A defrocked minister meditates on what it means to serve his church as a lay member
BY: Jimmy Creech
Last November, a jury of United Methodist clergy in Nebraska convicted me of "disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church" and voted to withdraw my credentials of ordination.
My crime? Co-officiating a ceremony that celebrated the holy union of Larry Ellis and Jim Raymer on April 24, 1999--a crime in the United Methodist Church equated with heresy, racial and sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual abuse.
For 29 years, more than half of my life, being a "Reverend," a pastor, was a big part of my public and personal identity. It was more than a role I played, more than a hat I wore. It was who I was, nearly my whole wardrobe. Now, stripped of the title Reverend, "defrocked" as the journalists say, I am getting to know myself in a new way: as a lay member of the church.
I always understood ordination to be an act of the church, distinct from the call of God to ministry. My call to ministry came as part of my experience growing from childhood into young adulthood in the Methodist church in which I was baptized and confirmed.
The Jesus story was compelling. It described for me how life was to be lived. This was my call to ministry. It was not unique, but the same call every Christian has: to love others and to work for justice. It did not set me apart, but rather bonded me to the "holy catholic church, the communion of saints."
In 1970, I was approved for ordination by the North Carolina Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. The approval was not without difficulty, however. No one on the interviewing committee was troubled that my theology was existentialist. It was the length of my hair that caused them difficulty.
It took two interviews and a special last-minute meeting with the committee on the day of ordination before they finally gave me and my hair their blessing.
Ordination was clearly an institutional concern, not a godly one.
The ordination that was taken from me by the jury had been given to me by the United Methodist Church. It belonged to the church, and the church could take it back.
Knowing and accepting this does not ease my grief. There is nothing I love more than being a pastor. Now, I can no longer serve the church as a pastor.
This was my real loss when the jury withdrew my ordination.
However, the ordination that preceded it and cannot be reclaimed by the United Methodist Church is the one that came with my baptism, the one confirmed by my call to ministry. This divine ordination belongs to me still, and no institution, jury or person has the power to take it away.
While I grieve for my loss, I grieve more for those who are being rejected, oppressed and persecuted by the United Methodist Church. The ordination that was taken from me has been routinely denied and withdrawn from gay people.
Others have been refused fellowship, if not membership. Many have been spiritually and psychologically abused by declarations of judgment and condemnation. I am only a casualty of the church's bigotry against bisexual, lesbian, gay and transgender people. They are the true victims and martyrs.
I have been punished only for what I've done. They are punished for who they are and whom they love. The difference is profound. My loss and pain trifle in comparison.
I also grieve for my church. It has wounded and crippled itself with bigotry, legalism and fear. Until these impediments are purged from its soul, the United Methodist Church cannot authentically witness to God's love in Jesus Christ. Every act and testimony toward that end will be contaminated by the evil of its prejudice and persecution of gay people.
I grieve, but am not desolate. I am now among the laity of the United Methodist Church, called to the same ministry I've always been called to honor, called to "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves," as the church's Baptismal Covenant states. I feel called to remain United Methodist in order to resist the evil, injustice and oppression that harbors within it.
It makes no sense to me to leave one Christian church for another, just so I can have the institutional blessing of ordination. When I was ordained, it was my privilege to serve the laity. It is now my honor to serve with the laity.