Next month: Mass "ecclesial disobedience." That's what pastor Donald Fado of Sacramento, Calif., has promised the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church. Scores of UMC ministers (80 at last count, and the list is growing, he says) will join him to defy church law and co-officiate at a "holy union" for two lesbians at 930-member St. Mark's UMC on Jan. 16. If it happens, there may be church trials and penalties ranging from censure and suspension to defrocking.
The Judicial Council, the UMC's supreme court, twice in the past four months upheld the constitutionality of the church's ban against its clergy's performing same-sex unions. By most accounts, the rulings pulled the church back from the brink of breakup since many large conservative congregations were poised to leave.
But in response, more than 350 clergy signed a statement vowing to perform same-sex unions if asked, and Mr. Fado announced his showdown event. He said he was shopping for a "unique couple willing to participate with all the publicity that will accompany" the ceremony. He found the twosome right in his own church: Jeanne Barnette, the top lay leader of the UMC's California-Nevada regional conference,
and her 15-year steady, Ellie Charlton, a conference trustee. They said they had exchanged private vows in the past, but now it was time to go public. (Ms. Charlton was married for 30 years and has three children, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.)
Among disapproving witnesses who also plan to show up at the ceremony are John Sheppard, pastor of the 650-member First UMC in nearby Yuba City and one of his lay leaders, Carl Adams. Mr. Sheppard, a leader of the evangelical minority in the strongly liberal conference, says he will lead a silent protest. Mr. Adams, who also is district attorney for Sutter County, says he'll file church charges against each one of the offending pastors afterward. Both men say the dispute is fundamentally about theology and biblical authority. The UMC's Book of Discipline notes that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.
So far, California-Nevada bishop Melvin Talbert has declined to comment publicly on the mass-rebellion event. He has permitted clergy to perform same-sex unions in his conference for years. However, following the Judicial Council decisions, he acknowledged one of his jobs as bishop is to enforce church law.
The first church trial since the council's rulings also may occur next month, in Chicago. It, too, promises to grab national attention-especially since Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, who reluctantly filed the formal charges against a pastor he admires, performed same-sex unions himself when he was a pastor in Ohio. Just before becoming bishop, he also led unsuccessful efforts to change the UMC's stance on homosexuality.
Bishop Sprague acted against Gregory Dell, pastor of Broadway UMC in Chicago, only after being confronted by conservatives in the conference. He had no other valid option except to resign, he told the pastor's supporters. Broadway has 185 members, of whom about one-third are homosexuals.
Mr. Dell conducted a widely publicized union ceremony for two men in September. If convicted, he could be stripped of his clergy credentials, or be suspended, or face a "lesser penalty." Meanwhile, Bishop Sprague announced, the pastor can remain in the pulpit at Broadway pending the outcome of his case. Mr. Dell freely acknowledges having performed three-dozen same-sex unions during his 30-year career. He offered no apologies for his actions and said he would not stop performing homosexual unions. (These are described by the local gay press as "marriage" ceremonies.)
One of the men in Mr. Dell's ceremony, systems analyst Keith Eccarius, 41, is a lay minister at Broadway. Mr. Dell said he spent a year preparing Mr. Eccarius and Karl Reinhardt, 32, a teacher, for their union. During the ceremony, the pair served communion to the congregation. Despite what others may believe, getting married does make a difference, Mr. Reinhardt told the local gay newspaper. The church ceremony, he said, "not only legitimizes the relationship in everybody else's eyes, but it helps legitimize it in your own eyes"-a remark that may explain more than intended.
The bishop seemed to go out of his way to paint Mr. Dell as a good guy. In the short formal complaint he drew up, he said the minister "failed to uphold the Order and Discipline" of the church, but added that he did it "knowingly, as a stated act of conscience and pastoral ministry." And in an accompanying statement explaining his action, Bishop Sprague spoke of his own "theological and pastoral disagreement with this component of church law." He described Mr. Dell as a person of integrity with an "enviable record of pastoral faithfulness and effectiveness."
An evangelical leader in the conference, Scott Field, pastor of the 800-member Wheatland Salem UMC in Naperville
since 1979, has mixed feelings about the case and others like it. Spiritual renewal is taking hold in many congregations, and people are turning to Christ, but they "may not want to stick around in a church with connections to a denomination with these kinds of problems," he told WORLD. "The question now is whether the judicial and executive side will enforce the law. If they don't, the only power left to local churches will be the ability to derail the UMC's economic engine."