By SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH / The Dallas Morning News
The Cathedral of Hope voted overwhelmingly Sunday to sever ties with its denomination, two weeks after Michael Piazza, head of the Dallas church, turned over his pastor's credentials in order to end the denomination's investigation of him for possible financial mismanagement.
Preliminary results indicated a vote of 977 to 140, including 16 abstentions counted as "no" votes, with the final tally expected this week. This means the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) will lose its largest and most prominent church.
The wide margin was expected because of the popularity of Mr. Piazza, who has led the cathedral to international fame as the world's largest gay and lesbian church. Its 3,000 members dwarfed other MCC congregations, most with fewer than 300 members.
Mr. Piazza, who was unavailable for comment, had long urged the break, but he pushed more forcefully after the MCC launched an investigation four months ago because of a complaint filed by a former cathedral board member.
The allegations involved the church's insurance, Mr. Piazza's expense account and his oversight of millions of dollars being raised for a $40 million complex. Mr. Piazza denied any wrongdoing and used the pulpit and the Internet to rally support as well as attack his opponents.
"I love this church, and I love him," said Jackie Hawkins of Forney, who voted to disaffiliate because she didn't think the MCC had treated Mr. Piazza fairly.
Even without pastors' credentials, Mr. Piazza's role at the cathedral remains virtually unchanged. He still leads worship and oversees much of the church's operations, but with a fresh title: cathedral dean.
Many people who voted to disaffiliate Sunday said the church and Mr. Piazza had changed their lives.
"This is a church that loves, affirms and gives gay people hope, while other churches still fight over whether we're worthy to sit in their pews," said Melvin Baker of Dallas.
Allana Featherstone, who flew in from Ontario to vote, was one of the MCC's few supporters.
"The MCC has a strong outreach to people in the world, and that's where I am on my spiritual path," she said.
Some MCC supporters said Mr. Piazza had forced the vote to deflect attention away from the investigation, which was to have ended two days after he stopped it. His troubles are expected to continue, because many former employees and volunteers have come forward to say they left the church because of what they consider an abrasive leadership style which they say is nothing like his public image as a charismatic visionary.
Members said Sunday that their voting cards contained their name and church identification number and required their signature. Some argued that the church was using these measures to intimidate them into voting to disaffiliate.
MCC bylaws demanded the signatures, said cathedral spokeswoman Kris Martin. But MCC officials said that wasn't true and that they had repeatedly notified the church. They said the matter might end up in court because the church wasn't supposed to intimidate or exercise undue influence on voters.
"We've registered our concerns about the balloting process and continue to have those concerns," said the Rev. Don Eastman, an MCC official.
He said there could also be a battle over the cathedral's assets, which include millions of dollars in property. Under MCC bylaws, those who voted to stay with the denomination are entitled to a percentage of the church's assets in order to start a new church.
The two-thirds majority needed to disaffiliate was never in doubt. A denominational representative was allowed to observe the counting. The church said final results would be certified by the accounting firm of Angela Y. Frazier.
Mr. Piazza told worshippers Sunday that he was taking an extended sabbatical, which church members said wasn't unusual for him during summers.
MCC officials said they would hold an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday for those interested in forming a new church. The meeting will be at the Holiday Inn-Select at 10650 N. Central Expressway in Dallas.