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

"In the context of Jesus' day, there was a rigidly stratified society organized along lines of economics, and along lines of religious piety and purity. Jesus cut across the religious piety and purity laws. I think the discrimination against gays and lesbians is another example of how people judge a people to be unacceptable, which has no theological foundation."

In response to conservative Christians' claim that the Old Testament specifically condemns homosexuality, liberals say those passages should be taken in context. In the case of the oft-cited Sodom and Gomorrah tale -- in which God destroys a pair of wicked cities after residents threaten to gang-rape visiting male angels -- liberal theologians suggest that the problem might have been more with gang-raping guests than homosexuality. Besides, these theologians say, in Christianity, the inclusive-Jesus New Testament always trumps the rules-and-regulations Old Testament.

There are New Testament condemnations of homosexuality, largely centered in the letters of the Apostle Paul.

"But he also listed a number of other sins, like gossip. Nobody is barred from ordination for gossip," says John Chamberlin, a San Francisco pastor who will be co-officiating at the Barnett-Charlton ceremony. "I think that when Paul talked about homosexuality as sin, that's Paul's culture speaking. He thought it was awful for men to wear long hair -- that was unnatural too -- or for women to talk in church. He was really put off by that. That was Paul's culture."

For liberal Methodist pastors, the question of gay inclusion goes beyond being a theological issue -- it is a practical problem. While there are no screened oak booths in the Methodist Church, its pastors are confessors just the same. They know who their gay parishioners are, and they know that many of them play a prominent role in their congregations. Perhaps more important, in an increasing number of churches, those parishioners are no longer closeted.

At the vanguard of this trend stands Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, where around half the congregation is openly gay. Its pastor, Karen Oliveto, chairs the national Reconciling Congregation Program, in which more than 100 churches have formally declared themselves open to homosexuals. Indeed, the entire Northern California-Nevada Conference has been declared a Reconciling Conference. Oliveto says she plans to be at the Barnett-Charlton ceremony. It's the Methodist thing to do, she says.

"I had a pastor call me up and say he was going to file charges the next time I performed a holy union. He didn't know someone at a church like mine would have beliefs about Scripture and the nature of the Holy Spirit like I do," Oliveto says. "Being a United Methodist minister is woven into the fabric of my being, and I don't know what I am going to do if they take that away. But I have such a piece about the church's stance against homosexuals that I have to do this."

In September, a Chicago minister, the Rev. Gregory Dell, became the first to openly defy the rule, performing a marriage between two gay men who belonged to his congregation. The Chicago bishop, himself an advocate for Methodist acceptance of same-sex unions, was compelled to file an official complaint. A church trial will ensue.

Northern California pastors were determined Dell wouldn't be alone.
In October, the Rev. Donald Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento preached a sermon in which he denounced the Methodist high court ruling.

"Most of the ministers in our conference, including those on the staff of your church, feel the outlawing of our vows to gays and lesbians to be unjust. My hope is that we can get 50 to a hundred of us to co-officiate at one service," Fado preached. "It will have to be a unique couple that will want such a ceremony and be willing to put up with all the publicity that will accompany it. We must demonstrate to the General Conference the folly of exclusion."

That couple, as it turned out, was sitting in one of his pews.
Barnett and Charlton had 15 years before held a Christian ceremony alone together to celebrate their relationship. They've long been an openly gay couple, but they've never had a public commitment ceremony.

"When Jean and I first got together, we went to Sea Ranch, and with God and no other witness made vows to each other," says Charlton, who sits on the Northern California-Nevada Conference's board of trustees. "At the time because of church and society, we decided not to have a public service. When Don indicated that he wanted to do a public service as a protest, it seemed like an appropriate time. When I was growing up, the view of homosexuality was negative, and it still is, and I am doing everything in my power to change that."

For conservative clergy, the Bible, and thus the Christian faith, clearly states that homosexuality is wrong. In Northern California, the Methodist bishop doesn't believe this -- and that apparent contradiction with clear biblical meaning strikes those conservatives as an outrageous violation of Christian principle.

For them, too, a war is brewing.
Already, a conservative church in Kingsburg, Calif., has withdrawn from United Methodism in protest of the bishop's stance. A partial walkout is also going on in Oakdale, Calif. In all, about 20 churches are considering leaving the denomination if the church becomes permissive toward homosexuals. Several conservative churches have begun their own campaign of ecclesiastical disobedience, withholding dues each church ordinarily pays to the larger church.

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