The ‘Sacramento 68’ to The ‘Pennsylvania 30’: A Historical Perspective

Dr. Bruce Robbins (left) with Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert at an event at the 2012 General Conference, UMNS.

Dr. Bruce Robbins (left) with Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert at an event at the 2012 General Conference, UMNS.

On January 16, 1999, a stage was filled with United Methodist clergy to jointly perform a “holy union” for two women in Sacramento, California. Both women held high positions in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, one being the conference lay leader and the other being on the conference board of trustees. According to news reports, more than 150 clergy blessed the partnership. It was announced that 95 clergy were from California-Nevada, while the other 65 were from other annual conferences.

  • The March/April 1999 story can be viewed here.

Since same-sex unions are not to be performed by United Methodist clergy, complaints were brought against the “Sacramento 68,” as they were called. It was announced several months later that processing the complaints would be time-consuming.

  • The September/October 1999 story can be viewed here.

Thirteen months after the public display of ecclesiastical disobedience, it was announced that an investigative committee would not be placing the UM clergy on trial. The case was merely dismissed. At that time, San Francisco Area Bishop Melvin G. Talbert announced the dismissal of the case. He said that while the ruling 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 claimed that annual conference relationships trump General Conference decisions. The committee’s decision reflected the California-Nevada Conference’s “long-standing covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice.”

  • The May/June 2000 story can be viewed here.

While at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, the Judicial Council made a pivotal ruling that the annual conference is not “a more basic and fundamental covenant” than the Book of Discipline, as claimed by Talbert. Affirming the Book of Discipline as the law of the United Methodist Church, the Judicial Council ruled that annual (regional) conferences may not “legally negate, ignore, or violate” its provisions even when such disagreements are based upon conscientious objections.

The General Conference referral contained four questions for the Judicial Council. They asked how the covenant relationship of an annual conference and its clergy relate to church law; whether an annual conference ever can ignore the rule book; whether the church’s constitution contains a right to conscientious objections; and whether any circumstances could supersede the provisions of the Discipline.

In response, the Judicial Council made it clear: “When a clergy person engages in mission and ministry in The United Methodist Church, that clergy person covenants to perform his/her duties in accord with the provisions of the Discipline.” Furthermore, “a clergy person has the responsibility of adhering to the provisions of the Discipline and to assure that those for whom he/she has administrative responsibility do the same.”

The Council went on to state: “If annual conferences were free to violate provisions of the Discipline because they disagree with them, this would have the effect of negating or ignoring the Discipline. Such acts would leave the Church without any enforceable law, which would lead to chaos in the Church.”

“Since the Discipline regulates ‘every phase of the life and work of the Church,”‘ they ruled, “there are no covenants which supersede the authority of the Discipline.”

***

Ironically, 13 years later, now-retired Bishop Melvin Talbert will be disrupting the ministry, witness, and mission of an active bishop and her annual conference by performing a same-sex union in Alabama – after being asked not to do it by Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett.

In the wake of the Talbert announcement that all the UM clergy charges had been dismissed because of his belief that annual conference ideology was more important than General Conference ministerial standards regarding marriage and sexuality, many evangelical clergypersons left the California-Nevada Annual Conference.

“The civil rights rhetoric, however, rings hollow for a long list of evangelicals whose ministries within United Methodism have been derailed in the wake of Talbert’s ideologically-driven episcopacy,” Good News reported in 2000. “Within the last several years, Talbert and his district superintendents have made one thing very clear: If you agree with United Methodism’s policy on homosexuality you will become increasingly ostracized in the California/Nevada Annual Conference. Talbert has fortified himself with conference leaders who fully support his opposition to United Methodism’s stance toward homosexuality.”

Within a few short years, numerous evangelical pastors turned in their United Methodist credentials as an act of conscience in response to Talbert’s ideology.

  • The September/October 2000 story can be viewed here.

 – Good News Media Service

Comments

  1. Bob Kuyper says

    This was solely the Decision of the Committee on Investigation, not the Bishop. At the time it was argued that it would be too expensive to have 68 trials and they could not be combined. I suggested at the next General Conference that a provision be placed in the Discipline allowing a combined trial for a combined event like this. Perhaps it will get to be used this time as multiple clergy violate the Discipline.

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