The Holy War Over Gay Marriage

Eighty Methodist pastors from Northern California plan to challenge church law by co-officiating at a lesbian wedding. It's an act of conscience that could sunder America's second-largest denomination -- and bring gay marriage to the center of national co

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."

This schism is acutely painful for America's second-largest denomination, because, as the name United Methodist implies, it has historically been a big-tent religion. "In the United Methodist Church, we have always had what is called a 'free pulpit,' which means that I can say anything I want on Sunday morning," says San Francisco Pastor Sweet, who is among those who will be presiding over the Barnett-Charlton wedding. "My people may object, but my bishop can't."

That the nature of Methodists' beliefs might vary widely is inherent in the church's founding principles. Fundamentalist groups -- which regard each word in the Bible as a statement of literal truth -- have gained unprecedented prominence in public life during the past decade, all but eclipsing mainline churches in the public's understanding of the nature of organized Christianity. But the fundamentalist movement has a fairly short tenure on the Protestant stage, with roots in a biblical literalist revival that got going toward the end of the last century.

The greater part of America's religious history comes from Protestant churches formed following Martin Luther's 16th-century reformation. Methodists, for example, find their roots in 18th-century Anglican priest and American missionary John Wesley, who called his followers to look not just to Scripture, but also to tradition, experience, and reason in guiding their religious practice. In this spirit, Methodist pastors, particularly in tolerant Northern California, have been quietly performing same-sex religious commitment ceremonies for more than a decade.

Bethany United Methodist Church Pastor Karen Oliveto, for one, performs around 12 gay unions a year at her Noe Valley church. That's more than twice the number of straight weddings.

"I think straight weddings, gay weddings, any holy unions -- it's all about couples coming together and celebrating God's love in their lives," says Oliveto. "I receive a great deal of joy from performing holy unions."

But the issue of homosexual weddings became a matter of heated debate in the church two years ago, when a majority of Methodist bishops recommended that a provision against gay marriages be added to the "social principles," or official-recommendations section, of the United Methodist Discipline, or rule book.

But pastors continued to perform gay weddings. And Northern California-Nevada Bishop Talbert joined 14 other bishops in protesting the anti-gay clause. Jesus Christ was no bigot, the protesting bishops said. But the church's national organization, led by conservative clergy from the South and Midwest, proceeded to clamp down further on gay-friendly pastors. Earlier this year, Jimmy Creech, an Omaha pastor who performed a gay ceremony last year against the wishes of members of his congregation, was put on trial for heresy -- a heretofore unprecedented event. Creech is now on a leave of absence from his church. He was acquitted because a jury deemed the passage on "social principle" status too ambiguous for conviction.

But this August, the church's high court ruled that the gay-wedding ban will henceforth carry the weight of law: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches" is now Item 65-C of the United Methodist Discipline, confirmed by Judicial Decision No. 833.

Methodists, it should be known, are methodical in their lawmaking.

As soon as Decision No. 833 was dry on the page, liberal pastors from Northern California be-gan meeting to plot how they would challenge the anti-homosexual ruling. Open defiance was on many pastors' lips.

As in other Protestant denominations, the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King looms large in the spiritual lives of many Methodist pastors. In the King spirit, civil disobedience occupies an important space for many Methodists in the "tradition" portion of John Wesley's four theological tenets. In the minds of liberal Methodist pastors, rights for homosexuals are implicit in the Christian gospel, and they are implicit in Wesley's statements urging his followers to seek social justice along with piety. Just as Christ was crucified a criminal, for many pastors, this law was begging to be broken.

"If I'm going to take my ordination seriously and my commitment to the church seriously, I have to take on what I believe is a serious injustice to lesbians and gays, and an affront to the gospel message of Jesus Christ," says former Pastor Creech, who will be preaching in San Francisco Nov. 8. "The gospel message of Jesus is that God's love is welcome to everyone, that social distinctions that are applied to people are not ones that God makes, that all are welcome, that people are invited to the table on an equal relationship with God.

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