Seeing a Liturgical Loophole, Minister Skirts a Ban on Same-SexUnions
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Wed Jan 3 03:25:07 MST 2001
The New York Times
January 2, 2001, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 10; Column 1; National Desk
HEADLINE: Seeing a Liturgical Loophole, Minister Skirts a Ban on
BYLINE: By The New York Times
DATELINE: CHICAGO, Jan. 1
A United Methodist minister who was suspended in 1999 for blessing
the union of two gay men has returned to his North Side church and is
once again celebrating same-sex unions.
This time, though, he has found a way for his Broadway United
Methodist Church community to hold the service without breaking the
laws of the parent church.
The minister, the Rev. Greg Dell, had his church homecoming in July
after a yearlong suspension, the first under a 1996 church law that
forbids pastors to officiate at same-sex unions and bans the ceremony
from occurring on church grounds. Now, Mr. Dell says, he has found a
loophole in the rule.
Mr. Dell's new church policy on same-sex unions slips through the
"order and discipline" law by changing the who and where of the
ceremony. What his church has done, Mr. Dell said, is simple.
"We hold the ceremony away from church grounds, and I don't preside
over the union," he said. "That's all it is."
One recent ceremony was held at a home, where the couple exchanged
vows with friends and Mr. Dell present. The next day a service of
celebration was held in the sanctuary of the church, where the couple
received communion and repeated their vows.
The new policy, introduced by the Broadway church in September, is
the latest in a series of alternative actions taken by Mr. Dell and
other ministers across the country in an effort to allow same-sex
unions within the confines of the United Methodist Church, the
nation's second-largest Protestant denomination after the Southern
The United Methodist Church has 8.5 million members and maintains a
wide spectrum of ideologies. There has recently been a surge in the
number of Methodist congregations opposing the ban on same-sex unions.
This opposition is part of a movement by religious organizations
across the country to recognize and administer faith services to gay
and lesbian parishioners.
Since September, Mr. Dell said, his church, which has a racially,
socially and sexually diverse congregation, has celebrated a handful
of same-sex unions, a ceremony he says he cannot ignore if he is to
minister to his 200-member congregation, 35 percent to 40 percent of
which consists of gay men and lesbians.
In Mr. Dell's view, the union is a covenant blessed by God, not by
the minister. Following this interpretation, vows are shared between
the couple and God, and the minister and the community are mere
observers and celebrants of the union.
By removing the pastor and the church setting, the Broadway
congregation has provoked reactions running the gamut from praise for
a groundbreaking principle that others may follow to criticism that
the policy disregards church law.
"It's really been something of a spectrum," Mr. Dell said. "Those in
the religious right are really enraged. They see it as something of a
disobedience. And those in the middle have comments ranging from
'Isn't that clever?' to 'They are walking close to the line.' "
One of Mr. Dell's critics, James V. Heidinger II, president of the
Good News Caucus, an evangelical renewal movement, contends that the
removal of the minister from the service "trivializes the ceremony by
virtually removing the pastor's role."
"This is not a tangential issue," Mr. Heidinger said. "It goes right
at the heart of what we believe about marriage. It seems to us that
what the church has done is to find a clever way to circumvent the
Book of Discipline and its standards. To do it outside in a courtyard
or away from the church and to let them go into the church and
celebrate it seems like they are clearly ignoring and evading the
letter, and more so the spirit, of church policy."
Within the Broadway church, support for the policy is widespread.
"The sense of unity around the policy has been very strong," said Eva
Dahm, a lay leader. "It is not the ideal situation, of course, but
it's all we can do right now, and so everybody is taking it in
At the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Cleveland
last May, when the denomination's governing body affirmed the ban on
same-sex unions within the church, Mr. Dell was one of several
members of the clergy who staged a protest and were arrested.
On his return to his congregation two months later, Mr. Dell said, he
decided that creating the new union policy was the best short-term
answer for his congregation. The policy "is something of a compromise
without violating the integrity of the ceremony," he said.
Others within the denomination say Mr. Dell and the Broadway church
are clearing a new path.
"It's interesting to me that they've adopted this," said Jack Tuell,
a retired bishop who presided at Mr. Dell's 1999 trial, "and perhaps
it will provide a model that others may greatly appreciate."
Although no formal complaints have been brought against his church,
Mr. Dell admits that the policy may be challenged in the future --
that future being the next General Conference in 2004.
"I'm not expecting we'll have a complaint filed against us, but I
wouldn't be shocked," he said. "They could tighten the loophole, and
already this policy is something of a compromise, but a compromise of
practice, not of integrity."
GRAPHIC: Photo: The Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago was once suspended for
blessing the union of two men but now witnesses ceremonies off church
grounds. (Todd Buchanan for The New York Times)
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