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Bishop rules Cal-Nevada statement on same-sex unions ‘void’

Bishop Beverly Shamana presides June 19 over the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference in Sacramento, Calif. A UMNS file photo by Paul "Spud" Hilton.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 18, 2008 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

Retired United Methodist clergy in northern California and Nevada could face disciplinary charges if they perform same-gender marriage ceremonies in the wake of a California court ruling that allows gay couples to marry, their bishop says.

While the church’s California-Nevada legislative assembly approved a resolution in June commending retired clergy who have offered to perform such ceremonies, Bishop Beverly J. Shamana has issued a ruling declaring the statement “void and of no effect.”

“While the resolution is a commendable gesture to the congregations of the conference in offering the pastoral counsel of a number of retired clergy to persons contemplating same-gender marriage under the laws of California, it steps over a disciplinary line when it commends these clergy to the congregations for the purpose of ‘performing same gender marriages or holy unions,’” Shamana wrote in her ruling of law.

Meanwhile, an organizer of the retired clergy said the bishop’s ruling would not deter the pastors from performing the ceremonies.

“Nothing has changed by the bishop calling the resolution null and void,” said the Rev. Don Fado, a retired United Methodist pastor in Sacramento. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re available, and the conference knows we’re available, and we’ve made our witness and will continue to do so.”

Ruling of law

The ruling of law was requested immediately after the church’s California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference approved the resolution on June 21. The ruling was sent July 2 to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the church’s top court, which will review the matter at its October session. A copy of the ruling was obtained by United Methodist News Service during the church’s Western Jurisdictional Conference, meeting July 16-19 in Portland, where a new bishop was being elected to replace the retiring Shamana.

Sixty-seven retired clergy signed on to offer their services under the original resolution. The list has since grown to 82, according to Fado.

The resolution lists the names of retired clergy wanting to participate and states that the conference “commends its retired clergy for offering continued ministry and will communicate to its congregations the availability of the following retired pastors to perform same gender marriages or holy unions.”

In her ruling, Shamana says the denomination’s Book of Discipline declares that performing same-sex marriage ceremonies is a chargeable offense.

“It is not within the power or prerogative of an annual conference to offer the services of its clergy to perform acts which the General Conference has declared to be chargeable offenses against the law of The United Methodist Church,” Shamana wrote.

The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as persons “of sacred worth,” considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Its law book prohibits its pastors and churches from conducting ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions. The denominational statements were affirmed in a split vote last spring by General Conference, the church’s top legislative body that meets once every four years.

The Rev. Ronald Greilich, who asked Shamana for the ruling of law, said he was pleased with the bishop’s conclusion.

“The Discipline is very specific that United Methodist clergy are not to do gay and lesbian weddings and they’re not to be held in the churches, and to do so is a chargeable offense,” said Greilich, a retired pastor in Clovis, Calif.

Greilich is writing a brief to submit to the Judicial Council in support of Shamana’s ruling. “This is what our book of rules says, and if we’re going to be United Methodists in covenant with one another, we should do what we promised to do when we were ordained, which is to support The United Methodist Church,” he said.

Making a statement

Fado said many retired clergy in California-Nevada actually have been “doing holy unions for three years”--under the radar. However, he said, they felt compelled to make a statement about their availability in the wake of last spring’s ruling by the California Supreme Court, overturning a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

“It is not within the power or prerogative of an annual conference to offer the services of its clergy to perform acts which the General Conference has declared to be chargeable offenses against the law of The United Methodist Church.”
–Bishop Beverly J. Shamana
The resolution “was a chance to make a witness on where we stand and give courage to pastors in the connection that we’re willing to do it,” Fado said. “… We’re saying this is an act of collegiality to be of support to pastors who feel for any reason they cannot perform the ceremony.”

Fado said retired clergy listed in the resolution are among the leaders in the California-Nevada Conference, which includes northern California and the state of Nevada. They include 15 former district superintendents, 11 who have been delegates to General Conference and 10 who have served as conference staff.

The church’s California-Pacific assembly also passed gay-friendly statements in June in southern California, after the state began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on June 16.

Some denominational leaders have subsequently expressed concern that the two conferences are on the verge of breaking a Scripturally based covenant with the rest of the 11.5 million-member denomination, as expressed through the Book of Discipline and actions of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the entire United Methodist Church.

They say the church’s position is based on biblical teaching and Christian tradition, which they note is often at odds with popular culture.

Gay rights advocates say gay rights are God-given civil rights that the church should support as a matter of conscience and that the church, in its quest to be more inclusive, should extend to gay couples the same levels of support it provides to heterosexual couples.

At the church’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference meeting in Harrisburg, Pa., delegates voted July 17 to support retired California-Nevada clergy who perform the marriage ceremonies. The resolution also asks for lenient disciplinary action against clergy who disobey church law on the issue.

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn.,  (615) 742-5470  or newsdesk@umcom.org

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