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

"I see this as a test case for all of Methodism," says Yuba City Pastor John C. Sheppard. "The ultimate question will be whether or not the denomination splits."

In the opinion of these Christians, where you stand depends on whether you believe what the Bible says.

"This is not about homosexuality at all," says Sheppard. "This is a theological scriptural issue. Evangelicals will stand on the primacy of Scripture. Many of the churches that support holy unions stand upon experience, personal experience with God. And that's what I see our differences to be. We're talking about two sides that are trying to live out the faith in disagreement over Scripture."

Carl Adams, a member of Sheppard's church, says he will attend the Barnett-Charlton ceremony, and he will file charges against each of the offending pastors when it is done.

"When we start winking at sin, we exclude from the body of Christ a significant number of sinners who could be saved," says Adams. "And the business of the church is saving souls."

And so, like the rest of America, the Methodist Church is dividing into camps over the issue of rights for homosexuals, with no room for middle ground.

This is an unpleasant prospect for many. As in America at large, many Methodists don't feel comfortable giving a lot of thought to same-sex romantic love. These Methodists ask themselves: Doesn't Paul write in First Corinthians that "fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God"? Doesn't he write, in Romans 1, that "men committed shameless acts with men, and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error"?

At the same time, the large body of Methodists, like the rest of their neighbors in America, have grown to pride themselves in avoiding prejudice.

So homosexual rights isn't an issue everybody feels comfortable taking a strong stand on.

My mother, who is pastor of four small Methodist churches in Tehema County, has not decided whether she will put her job on the line to preside at the Barnett-Charlton ceremony. But she did discuss the killing of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming gay man, during a sermon last month.

"About some things, Scripture is clear, but doesn't run deep, and homosexuality is one of those," Mom told me recently.

My father retired this summer from his post as pastor of the Red Bluff United Methodist Church, and he's had time to give a lot of thought to Don Fado's invitation to preside at the Barnett-Charlton ceremony. Though he's always been an outspoken progressive on issues such as war, poverty, and racism, gay rights hasn't loomed large in Dad's pantheon of causes.

I asked him about that recently, while he was still deliberating whether to help preside at the Barnett-Charlton service.

"This is not my issue, particularly," Dad said. "But I have friends who are gay I appreciate very much, and they are as good a servant of God as I can point to. That's where judgment belongs: The church needs to be as accepting and inclusive of those folks as it is of anybody else."

Besides, back in 1971, when the official church had distanced itself from Dad's protest on Mount Shasta against the Vietnam War, Don Fado was among the pastors who supported him, Dad recalled. So last week, my father decided he would join the other ministers and conduct his very first homosexual holy union. Some people at Red Bluff United Methodist are going to be upset, Dad fretted. "And those are people I love."

Last week, the Red Bluff Daily News ran a brief story about the Barnett-Charlton ceremony, which isn't going to help things much either, he added. "A lot of people don't know I'm doing this yet. It'll polarize people."

Indeed it will.
But if history is any guide, my father, his church, and our country might come out the better for the conflict.

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