The bride-Ellie Charlton, a great-grandmother at 63-was decked out in a purple jacket studded with violets and pansies, a gray turtleneck, and gray slacks. The other bride-Jeanne Barnett, 68, a state government retiree-was similarly attired. They had lived together for 13 years; now they were making their commitment as lesbian lovers public. The twist: Both were high lay leaders in the California-Nevada conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
More than 1,200 friends, supporters, and media types packed a Sacramento, Calif., theater to witness the event. (In a show of hands, more than one-fourth of attendees indicated they were homosexual couples.) There were hymns, dances, and poems. The pair embraced on stage and through tears vowed to each other: "I promise to love you the rest of my life."
Gay activist Randy Miller, a seminary dropout from Bethany UMC in San Francisco, preached a short sermon. Three men and a woman-identified as former UMC clergy who had surrendered their orders because of their sexual orientation-placed their hands on the couple. Behind them, scores of clergy in white robes and long stoles reached out and laid hands on those in front. Then in defiance of a UMC ban against same-sex unions, they all chanted a blessing: "O God, our Maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life."
All together, 72 clergy from the California-Nevada regional UMC conference, including 24 women, plus 20 others listed as "in absentia," took part in the unprecedented mass rebellion. They were joined by six ministers from other UMC conferences (plus 52 in absentia) and 13 clergy from other denominations, seven of them from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The couple's minister, Don Fado, 65, of 900-member St. Mark's UMC in Sacramento, organized the ceremony to protest the denomination's stand against gay marriage. He and the other UMC clergy participants now face disciplinary charges, with possible penalties ranging from a reprimand to defrocking.
The bishop of the California-Nevada regional UMC conference, Melvin Talbert, and his cabinet of district superintendents and other officers say they, too, disagree with the church's positions on homosexuality. Same-sex unions have been going on in their conference for at least 30 years, and they have never moved to stop the practice or chastise offenders. In a Jan. 6 pastoral letter, the bishop repeated his opposition to the church's stand and pledged to keep working to have it changed. He also praised Mr. Fado's work and character. But, he added, as a bishop he must uphold the church's laws and "respond accordingly."
Conservatives in the conference were flabbergasted.
"Not a single official of the church has stood up and said, 'This does not represent United Methodist polity and tradition,'" declared John Sheppard, a UMC pastor in nearby Yuba City and a leader in the conference's Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF). "Where is that voice?"
Mr. Sheppard and ERF president Harry Wood, pastor of Visalia UMC, one of the conference's largest churches, held a press briefing to stress that Mr. Fado and his friends do not represent the views of millions of United Methodists. They accused the rebels of "violating the teaching of Scripture, the standards of our denomination, and more than 2,000 years of Christian moral tradition." And contrary to what the gay activists would like people to believe, Mr. Wood said, the doors of Bible-believing Methodist churches are open in love and compassion to homosexuals. "Like the rest of us, they can be transformed through Christ," he added.
Though the UMC, at 8.4 million members, is America's second-largest Protestant denomination, it has lost 3 million members in the last 30 years. More will leave as a result of Sacramento, but others will press for a return to biblical standards, say pastors Sheppard and Wood. The upshot, they added, could be the creation of a provisional nationwide evangelical conference. "In 20 to 50 years," Mr. Wood speculates, "the liberal churches would die."
The irony is that if that happens, the rebel clergy in Sacramento who took aim at scriptural authority and church law will have shot themselves in the foot.