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...

America's mainline churches — the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians — have receded from public view during the last decade with the rise of television evangelical-fundamentalism, New Age-ism, and an ongoing decline in overall church attendance. But, as has been the case throughout American history, these churches — the neighborhood congregations you remember from childhood — are harbingers of changes in the American zeitgeist. They have historically been the crucibles of social action — whether the struggle against slavery, or against the Central American wars. And they are the incubators of our day-to-day social sensibilities.

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.” [page]

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.

“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.” [page]

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.

“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”? [page]

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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