Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
A group of United Methodist clergy and lay people have sent an open letter to the Council of Bishops asking that retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert be publicly censured for encouraging disobedience to the church’s official position on homosexuality. The letter, signed by more than seventy prominent United Methodists (almost all of them men), expresses dismay at Bishop Talbert’s remarks at a gathering outside of General Conference, and repeated at the ordination service at the California Pacific Annual (regional) Conference ordination service.
In his remarks, Bishop Talbert declared that, “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” He said, “the time has come for those of us who are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to do what is required of us… . The time has come to join in an act of biblical obedience.” He called on the 1,100 clergy who have declared their willingness to disobey church law and officiate at same sex marriages or civil unions to “stand firm.”
The letter writers express their “deep concern” that Bishop Talbert has threatened the discipline and order of the church, which he is charged with upholding, “by encouraging dissension, disunity and disobedience, and advocating anarchy and chaos in response to the actions of the 2012 General Conference, taken after focused prayer, study, and holy conferencing.”
It is worth noting that almost every United Methodist who has actually read the Discipline disagrees with some part of it. And many of the letter signers are actively engaged in trying to change portions of the Discipline with which they disagree. The Discipline is not an infallible document. And it is not eternal. It is re-written every four years. It simply represents what the majority of delegates to General Conference agreed to at a given point in time.
If the Discipline is changed every four years, then we can assume that those who advocate change believe that the previous version was “wrong” in some way. Historically, most of us would agree that the Discipline has been wrong in some significant ways. It took sixty years before the Discipline opposed slavery, and it took nearly two hundred years before the Discipline endorsed the ordination of women. It took more than a hundred years before the Discipline included a Social Creed.
Today is the 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I find myself thinking of Dr. King on many issues these days, but on this issue what comes to mind is the speech he gave in Montgomery in the spring of 1965. Some remember it as the “Our God Is Marching On” speech, others remember it from the repeated call and answer: “How long? Not long.”
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets . . . be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir)
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) . . .
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)
I don’t know how long it will be before the United Methodist Church rights this wrong, but it will not be long. And when we finally repent of our sin (what else can we call it?), Bishop Talbert will be one of the people we need to thank.