Cool under the collar

Rev. Gregory Dell could lose his ministry for conducting a gay marriage, but is he worried? Well, yes, but he's used to putting himself on the line

February 21, 1999

By Steve Kloehn, Chicago Tribune

It has taken the United Methodist Church four months to assemble its case against Rev. Gregory Dell, though it is hard to imagine what took so long.

Consider the case file:

Item 1: In August 1998, the denomination's supreme court ruled that it is a violation of church law for a Methodist minister to perform a homosexual marriage, or for such a union to take place on church property.

Item 2: In September 1998, Dell performed a "Service of Holy Union" – a church wedding in all but name and legal authority – for two gay men at Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago.

Item 3: Dell has agreed to stipulate to all the facts.

If this were a criminal trial, it would last roughly as long as the smack of a gavel bouncing off oak, or the snort of a judge inconvenienced. But Greg Dell will be tried by the United Methodist Church, by a jury of 13 Methodist ministers from the Chicago area. If nine or more of them vote to convict, they have the power to ban Dell from ordained ministry, to censure him, or to hand down any number of intermediate penalties. Of course they could also vote to acquit him.

Either way, Dell does not plan to let the church dispose of the case easily. There will be no deal. Or, more accurately, the deal is this: The church can do what it wants with the ministerial career of Rev. Greg Dell, but first he will have his say.

Dell plans to argue that his vow to minister to all people supersedes church law on homosexuality. He hopes to force the Methodist Church – and with it, all the other U.S. mainline Protestant churches, which have been twisting and ducking and jabbing at the issue of homosexuality for two decades – to hear a sustained, highly theological argument for blessing homosexual relationships. He wants to prod the church to go toe-to-toe with him on the issues, to respond to his interpretation of his duty as minister and then to make an unambiguous decision.

And that, far beyond the facts, is what provides the suspense. What is the penalty for a popular and conscientious pastor of 28 years who knowingly defies church law and refuses to repent? How will the Methodists, who by most accounts are already headed toward some sort of schism over homosexuality, react to the outcome? And not least, what will Dell say?

A Greg Dell sermon on any given Sunday morning begins with the easy humor of a skilled dinner party host – the kind who makes you feel that you, among all others in the room, have his complete attention. Then, slowly, the preacher takes over, tugging you to the mountaintop, never stumbling, never looking down. When he is done, the only uncertainty left in the airy sanctuary at Broadway seems to be whether the whole place will break into applause.

At Dell's trial, that rhetorical skill will be paired with his genuine passion about the church's treatment of gays and lesbians. For 8.5 million Methodists, and millions of other Christians, the trial also carries some small hope – and fear – that the church may finally settle its wrenching conflict over homosexuality.

"For whatever reason, this has become a watershed issue in the Protestant church in the United States – a watershed issue not just about sex, but about what it means to be a Christian, about how to understand the Bible," said Dell, sitting in a comfortable corner of his office. "In theology we talk about a moment of kairos. For Greeks, regular time was chronos. A kairos moment is outside of chronos, a moment of particular poignancy and intensity and crisis. We talk about God breaking in at that moment.

"This is a kairos moment."

Dell's opponents on the issue of homosexual marriage also see history in this moment, though they see history turning away from Dell and an entire generation of clergy that put confrontation at the heart of its theology.

"The '60s thing had all of us. I was out walking around steel plants, trying to shut down factories as a high school student. It was crazy. Some people have moved beyond that," said Rev. Scott Field of Naperville, leader of the conservative Methodist movement in northern Illinois. "But it's almost a foregone conclusion that if there's a barbed-wire fence, Greg will throw himself on it. . . . I think his tactics are emblematic of a movement that has seen its day."

With pretrial maneuvering dragging on since October, with Dell himself talking about how he wakes each morning to thoughts of the trial, one can only imagine the psychological toll it must be taking on him.

"He sleeps like a rock," said his wife, Jade.

Even with the calls from anguished parishioners, the interviews on national television?

"Like a rock."

On the day the charges against Dell became public, a photographer pulled the minister aside for a quick sit-down portrait. After shooting several frames, the photographer looked up and asked solicitously, "Aren't you worried?"

"Yes, I certainly am worried," Dell replied.

"Well, then," the photographer hesitated, "couldn't you look a little more worried?"