Sixty-seven United Methodist ministers will not face trial for participating in a holy union of two lesbians in Sacramento, California. After a three-day hearing, an investigative committee decided on February 11, 2000, not to pursue further action against the clergy members.
“It’s a relief, but the division is still there in the church,” says Rev. Don Fado, the minister who led last year’s holy union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. “It’s still a place of pain and separation over how GLBT people are treated. This is painful, but a step in the right direction.”
Rev. Fado, pastor of St. Mark’s UMC in Sacramento, could have faced a trial on his own. That was one of the options for punishment being considered by the committee. However, had Rev. Fado gone on trial and subsequently been convicted there were 95 other clergy members ready to submit to the same punishment.
“We were in solidarity together as a group,” Rev. Fado emphasizes. “All of them were committed to take whatever the penalty was. They would have turned in their orders if I had been defrocked.”
Such drastic measures did not have to be taken after the committee’s decision to drop the matter against the so-called Sacrament 68 [one clergy member died before the hearing]. However, the issue of homosexuality within the United Methodist Church shows no signs of going away anytime soon. It’s certain to be a big, if not divisive, issue as the denomination holds its General Conference in May.
Rev. Fado realizes there may be a backlash at General Conference with moves being made to make church doctrine more restrictive against gays and lesbians. However, he believes the stand by the Sacramento ministers is valuable, no matter what the final outcome of General Conference.
“The witness we made to secular society [has been important],” he says. “We’ve had such a response from people around the country from people turned off by the homophobic image of the church and they were thankful to see this different side. It’s been productive in that area to see there are many straight people in this world that are committed to human rights for GLBT people.”
Others have made that witness recently, too. Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago’s Broadway United Methodist Church was suspended from his pastoral duties until July 3, 2000 for marrying Keith Eccarius and Karl Reinhardt on Sept. 19, 1998. Rev. Jimmy Creech was defrocked in November 1999 for performing a holy union for Larry Ellis and James Raymer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In a statement after his trial, Rev. Creech says he sees this as just the beginning of movement to open the doors of the UMC to GLBT people:
“The trial resisted but did not end the movement. Rather, it helped to bring clarity and definition to it. It was not axial, but only another movement in the redemptive process of God. It could be seen as a defeat, The UMC’s further fall from grace, or it can be seen as a painful event that opens up new possibilities for change toward the new thing God is doing. I believe it is the latter. I believe there is no way that God’s movement toward justice, freedom, dignity and community can be successfully resisted and denied.”
The California ministers involved in the holy union, and subsequent hearing, would most likely agree. They remain in the UMC leadership, ready to open doors for GLBT believers.
Their battle remains an uphill one though, even within their own congregations. Rev. Fado says that not every member of his church agrees with his actions or his stand on homosexuality. “But, I’m the pastor and I must follow my conscience and I give them the right to follow their conscience. We don’t all have to think alike. John Wesley says it best, ‘while we do not need to think alike, we do need to love alike.'”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.