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Ordinary People 

Blessed comfort marks historic lesbian union

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
Aside from the more than 100 pastors, three dozen police officers, 1,200 spectators, and knot of national media reporters, Saturday's historic holy union ceremony between Methodist lesbians Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton was rather ordinary.

The audience sang songs, listened to some preaching, then blessed the union of Charlton and Barnett, a pair of grandmotherly church lay leaders. After the service, hundreds of well-wishing church ladies, tie-tack-wearing pastors, and mischief-making children gathered in the Sacramento Convention Center Theater lobby, ate cookies, and drank red fruit punch -- as they always do after Methodist ceremonies.

Nonetheless, this was indeed an extraordinary event. In defiance of the United Methodist Church, 95 pastors from Northern California, and a handful from other faiths and states, disobeyed church canons by gathering before the same altar to jointly bless Barnett and Charlton's relationship. The ceremony was devised by Sacramento Pastor Don Fado as a mass act of "ecclesiastical disobedience" meant to challenge a 1997 church ruling banning ministers from performing such ceremonies.

By daring the Methodist hierarchy to defrock these disobedient pastors, Fado is forcing a showdown between liberal and anti-gay Methodist clergy that could split America's second-largest Protestant denomination, as was first reported in a Nov. 4 SF Weekly story, "The Holy War Over Gay Marriage."

But despite the sense of history and drama, for hundreds of gay Christians, Saturday's ceremony was a rare opportunity to bask in the warmth of the mundane: It was a chance to put on Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, watch mainline pastors bless a gay family, then drink punch and chat with their fellow churchgoers, as if nothing unusual had happened.

"Someday, there will be no reason for CNN to come to an event like this," one gay Methodist lay leader mused.

Saturday's audience included hundreds of straight parishioners. There were also closeted pastors and lay leaders; defrocked homosexual clergy; gay seminarians who were prohibited from taking vows of ordination; and hundreds of gay couples who, because of the 1997 church ruling, cannot have their unions blessed without defying Methodist law. Churchgoers all, these Christians had for decades steeled themselves to remain loyal to their Methodist faith in hopes that they might outlive the church's scorn. Some had waited a lifetime for a moment like this.

"I thought it was very wonderful," said Bob Cary, 85, a gay man who spent decades in the closet as director of youth and campus ministry for the Northern California branch of the Methodist Church. "I served many years and never came out until retirement. If you did come out, you'd get fired."

Randy Miller, a Methodist seminarian who is prohibited by church law from becoming a minister because he is gay, was more effusive.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you for not stopping because of fear," said Miller, a third-generation Methodist. "This battle is 25 years old. I don't know why we should leave the church over a battle of only 25 years."

For gay Christians, thousands of whom remain loyal to their church in the face of condemnation by its hierarchy, the ceremony was a respite from a long and difficult test of faith.

"The church says that as a homosexual, you are not in equal standing," said Bruce Pettit, 54, a member of the choir at Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco. "It's hurtful. It's hurtful."

Outside the convention center, hundreds of supporters formed a "circle of love" to protect against protesters. But as it turned out, Methodist Church leaders and members opposed to the ceremony decided not to attend the event.

Opposition was limited to a handful of anti-gay protesters who skulked in from Kansas, and spent the day cowering behind a phalanx of police across the street from the convention center.

"You're not going to hurt me, are you?" asked their leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, after a reporter had asked a few questions. Phelps' fear wasn't remarkable, given the "God Hates Fags" and "Brides of Satan" signs his followers were carrying. He needn't have fretted. Few people paid him any mind.

Inside, a duet sang a series of Christian hymns, a 200-member choir sang some more hymns, a soloist sang the Lord's Prayer, and Charlton's daughter-in-law and granddaughter read a poem they had written together. A group of church youth performed a liturgical dance, and Fado delivered a brief sermon about the recognition of gay and lesbian partnerships.

And then the two elderly church ladies, dressed in matching appliqued jackets, turtlenecks, and slacks, exchanged their vows.

"Ellie, I give to you my love and share with you my life, and indeed I give you all I have," Barnett said.

"Jeanne, my love for you grows deeper with each passing day. You are my life partner," Charlton responded.

And then, more than 100 pastors chanted in unison: "O God, our maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life, amen."

Extraordinary, yet ordinary.
In Northern California, the local church hierarchy largely shares this unremarkable view of homosexual unions, says Alan Jones, executive director of the San Francisco United Methodist Mission, which coordinates church activities in the Bay Area. Bishop Melvin Talbert is a strong supporter of gay marriage, as is much of his Cabinet of district superintendents. The Northern California church tribunal that will hear any complaints filed against the pastors who performed Charlton and Barnett's ceremony is stacked with pro-gay-marriage clergy. And more than 160 Northern California pastors have declared their opposition to the church's gay holy-union ban.

But in the rest of the country, most church officials, clergy, and parishioners oppose gay marriage. Some hope to stiffen the church's anti-gay stance with proposed rules that would go so far as to ban church membership to gays. Even in Northern California, some two dozen pastors have said they will leave the church if it softens its anti-gay stance. So far, two have left to protest the bishop's pro-gay stance.

As it is, "They can roll over us with their numbers," says Bethany United Metho-dist's Bruce Pettit, who is co-chair of the Northern California United Methodist Reconciliation Committee, a group that promotes gay inclusion.

But supporters of gay inclusion hope Saturday's ceremony and its aftermath might change people's minds. By next year -- when the church holds its quadrennial meeting to review church rules -- they hope the ban might be lifted.

If the pastors blessing Charlton and Barnett are any indication, that process of conversion will be an unremarkable one. Several of these pastors acknowledged that they only recently decided that gay romance is blessed by God.

The Rev. Jerry Summers, of Chico, changed his mind following a process long known to married men everywhere -- his wife pestered him.

"Yeah, I worked on him. He's pretty stubborn. We talked about it a lot," says Georgia Summers. "I don't think women have as much trouble with it. We are mothers, and we love our children however they are."

After a few years, the Rev. Summers started coming around, he recalls.
"She was sharing her ideas and some books she had read," says Summers, who was chatting with old clergy friends at Saturday's reception. "We say we worship a loving God, yet we have second-class citizens in the church. Jesus invited all people to his table, especially the outcasts of society."

The Summers' wanted to talk more, but they had to get back to Chico. And by late afternoon, the convention center had cleared out as parishioners boarded church buses for Berkeley, San Francisco, and beyond. Pastors, some of whom had flown in from as far away as Massachusetts, returned to their hometown congregations. The circle of love dispersed, and 1,200 people headed back to the real world, where events like Saturday's ceremony are remarkable.

Aboard the bus hired by Bethany United Methodist Church in Cole Valley, church lay leaders near the front discussed the possible fallout from the ceremony, and how to mobilize supporters for the coming battle. Others read the newspaper or watched the Central Valley grasslands disappear into the suburbs of the northern Bay Area. In the back of the bus, a clutch of twentysomethings chatted about church youth groups of years past, plans for that weekend, recollections of their first kiss, and then of their first lesbian kiss.

An extraordinary, and ordinary, day.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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