The role of the church as microcosm of America has been particularly true for the country's second-largest denomination, the 8.5 million-member United Methodist Church. This is true in part because of the ideological breadth of its membership. The open nature of its theological teachings has allowed it to be the church of Willie Brown, Hillary Clinton, George Wallace, and all the political permutations in between.
As a result, America's struggles have also been the church's struggles. At the time of the American Civil War, the church was torn apart over the issue of slavery, with Methodists below the Mason-Dixon Line splitting off into a separate church. "My ancestors were in the Southern Methodist Church, who split because they said Scripture supported slavery," recalls San Francisco Pastor Paul Sweet.
America's next great seismic social event, the civil rights movement, shook the church as well. Northern California is still home to pastors who left the South because their congregations couldn't abide their pro-civil rights stance. Many haven't forgotten the bitterness of that time. "Our denomination has faced critical issues, one having been the place of people of color in the denomination," says Bishop Melvin Talbert, who presides over the church's Northern California-Nevada Conference. "People have expressed anger about that. People made threats about that."
The next great American social rift -- the one that accompanied the Vietnam War -- also tore at the Methodist Church. My father, a United Methodist minister, was among hundreds of pastors who bitterly opposed the war, and in 1971 he held a three-month peace vigil atop 14,161-foot Mount Shasta to denounce what he called the un-Christian "madness" of Vietnam. The national media coverage of his protest invigorated liberal church pastors, but embarrassed the church hierarchy. Dad's bishop, now retired, made it clear Dad would not be receiving his pension or health insurance while on the mountain: The bishop wanted to make certain that no church money was going to the protest. Around the country, Methodist pastors abandoned the cloth rather than battle their flocks over the war. Droves of parishioners left for other denominations, offended by anti-war pastors.
"It was a time of heartache and anger and hurt," recalls Dave Moss, a Methodist pastor in Chester, Calif., who quit preaching for several years during the war period. "The people in the pulpits, and the people in the pews who went through that time, still have spiritual scars."
In 1998, America and the United Methodist Church stand before another bitter schism, this time over equal rights for homosexuals. And as this issue wends its way toward the forefront of America's public discourse, the body of the Methodist Church stands to be torn apart as it has been at no other time this century.
The question of gay rights has divided pastors from bishops, and parishioners from pastors, and the pastors themselves have split into fiercely warring camps. Neither group will accept any compromise on what it believes to be a central tenet of the teachings of Christ. For the conservative evangelicals, homosexuality is a sin that should be cured, not condoned. Dozens of pastors from this group have said they will quit the church unless a newly imposed ban on homosexual marriages is rigorously enforced by the church hierarchy.
For the liberals, providing the covenants of the church to all people -- including homosexuals -- is the essence of the inclusive Christian message that called them to the cloth. In San Francisco and across Northern California, these pastors have announced that they plan to brazenly defy the authority of the church hierarchy to commit a mass act of "ecclesiastical disobedience" against a ban on same-sex unions put in place in August.
In January, at a Northern California location not yet determined, 80 United Methodist pastors will join before a single pulpit to co-officiate at a holy union ceremony for Jeanne Barnett -- the highest-ranking unordained official in the church's Northern California-Nevada Conference -- and her lesbian partner, Ellie Charlton. The ministers know that the ceremony is against church law, and that they could be defrocked.
"This is a message to the church hierarchy," says the Rev. Don Fado, the Sacramento pastor who is organizing the ceremony. "There are those among us willing to lose our jobs and credentials in order to say that this kind of prohibition is not healthy, it's not good." The wedding would be purely religious, rather than legal. Homosexual marriage has no legal standing in any U.S. state, though the issue is the subject of a ballot measure in Hawaii. Nonetheless, these religious ceremonies are important to gay Christians who wish to have their unions blessed by the church.
Whatever happens at the January ceremony -- whether the 80 pastors are tried and acquitted of violating church law; whether they are defrocked; or whether they are disciplined in a less severe manner -- the Methodist Church will never be the same.
If the pastors are barred for heresy, as their conservative foes in the church would have them be, members of gay-friendly congregations -- who number in the thousands -- are sure to leave the denomination. But if the church metes out anything less than strict enforcement of the gay-wedding ban, many conservative Northern California pastors have said they will take their vestments elsewhere.
"I'm not free to mention names, but there are quite a few pastors lining up who have decided that we want to do our ministry in another way," says John C. Sheppard II, pastor of the Yuba City United Methodist Church. "What would have to happen would be if there would be some change that would allow same-sex covenants. At that moment, we would decide."