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Methodists Convict Pastor for Gay Ceremony

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 1999; Page A2

A popular Chicago pastor yesterday became the first person convicted by a United Methodist Church court of violating a newly clarified church law forbidding ministers to celebrate same-sex unions.

In a trial that turned into a sometimes emotional forum on what it means to be a pastor, a jury of 13 church elders rejected the argument that the Rev. Gregory Dell, 53, was fulfilling the deepest needs of his parishioners when he ignored church rules and presided at the union of two gay men. The jury could sentence Dell to be stripped of his ministerial credentials.

Like many denominations, United Methodists have agonized over what to do with loyal gay members who ask for recognition. Some denominations are strained over whether to ordain gay preachers, others over whether to try to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. But controversies among the 8.5 million United Methodists, the nation's second largest Protestant denomination, have focused on blessing same-sex unions.

Dell, who is married and has a grown son, took a defiant stance during the trial. He admitted he celebrated the union of two men in his church and acknowledged he knew he was violating church law but still said he was not guilty.

His pastoral obligation requires him to treat all his parishioners equally, he argued. So when a couple in a loving and committed relationship asked him to recognize them, he could not refuse.

"If I can't be a pastor fully to all people," he said, "you don't want me as a pastor."

The prosecution was a test of the church's authority. "Our hearts are torn deeply at the nature of this task," the Rev. Stephen Williams said in his closing arguments for the prosecution. But Dell had made a "mockery of church law," he said, and excusing him would endanger the church's coherence as a denomination.

"You can't just break the law because you disagree with it," Williams said.

On Sept. 19, at a service attended by 150 members in his urban Broadway United Methodist Church, Dell blessed the union of Karl Reinhardt, a high school English teacher, and Keith Eccarius, a systems analyst, who had met on Christmas 1996. About a third of his 181 congregants are gay men and lesbians, Dell estimated.

At the trial, gay and straight members of his congregation testified about what Dell's decision to preside at that service meant to them. Terry VandenHoek, an emergency room physician, said he had traveled a long, painful and lonely road in his life, and even once thought of killing himself. The day of the union was the first time he found spiritual acceptance, the "first time I felt like a full human being in the United Methodist Church," he testified.

Eccarius and Reinhardt testified that they were in a monogamous, loving relationship before they approached Dell about presiding at their union.

"We wanted people to know that couples in our community could have committed, long-term relationships and we wanted to plant a seed for the future," said Eccarius, who waited for the verdict in a park across the street from a courtroom decorated with banners of support for Dell.

The church was forced into a public soul searching over its policy on gay unions a year ago at the trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who blessed the union of a lesbian couple at his church in Omaha. Two years earlier, the church had added the prohibition against celebrating homosexual unions to the church's rule book.

Creech argued that the prohibition was in an advisory section of the rule book outlining church positions on social issues such as drinking, and therefore not binding as church law. The jury acquitted him by one vote.

In August, a month before Dell performed the union, the denomination's highest court elevated the prohibition to a church law.

The United Methodists are a diverse and scattered denomination, embracing both liberal and conservative wings. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a member, as are former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R).

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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