c. 2000 Religion News Service

A United Methodist investigative committee has decided not to bring formal charges against 68 clergy who participated in a 1999 California same-sex union ceremony for a lesbian couple.

The committee of the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church decided not to certify the complaint concerning the Jan. 16, 1999 union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton ``as a charge proper for trial.''

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert released the decision at a news conference Feb. 11 in West Sacramento, Calif. If there had been a trial and the ministers had been found guilty, they faced a range of punishments, including dismissal from the clergy.

The decision came after what Talbert called ``unprecedented'' hearings for three days in early February that included testimony from scholars, other experts, and participants in the Sacramento ceremony, including the Rev. Donald Fado, the primary officiant.

The committee, which had to determine whether a trial was necessary, ``concluded that the answer required a methodology consistent with our whole faith rather than one limited by a narrow focus,'' it said in a preamble to its decision.

The committee acknowledged the differences within the regional body of the denomination about the role of gays and lesbians in church life.

``We confess that our differences of opinion have resulted in division and tension among us, testing the depth of our commitment to our mutual covenant,'' it wrote. ``We recognize our calling to affirm one another as persons of sacred worth, and to live out our belief that each person is valued in the sight of God.''

The committee cited a 1996 addition to the United Methodist Social Principles that ``ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.'' It also noted that the Judicial Council, the denomination's equivalent to the Supreme Court, had ruled that violating that prohibition would make clergy ``liable to a charge of disobedience'' to church law, outlined in the Book of Discipline.

But the committee also affirmed the ``value of inclusiveness'' within the denomination.

Talbert said he has concluded that ``no further steps or actions will be taken'' regarding the matter.

``While this particular committee decision may appear to have broken covenant with the Book of Discipline, there is another more basic and fundamental covenant that has precedence over this one narrow focus of law,'' he said.

``It is my humble opinion that the decision of this Committee on Investigation does reflect the long-standing covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, within the spirit of our long-standing commitment to Jesus Christ as the people called United Methodists.''

Talbert acknowledged that tensions are likely to continue regarding the role of the church concerning homosexuality.

``The dialogue and the struggle will continue,'' he said. ``In fact, we may never reach agreement around this issue. However, agreement is not a requirement for people of faith to be in covenant as sisters and brothers. Our unity is not in agreement on issues; our unity is in Jesus Christ.''

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