Yesterday, April 30th, I arrived at the site of the UMC General Conference (GC2012). I checked out the Tampa convention hall but then spent my time at the Tabernacle, home of the Coalition of a handful of progressive groups. I visited with half a dozen friends of the Wisconsin contingent and also leaders of the Reconciling Ministries Network that I visited at the Chicago headquarters recently.
Over lunch, I participated in a discussion of civil disobedience, the intentional violation of church rules as a means to “push the envelope”. In particular, we discussed the thousand or so UMC clergy who have signed a pledge to perform a “covenant ceremony”, a blessing of a same-gender couple, if asked to do so. It is clear that such ceremonies are widespread now, but quiet—a de facto Methodist version of don’t ask, don’t tell. Would many of the thousand signatories do so publicly, as a group, as a statement?
There is precedent.
Following the late nineties’ trials of individual Methodist clergy (Jimmy Creech and Greg Dell), a Sacramento clergyman, Pastor Don Fado, invited his fellow clergy in California to jointly officiate at a covenant ceremony. The participating clergy came to be known as the “Sacramento 68”, though the actual number of participants was probably greater than that.
Two of Pastor Fado’s parishioners, a lesbian couple, approached him and said “it’s time.” The pair were well-known, not only in the congregation but in the entire Annual Conference because of their involvement in the regional church. Jeanne Barnett had served as the Conference’s lay leader and Ellen Charlton had served on the Conference’s Board of Trustees. Pastor Fado sent a letter to his fellow clergy inviting others to participate, and he later reported:
We ended up with 95 from our annual conference … and another 25 from outside our annual conference, people from other denominations. In fact, we had requests from all over the country, from people who wanted to come … Some of them said, “This is the Selma, Alabama, of the gay rights movement, and we want to be there and make a statement to the country.”
Following the January 16, 1999 covenant ceremony, attended by 1,200 to 1,500 guests, a complaint was filed and an investigation ensued. The local bishop was put in the awkward position of defending a policy with which he disagreed. For bishops, their obligation to uphold the good order of the church is especially acute. Bishop Melvin Talbert publicly announced:
I will uphold the law, but I will not be silenced. I will continue speaking out against the law and will continue working to change the position of the church to be more in keeping with the teachings and compassion of Jesus.
It would turn out that Bishop Talbert and the investigating committee would do more than mechanistically apply church law. Their advocacy moved beyond mere words and tilted toward action. Following three days of testimony and three more days of deliberation, the investigating committee (much like a grand jury) announced on February 11, 2000 that charges would not be pursued. According to an account from the UMC press service:
It was clear at the press conference that the same-sex marriage issue … has captured the attention of the world outside the United Methodist Church. As Bishop Talbert read the committee’s decision, a bank of television cameras kept up a steady clicking, and the conference room at the United Methodist Center was filled with media representatives and observers.
The question before them, the committee wrote, was whether or not there were reasonable grounds to certify that the charge was proper for a trial.
In the Feb. 1-3 hearing at Community United Methodist Church in Fairfield, the committee heard testimony from expert witnesses on Scripture, ethics and tradition within the church and the history of the annual conference. In its statement, the committee said, “We concluded that the answer required a methodology consistent with our whole faith rather than one limited by narrow focus.”
The committee affirmed in its statement that “we in the California-Nevada Annual Conference are not of one mind regarding our church’s ministry to the gay/lesbian community.” The committee acknowledged the conference’s “need for God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Talbert stated that, while the committee’s decision may appear to have broken covenant with the denomination’s Book of Discipline, there is “another more basic and fundamental covenant that has precedence over this one narrow focus of law.” Talbert said that the Annual Conference is the covenant into which clergy members are received, and that the committee’s decision “does reflect the longstanding covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice” of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
From a PBS Frontline interview. The full interview is available on the PBS website, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/interviews/fado.html.