Oct. 26, 1998

Two Cal-Nevada leaders announce plans for same-sex union

By Charley Lerrigo*

CAMPBELL, Calif. (UMNS) -- The lay leader of the United Methodist Church's California-Nevada Annual Conference and a member of the conference's board of trustees have announced they will celebrate their 15-year relationship with a service of holy union.

The ceremony uniting the two women will be co-led by a group of clergy that includes the pastor of the couple's home church, 930-member St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento.

Jeanne Barnett, the lay leader, and Ellie Charlton, her partner, made the public announcement at the Oct. 17 biennial meeting of the Reconciling Conference program at a church in Campbell. A reconciling conference is one that accepts all people, regardless of sexual orientation, as full participants in the life of the church.

The Rev. Don Fado, pastor of St. Mark's, is organizing the service and has invited other clergy to join him in the act of "ecclesial disobedience." The date for the ceremony hasn't been set, but it will occur in early 1999, Fado said.

The announcement comes at a time of intense debate within the United Methodist Church over such unions.

A statement added to the denomination's Social Principles in 1996 prohibits the performance of holy unions for same-sex couples by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches. The principles are contained in a section of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's lawbook. The church's Judicial Council, or supreme court, ruled in August that the statement in the Social Principles was enforceable as church law, and that violation of it could constitute a "chargeable offense" and possibly lead to a clergy trial.

The Rev. Jimmy Creech was charged and underwent a church trial last March after performing a union for two women at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., in September 1997. After a narrow acquittal on March 13, Creech was not reappointed to the church for the following year. He took a leave of absence and is living in North Carolina. Questions stemming from his case prompted the Judicial Council's meeting in August, which produced the ruling on the Social Principles.

On Oct. 12, Chicago Bishop Joseph Sprague filed a complaint against the Rev. Gregory Dell for performing a same-sex union service for two men a month earlier. Dell is pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church, where nearly one-third of the 185 members identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Sprague said he personally disagrees with the denomination's position on same-sex unions but that he felt obligated to file the complaint. It was the first formal complaint since the Judicial Council's ruling.

So far, 67 clergy members have announced their readiness to co-celebrate the Barnett-Charlton union with Fado. Seven are people from other conferences who know the couple.

In addition, a group of Cal-Nevada laity have stated their public support of the right of United Methodist pastors to bless such unions, and some have indicated their willingness to be part of the service in Sacramento if asked.

Area Bishop Melvin G. Talbert could not be reached for comment. However, he has said in the past that he would uphold the Book of Discipline and abide by the Judicial Council decision, even though he personally was "deeply saddened" by the court's ruling that the performance of a same-sex union is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy.

Any lay person or clergy person may lodge complaints against clergy or bishops for certain chargeable offenses. The Book of Discipline spells out the process in which a complaint can be turned into a charge and possibly lead to a church trial. However, a person's innocence is assumed and protected throughout the process.

Barnett has been chair of St. Mark's Administrative Board and a member of the church's staff-pastor parish relations committee. She also was one of Cal-Nevada's delegates to the 1996 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body. Charlton is a member of the District Committee on the Superintendency and a Stephen minister (lay caregiver) at St. Mark's.

*Lerrigo is editor of the California-Nevada United Methodist Review.