Affirmation Feature: March 2003

Personal Reflections on "THE" Holy Union in The United Methodist Church*

Ellie Charlton (left) and Jeanne BarnettAn Interview with Ellie Charlton

In Memoriam:

Jeanne Barnett passed away peacefully on October 1, 2003 of a heart attack and complications from diabetes. Read tributes: Affirmation Mourns the Loss of Jeanne Barnett, but Her Work Lives On and Honoring one who stood up by Anita Creamer, Sacramento Bee, October 13, 2003. (Link opens in new window.)

On Saturday, Jan. 16, 1999, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, a service blessing the holy union of Ellie Charlton (photo, left) and Jeanne Barnett (right), a lesbian couple, was performed by The Rev. Donald Fado, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church of Sacramento. He was joined by 150 clergy, including those who co-officiated "in absentia" and ecumenical representatives. On their anniversary, we asked them to reflect on the past four years. Photo Credit: Peggy R. Gaylord, January 2002.

[Editor's Note: PG is the Rev. Peggy Gaylord, Affirmation's co-spokesperson and EC is Ellie Charlton.]

PG: Ellie, I remember that last meeting of the Study Committee on Homosexuality at Lake Junaluska. We'd stroll around the lake while Jeanne was in closed meetings with the committee, much more relaxing than the other meeting settings had been. We'd talk about relationships, what was important to us--it was obvious to me your devotion to Jeanne. I mostly knew you from Affirmation; but, as I recall, in public church arenas you were pretty low-key about anyone knowing about the fullness of your relationship with each other. How did that change come about?

EC: This is how it all started. General Conference 1996 changed The Social Principles to include "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Because The Social Principles had historically been guidelines and not enforceable laws, most LGBT folks and supporters at General Conference had the attitude that their energy would be better put somewhere else.

But the Judicial Council decision in August 1998 asserted that, even though it was in The Social Principles, because of the wording, it was enforceable law. At the time I said "That is not right and someone has to do something."

In October 1998 at St. Mark's UMC, Sacramento, Rev. Don Fado preached a sermon stating that he did not agree with the ruling and would perform Holy Unions anyway. In fact, the next time he was asked to perform a Holy Union, he would like to do it publicly as a statement against the church ruling, and ask retired and close to retirement pastors in our Conference to join him as co-officiants.

Three days later in a conversation with Rev. Fado about something else, the sermon came up, and Jeanne and I said we had never had a ceremony and we would like to have one. If someone had to do something, maybe it was us.

PG: What did you think it would be like? Were there costs involved that you hadn't anticipated?

EC: Oh, yeah!!! There were unexpected expenses, especially financial. Now we thought this would be a service with maybe 20 clergy as co-officiants, guests would be supportive members of our local church and a few close friends. The service would be at our church and the reception in the Social Hall. Probably with refreshments donated. Soon several people offered to bake cakes, etc.

Don announced the planned event, said he would use the church only if members agreed it was OK, and asked folks to send comments to the office. Soon there was a not so nice letter sent out asking if they wanted Rev. Fado to use our church to "break church law." This was not signed and went to people the author/s thought would oppose. To this day we don't know who sent the letter. At any rate, by this time Rev. Fado was telling us that the church wasn't going to be large enough (it holds approx. 400 people). He had 50 or more clergy already signed up to co-officiate. Since this was to be a happy event, we were determined not to have our energy drained by any conflict in our local church. We asked Rev. Fado to announce the next Sunday that we were withdrawing our request to the church for the Holy Union.

The search was on for a suitable location. [After checking many places throughout the community], finally it was set for the exhibit hall where we hold worship services during Annual Conference. We had held up sending out invitations until we knew [our location]. So we sent out invitations, then all sorts of problems started with using that location....(All this was happening as clergy were [in the midst of Advent responsibilities].)

On Jan. 6, 1999, we went to the facility to make the last on site [inspection] to work on final plans of how to make it all work and flow smoothly. The facility director asked, "Why don't you use the Community Theater? It's available and holds 1200 people and has all the stuff you need: lights, stage, sound etc." By this time we were also working on security, which would be much better at the theater. We could control access to the entire building.... So 10 days before the Holy Union we changed locations. When folks arrived at the convention center per the invitations, they were directed across the mall to the theater.

The community center has an exclusive contract with a caterer, and we could not bring in our own food. The first quote for the standard cake, coffee and punch was $8.50 per person. By now we were expecting at least 1,000 people. I said, "I don't think so!! How about just cookies and punch?"; all we would need would be cold cups and napkins... The price came down to $3.75 each. We ended up raising the order to serve 1,200. That is all probably more that you ever wanted to know!

When we were looking over the theater and making final plans, I was in shock thinking of what this was going to cost. Besides the reception, there was risers for the choir, theater rental, union labor costs, city police/ security, decorations and flowers (both done at cost; volunteers did the work), printing of invitations, envelopes, stamps. That cost was over $16,500. In addition, we spent $3,000 for family travel, hotel and food. (Family members couldn't afford to come on their own and we felt it necessary to have them here.) I am sure the total cost was over $20,000.

PG: I bet there were very few times while you were treasurer of National Affirmation that you paid out that kind of money on a single project! What did you do?

EC: Fortunately, at the end of the service, Rev. Fado announced there were donation boxes in the lobby if anyone wanted to help with the cost. With what was collected that day, donations that came in over the next several weeks, and a generous donation two months later of $2,000 from one of the retired clergy co-officiants, almost $16,000 was received.

PG: Looking back, would you do it all over again? Would you change anything?

EC: Would we do it again? We still stand by the statement we made in an interview with The Advocate; "Our first response would be 'no,' because we are rather quiet, private people. However, knowing how much it has meant to so many gay people, we would do it again in an instant." We have been honored and/or given special recognition by many groups: local gay organizations, Presbyterian support group, Los Angeles LGBT Center, Soulforce, Affirmation, RCP [Reconciling Congregation Program, now Reconciling Ministries Network], and several churches in our conference. We have met many great people we wouldn't have met if it were not for the Holy Union and publicity about it. We never go to a church gathering, conference or national, but what someone doesn't come up and thank us or just want to give us a hug.

We were at the hospital last week in the elevator and a woman got on with a lab cart, looked at us and said, "didn't I see you two on TV?" Well, it's possible but that was four years ago. Often people will come up to us and say I worked with you 20 (or so) years ago; I was watching you on TV and rooting for you. I'm sure we will never know the full impact our small effort to "do something" has made or how many people it has affected.

The only change I would make is not to spend time with the video and photo people after the service and spend all that time at the reception greeting people.

Several Affirmation friends came a great distance to be with us: Chicago, Denver, Oregon. It was really great to have them here. Some Affirmation friends were part of the service. Randy Miller read the scripture and had great comments to make. Rev. Jeanne Knepper read a poem that she wrote especially for the occasion. It included some of our experience with the General Conference Study on Homosexuality. Our friend Rev. Ronna Case (Ted Jennings' wife) came from Chicago to lead the affirmation written many years ago by the Rev. Barbara Troxell. Our conference treasurer organized the representatives from the RCP's to be on the stage for the blessing. (She now has given birth to triplets.) Her partner and a man from our local Affirmation group, both choir directors in local UMC's, recruited the members and co-directed the pre-service choir. Jeanne's cousin from Palm Springs, also an Affirmation member, played the piano and sang a duet with Jeanne's niece, the love song from Phantom of the Opera.

PG: I was unexpectedly in San Francisco at Christmastime just before your Union, so I didn't see how I could travel back coast-to-coast three weeks later. I thought about calling, but didn't want to intrude at holiday time, typical family time; I figured you must be really busy. My prayers were with you, and I watched some of it on TV. Do you think it made the impact on the Church that you had hoped for? If not, was it worth it anyway? From your perspective, were there other impacts in addition or instead of? Are you still hopeful that the church can/will change? If so, what sustains that hope?

EC: The impact on the Church was like the shot heard around the world. People in churches had to discuss the subject of LGBT folk in the church and Holy Unions. It was a great chance for LGBT supporters to show who they were. Many co-officiants have shared with us that people came up to them and talked about their 'gay' relatives, people who had never shared before.

Don got e-mails from Japan and Russia as well as across the nation.

At the time, we didn't think about it, but the state of California was soon to vote on 'Gay Marriages.' That, of course, didn't pass, but it did make people look at the issue in a different light.

We wanted Jane/John Q Public to get a different look at lesbians other than what is usually shown. That happened.

We wanted the Church to start talking. That happened.

When we get discouraged about the church ever changing, we look at the hundreds of supporters we have and know we can't let them down.

Recently, we saw our friend Judy Fjell, singer/songwriter. She shared with us, that as she travels around the country, people make comments about the Holy Union and us. She laughs and tells them she knows us, and we are two very quiet people, not the radicals they envision.

PG: Well, Ellie, you know what they always say: You have to watch the quiet ones! So, what about the impact on the two of you, personally? Any surprises?

EC: We didn't expect our relationship to change after 15 years over a simple little service. It did. We became much closer and more intimate than ever. What a great surprise. We thank God for every day we have together. What a blessing! We will celebrate our 19th year together in April. Nineteen glorious years!

PG: Thank you, Ellie, for sharing so much with us. On behalf of the Council, I want to say that we continue our prayers on your behalf and send you much love.

Clergy give blessing

Jeanne Barnett (left) and Ellie Charlton are blessed on Saturday, January 16, 1999 by a laying on of hands during a ceremony of 'holy union' at the Sacramento Convention Center. The service, lead by the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, CA, challenged the denomination's policy against its clergy performing same-sex union ceremonies. Fado was joined by the officiants named below. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

See Also

*Visit our archives on-line for more articles at the time of this historical event: