March 23, 1999


Bishop Talbert announces complaint against 69 pastors

By United Methodist News Service

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert announced today that he is referring to church counsel a complaint against 69 United Methodist pastors of the California-Nevada Annual Conference for their role in a Jan. 16 holy union service for two women.

The church counsel, in this case the Rev. Paul Wiberg of Orinda, Calif., has the responsibility of signing the complaint and sending it to the Conference Committee on Investigation. That panel will decide whether to turn the complaint into charges, an action that could result in a church trial. The complaint was signed by two members of the bishop's cabinet.

Talbert made the announcement at a noon (Pacific time) press conference in West Sacramento, Calif. United Methodist News Service will file a complete story on the press conference on Wednesday, March 24. What follows is the full text of Talbert's announcement, along with a list of the names of the accused.

Office of the Bishop, San Francisco Area
The United Methodist Church
at United Methodist Center
West Sacramento, California
March 23, 1999 – 12:00 noon


On Jan. 16, 1999, a number of clergy participated in a holy union celebration at the Sacramento Convention Center. These clergy celebrated a covenant between Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett, two well-known and respected members of Sacramento St. Mark's United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Donald Fado is pastor. Ellie and Jeanne are leaders beyond their local congregation. Ellie is a member of the Conference Board of Trustees. Jeanne is conference lay leader, one of the most influential offices held by a lay person in our denomination. Jeanne was also elected a delegate to our General Conference, the highest legislative body of our denomination. Ellie and Jeanne are honorable, loyal and dedicated followers of Jesus Christ. Like other Christians, they are living out their faith in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.

With such affirmation of these two persons, why are we here today? We are here because Ellie and Jeanne are homosexuals. They have chosen to be public in their commitment to each other. They sought and received the blessing of their church by the action of their pastor, and others, who chose to officiate at their public celebration.

For a variety of reasons, homosexuality has been and continues to be a very controversial subject in society and in churches, especially in our denomination. Some would draw the circle of full membership to include homosexuals without judgment. Others would limit their church participation and prohibit their full involvement. Thus, we have the continuing debate, especially around the issue of holy unions.

The celebration of holy unions is not new in our denomination. This has been going on for decades. What makes this different is the action taken at our General Conference in 1996, which states: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. " (Paragraph 65.C, 1996 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church)

This language is very clear. However, a problem was created by the placement of that language in the Book of Discipline. It was placed in the section called "The Social Principles." As stated in the preface, "The Social Principles are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of the United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice."

In short, the Social Principles are not law. They have not been treated as such since the beginning of our denomination more than 200 years ago. And when asked to interpret this action of General Conference, I did so in the best tradition of our church. I indicated that such action was not law, and to violate that action would not constitute grounds for a chargeable offense. That interpretation set off a storm of controversy in this conference and in our denomination. Some went so far as to demand that I resign from my office as bishop. Of course, I did not resign.

As a result of the Jimmy Creech case in Nebraska (he was acquitted after being tried for celebrating a holy union), my bishop colleagues in the South Central Jurisdiction appealed to the Judicial Council, the highest court in our denomination. Those bishops, and others, presented the argument that the intention of the General Conference was to enact a law to prohibit the celebration of homosexual unions. In August 1998, the Judicial Council ruled in favor of those who argued that the intent of General Conference was to enact a law. So the Judicial Council ruling states:

"The prohibitive statement in Paragraph 65.C of the 1996 Book of Discipline: 'Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,' has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in Paragraph 65.C and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office. Conduct in violation of this prohibition renders a pastor liable to a charge of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church under Paragraph 2624 of the Discipline."

When this ruling was released, I expressed my sorrow and disappointment with it. However, as a bishop of the church, I stated that I would abide by the decision and uphold it, even though I disagreed with it. Now, I could have run for cover by using the law as a basis for remaining silent on this issue. In a sense the matter of law is settled. But my conscience wouldn't allow me to take the easy way out. I had to speak out against this act of injustice. So I will uphold the law, but I will not be silenced. I will continue speaking out against the law and will continue working to change the position of our church to be more in keeping with the teachings and compassion of Jesus. That is the position I stated in my Jan. 6 pastoral letter to clergy and lay members of the California-Nevada Conference. I further stated my personal belief that the position taken by our church on this issue is wrong, because such action infringes on the sacred pastoral role of one as priest and servant. I reaffirm that position today. I agree with those pastors who contend that such action is an intrusion into their priestly role as clergy to all their people.

Clergy are called on to do many things. They baptize children and adults. They bless homes, instruments, cars, parks, fowls, animals, buildings and various type events. In all such occasions, clergy persons are free to choose whether they will or will not perform such services. Yet when it comes to this one event of a holy union, it is prohibited. This is unconscionable! I contend that all clergy must be free to choose the appropriate pastoral responses they should make in the priestly roles. This must never become a political action. Today, it is homosexuality. What will the next issue be? Do you remember when the issue was race?

Thus, the debate continues in society and in our churches. There are honorable people on both sides of this issue, which could split our church. In the face of such controversy, there is need for tolerance. I believe this is such a time when honorable Christians can agree to disagree, without allowing such an issue to separate us from God's table. The gospel of Jesus Christ reminds me that all sinners are invited to God's table. That being true, who, other than God, can decide to exclude some? Therefore, I refuse to treat as enemies those who chose to violate this church law, as an act of conscience. They are not our enemies. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ, in the same way that those are who hold opposing views. Biblical and theological debates are appropriate. But there comes a time when God's call to love must take precedence over any political or theological action or decision. I believe that is the case now with this issue. I will continue proclaiming that we all belong to God, and that we will have a space at God's table. Praise God!

However, it is my responsibility to announce that on this day, March 23, 1999, a complaint, signed by the Rev. Ardith Allread, dean of the cabinet, and by the Rev. David Bennett, superintendent for the district where the Jan. 16th event was held, has been presented to me listing the names of 69 persons. The complaint states, "These clergy persons, who claimed their participation was an act of conscience and pastoral ministry, acted in violation of the Judicial Council ruling with regard to Paragraph 65.C of the 1996 Book of Discipline. According to the ruling, these clergy persons failed to uphold the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church."

The complaint further states: "The bishop and the cabinet, through the supervisory process as outlined in Paragraph 358.1 of the 1996 Book of Discipline, have attempted to reach resolution in the matter. Each district superintendent met with those persons who officiated at the service of holy union. Some plans for possible ways to achieve resolution were lifted up. None of the plans were acceptable to the persons listed in this complaint. Therefore, resolution was not achieved."

These two district superintendents conclude the complaint, stating, " . . . despite our theological and pastoral disagreement with this area of church law, a complaint of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church (Paragraph 2624.1(e) of the 1996 Book of Discipline) is filed against the following clergy . . . " (See list at end of this statement).

As a bishop of the church, I have accepted this complaint from my colleagues. I join them in stating I personally disagree with this area of church law. Nevertheless, it is my intention to refer to this complaint as a judicial complaint to the counsel for the church pursuant to Paragraph 358.1 of the 1996 Book of Discipline. The person I have appointed as counsel for the church is the Rev. Paul Wiberg, pastor, St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Orinda, Calif. It will be his responsibility to sign the complaint and forward the same to the Conference Committee on Investigation. If that committee sees fit to do so, it may turn the complaint into charges which may result in a trial. And if or when that happens, I shall be prepared to convene a pool of 35 or more elders appointed by the district superintendents, from which a jury will be selected. And, I will place the charges in the hands of a colleague bishop of my choosing who will preside over the trial.

This is a very painful day for me. The persons on both sides of this issue are my sisters and brothers. They are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are honest differences in opinions regarding this controversial issue in our church. Those colleagues named in this complaint have chosen to challenge this unjust law. I understand their wishes. I am a disciple of the civil rights protests. From my own experiences, I can appreciate acts of conscience and acts of civil disobedience. Therefore, my referring this complaint is without prejudice to enable these colleagues to have their day in a court of peers. My prayer is that in the due process to follow, clergy peers will seek to do justice, and to act in a way that is consistent with the teachings and compassion of Jesus. I trust they will hold before them the vision for our church that is inclusive, with diversity and acceptance as its hallmarks. May God bless all of us as we seize this moment as an opportunity to model how Christians should deal with controversy in our lives and in our churches.

Presented by: Melvin G. Talbert, Resident Bishop