February 11, 2000


Cal-Nevada ministers won't stand trial, committee decides

By Erica Jeffrey*

   SACRAMENTO, Calif. (UMNS) -- A United Methodist investigative committee has decided that a group of 67 clergy members will not be brought before a church trial for their role in celebrating a same-sex union service last year.

   United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert announced the committee's decision during a Feb. 11 press conference at the California-Nevada Annual Conference offices in West Sacramento, Calif. The decision of the Committee on Investigation for Clergy Members followed three days of deliberations and a three-day hearing, in which experts and witnesses from both sides of the holy union debate were called to testify.

   The committee said it did not certify "as a charge proper for trial" the judicial complaint against the ministers for their role in celebrating the Jan. 16, 1999, union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton in Sacramento. The ministers were notified of the decision through an overnight mailing made Feb. 10. The committee's decision was submitted by the Rev. Ronald G. Swisher, pastor of Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, Calif.

   "Having received this report from the Committee on Investigation ... I now declare that according to our church polity this complaint process is hereby ended," Talbert said in a prepared statement. "No further steps or actions will be taken or pursued. I am grateful to the members of the ommittee on Investigation for a job well done."

   In response to numerous questions about how the annual conference will respond should complaints be brought forward as a result of other holy unions, he said, "Let me just clearly state: the law of the church is the same."

   Talbert preceded his reading of the committee's decision with a statement of his own, in which he affirmed his belief that he, the two district superintendents who brought forward the initial complaint against the group of pastors, and the committee members themselves, took appropriate steps to adjudicate the matter "in keeping with our church polity."

   It was clear at the press conference that the same-sex marriage issue, which was heard by the committee in an unprecedented three-day public hearing and deliberated in closed meetings for three days afterward, has captured the attention of the world outside the United Methodist Church. As Bishop Talbert read the committee's decision, a bank of television cameras kept up a steady clicking, and the conference room at the United Methodist Center was filled with media representatives and observers.

   In the preamble of its report, the committee stated that it had received a judicial complaint on May 10, 1999, alleging that 68 clergy had been disobedient to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church by officiating at a holy union celebration on the preceding Jan. 16. (Since the complaint was filed, one of the clergy members has died, reducing the number to 67.) The question before them, the committee wrote, was whether or not there were reasonable grounds to certify that the charge was proper for a trial.

   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. In the Feb. 1-3 hearing at Community United Methodist Church in Fairfield, the committee heard testimony from expert witnesses on Scripture, ethics and tradition within the church and the history of the annual conference. In its statement, the committee said, "We concluded that the answer required a methodology consistent with our whole faith rather than one limited by narrow focus."

   The committee affirmed in its statement that "we in the California-Nevada Annual Conference are not of one mind regarding our church's ministry to the gay/lesbian community." The committee acknowledged the conference's "need for God's grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

   Talbert stated that, while the committee's decision may appear to have broken covenant with the denomination's Book of Discipline, there is "another more basic and fundamental covenant that has precedence over this one narrow focus of law." Talbert said that the Annual Conference is the covenant into which clergy members are received, and that the committee's decision "does reflect the longstanding covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice" of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.

   In his statement, Talbert noted that the committee's decision "will not resolve the tension and conflict around the issue of the place and role of the gay/lesbian community in our church or in this conference."

   "The dialogue and the struggle will continue," he said. "In fact, we may never reach agreement around this issue. However, agreement is not a requirement for people of faith to be in covenant as sisters and brothers. Our unity is not in agreement on issues; our unity is in Jesus Christ."

   Following Talbert's closing remarks, a representative of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF) -- an alliance of congregations within the California-Nevada Conference that opposes holy unions - expressed his organization's disagreement with the decision.

   "I believe that today's decision has, in our annual conference, effectively ended the rule of discipline, that we have basically said that we now follow our own individual consciences," said the Rev. Greg Smith, of Hope United Methodist Church in Sacramento. "I think it's a day that could lead to division and even the breaking up of our annual conference."

   Smith appealed to the national leadership of the United Methodist Church, especially the General Conference, "to bring order to our annual conference, to bring us back to the rule of our discipline, or else to provide a way (for) those who disagree with the discipline to leave the church with dignity. Our unity is in Jesus Christ, but that covenant of unity has always included that we have agreed together that we are going to follow the discipline of the United Methodist Church. Today's decision effectively ends that, as far as I can see, in our annual conference." General Conference, the church's top lawmaking body, will meet May 2-12 in Cleveland.

   Asked whether the lack of charges would prompt an exodus of some congregations out of the California-Nevada Conference, Smith said such a movement has already started.

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

Bishop Talbert's prepared statement is here.