Jan. 15, 1999

Evangelical fellowship disapproves of same-sex ceremony

By Erica Jeffrey*

YUBA CITY, Calif. (UMNS) - A group representing United Methodist evangelicals disapproves of plans for a holy union ceremony between two women, viewing the service as a violation of Scripture and the historical stand of the church..

That position was taken by the president of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF) at a Jan 15 press conference in Yuba City, one day before the scheduled holy union ceremony in Sacramento, about 40 miles to the north. The ceremony is scheduled to be co-celebrated by the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento and as many as 80 other ministers..

The two women, Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett, are active members of St. Mark's and hold leadership positions in the United Methodist Church's California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference. Barnett is conference lay leader and Charlton is a member of the Board of Trustees.

The ERF is an informal alliance of 60 evangelical congregations of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. The group was organized in 1968 by the Rev. Harvey Chinn of Sacramento following the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations. In a press release, ERF states that its purpose is "fellowship, mutual support, prayer, Bible study, continuing education in ministry and spiritual renewal of local churches and the California-Nevada Conference."

The Rev. Harry Wood, pastor of the Visalia (Calif.) United Methodist Church and president of the ERF, and the Rev. John Sheppard, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, addressed a group of about 50 reporters, pastors and congregation members on Jan. 15. The press conference was held at the Yuba City church. A worship service was scheduled later in the day at the church, to which parishioners were invited "to worship and pray for unity within the Methodist Church."

Sheppard read from a statement prepared by the ERF before opening the floor to questions. The statement read, in part: "By conducting such a ceremony, our friends are violating the teaching of Scripture, the polity of our denomination and more than 2,000 years of Christian moral tradition."

The statement cited two foundations for the ERF's position: the Bible and the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline.

In reading the statement, Sheppard used Genesis 2:24, Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 to make his point that homosexual relationships are outside the biblical parameters of correct human sexuality. He also cited the Discipline, which states at page 87, paragraph C: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

In the prepared statement and other remarks, Sheppard emphasized that homosexuality is a sin, but that it is no greater than any other, such as gossip or adultery. Asked how he would respond to a member of his congregation who said he or she was homosexual, Sheppard responded, "The same thing I would say to somebody who confessed that they were in adultery: let's love them and let's extend grace to them as Jesus would and believe that Jesus Christ will transform us all."

There is always hope and love for those who believe they can be transformed by God and those going through the process of transformation, he said..

Sheppard said his own congregation includes homosexual members who are not barred from membership because of their sexual orientation.

Wood said the United Methodist Church has voted six times since 1972 to not condone same-sex marriages. The church's top legislative body at which such a vote would be taken is the General Conference..

"Homosexual practices were never accepted in the Christian tradition for 2,000 years, nor in the Judeo-Christian tradition," Wood said. "The whole picture of human sexuality is developed in the framework of the family -- mother, father, children."

At the same time, he noted, the church affirms that all are children of God. In response to questions of discrimination or homophobia, he emphasized that the ERF stand is not one of homophobia. "We reject irrational fear of homosexuals," he said. "We reject homophobia."

Wood was asked what makes the relationship in question sinful when the partners have been committed to one another for several years. He replied that the question is not one of people, but of Biblical principles. He spoke of a woman who has come to him for counseling because she is involved in an adulterous affair. He said her home life and difficult marriage might seem to justify the adultery, but as a pastor offering biblical counseling, he cannot condone the sin. Instead, he must state what the Bible says about adultery and offer hope for her difficult circumstances without judging.

Relating the story to the issue at hand, Wood said, "I don't want to be judgmental toward Jeanne and Ellie. They've been friends for years. They're making a statement; you don't have 50 pastors there unless you're making a statement. The holy union being performed tomorrow is not biblical."

In response to a question about how the ERF might be perceived as being judgmental by speaking out against same-sex marriage -- and therefore acting against the Bible's injunction not to judge others -- Wood referred to the story of Jesus confronting the accusers of a woman caught in the act of adultery. After he challenges her accusers to throw the first stone if they are without sin, Jesus tells the woman to go and sin no more. Wood said that pointing out the sin is not the same as judging the person.

Fado has said that his views on homosexuality were shaken when an influential Methodist youth worker announced that he was gay. When asked if he, too, could change his views, Sheppard replied, "Not without changing Scripture."

ERF's interpretation of Scripture as condemning homosexuality is consistent with historic Methodism. When challenged to explain how he knew that interpretation is "right," Sheppard responded, "That's the issue. The issue is not about sexuality; it's about understanding Scripture. How I interpret Scripture is the way I live my life." As for the question of same-sex marriage, he said the ERF's interpretation is how the United Methodist Church "interprets Scripture to this year."

Neither Sheppard nor Wood had harsh words for Fado. "As evangelicals, we disagree with what he's doing," Sheppard said. "For me, he's a courageous man. He happens to understand Scripture differently than I do. He's standing outside the tradition I'm in."

The message people need to receive from the ERF is that the ceremony uniting same-sex partners "is not representative of Scripture or the United Methodist Church," Wood said.

About 1,000 guests are expected to attend the invitation-only ceremony Jan. 16. Sheppard and Wood said they do not plan to attend. "We do not want to dishonor the ceremony," Wood said, on behalf of the ERF. "The Evangelical Renewal Fellowship will have no presence there tomorrow. I pray there won't be protesters there to disrupt the ceremony."

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