Los Angeles Times, Sunday, January 17, 1999 

95 Ministers Risk Jobs, Bless 'Holy Union' of Lesbian Couple 

Religion: Action flouts United Methodist Church prohibition. 
'We are on the right side of history and the right side of God,' pastor says.

By LARRY B. STAMMER, Times Religion Writer

SACRAMENTO--In an unprecedented act of mass disobedience to their church, 95 United Methodist ministers Saturday risked their ordinations by uniting two lesbian women in a "holy union." 

The marriage-like ceremony, witnessed by an estimated 1,200 gay, lesbian and straight supporters, was viewed here as a defining moment in a two-decade controversy over the role and place of homosexuals in the United Methodist Church. 

"We are on the right side of history and the right side of God," declared the couple's pastor, the Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, after joining 94 other ministers in blessing the union of two of his lesbian congregants, Jeanne Barnett, 68, and Ellie Charlton, 63, who have been partners for the last 15 years. 

Although the ministers and the couple were not calling the ceremony a wedding because it brings no legal benefits, they said the holy union was a sign of God's love for their family and their friends' support. 

In a ceremony at the Sacramento Convention Center that mixed traditional church hymns and prayers with contemporary ballads and sacred dance, Barnett and Charlton, who see themselves as "quiet advocates for change," were suddenly thrust into the forefront of the sexual rights revolution that has been dividing virtually every major Christian denomination in the country. 

"We've crossed a line," said layman Randy Miller, a gay man from San Francisco who preached at the service. "We need a crisis! We need a revolution! We need a church . . . that stands up and says, 'No matter who you are, you are a child of God and we will bless your loving, committed relationship because we believe that is what God intends for every person,' " said Miller, who gave up his plans to be ordained when his sexual orientation became known. 

In August, the church's highest court, the Judicial Council, ruled that the blessing of same-sex unions violated church law. Although other Methodist ministers have blessed such unions in the past, Saturday's event is believed to mark the first time that such a blessing has taken place since the court's ruling--and the largest protest ever by clergy over the issue of human sexuality in the United Methodist Church or any other. 

As protesters from a fundamentalist Baptist church in Topeka, Kan., known for its anti-homosexual vitriol picketed outside, the ministers pronounced their blessing on the couple. 

Dressed in long white albs and wearing long stoles signifying their ranks as ordained ministers, Fado and the other clergy placed their hands on each other's shoulders and on the couple, and--in an act that could cost them their jobs--officially blessed the relationship. 

Fado's resident bishop, the Rev. Melvin G. Talbert, who personally supports blessing same-gender unions, said that as a bishop he will uphold church law. If a complaint is filed against Fado, Talbert has said he would set in motion a procedure that could end with Fado being stripped of his ordination.

Fado and the other clergy present were clearly mindful of the risk. Just before pronouncing the words of blessing, Fado told the audience, "If anybody wants to file

charges against us, this is what the charges are for." He and others then read the blessing that ended with the phrase, "O God, our maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life. Amen." 

Developments are expected to be followed closely by other denominations, many of which have also been struggling with divisions within their own ranks over same-sex unions or the ordination of non-celibate gay men and lesbians. 

What was witnessed here, some present said, was nothing less than a claiming by gay and lesbian Christians of the traditions, trappings and rituals of their church for themselves and those they love. The scene of 95 ministers presiding over a same-sex blessing as 1,200 witnesses looked on is probably unrivaled in the church's long history of grappling with issues of sexuality.

Earlier, Cynthia B. Astle, managing editor of the United Methodist Reporter, who has closely followed developments, said in an interview that the question now before the church is whether opposing sides can live together in the same denomination. 

More fundamentally, Astle said, an underlying issue is how Scripture is to be interpreted and the authority of the church to impose an interpretation on its clergy.

"That is the issue that is being played out in this arena," she said. 

There are several references in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, including Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians, that appear to proscribe homosexuality. However, some commentators have argued that committed, lifelong same-sex unions are not what the biblical writers were referring to. 

That argument is certain to continue. Just a day earlier, more traditionalist Methodist clergymen said they disagreed with Fado's interpretation. The Rev. John Sheppard II of First United Methodist Church of Yuba City told reporters, "This is not about sexuality. This is about the authority of Scripture." 

But Sheppard and other traditionalists didn't show up to protest, in large part because Bishop Talbert has said that he would uphold church law. Only about a dozen protesters appeared, all of them from the Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. 

All the others outside were supporters, including two busloads of Methodists from Fresno. Supporters carried signs with such slogans as "Let Not Man Separate What God Has Joined," and "Compassion Is a Christian Trait." 

Asked if joining in the blessing was worth risking his ordination, the Rev. Alan Jones, executive director of the San Francisco United Methodist Mission, replied, "I put myself much more at risk if I don't follow, firstly, my sense of where God is leading, secondly my own conscience, thirdly my sense of responsibility as a pastor. . . . It's irresponsible for me if I say to people in my care that I cannot care for you as a first-class United Methodist because you're gay and lesbian, bisexual or transgender."
 
 

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved