January 18, 1999

California Clergy Celebrate Holy Union for Two Women

By Charley Lerrigo*

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'HOLY UNION' -- Jeanne Barnett (left) and Ellie Charlton are blessed by a laying on of hands during a ceremony of 'holy union' at the Sacramento (Calif.) Convention Center. The service, lead by the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, challenged the denomination's policy against its clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

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STANDING TOGETHER -- Jeanne Barnett (left) and Ellie Charlton are blessed by a laying on of hands during a ceremony of 'holy union' at the Sacramento (Calif.) Convention Center. The service, lead by the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, challenged the denomination's policy against its clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies. Some 80 additional clergy from the California-Nevada Annual Conference joined Fado in officiating. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

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'CIRCLE OF LOVE' -- Members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Chico, Calif., form part of a "Circle of Love" surrounding the Sacramento Convention Center where two United Methodist women celebrated a service of "holy union." From left are: Peggy Jennings, Russ Sorenson, Dawn Campbell and Michael Peters. They faced a small group of anti-gay protestors across the street. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

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'CIRCLE OF LOVE' -- Hundreds register for the "Circle of Love" surrounding the Sacramento Convention Center where two United Methodist women cel" that witnessed to God's love for all outside of the Sacramento Convention Center. Photo by Charles Jackson. Copyright: © 1999 St. Andrew's United Methodist Church, All Rights Reserved.

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JOINED TOGETHER -- The Rev. Don Fado (center) of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Calif., with Jeanne Barnett (left) and Ellie Charlton, speaks at a news conference following a ceremony of 'holy union' at the Sacramento Convention Center. The service challenged the United Methodist Church's policy against its clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies. Some 80 additional clergy from the California-Nevada Annual Conference joined Fado in officiating. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (UMNS) -- More than 150 clergy blessed the partnership of two United Methodist women in a Jan. 16 "holy union" ceremony forbidden by the denomination.

Most of the clergy members were United Methodists from the church's California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference. They were joined by lay representatives from 17 Reconciling Congregations, which are churches in the denomination that welcome all people regardless of sexual orientation.

The clergy put the emphasis on pastoral joy and responsibility rather than the challenge that the ceremony represented to church law. By performing the service, they opened themselves to the probability that charges would be filed against them, which could lead to church trial and loss of their ministerial orders.

However, in a joint statement, they declared that "as pastors we have no choice but to be the vehicle for God's blessings."

"We are not responding to 'an issue,'" they continued. "(We) are responding pastorally to those in our congregations who live in committed relationships of love and fidelity. ... We are responding to the call of Jesus as reflected in Scripture."

The ceremony drew more than 1,200 invited guests to the Sacramento Convention Center, and at times it seemed more like a soulful "love-in" than a solemn worship.

The couple, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, were greeted with cheers and sympathetic tears as they declared their 15-year relationship would continue as a life partnership. Charlton's daughter-in-law and granddaughter paid poetic tribute to her courage as a lesbian. Charlton, a 63-year-old great-grandmother, broke into tears as she publicly affirmed her love for her 68-year-old partner.

The service was the largest public holy union in the denomination since the controversy over such ceremonies heated up last year.

The couple's pastor, the Rev. Don Fado, became choked up as he announced that 95 Cal-Nevada clergy (some participating in absentia) would join him in the service, a major outpouring of support for his pastoral decision. During a press conference after the service, Fado's voice quavered again as he said Jeanne and Ellie "are two of the most wonderful people I know. ... To be true to the Gospel, I am here to bless them." Fado leads St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento.

Folk singers Jean and Jim Strathdee drew cheers for their "Ballad of Jeanne and Ellie," in which they sang of the women's first kiss; of Barnett falling in love for the first time at age 50; and of Charlton's process of coming out as a lesbian, during which "she couldn't stay with the people whom she loved the most."

Mixed with the songs and prayers were challenges to homophobia in the church and society. One such challenge came from the Rev. Jeanne Knepper, director of Shalom Ministries in Portland Ore., a regional organization that ministers to gays, lesbians and bisexuals

"This is the act which makes all other actions possible: To claim I am who I am," said Knepper, reciting a poem written for the couple. "We are who we are," she continued. "We love. And it is good, very good. ... It is by such plain love that mountains will be made plain, and we will all clap for joy."

Randy Miller, a black gay activist member of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco, preached a five-minute sermon on I John 4:13-5:4, the biblical passage in which perfect love is said to cast out fear.

"Thank you for not stopping because of fear," Miller told the couple. He praised them as part of a steady stream of "sheroes and heroes" in the battle for gay rights.

Miller attended seminary but did not pursue a career in ministry. He joined four other people who had surrendered clergy orders due to their sexual orientation, and they formed the first rank of those who laid hands on the couple during the blessing. The act was intended as a reminder of the struggle that homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender persons have faced in the church, which officially excludes them from ordination.

After the ceremony, Barnett and Charlton thanked their supporters, then encouraged other homosexuals to publicly "come out" and declare their sexual orientation.

"The closet is a dark and unhealthy place," they said. In a reference to the exuberance and affirmation of the worship, they declared that "the sunshine out here is beautiful, and there's more love than you can imagine."

"God created us. God loves us," Charlton told reporters. Then she paused. "I wish (the rest of) the church loved us."

While the worship was a challenge to the denomination, it also affirmed the couple's commitment to the church. Their vows set their relationship within the church community.

Both women hold high positions in the annual conference and are involved extensively in their local church and community. Charlton is on the conference board of trustees. She also has been a regional leader of United Methodist Women, one of the nation's largest women's organizations. Barnett is conference lay leader, the highest elected lay position in the annual conference.

Barnett presented an official four-year denomination-wide study on homosexuality to the 1992 General Conference, the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church. At the next General Conference, in 1996, the delegates voted to add a sentence to the denomination's Social Principles declaring that same-sex unions shall not be held by United Methodist clergy and in United Methodist churches.

The denomination's supreme court, the Judicial Council, ruled last August that the statement is enforceable as church law. Ministers who violate it risk a clergy trial and loss of orders.

During the Sacramento service, the couple and the clergy made clear that they were celebrating not a marriage but a "holy union." Marriage imparts legal benefits and status that holy unions do not, they observed. Marriage between persons of the same sex is also not recognized by the state of California.

The participating clergy ranged from ministers who had never performed holy unions to the Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor of the conference's largest congregation, who blessed his first such service 34 years ago. Williams leads the multiethnic Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

"The significance of this event," Williams said at the press conference after the worship, "is that ... here is a group of clergy and laity who will live their lives with good news. The good news is that all people are accepted no matter who they are."

Sixty-five United Methodist clergy members from other conferences joined in the ceremony, most of them in absentia. Thirteen clergy from other denominations, including retired Lutheran Bishop Stanley E. Olson, also participated.

The clergy members spent an hour before the service in prayer, song and conversation to prepare themselves spiritually for what would follow.

Seventeen United Methodist churches from around the conference sent delegations who joined the clergy in the hands-on blessing proclaiming "that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life." When Fado asked for gay and lesbian couples present to stand, about a quarter to a third of those in the hall arose.

The only dissonant note during the afternoon was sounded by a handful of demonstrators led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister from Topeka, Kan. The group frequently holds anti-homosexual demonstrations around the country. Their picket signs proclaimed the couple to be "Brides of Satan." Their presence was offset by an estimated 500 well-wishers, who formed a "circle of love" around the outside of the building. As Phelps' group intoned "God hates fags," the supporters sang "Jesus Loves Me."

However, the California-Nevada Conference's conservative caucus, the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, decided not to disrupt the worship. The Rev. Harry Wood, president of the ERF, said that while he believes homosexuality is sinful, he did not want to infringe on the pastoral role of his colleagues. Wood, is pastor of Visalia (Calif.) First United Methodist Church, the conference's third-largest congregation. At a Jan. 15 press conference, he said the officiating clergy should stay within the church law and not perform the holy union service.

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, leader of the conference, has said he disagrees with the denomination's stance on holy unions but would apply the church law properly to those who have official charges filed against them. Talbert and his seven district superintendents have declined to initiate complaints based on the ban against holy unions. Though the cabinet and conference leaders met the previous week to freshen their understanding of the process in the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, no conference clergy or lay member had lodged such a complaint at that point.

The ceremony in Sacramento may change that. More than one person has said he would file a complaint. But before a complaint can lead to a church trial, it must go through due process, and alternate resolutions or reconciliation are possible at several points.

Some clergy have argued that they are being obedient rather than disobedient to church law by their pastoral support of holy unions. The Rev. Jim Lockwood-Stewart, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, said he does not feel his participation in the Jan. 16 holy union service was "disobedient" to his role as a pastor and ordained elder. "I am being obedient to my pastoral role," he told his congregation the following Sunday.

During the press conference, Fado was asked what he would do if charges were filed. "We are on the right side of history," he replied. "We are on the right side of God. We are committed to the struggle."

During the service, he referred to the prospect of charges arising.

"If people are going to file charges," he said, "then let it be because of this prayer." He and the other ministers then read:

"O God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, we bow before you to ask your blessing upon Ellie and Jeanne, whom we now bless in your name. Their commitment to one another grows out of their commitment to you, whose love is revealed through Jesus Christ. We pray for you to guide and strengthen them, that they remain open to your spirit and continue to grow in love. We thank you for Jeanne and Ellie's love and faith, which they so readily share with us. We recognize in this service the place of family, friends, church and the entire human family. We are able to love because you first loved us. O God, our Maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life. Amen."




*Lerrigo is a United Methodist clergyman and journalist who has been covering religion news since 1965. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.