January 12, 1999
The United Methodist Church's policy against its clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies will be challenged in grand style Saturday, Jan 16, when a California pastor officiates at a "holy union" service for two women..
The Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento will lead the service. He will be joined by about 80 other clergy members from the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference. Another 65 to 70 clergy from outside the conference have signed on to officiate in absentia, and their names will appear in the printed bulletin for the service, Fado said..
In 1996, at the most recent meeting of the United Methodist Church's top legislative body, delegates inserted into the denomination's Social Principles a sentence that states: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
The denomination's nine-member Judicial Council ruled last August that the sentence carries the weight of church law. Clergy violating the prohibition may face a church trial and possible loss of their ministerial credentials.
Only the General Conference, an international, delegated body that meets every four years, can make official church policy. Clergy members are accountable to the respective annual conferences where they are members. The primary unit of the annual conference with responsibility for approving clergy for membership and related issues is the board of ministry.
The Jan. 16 service for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton will be at 1 p.m.. at the Sacramento Convention Center Theater, 1301 L. Street. Barnett is lay leader and Charlton is a member of the Board of Trustees of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
Barnett was a member of a committee authorized by the1988 General Conference to study the issue of homosexuality for four years. Delegates to the subsequent General Conference in 1992 rejected a proposal that would have removed negative language about homosexuality from the church's Book of Discipline and replaced it with an acknowledgment that the church is "not of one mind" on the issue. Language that said the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," first placed in the Discipline in 1972, was retained.
Fado told United Methodist News Service the religion he professes is one of inclusion, not exclusion. "All are welcome to the table where Christ is the host. We will conduct a service of holy union in the spirit in which Martin Luther King Jr. made his witness to the truth he found in God's love."
He said about 1,000 people will be attending the invitation-only service, while others forming a "circle of love" outside the church may number more than 1,000 people.
In a joint statement, clergy from the California-Nevada Conference who plan to participate in the service said they sense Jesus is standing with them.. "We believe that we are acting in the way in which Jesus Christ would act.. In order to be obedient to our calling as ministers of Jesus Christ, proclaiming the good news of God's love to all people, we believe that we are called to bless loving committed relationships between Christian people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"Jesus was very deliberate in placing the need for healing and renewal above the need for obedience to ecclesiastical authority," the statement says..
Involvement in the service could mean that Fado and other clergy would face a church trial and the possibility of having their ministerial credentials removed.
In a Jan. 6 letter, Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of the San Francisco Area said he would not speculate on what would happen after the ceremony but pledged that he and his cabinet, including district superintendents, would uphold the polity of the church. "We shall await the outcome of the planned event and respond accordingly," he said, citing paragraphs in the 1996 Book of Discipline that spell out due process within the church (Paragraphs 358 and 2624-27).
Talbert personally does not support the church's position against same-sex unions. "With many of my pastors, I feel this action infringes on the sacred pastoral role one has in being priest and servant," he said in his Jan. 6 letter. "So, while I am obliged to uphold church law, I will also continue as a strong advocate to change the position of our church to be more consistent with the teachings and compassion of Jesus."
In his letter, Talbert made two requests of clergy and lay members of his conference:
"First, pray for Don Fado and those who will assist him, for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, and for all members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento. Also pray for those who are struggling with this issue and disagree with this celebration. We are sisters and brothers in Christ.. Despite the controversy, our faith impels us to honor and respect the human dignity of each other as God's creatures.
"Second, be reminded that this is not the first controversial issue being faced by our churches. We have been through many struggles before and have survived. Our church will weather this storm. The real question is whether we will allow the Spirit of God to lead us through this struggle."
In closing, Talbert asked for prayers for himself and his cabinet. "These are difficult times for us. It is not easy to keep focused on the 'main thing.' However, we pledge to you our commitment to being faithful officers of the church, while at the same time being faithful servants of Jesus Christ. Our constant prayer is that we seek to discern God's will -- nothing more, nothing less, nothing else."
The Rev. John Sheppard II of First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, Calif., is among the conference clergy members who object to the Jan. 16 ceremony. He said he supports the official position of the church, which holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
"God loves all," Sheppard told United Methodist News Service. "This (issue) is really not about being gay or homosexuality or sexual preferences. It is about God calling us to a holy lifestyle that John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) was speaking of in 'growing toward perfection.' "
"Christ calls me to live above sin level," Sheppard continued. "Not that I'm not a sinner but God's righteousness equips and enables me to live above sin level. I am called to live in the spirit of Christ, which is above sin, to have the mind of Christ."
Carl Adams, district attorney for Sutter County and a member of Sheppard's church, told a reporter for the Marysville (Calif.) Appeal-Democrat that he would file a formal complaint if the service is held..
"The homosexuality issue is the one that's getting the press, but it's not a big deal," Adams said in the Nov. 16 article by Jason Sumner. "The big deal is the fundamental difference in the way we have of looking at God and Scripture." Adams was unavailable when United Methodist News Service contacted his office Jan. 12..
Annual conference sources say that when a complaint is filed, it will probably be referred to the appropriate district superintendent. In this case, that would be the Rev. David Bennett of the conference's Delta District. The superintendent would go through the supervisory process to gain the facts. If convinced that the clergy person has broken church law, the superintendent will forward the information to the bishop, who must decide how to expedite the matter. It could then go to a committee on investigation within the annual conference. If the committee concluded that the person did something that warrants action, a trial would be recommended.. Procedures for a trial are spelled out in detail in the church's Book of Discipline.
The full text of Bishop Talbert's letter to clergy and lay members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference follows:
January 6, 1999
Dear Colleagues in Christ:
Greetings to you in this New Year! I thank God for your witness and ministry and look forward to sharing with you the joy and fullness of life as we face the challenges of the future with hope.
As many of you know, the Rev. Don Fado, pastor of our St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento, has announced that he will conduct a celebration of a holy union for two of St. Mark's members, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. Many of you know Jeanne and Ellie. Jeanne is our Conference Lay Leader and Ellie is a member of our Conference Board of Trustees. Don has invited other clergy from across the church to share in this celebration and to join him in protesting any prohibition of such celebration. Don is one of our finest pastors and he has discussed this decision with me. He is very clear that he and others will be performing this ministry as an act of conscience. My compassion is for Don as he seeks to be faithful to his calling. This letter is written to share with you some words of wisdom regarding this event that is planned for January 16, 1999. Allow me to remind you of the context for this scheduled event.
As you may recall, it was in the Fall of 1997 that the Rev. Jimmy Creech performed a holy union in a United Methodist Church in Nebraska. This was not the first such service in that they were happening across our church for years. What made the Creech situation different is that we had the action of the 1996 General Conference, which added the following sentence to Paragraph 65-C of the Social Principles which reads, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Given this reality, Mr. Creech openly challenged the action of General Conference by publicly performing such a service.. Thus, a complaint was filed, and an investigation resulted in charges being brought against Mr. Creech. The matter went to a church trial, where Mr.. Creech was acquitted. Thus, the controversy accelerated and resulted in many and varied responses from across the church..
When this matter came to my attention before the Creech trial, I was of the opinion that the Social Principles are not church law. Therefore, I did not consider the performing of a holy union a chargeable offense. In August of 1998, our Judicial Council considered various appeals and came to the conclusion that the one sentence cited above from the Social Principles is church law. Thus, that decision implies that to violate such is a chargeable offense. Well, this decision brought further reactions..
At each step along the way, your bishop and cabinet members have been consistent in their efforts to interpret and implement church policy. Even when I shared my opinion regarding the status of the Social Principles, I was performing my duty of interpreting church polity. So, when the Judicial Council made its decision last August, I expressed my sadness and regrets.. Nevertheless, I stated that as a bishop of the church, I will uphold the polity of our church. Thus, the cabinet and I are officers of the church and will uphold the law of our church..
Personally, I believe the position of our church is wrong on this issue.. With many of my pastors, I feel this action infringes on the sacred pastoral role one has in being priest and servant. So, while I am obliged to uphold church law, I will also continue as a strong advocate to change the position of our church to be more consistent with the teachings and compassion of Jesus..
As you can imagine, the cabinet and I are under pressure to indicate what our response would be to the January 16 event. We believe it is inappropriate for us to provide responses to hypothetical questions or situations. Our position is clear. We shall await the outcome of the planned event and respond accordingly. I call to your attention Paragraphs 358 and 2624-27 of the 1996 Book of Discipline regarding church due process..
In the meantime, I request of you two things:
First, pray for Don Fado and those who will assist him, for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, and for all the members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento. Also pray for those who are struggling with this issue and disagree with this celebration. We are sisters and brothers in Christ.. Despite the controversy, our faith impels us to honor and respect the human dignity of each other as God's creatures.
Second, be reminded that this is not the first controversial issue being faced by our church. We have been through many struggles and have survived. Our church will weather this storm. The real question is whether we will allow the Spirit of God to lead us through this struggle.
Finally, will you pray for me and your cabinet? These are difficult times for us. It is not easy to keep focused on the "main thing." However, we pledge to you our commitment to being faithful officers of the church, while at the same time being faithful servants of Jesus Christ. Our constant prayer is that we seek to discern God's will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else..
God bless you!
Melvin G. Talbert
Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.
NOTE TO NEWS MEDIA: You may contact Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of the San Francisco Area over the weekend and Monday, Jan. 18, at his home: (916) 685-1687, or later in the week at his office, (916) 374-1510. You can also call the Rev. David Bennett, superintendent of the Delta District at his office: (916) 374-1501 or 1502. St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Calif., is in Bennett's Delta District. The full text of a letter issued by Bishop Talbert Jan. 6 is at the close of this story.