June 18, 1999
The committee in charge of investigating a complaint against 68 California-Nevada United Methodist ministers has scheduled meetings into September, but the process will likely go beyond then, according to the panel's chairman.
"This will probably be a long process, as we see it," said the Rev. RonSwisher, head of the committee on investigation and pastor of Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, Calif.
At its first meeting, June 15, the committee officially received the complaint againstthe ministers. The clergy members are accused of violating the order and discipline of theUnited Methodist Church by participating in a same-sex union service for two women inSacramento, Calif., on Jan. 16. The denomination's Book of Discipline states thatservices celebrating homosexual unions shall not be conducted by United Methodistministers nor held in United Methodist churches.
Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, head of the United Methodist Church's California-NevadaAnnual (regional) Conference, announced in March that the complaint had been filed againstthe clergy members. At the same time, Talbert reiterated his own opposition to thechurch's strictures against same-sex services.
The complaint against the "Sacramento 68," as they're now called, was passedon to the conference's church counsel, the Rev. Paul Wiberg of Orinda, Calif. Wiberg thensent the case to Swisher, who brought it before the committee. The investigative panelwill look into the matter, hold a hearing at some point, and then decide whether thecomplaint should be converted into a charge.
If that happens, the next step would be a church trial, in which the respondents wouldbe judged by a trial court of 13 fellow clergy members. A guilty verdict in a church trialcould lead to penalties ranging up to loss of ministerial orders. At any point during theprocess, however, resolution can be reached with a respondent and a church trial avoided.
The committee comprises seven clergy members, three lay members and four alternates.Only the seven clergy members can vote, and the rest of the members give their input,Swisher said.
The committee sets its own timetable for handling the complaint. Initial meetings willbe July 25, Aug. 24 and Sept. 14, Swisher said.
During the week of June 21, he will send a letter of complaint to each of therespondents, as required by denomination guidelines.
"They have 30 days after that to respond," he said. "With 68 ministers,that's going to take a little while." He doubts all the responses will be received bythe July meeting, but the committee will probably have more in hand by the time it meetsin August.
"Each individual has a right to have a hearing," Swisher said. "Somemight go as a group, which would probably help, but we don't know at this point what eachone is going to do."
The respondents themselves have a variety of viewpoints, according to the Rev. DonFado, the pastor who organized the January ceremony. Fado leads St. Mark's UnitedMethodist Church in Sacramento. "We're not in lockstep thinking.
"As an individual, I hope that we will be able to be in solidarity," Fadosaid. "That will be my preference.
"I think it's impossible to have 68 separate trials," he said, noting thatwould take years. "Our intent is not to break the system down. We don't want to dothat."
Having 68 ministers go through the process together would be unprecedented in theUnited Methodist Church. Even clergy trials have been relatively rare, but thedenomination has had two high-profile cases since last year. The Rev. Jimmy Creech,then-pastor of First United Methodist Church of Omaha, Neb., was acquitted in a March 1998trial of violating denomination law for performing a same-sex service. At the time, therewas some confusion about the status of church prohibitions against such unions, and theUnited Methodist Judicial Council later clarified church law on that point. As a result,the Rev. Greg Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago was convicted last Marchof a similar charge. He is appealing.
Given the amount of work ahead, church counsel Wiberg said he expects the investigativeprocess for the Sacramento case to be time-consuming.
"I don't have a timetable in mind," he said. "I think it's important that the committee take what time it needs to do a conscientious and thorough job."
Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.