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The controversy over gay commitment ceremonies could split the United Methodist Church in two

Karl Reinhardt and Keith Eccarius spent a year planning their ceremony of holy union in Chicago. They were fitted for two dark suits, wrote their vows, and chose a 17th-century quotation for the wedding program: "By him like a shadow I'll ever dwell." But they had no idea their ceremony would shine a spotlight on a growing dispute that threatens to split the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.

The minister who performed the ceremony, Gregory Dell, was suspended by United Methodist Church leaders. His suspension occurred just months after a group of 95 ministers defied the denomination by officiating at the January 16 union of two lesbians in Sacramento. Sixty-eight of the ministers now face investigation. And in 1998 the Rev. Jimmy Creech was not reappointed as pastor of his congregation -- effectively kicked out of his Omaha pulpit -- after he performed a union ceremony for two women. Creech is being confronted with a defrocking aftre officiating at the union of two gay men in Raleigh, N.C., on April 24. In late May a complaint was filed against Denver bishop Mary Ann Swenson, charging that she failed to discipline the Rev. Toni Cook, who has presided over several same-sex ceremonies.

These controversies foreshadow a major battle that is all but certain to erupt when the United Methodist General Conference, the church's top policy-making body, convenes in Cleveland in May 2000. The Rev. Donald Fado, the pastor who led the group ministers in the Sacramento union ceremory, says gay unions may become the most divisive issue to hit the 8.5-million -- member United Methodist Church since slavery, which tore the church apart in 1844. It reconciled in 1939.

In 1996 the conference passed a law that forbids ministers from performing same-sex unions. In August a church court ruled that the law is binding. For Eccarius and Reinhardt, the edict occurred a little more than a month before their September marriage at Chicago's Broadway United Methodist Church. Eccarius, a 42-year-old systems analyst, and Reinhardt, a 33-year-old teacher, decided to proceed with the ceremony despite the prospect that Dell would be disciplined.

The two men asked Dell if he wanted to back out, but the minister refused. "They're loving, committed men who see the church and God as important in their love for each other and in their lives," Dell says. "I was not about to refuse to conduct a service." Dell, who has officiated at holy union ceremonies for about 18 years, adds, "Jesus had no problem with breaking the rules of church and society if it meant you could reach out to somebody."

After the marriage, Dell attracted significant media attention and was the subject of a protest by the infamously antigay reverend Fred Phelps (who himself sparked a massive gathering of pro-gay demonstrators outside Dell's church). Dell also was brought up on charges by church officials, and on March 26, church leaders suspended him from the ministry of his 180-member congregation in Chicago's largely gay Lakeview district. He must step down on July 5.

But Dell won't back away from his beliefs. "Thirty percent of my congregation is gay," he says. "Not to provide one kind of ministry to one part of the congregation is discrimination based on identity, which I refuse to do. One of the crazy ironies is that straight people are always saying the gay lifestyle is hopelessly promiscuous, so what happens when you get a couple who say they really want to commit their lives to each other? The church says, "Sorry, you can't do that."

Despite his suspension, Dell will not be employed. He will become director of In All Things Charity, an organization that is pushing to expand gay rights within the United Methodist Church. "It's going to set me free to organize full-time until May of 2000, when the denomination meets again," he says.

The convention, which is held only every four years, is expected to be ground zero for the major battle over gay marriage. At issue is a proposal drafted in April declaring that one of the church's social principles should be reworded to read, "Although faithful Christians disagree on the compatibility of the practice of homosexuality with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all persons," instead of saying homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

The proposed change has its opponents, including John Sheppard II, a Yuba City, Calif., minister who says the issue is not gay fights but rather the authority of Scripture and obedience to church law. "The Bible never gives the authority to do same-sex covenants," says Sheppard, who in January held a press conference at his church to voice his opposition to the ceremony in Sacramento. "What's behind this is a matter of whether you believe Scripture. You're talking about what's at the heart of our faith."

Fado says one of three things are likely to happen at the 2000 convention: Supporters of gay marriage may split off, opponents may abandon the church, or a compromise may be found.

Terry Norman, an openly gay ordained minister who works as a counselor in Kansas City, Mo., says the conservatives will likely leave and form their own denomination. "This battle would have come over some issue sooner or later anyway," he says. "It happens to be over this particular issue. This is not just about us as gays and lesbians. It's about equality and human justice."

Whatever happens, the pro-gay United Methodist ministers plan to keep fighting. Fado and Dell -- who are both heterosexual and married -- are adamant. "I believe my ministry is to everyone," Fado says. "Nobody should be left out."

Dell says he won't give up on gay marriage either, but he won't stay with the church if it requires him to ignore what he sees as a higher law. "You don't leave a relationship because it's painful. Any intimate relationship has pain. But you don't stay in a relationship that's abusive. When people demand the core of your soul, it's time to move on."

Dotinga is a reporter for San Diego's North County Times.

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Title Annotation:same-sex marriages
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 6, 1999
Previous Article:French dish from the Riviera.

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