, a member of a Methodist church in Evanston, Ill., that Dell once served, said an issue confronting the denomination was "whether the church is going to be inclusive as Jesus taught us to be, or not."

The group dispersed after singing "Amazing Grace."

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