Group of Sacramento-area Methodist churches leads push to sanction same-sex unions

02/21/2014 12:00 AM

02/21/2014 5:13 PM

Led by five Sacramento-area congregations, 30 United Methodist churches in Northern California and other Western states have declared that their members support same-sex church weddings – a stance that defies international church rules.

The congregations each have adopted a joint “declaration of inclusion,” putting the denomination on notice that they intend to allow same-sex weddings in their facilities and performed by their clergy. The document asserts that Methodists “must unshackle ourselves from rules reflecting a culture where same-sex marriages are forbidden,” and goes on to say that “no one will be denied the services of our church because of sexual orientation.”

With their declaration, which also supports the ordination of gay pastors, the group of churches in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona hope to ignite a national movement to change the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the rule book of the global United Methodist Church. The rulebook currently says Methodists “do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” and says “ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

“This is the first time the laity and elected church councils have spoken out, saying ‘We will not allow our church property to be limited,’ ” said Don Fado, a retired pastor from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Carmichael. In 1999, Fado performed a public same-sex union ceremony attended by dozens of pastors.

The declaration was conceived by the group of three Sacramento-area churches: St. Mark’s in Carmichael, Elk Grove United Methodist Church and a congregation in Fair Oaks. They were quickly joined by congregations in Davis and Placerville. The group then invited other churches to sign on.

“The Sacramento churches have gotten together and made a strong statement to our annual conference and the world,” Fado said.

The push by the group of Methodist churches comes as religious organizations around the country are confronting the issue of how to handle same-sex marriages, which are legal in California and 16 other states. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed that the proportion of American congregants who think homosexuality is a sin has dropped to 45 percent in the past decade. Three-fourths of that group also said they oppose gay and lesbian marriage, while 84 percent of people who don’t think it’s sinful support same-sex marriage.

Some religious bodies, such as Reform Judaism, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, leave it up to individual congregations and clergy to decide whether to bless same-sex unions. Others, such as the Roman Catholic Church, forbid it.

Like several other mainline Protestant denominations, the Methodist church can ill afford to alienate any portion of its membership, which dropped 15 percent from 1980 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The number of United Methodists in California dwindled by 20 percent during that period.

There are now about 12 million United Methodists worldwide, more than 30 percent of them from Africa, the Philippines and other parts of the world that remain largely opposed to same-sex marriage, said Randall Miller, assistant professor of United Methodist Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

The action by the Northern California and Nevada churches “is very significant because it’s happening during a tense period in the United Methodist Church when we’ve been wrestling around issues of same-sex marriage,” Miller said.

Last November, the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania was defrocked for performing his gay son’s marriage. Ministers in Alabama, New York and Washington state have been charged with violating church rules by performing such unions.

But in Sacramento, several Methodist pastors have performed same-sex marriages and holy unions with little fanfare. Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr. of Sacramento, who presides over the California-Nevada Conference, which includes about 80,000 United Methodists in 360 churches, said no one has brought charges against their pastors performing same-sex weddings.

United Methodist churches don’t answer to a central authority, other than their General Conference held every four years. Clergy discipline is generally handled by regional conferences, “which are influenced by the sociology of the region,” said Brown, who added that he is not taking a position on the declaration of inclusion. Even if a Sacramento pastor were to be brought up on charges of violating the Methodist “Book of Discipline,” it’s possible a jury of their peers would take no action.

In Washington state, two ministers who performed gay weddings were brought up on charges and each was suspended for one day, Fado said. “The joke was, ‘Do seven gay marriages and you’ll get a whole week off.’ ”

Despite the apparent lack of repercussions for local ministers who perform same-sex weddings, the Northern California churches want to push the issue for the church as a whole. Instead of waiting for the “really slow process of changing the ‘Book of Discipline’ ” – which can only happen if a majority of delegates at the church’s General Conference sign off – “the laity and clergy are doing what they believe is right, that couples who love and are committed to each other should be married,” Miller said.

The next General Conference will be held in 2016 in Portland.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, offered a muted reaction to the declaration of inclusion. “We know that there are diverse opinions among United Methodists about this issue,” Wenner said in an email from Germany. “Though we are not all of one mind, we seek to live and work together with different opinions in a culture of respect and care.”

Not all Methodist ministers in the Sacramento region support same-sex marriages, or the declaration issued by their peers.

The Rev. Glen Raley of the First United Methodist Church in Marysville said the declaration is “just another step in the attempt to disobey the ‘Book of Discipline.’ ”

Raley said he believes that the majority of his 300-member congregation strongly oppose gay marriage. “I believe homosexual individuals can be fully welcomed into our church, but there is a point at which me and many of my colleagues feel it’s a sinful lifestyle.”

While various churches in the northeastern United States may agree with the declaration, “We still have a lot of very conservative churches east and south,” Raley said.

The Rev. Lois Black of the 150-member First United Methodist Church in Yuba City agreed with Raley, noting that at the last General Conference, the vote against church-sanctioned gay weddings was about 2 to 1. “For the church as a whole, our stance on this has basically not changed for over 40 years,” Black said. “We are in total agreement that we minister to all people, but Scripture teaches us there are some things that we may like and be drawn to that go against what God’s instructions tell us, and that includes a homosexual lifestyle.”

The view is different at St. Mark’s. Parishioner Karen Humphrey supports the movement to change the language of the “Book of Discipline.” Humphrey said she had an uncle who was in “a beautiful 55-year partnership with a man, who taught me his relationship was no different morally or emotionally than my 40-year relationship with my husband, and people are born gay and can’t change, though he tried.”

Her pastor, the Rev. Alan Jones, said the declaration – backed by church members – protects him and other Methodist ministers who have performed same-sex weddings from being removed, because “it’s very difficult to remove the whole congregation.”

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