January 22, 1999


Sacramento ceremony leads to complaint against Iowa minister

By United Methodist News Service

The first formal complaint has been filed against one of the many clergy members who participated in a controversial "holy union" service for two women in California on Jan. 16.

The Rev. David M. Holmes of Council Bluffs, Iowa, has been named in the complaint filed Jan. 21 with Bishop Charles W. Jordan in Des Moines. Holmes has been on disability leave since 1993. He is not serving a local church, but he is a clergy member of the Iowa Annual (regional) Conference.

Holmes was one of more than 150 clergy members who participated in the ceremony, which was held in Sacramento, Calif. The ceremony united Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett, two leaders in the California-Nevada Annual Conference. The service, held in the Sacramento Convention Center, drew about 1,200 people. About 80 of the clergy members were from within the conference.

The ceremony was "the first massive demonstration of defying the church law," Holmes said. "It was one of the greatest worship experiences of my life."

The complaint accuses him of violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which states, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." The United Methodist Judicial Council, the church's supreme court, ruled last August that the passage is enforceable.

Holmes said he has been speaking out for gay rights for 25 years. He delivered the homily at the same-sex union at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., in September 1997 that led to the church trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech. Creech, then pastor of First Church, was acquitted last March by a narrow vote of the jury. Council Bluffs is next to Omaha, and Holmes was friends with one of the two women in that holy union service.

Holmes doesn't expect the complaint against him to lead to a church trial. "If you've already admitted that you broke the law what would a trial be about?"

He is the only Iowa clergy member known to have participated in the Sacramento service. Though he attended the service, most of the non-California clergy participated in absentia.

"I'm not really worried about it," Holmes said of the complaint. "I just did what I thought was right, and now the church must do what they think is right."

The complaint was not filed by the bishop but by someone else within the Iowa Conference, said George Wylie, Iowa Conference communications director. "We treat this as a personnel matter; therefore, we maintain confidentiality."

Jordan has met with Holmes, and the bishop now will decide what happens next, Wylie said. "The bishops in the United Methodist Church have great freedom at this point as to how they proceed.

"Nothing has been said about how quickly this might draw to a conclusion," Wylie said.

The filing of the complaint will begin a process aimed at determining if Holmes was disobedient to the "order and discipline" of the denomination.

A similar complaint was filed against the Rev. Gregory Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago last fall, for a holy union that he performed for two men in September. That complaint was filed by Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the Chicago Area.

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, head of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, discussed the Sacramento union with his cabinet on Jan. 21, at the end of a two-day meeting.

"My cabinet and I have just decided to go ahead with what we call complaint procedures process," Talbert said. "… We have not at this point filed a formal complaint, but we are gathering information. There are a large number of clergy involved, and my superintendents will be talking with each one of them."

When the cabinet meets again on Feb. 11-12, it will review the situation. "We're not saying that a decision will be made at that time," Talbert said. "It depends on where we are in our gathering of data."

He expects that someone else will have filed a complaint by that time, he said.

Talbert and his cabinet had decided not to go out and solicit complaints. However, the Rev. Don Fado, who led the holy union service, sent the bishop information about the service.

"When he did that, he in fact provided us with the information that we cannot overlook, so we are moving ahead now," Talbert said.

"He has been above board all along" about the ceremony, Talbert said of Fado, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento.

Talbert said he and the cabinet are following the complaint procedures process outlined in the Book of Discipline.

The bishop has received letters on both sides of the holy union issue. Most of them came before the service was held, and much of the response is people expressing appreciation for his pastoral letter, he said. "People are basically very supportive (of the letter)."

The ceremony was both celebrated and condemned by different unofficial groups within the United Methodist Church. Their statements reflected the deep division in the denomination over the issue of same-sex services.

In a Jan. 15 statement, released the day before the ceremony, the Affirmation and CORNET groups praised Charlton and Barnett. The groups support the full participation of gays, lesbians and transgendered people in the church. Noting the couple's mature years - both are in their 60s - the groups said the women "defy every negative stereotype of same-gender relationships" and would probably be role models for many young gays and lesbians. "Secondly, the service will put dozens of pastors on the line, literally offering up their clergy credentials in witness against the church's ungodly prohibition of these covenants."

On Jan. 22, the president of the Good News evangelical renewal movement said his group was "profoundly distressed" by the Sacramento service. "Sadly, it is already bringing further division and polarization to our church," said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II. "It appears that a fourth of the clergy members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference … are in rebellion against the clear standards of Scripture and the Book of Discipline." He called on the denomination's Council of Bishops not to ignore the situation and the impact it is having on local churches around the country.