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Historic Ceremony:
Bold Christian Ministers Defy Church Ban

97 United Methodist Clergy Join to Celebrate Same-Sex Union

Lesbian Lovers' Life-Long Vows Garner Worldwide Attention

By Jack Nichols

lesbmethod.jpg - 7.09 K Sacramento, California ---A landmark step in both Christian and homosexual history was taken Saturday as 97 ministers representing the United Methodist Church defied their denomination's ruling and, in unison, celebrated a "holy union" between two women, Ellie Charlton, 63, and Jeanne Barnett, 68, both longtime companions and United Methodist members.

The service, conducted at the Sacramento Convention Center, was witnessed by over a thousand observers from both the religious and the gay and lesbian communities. Defying a church ban on such unions, the courageous ministers, en masse, risked their livelihoods by openly providing religious support for same sex love and affection.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline currently reads: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." For having performed such a ceremony in 1997, an ecclesiastical court acquitted The Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Nebraska after he singularly performed a "covenant" ceremony. methodist.gif - 18.77 K The Rev. Jimmy Creech

The ecclesiastical court's decision was made moot, however, when the supreme court of the United Methodist Church found him guilty. Leaving behind his 1,900-member Omaha, Nebraska church, the Reverend Creech, his wife and 17-year old daughter, moved last year to North Carolina.

The courageous Methodist ministers stand today takes place approximately 34 years after Dr. Leroy Graham, a pioneering heterosexually-inclined Methodist chaplain at Washington D.C.'s American University had encouraged monthly campus meetings initiating dialogue between gay and lesbian representatives from The Mattachine Society of Washington and clergy from a variety of denominations.

The Reverend Graham who then, on a television talk show, backed civil rights for same-sex lovers, had also bravely characterized the anti-gay stance of another Methodist chaplain as "old school."

That "old school" clergyman so critiqued was none other than the Chaplain of the United States Senate, Dr. Frederick Brown Harris, who had held the post of Senate chaplain longer than any other minister in history. Dr. Harris had wondered, in his Sunday column in The Washington Star, why Mattachine members had bothered to ask for a meeting with him. He had written that the Mattachine Society of Washington was involved in nothing more than a "nauseating propaganda" crusade:

"even over television and radio, to stop even in decent society what is called discrimination of sex deviates and perverts who are addicted to disgusting practices which are not only degrading to those guilty, but whose abnormal debaucheries so often blight the lives of youth lured as sacrifices to such degenerate lust. Such people, we are told, comprise a large minority of the total population.

The present propaganda regarding this nauseating matter is not to rehabilitate such moral lepers, but to integrate them, to accept them without question with practices of which the lower animals are never guilty. (sic) Those who advocate such an attitude seem more concerned with discrimination than with contamination."

Dr. Harris' 1963 viewpoint found a 1999 update outside the Sacramento celebration. Its promoter, a Baptist minister, The Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas and his zealous dozen carried signs that characterized the two women being united as "sows" and as "Brides of Satan", calling their ceremony a "union Made in Hell." One sign referred to the Convention Center as a "Methodist fag church."

"Whatever they call it," Phelps was quoted as saying, "it's an abomination and a blasphemy in the eyes of God." The Baptist minister last grabbed the attention of the media at the funeral of Matthew Shepard by carrying signs representing his church's on-line crusade:

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The United Methodist Church has 8.5 million members, making it the second-largest Protestant denomination after The Southern Baptist Convention. One of the primary organizers of the Sacramento "Holy Union" ceremony was the Reverend Donald Fado, pastor of St. Mark's United Church in the city's suburbs.

``In our church, unfortunately, I'm allowed to come into their home and bless their house, bless their car, bless their tractor and even bless their dog, but I am not allowed to bless them,'' Fado told reporters.

The ceremony included dancing, folk songs and poetry. The two women tearfully promised to love one another until the ends of their lives. Behind them the 97 principled ministers chanted a blessing that could spell an end to their otherwise secure positions in the United Methodist Church's hierarchy:

"O God, our maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life."

The Reverend Fado said: ``If anyone wants to file charges against us, this is what the charges are for, praying this prayer,''.

Ellie Charlton told reporters: "I hope you can see there's a lot of love for us."

The United Methodist ceremony has particular significance presently in the wake of a California bill that seeks to deny same-sex couples a right to marry.

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