February 7, 2000


Clergy on both sides of holy union issue affirm hearing process

By Erica Jeffrey*

NOTE:  For related coverage of the Feb. 1-3 hearing, see UMNS story #048 and Don Fado's statement.

FAIRFIELD, Calif. (UMNS) -- Clergy members representing opposing viewpoints in the issue of same-sex unions agreed that a Feb. 1-3 hearing into a controversial 1999 ceremony was organized fairly to represent both sides.

The hearing was held to determine whether a complaint filed against a group of clergy members in the California-Nevada Annual Conference should be brought to a church trial. The clergy members are accused of violating United Methodist law for co-officiating in a Jan. 16, 1999, union service for two women. The day after its hearing ended, the California-Nevada Annual Conference's Committee on Investigations for Clergy Members began deliberations in closed session.

The denomination's Book of Discipline states that homosexual union ceremonies shall not be performed by United Methodist ministers and shall not be held in United Methodist sanctuaries.

The respondents, or defendants, in the case include the Rev. Don Fado of Sacramento, who organized last year's holy union ceremony, and 66 other clergy members.

Clergy members representing both sides of the issue spoke to reporters outside the hearing, held at Community United Methodist Church in Fairfield.

Fado, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, organized and co-officiated at last year's holy union ceremony for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. He said he felt good about the spirit and structure of the hearing.

"I'm very pleased with the process. It's a good, warm feeling inside," he said. "This is not an adversarial role; these are my colleagues, including the people -- many of them -- who are on the opposite position that I am. We've known each other for years. I feel they respect my ministry; I respect theirs. We're in disagreement. Not all of those in the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship want to see us 'punished.' Some of the ones who are very much opposed theologically to where I stand say, 'What does it benefit our cause if you suffer? We don't want that; we respect that you have a ministry to the people.' I respect their ministry.

"So, it's a feeling of family getting together and looking at this -- within this church, this division -- and what are we going to do about it? And that is so important. And these are people of integrity up there on the panel (the investigative committee), and so I trust them. And they're going to deliberate on this, and they will come out with what they feel to be the most positive thing, too, and that's their decision, not mine -- and I'm glad."

The effects on his congregation since the holy union have been mixed, Fado said. "There were some people very upset by it; we lost a couple of families. We lost some givers, financial support for the church, and we gained others. Our church is not a Reconciling Congregation (a member of a group that advocates full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church) because we have not gone on record with the Reconciling movement. We do have a mission statement that everybody is welcome, and we try to live that out."

Fado said some members of his congregation are strongly opposed to his leadership in the movement for gay and lesbian rights, but he continues to be their pastor. "They feel very uncomfortable with that, but I can still be their pastor. That is a message that I think is in Methodist tradition."

He reiterated his belief that an individual pastor's conscience can and should stand against church law. "In our Social Principles, which is the same place (in the Book of Discipline) where the prohibition against doing holy unions is, there is a section on civil disobedience. It says that Christians have the right of expressing civil disobedience if they do it nonviolently and they are seeking to right the wrong they feel there is in society. And it also says in there, which is interesting, the church shall support them in such endeavors."

Asked what he would consider a proper outcome of the hearing, Fado answered: "Whatever they do will be right, in the sense of, if they say this is serious enough to warrant a trial, then we'll have our day in court and let the world know. If they say, 'In this annual conference it is not serious enough, what they have done, to do a trial,' I'll say hallelujah. Many months ago, I thought a trial would be the best route, but when I found out what a trial costs -- it's over $100,000 -- it would be unconscionable to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on 67 separate trials for these pastors who are integral to the annual conference."

One observer at the hearing, the Rev. Loran Berck, is chairman of the Board of Ordained Ministry in the California-Nevada Conference. When asked about his response, as an evangelical, to the way the annual conference is dealing with the current holy union issue, Berck answered, "First of all, as an evangelical, I am delighted that the district superintendents were the ones to bring the complaint. There were a variety and a great number of other people who did offer complaints forward, but I think they acted responsibly and wisely in being the point persons for bringing the complaint forward.

"As for the process that's taking place today, I think this is very unprecedented. I've never heard of this being done before. I think it's responsible; I think it's dynamic. (From) everything that I have heard -- and I've been here all three days -- all perspectives have been represented, and I think that's very, very important for the evangelical conservatives in our annual conference to know that their voice is being heard and it has been heard."

Berck responded to a comment that evangelical representation among the witnesses seemed to be smaller than that of those holding opposing views. "Part of that has to do with the Committee on Investigation and their choice and who they would invite to be present," he said. "They did make a concerted effort to have evangelical expertise from across the nation to be present. Unfortunately, there were conflicts. Some of the people that we would have liked to have been here were not able to come. And it was purely a matter of conflict of scheduling that they were not able to be here." Berck said he was satisfied that every effort was made to give fair representation to the evangelical viewpoint.

Another observer at the hearing, Jimmy Creech, is a former United Methodist pastor of the Nebraska Conference, who lost his ministerial credentials after officiating at a holy union ceremony last spring. In 1998, Creech was acquitted for performing a holy union ceremony for two women at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., but a year later he performed a second ceremony for two men in North Carolina. During the interim, the Judicial Council had clarified church policy regarding same-sex unions, so Creech's trial for the second ceremony ended in a guilty verdict.

"This is very different from my experience," Creech said, comparing the Fairfield hearings to his own experiences in Nebraska. "The (Nebraska) Committee on Investigation's proceedings were very brief; there was very little examination of the issues. It was, 'Did Jimmy do or not do what was said?' and then it was passed to a trial."

Creech said he bears great respect for the way the Fairfield hearing was set up, calling the investigative committee "faithful to the task." Rather than looking back at his own experience, he said, he preferred to focus on the current issue. He is writing a book on his experience with the holy union issue and said First United Methodist Church in Omaha is set to vote on becoming a Reconciling Congregation later this month.

The Rev. Robert Kuyper, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bakersfield and president of Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, an association of pastors within the annual conference, was called on Feb. 1 as a witness. Kuyper and other witnesses waited in a separate room while each witness gave testimony, but he said he heard part of the testimony of the Rev. Phyllis Bird, a called witness on Scripture, over a speaker in the room. Bird is professor of Old Testament interpretation at United Methodist-related Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

Kuyper addressed Bird's statement that passages in the Book of Leviticus prohibiting sex between men didn't refer to consensual sex. "Also in Leviticus 18 (there) is a prohibition of incest, and there seems to be no indication there that consensual has anything to do with that, either -- that you're not to sleep with your sister even if she's an adult, period," Kuyper said. "And I would assume that the prohibition against homosexuality would be in the same category, that there's no 'consensual' mentioned in any of it."

 Kuyper said he didn't have a complaint about questions being asked of witnesses and reiterated that the hearing was, in his experience, unprecedented. When asked what he thought an appropriate outcome of the hearing would be, Kuyper said one clergy member – Fado -- ought to be brought to trial, instead of all 67 respondents being tried separately. "I have this image in my mind of 67 people standing up there, conducting an orchestra, you know, and that's not possible. Only one person is the conductor."

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