February 4, 2000


Cal-Nevada panel ends hearing in same-sex union case

By Erica Jeffrey*

FAIRFIELD, Calif. (UMNS) -- In an unprecedented public hearing of a complaint against clergy members, more than 60 co-officiants of a holy union ceremony between two women told an investigative committee that they followed their conscience in acting against what they consider an unjust denomination policy.

Many of the respondents said they would do it again, including the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, who organized the Jan. 16, 1999, ceremony for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. Fado and others said they could not accept a United Methodist Judicial Council ruling that performing holy union ceremonies is a violation of church law.

The pastors, along with expert witnesses, testified during a Feb. 1-3 hearing by the California-Nevada Annual Conference's Committee on Investigations for Clergy Members. Following the hearing, the panel had Feb. 4 and Feb. 8 scheduled for deliberations on whether the case should go to a church trial or not.

"I cannot follow Jesus and follow that [ruling]," Fado said emphatically in testimony Feb. 3. "I'm grieved that some of my brothers and sisters think I broke covenant by not following one rule."

Paragraph 65c of the denomination's Book of Discipline prohibits United Methodist clergy from performing holy unions. Following debate in the church over whether the paragraph is law or merely advisory, the Judicial Council ruled in August 1998 that it was enforceable.

"One and a half years ago, the Judicial Council put a stumbling block in the way of my ministering," Fado said.

In his allotted five minutes, Fado reminded the committee and more than 300 observers and participants at the Community United Methodist Church in Fairfield that the California-Nevada Annual Conference is autonomous from the General Conference in determining who qualifies to serve as pastors within the conference. General Conference, which meets every four years, is the top lawmaking body of the church.

In a thundering voice, Fado harkened back to the early days of the United Methodist tradition, saying, "Do we forget who we are? I am a Protestant -- a protest-ant."

Fado called himself a follower of Jesus Christ and John Wesley, neither of whom, he said, followed all the prevailing religious rules. "This church has supported me in acts of civil disobedience," he said. "You stood alongside me." He claimed that such disobedience had been acceptable as long as it was against civil laws rather than ecclesiastical rulings.

Concluding his statement, Fado suggested that the committee recommend the kind of action that occurs when a pastor refuses to collect a special offering -- namely, noting in the record that the pastor refuses to follow one rule -- and move on.

The three-day public hearing was convened to determine whether charges should be brought in the complaint against Fado and 66 other clergy who participated in the holy union last year. (Two of the co-officiants have since died.) If the committee finds cause to recommend bringing the complaint to trial, the ultimate outcome could be removal of orders from one or more of the co-officiants.

Each day's session opened with worship. Rev. Dave Bunje, pastor of the host congregation, requested at the outset that all attending respect the spirit of the sanctuary throughout the proceedings and refrain from interrupting. He noted with humor that the church had overprepared for the event, having hired security personnel and several portable toilets. Outside the sanctuary, some attending the hearing set up banners from Reconciling Congregations a group that advocates full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church -- and mementoes from the Barnett-Charlton ceremony, and they sang worship songs during hearing breaks.

The investigative committee, chaired by the Rev. Ronald Swisher of Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, called forth expert witnesses on Scripture, ethics, and church and annual conference tradition. Witnesses to the holy union experience included Barnett and Charlton and several people who attended the ceremony.

The list of witnesses also included the Rev. Robert Kuyper, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bakersfield and president of Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF), an association of pastors within the annual conference. The ERF has been vocal in proclaiming the holy union a violation of church and biblical laws. Kuyper also has written a book about homosexuality and the church, Crisis in Ministry: A Wesleyan Response to the Gay Rights Movement.

"I feel somewhat awkward being a witness to an event I did not see," Kuyper told the committee during his statement on the first day of the hearing. He went on to say that United Methodists "across the country" are concerned about the same-sex holy union issue. He cited Scripture and Paragraph 65c as evidence that homosexual unions are not acceptable in the church. 

Affirming his long-standing friendships with Fado and other members of the Sacramento 68 (as the group of co-officiants is known), Kuyper empathized with their decisions to practice disobedience to what they consider an unjust church law. Saying he had practiced civil disobedience during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he pointed out that protesters then expected to go to jail or receive other punishment. He also drew a line between civil and ecclesiastical disobedience, implying the holy union ceremony might lead to a slippery slope of clergy accountability. In a lighter moment, Kuyper said, "It's not easy to get pastors to do anything."

He advised the committee to hold one trial for Fado only, citing concerns that dealing with the matter might be delayed until people forget about it, as well as the enormous costs of holding 67 separate trials.

"Do it quickly, get it behind us, and do it before General Conference," he said. General Conference meets May 2-12 in Cleveland.

The best course for dealing with the growing division in the denomination between those who support alternative sexual lifestyles and those who do not may be to allow the ERF to form a new Evangelical Missionary Conference, at least as an intermediate measure, Kuyper said. He noted that the ERF has proposed the creation of such a conference in the west to accommodate conservative congregations and individuals who feel displaced in the California-Nevada Conference.

The Rev. J. Steven Harper, professor of inductive Bible study and spiritual formation at Asbury Seminary and an elder in the denomination's Northwest Texas Annual Conference, was called as an expert witness on United Methodist tradition. In his statement, Harper said the primary issue at hand was whether performing acts of holy union violates the call of clergy, for whom the Book of Discipline mandates accountability to the church and a life in covenant with other ordained ministers. He noted that ordained ministers are asked if they will support and maintain church doctrine, which includes General Conference rulings.

Additionally, Harper said that Christianity has historically deemed homosexuality to be wrong and marriage between a man and a woman the only acceptable life-long union. Contradicting the testimony of the Rev. Phyllis Bird, a called expert witness on Scripture, Harper said interpretation of Scripture is subjective and another scholar could have been called to present a different interpretation.

During her testimony, Bird said passages in Leviticus that prohibit homosexual sex referred to cases in which one man forced another to have sex, thereby dishonoring him. According to Bird, there is no understanding of homosexuality in the Old Testament -- only homosexual acts -- so that passages speaking to homosexuality should not be used to form the modern church's stand on the issue. Bird is professor of Old Testament interpretation at United Methodist-related Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

Harper recommended that the complaint be brought to trial, concluding that the performance of acts of same-sex holy union are incompatible with Christian teaching and do not support the connectionalism of the United Methodist Church. Then, in what he called an off-the-record remark, Harper added, "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy."

In response to further questioning from the committee, Harper noted that he has been licensed or ordained for 37 years and sees no imminent solution to the quandary of alternative sexuality and the church. "In my 13 years left in ministry, I really don't have much hope that we will reconcile this spiritually and theologically."

But Kuyper's and Harper's testimonies were at odds with that of most other witnesses. Bishop William Dew of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference said the church's covenants must allow some measure of freedom to those who consider themselves within them in order to be meaningful. He also said that many in the church consider the Social Principles -- the section of the Book of Discipline that contains the prohibition against performing holy unions -- to be instructive, guiding or directing in nature rather than binding.

Karen LeBacqz, a professor of theological ethics, said justice regulates equal treatment of all people, and being disobedient to what one considers an unjust law is justified by church ethics. She also pointed out the disparity between Paragraphs 65c and 65g. The first article prohibits clergy from performing holy union ceremonies, while the second article states that divorce does not preclude remarriage. LeBacqz noted that Jesus Christ and Paul clearly spoke against remarriage after divorce except in limited instances.

The Revs. Ardith Allread and David Bennett, the district superintendents who brought the complaint before the church, testified on the final day of the hearing about their motives for taking the action.

"My feeling was that there was a strong potential for confrontation between two bodies in the church," Allread said. "We inserted ourselves so respondents could respond to us, not to each other. We believed the woundedness of responding to charges from other members of the body would be greater than the woundedness of responding to us."

Bennett stated that as officers of the church, he and Allread were duty-bound to bring the complaint forward.

The Rev. Paul Wiberg, church counsel, presented the complaint before the committee Feb. 3 also, following prescribed regulations and noting that the committee cannot return the matter to Bishop Melvin Talbert, head of the California-Nevada Conference, for resolution. After the presentation of the complaint, about 65 of the respondents answered questions from the committee and made additions to their written statements, which had been filed earlier.

Over and over, the respondents said their participation had been an act of conscience against what they consider an unjust ruling by the Judicial Council. Many spoke of the action as one of justice, following in the tradition of Christ, who ministered to the marginalized of his society and time. Some noted that other transgressions of church law are dealt with lightly or ignored, giving the appearance that punishment for performing a holy union highlights discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the denomination.

Throughout the three days of testimony, respondents and witnesses on both sides of the issue spoke of their satisfaction that the matter was being heard openly and fairly. Many speakers pleaded with the committee to take advantage of this "window of opportunity" to bring healing to the denomination on an issue that has caused some congregations to withdraw from the California-Nevada Conference.

The hearing concluded with five-minute addresses by the eight officially designated counsels for the respondents. The committee was set to begin deliberation of the complaint on Feb. 4 and resume Feb. 8. Written notification of the committee's decision will be delivered to each individual respondent by overnight mail.

*Jeffrey is a free-lance writer based in Marysville, Calif.