When 68 Methodist ministers assembled to bless the union of a lesbian couple in January, they were deliberately risking their comfortable clerical lives. Although church law explicitly forbids these same sex "marriage" ceremonies, the ministers invited the press, spelled their names for the papers, and sent a video of the proceedings to the local bishop.

Yesterday, church officials began the unwieldy task of deciding how to discipline them. Never before have so many Methodist ministers openly defied the church, and now an investigative committee meeting in Sacramento must decide whether to subject so large a group to a church trial.

For the 20 or so active pastors, a guilty verdict would mean losing their church homes, and maybe their ministerial credentials. For the rest, who are mostly retired, it would mean losing their medical insurance and possibly their pensions.

But for the United Methodist church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in America with 10 million members, even more is at stake. This act of collective disobedience turns what were once lone and manageable acts of dissent on gay unions into an undeniable mutiny.

So far, neither church officials nor the dissenters show any signs of changing their views, and the stalemate threatens to make United Methodists the first casualty of the fights over homosexuality tearing at many Protestant denominations in the last few years.

The dissenters hope to reach a resolution to avoid repeating the Methodists' 1844 schism over slavery. "The Methodists did split once," said Rev. Don Fado of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento, who organized the January ceremony. "We're wondering whether we'll survive through the next general conference," to be held in 2001.

The fault lines are geographic as well as political. All 68 ministers at the January ceremony were from the church's Northern California and Nevada region, and their support generally comes from urban churches in the East and Midwest. The officials who wrote the law against gay unions, by contrast, come from the South and from rural regions.

"We are proving to be very different cultures," said Fado. "Here the denominations can be three-quarters gays and lesbians, and they see the decision [to forbid gay unions] as unconscionable. There they see them as queers and weirdos and perverts of sorts, and they just can't give their blessing to people like that."

The tension over gay unions has been festering for a while. At first, an uneasy truce prevailed, where more permissive ministers blessed gay unions in their own churches and church officials pretended not to notice.

Then in 1996, the church's policymaking body added a simple declarative sentence to its Book of Discipline: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Last year, the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha was the first to be charged with violating the church law. Creech won his trial by arguing that the statement was not binding because it only appeared in an advisory section of the rule book. But after the trial, in August 1998, the Methodist Judicial Court ruled that the statement would have the force of church law and that ministers could be removed for violating it.

Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago made himself the next test case by publicly blessing the union of two gay men in his church. In March, the court found him guilty of violating church law and suspended him from pastoral duties until he agreed to follow church rulings. Instead, Dell became director of In All Things Charity, a group of Methodists who are lobbying the church to allow ministers to bless gay unions.

Fado, 65, came up with the idea for a mass public ceremony in an angry moment, after hearing about the Judicial Court's decision. That week he gave a sermon in which he invited ministers from around the region to officiate at a same sex union, if only he could find a couple willing to withstand the scrutiny.

The next week, the perfect couple came forward. Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, both in their sixties, had been together for 15 years. Both were active members of St. Mark's church and worked at the regional conference.

Their January ceremony was so popular that it had to be moved to a nearby convention center. More than 1,000 people watched from the bleachers as the long row of 68 ministers each put one hand on the shoulder in front of them, and recited a prayer: "O God, our maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that Jeanne and Ellie are loving partners together for life. Amen."

In March, Bishop Melvin Talbert of the Northern California and Nevada region referred the case to the investigating committee reluctantly. In his complaint form, he called the two women "honorable, loyal and dedicated followers of Jesus Christ" and the prohibition of gay unions "unconscionable."

The committee will take a few months to make its decision, Talbert guesses, and will probably decide to try only the few ministers who were most involved in the service.

CAPTION: Ellie Charlton, left, and Jeanne Barnett wave to supporters after their "holy union" was celebrated by 68 Methodist ministers Jan. 16 in Sacramento.