Both in person and on the internet I have been asked quite a few questions about the "Homosexual Union" service which took place in Sacramento, California in 1999. Several have demanded that I relate my opinion on the matter and what I think should be done about it. In several cases visible anger, upset, and frustration have been expressed over this issue ... emotion which I both understand and, in some respects, share.
Allow me to answer the question in as few words as possible: the 90+ clergy who actually performed the service of "Union" for Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett violated the Disciplinary prohibition regarding same-sex Unions and should be held accountable to the Discipline.
Regardless of one's opinion or position on this subject -- and I happen to believe that the Discipline is in error in denying the pastoral rites of marriage to homosexuals -- nothing justifies such a willful, flagrant, and politically-occasioned violation of the Discipline. If one disagrees with our Church laws, I have always affirmed that the proper course is legislation through the General Conference; no minister, nor even any lay person, is free to disobey the Discipline simply because they disagree with it. The Judicial Council has ruled that the prohibition against same-sex marriages is a valid law, binding on the ministerial responsibilities of the clergy, and hence it should be obeyed.
Allow me to refresh our memories as to what the Discipline states on the subject of same sex unions:
"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," ( 65.C of the 1996 Discipline )
This statement was placed in The United Methodist Church's Social Principles in 1996, but since the Social Principles had never before been considered binding as law on clergy or laity there was -- last year -- quite a lot of ambiguity on whether or not this was a binding law. It certainly sounds like a law, but its location in the Discipline has lead many to think otherwise. Last August The United Methodist Church's Judicial Council affirmed that the statement, even though it is found in the Social Principles, is nevertheless a binding law effecting the duties and responsibilities all ordained ministers. It is not a matter of opinion, nor is it open for freedom of choice -- it is a matter of Church law: United Methodist Ministers "shall not" conduct "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions." While it is certainly within the rights of those 95+ ministers to disagree with the law, and to lobby for it's removal from the Discipline, it is not within their rights to violate the law by actually performing such a service.
What should happen now? Quite a few have expressed a desire to see those UM clergy who performed the service thrown out of their pastorates and relieved of their clerical credentials. Such is certainly among the penalties that may come at the end of a Church trial; so long as the Discipline is followed I will support the judicial outcome. I have also been very pleased with the statements from Bishop Talbert's January 6th letter; his statements give me hope that the Bishop of the San Fransisco area will, indeed, abide by the Discipline and respond with the proper steps, which may well include Trial and removal from ministerial office for those who have performed the service. And that is my prayer and desire as well. Disobedience to the Discipline is a prescription for anarchy, regardless of the stand one takes on the matter, and it is my prayer that, as a Denomination, we could at least agree on that.
© 2000, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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