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Cal/Nev Bishop Issues Letter of Praise for Rebel Pastor and Opposition to Church Policy

(The full text of Bishop Talbert's letter to clergy and lay members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference)


January 6, 1999

Dear Colleagues in Christ:

Greetings to you in this New Year! I thank God for your witness and ministry and look forward to sharing with you the joy and fullness of life as we face the challenges of the future with hope.

As many of you know, the Rev. Don Fado, pastor of our St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento, has announced that he will conduct a celebration of a holy union for two of St. Mark's members, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. Many of you know Jeanne and Ellie. Jeanne is our Conference Lay Leader and Ellie is a member of our Conference Board of Trustees. Don has invited other clergy from across the church to share in this celebration and to join him in protesting any prohibition of such celebration. Don is one of our finest pastors and he has discussed this decision with me. He is very clear that he and others will be performing this ministry as an act of conscience. My compassion is for Don as he seeks to be faithful to his calling. This letter is written to share with you some words of wisdom regarding this event that is planned for January 16, 1999. Allow me to remind you of the context for this scheduled event.

As you may recall, it was in the Fall of 1997 that the Rev. Jimmy Creech performed a holy union in a United Methodist Church in Nebraska. This was not the first such service in that they were happening across our church for years. What made the Creech situation different is that we had the action of the 1996 General Conference, which added the following sentence to Paragraph 65-C of the Social Principles which reads, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Given this reality, Mr. Creech openly challenged the action of General Conference by publicly performing such a service. Thus, a complaint was filed, and an investigation resulted in charges being brought against Mr. Creech. The matter went to a church trial, where Mr. Creech was acquitted. Thus, the controversy accelerated and resulted in many and varied responses from across the church.

When this matter came to my attention before the Creech trial, I was of the opinion that the Social Principles are not church law. Therefore, I did not consider the performing of a holy union a chargeable offense. In August of 1998, our Judicial Council considered various appeals and came to the conclusion that the one sentence cited above from the Social Principles is church law. Thus, that decision implies that to violate such is a chargeable offense. Well, this decision brought further reactions.

At each step along the way, your bishop and cabinet members have been consistent in their efforts to interpret and implement church policy. Even when I shared my opinion regarding the status of the Social Principles, I was performing my duty of interpreting church polity. So, when the Judicial Council made its decision last August, I expressed my sadness and regrets. Nevertheless, I stated that as a bishop of the church, I will uphold the polity of our church. Thus, the cabinet and I are officers of the church and will uphold the law of our church.

Personally, I believe the position of our church is wrong on this issue. With many of my pastors, I feel this action infringes on the sacred pastoral role one has in being priest and servant. So, while I am obliged to uphold church law, I will also continue as a strong advocate to change the position of our church to be more consistent with the teachings and compassion of Jesus.

As you can imagine, the cabinet and I are under pressure to indicate what our response would be to the January 16 event. We believe it is inappropriate for us to provide responses to hypothetical questions or situations. Our position is clear. We shall await the outcome of the planned event and respond accordingly. I call to your attention Paragraphs 358 and 2624-27 of the 1996 Book of Discipline regarding church due process.

In the meantime, I request of you two things:

First, pray for Don Fado and those who will assist him, for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, and for all the members of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Sacramento. Also pray for those who are struggling with this issue and disagree with this celebration. We are sisters and brothers in Christ. Despite the controversy, our faith impels us to honor and respect the human dignity of each other as God’s creatures.

Second, be reminded that this is not the first controversial issue being faced by our church. We have been through many struggles and have survived. Our church will weather this storm. The real question is whether we will allow the Spirit of God to lead us through this struggle.

Finally, will you pray for me and your cabinet? These are difficult times for us. It is not easy to keep focused on the "main thing." However, we pledge to you our commitment to being faithful officers of the church, while at the same time being faithful servants of Jesus Christ. Our constant prayer is that we seek to discern God’s will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

God bless you!


Melvin G. Talbert

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