Long-time United Methodists Ellie Charlton, 63, and Jeanne Barnett, 68, are at the center of a controversy that has roiled their 8.5 million-member denomination.

On January 16, the lesbian couple was "blessed" by 95 United Methodist ministers before 1,500 people in Sacramento, California. They used the ceremony to advocate homosexual rights and to protest their denomination's ban on same-sex unions.

"The closet is dark and damp and it is unhealthy," Charlton said following the service. "I hope those of you who are in the closet can find a way to come out."

Don Fado, 65, pastor of the 900-member Saint Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, conducted the "holy union" service for Barnett and Charlton, who have lived together for 15 years. Fado called the service an "act of ecclesiastical disobedience."

Barnett, a lay leader in the church's California-Nevada Annual Conference, and Charlton, who serves on the church's board, exchanged vows in a ceremony punctuated by dancers in outfits with purple tights.

Fado and the other ministers could face a church trial and termination of their ministerial credentials. Melvin G. Talbert, bishop for the Northern California region, disagrees with the denomination's policy but says he is obliged to uphold church law.

In 1996, the church's highest legislative body added a sentence in its Social Principles that banned homosexual unions, and the denomination's highest court upheld it last year (CT, Oct. 5, 1998, p. 18) after Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Nebraska, performed a same-sex ceremony.

Later, Chicago United Methodist minister Gregory Dell presided over a same-sex union (CT, Dec. 7, 1998, p. 18). Dell could lose his job after a church trial, likely to be held in March.

More than 100 United Methodists from California gathered the day before the Sacramento ceremony to object. The group, Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, said the ceremony for Charlton and Barnett violates "the teachings of Scripture, the polity of our denomination, and more than 2,000 years of Christian moral tradition."

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