Personal Reflections on "THE" Holy Union in The United Methodist Church
- CALLED OUT
Note: the story below, with photos & more links, is on Affirmation's
The archives for California Holy Union Service: Obedience to Jesus
Christ; God's Good News of Love (Sacramento 68) is at:
Affirmation Feature: March 2003
Personal Reflections on "THE" Holy Union in The United Methodist
An Interview with Ellie Charlton
On Saturday, Jan. 16, 1999, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, a service
blessing the holy union of Ellie Charlton (photo, left) and Jeanne
Barnett (right), a lesbian couple, was performed by The Rev. Donald
Fado, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church of Sacramento. He
was joined by 150 clergy, including those who co-officiated "in
absentia" and ecumenical representatives. On their anniversary, we
asked them to reflect on the past four years.
[Editor's Note: PG is the Rev. Peggy Gaylord, Affirmation's
co-spokesperson and EC is Ellie Charlton]
PG: Ellie, I remember that last meeting of the Study Committee on
Homosexuality at Lake Junaluska. We'd stroll around the lake while
Jeanne was in closed meetings with the committee, much more relaxing
than the other meeting settings had been. We'd talk about
relationships, what was important to us--it was obvious to me your
devotion to Jeanne. I mostly knew you from Affirmation; but, as I
recall, in public church arenas you were pretty low-key about anyone
knowing about the fullness of your relationship with each other. How
did that change come about?
EC: This is how it all started. General Conference 1996 changed The
Social Principles to include "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual
unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be
conducted in our churches." Because The Social Principles had
historically been guidelines and not enforceable laws, most LGBT
folks and supporters at General Conference had the attitude that
their energy would be better put somewhere else.
But the Judicial Council decision in August 1998 asserted that, even
though it was in The Social Principles, because of the wording, it
was enforceable law. At the time I said "That is not right and
someone has to do something."
In October 1998 at St. Mark's UMC, Sacramento, Rev. Don Fado preached
a sermon stating that he did not agree with the ruling and would
perform Holy Unions anyway. In fact, the next time he was asked to
perform a Holy Union, he would like to do it publicly as a statement
against the church ruling, and ask retired and close to retirement
pastors in our Conference to join him as co-officiants.
Three days later in a conversation with Rev. Fado about something
else, the sermon came up, and Jeanne and I said we had never had a
ceremony and we would like to have one. If someone had to do
something, maybe it was us.
PG: What did you think it would be like? Were there costs involved
that you hadn't anticipated?
EC: Oh, yeah!!! There were unexpected expenses, especially financial.
Now we thought this would be a service with maybe 20 clergy as
co-officiants, guests would be supportive members of our local church
and a few close friends. The service would be at our church and the
reception in the Social Hall. Probably with refreshments donated.
Soon several people offered to bake cakes, etc.
Don announced the planned event, said he would use the church only if
members agreed it was OK, and asked folks to send comments to the
office. Soon there was a not so nice letter sent out asking if they
wanted Rev. Fado to use our church to "break church law." This was
not signed and went to people the author/s thought would oppose. To
this day we don't know who sent the letter. At any rate, by this time
Rev. Fado was telling us that the church wasn't going to be large
enough (it holds approx. 400 people). He had 50 or more clergy
already signed up to CO-officiate. Since this was to be a happy
event, we were determined not to have our energy drained by any
conflict in our local church. We asked Rev. Fado to announce the next
Sunday that we were withdrawing our request to the church for the
The search was on for a suitable location. [After checking many
places throughout the community], finally it was set for the exhibit
hall where we hold worship services during Annual Conference. We had
held up sending out invitations until we knew [our location]. So we
sent out invitations, then all sorts of problems started with using
that location....(All this was happening as clergy were [in the midst
of Advent responsibilities].)
On Jan. 6, 1999, we went to the facility to make the last on site
[inspection] to work on final plans of how to make it all work and
flow smoothly. The facility director asked, "Why don't you use the
Community Theater? It's available and holds 1200 people and has all
the stuff you need: lights, stage, sound etc." By this time we were
also working on security, which would be much better at the theater.
We could control access to the entire building.... So 10 days before
the Holy Union we changed locations. When folks arrived at the
convention center per the invitations, they were directed across the
mall to the theater.
The community center has an exclusive contract with a caterer, and we
could not bring in our own food. The first quote for the standard
cake, coffee and punch was $8.50 per person. By now we were expecting
at least 1,000 people. I said, "I don't think so!! How about just
cookies and punch?"; all we would need would be cold cups and
napkins... The price came down to $3.75 each. We ended up raising the
order to serve 1,200. That is all probably more that you ever wanted
When we were looking over the theater and making final plans, I was
in shock thinking of what this was going to cost. Besides the
reception, there was risers for the choir, theater rental, union
labor costs, city police/ security, decorations and flowers (both
done at cost; volunteers did the work), printing of invitations,
envelopes, stamps. That cost was over $16,500. In addition, we spent
$3,000 for family travel, hotel and food. (Family members couldn't
afford to come on their own and we felt it necessary to have them
here.) I am sure the total cost was over $20,000.
PG: I bet there were very few times while you were treasurer of
National Affirmation that you paid out that kind of money on a single
project! What did you do?
EC: Fortunately, at the end of the service, Rev. Fado announced there
were donation boxes in the lobby if anyone wanted to help with the
cost. With what was collected that day, donations that came in over
the next several weeks, and a generous donation two months later of
$2,000 from one of the retired clergy co-officiants, almost $16,000
PG: Looking back, would you do it all over again? Would you change
EC: Would we do it again? We still stand by the statement we made in
an interview with The Advocate; "Our first response would be 'no,'
because we are rather quiet, private people. However, knowing how
much it has meant to so many gay people, we would do it again in an
instant." We have been honored and/or given special recognition by
many groups: local gay organizations, Presbyterian support group, Los
Angeles LGBT Center, Soulforce, Affirmation, RCP [Reconciling
Congregation Program, now Reconciling Ministries Network], and
several churches in our conference. We have met many great people we
wouldn't have met if it were not for the Holy Union and publicity
about it. We never go to a church gathering, conference or national,
but what someone doesn't come up and thank us or just want to give us
We were at the hospital last week in the elevator and a woman got on
with a lab cart, looked at us and said, "didn't I see you two on TV?"
Well, it's possible but that was four years ago. Often people will
come up to us and say I worked with you 20 (or so) years ago; I was
watching you on TV and rooting for you. I'm sure we will never know
the full impact our small effort to "do something" has made or how
many people it has affected.
The only change I would make is not to spend time with the video and
photo people after the service and spend all that time at the
reception greeting people.
Several Affirmation friends came a great distance to be with us:
Chicago, Denver, Oregon. It was really great to have them here. Some
Affirmation friends were part of the service. Randy Miller read the
scripture and had great comments to make. Rev. Jeanne Knepper read a
poem that she wrote especially for the occasion. It included some of
our experience with the General Conference Study on Homosexuality.
Our friend Rev. Ronna Case (Ted Jennings' wife) came from Chicago to
lead the affirmation written many years ago by Rev. Barbara Troxell.
Our conference treasurer organized the representatives from the RCP's
to be on the stage for the blessing. (She now has given birth to
triplets.) Her partner and a man from our local Affirmation group,
both choir directors in local UMC's, recruited the members and
co-directed the pre-service choir. Jeanne's cousin from Palm Springs,
also an Affirmation member, played the piano and sang a duet with
Jeanne's niece, the love song from Phantom of the Opera.
PG: I was unexpectely in San Francisco at Christmastime just before
your Union, so I didn't see how I could travel back coast-to-coast
three weeks later. I thought about calling, but didn't want to
intrude at holiday time, typical family time; I figured you must be
really busy. My prayers were with you, and I watched some of it on
TV. Do you think it made the impact on the Church that you had hoped
for? If not, was it worth it anyway? From your perspective, were
there other impacts in addition or instead of? Are you still hopeful
that the church can/will change? If so, what sustains that hope?
EC: The impact on the Church was like the shot heard around the
world. People in churches had to discuss the subject of LGBT folk in
the church and Holy Unions. It was a great chance for LGBT supporters
to show who they were. Many co-officiants have shared with us that
people came up to them and talked about their 'gay' relatives, people
who had never shared before.
Don got e-mails from Japan and Russia as well as across the nation.
At the time, we didn't think about it, but the state of California
was soon to vote on 'Gay Marriages.' That, of course, didn't pass,
but it did make people look at the issue in a different light.
We wanted Jane/John Q Public to get a different look at lesbians
other than what is usually shown. That happened.
We wanted the Church to start talking. That happened.
When we get discouraged about the church ever changing, we look at
the hundreds of supporters we have and know we can't let them down.
Recently, we saw our friend Judy Fjell, singer/songwriter. She shared
with us, that as she travels around the country, people make comments
about the Holy Union and us. She laughs and tells them she knows us,
and we are two very quiet people, not the radicals they envision.
PG: Well, Ellie, you know what they always say: You have to watch the
quiet ones! So, what about the impact on the two of you, personally?
EC: We didn't expect our relationship to change after 15 years over a
simple little service. It did. We became much closer and more
intimate that ever. What a great surprise. We thank God for every day
we have together. What a blessing! We will celebrate our 19th year
together in April. Nineteen glorious years!
PG: Thank you, Ellie, for sharing so much with us. On behalf of the
Council, I want to say that we continue our prayers on your behalf
and send you much love.
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