In October of 1960 Melvin Talbert was a seminary student in Atlanta, Georgia, and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Atlanta to participate with the students in the first sit-in demonstrations in the city, and he was arrested with them. They spent three days and three nights together in a jail cell. Talbert said that event was one of the formative experiences of his life.
This past October, Bishop Talbert traveled from his home in Nashville to Center Point, Alabama, near Birmingham, to celebrate the wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. The two men were legally married in Washington, D.C., but they wanted a Christian wedding. And they asked Bishop Talbert to officiate because of his support for the rights of LGBT persons, especially within the United Methodist Church.
For Bishop Talbert, the sit-in and the wedding are related. In both cases it is about civil rights.
Before he went to Alabama to preside at the wedding, Bishop Talbert notified Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his plans. She responded by requesting that he not perform the ceremony in the area where she serves. She consulted with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wenner convened the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. The Executive Committee issued a statement requesting that Bishop Talbert not officiate at the wedding. They reminded Bishop Talbert that, “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline.” They also pointed out that, "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).
There are deep ironies in this.
It is not that long ago that this same Book of Discipline, to which Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett give allegiance, prevented women from being ordained, let alone becoming bishops in the church.
The Discipline is an imperfect evolving document. It did not condemn slavery until 1844, when what was then the “Methodist Episcopal Church” split and the “Methodist Episcopal Church South” became a separate denomination, which tolerated the institution of slavery. When the two denominations reunited in 1939, provision was made for a separate “Central Conference,” where African-American churches were segregated from white churches. And that segregation was approved until 1968.
The Discipline is revised every four years at what we call a “General Conference” that brings together representatives from United Methodist conferences around the world. The language on homosexuality will change soon. Maybe in 2016. Probably no later than 2020.
As the Council of Bishops likes to remind us, we are a world wide church. On this issue the African bishops stand against any change because they fear that if they do not maintain a strong opposition to homosexuality it will put them at a disadvantage in their cultural struggles with Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. If the church is to hold together there will have to be some sort of compromise that allows for the different cultural realities in Africa and North America while still affirming basic human rights.
In the meantime, the Council of Bishops, after meeting this week, called on Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett to file charges against Bishop Talbert.
In explaining their actions, the bishops said that, “The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Did anyone laugh at the irony of that statement? How can we transform the world if we cannot transform the church? It would be more accurate to say that their purpose is to lead the church in maintaining the status quo. And let’s be honest, making disciples of Jesus Christ and maintaining the status quo are mutually exclusive.
The bishops did take a step forward by publicly acknowledging that the church is not of one mind on this issue, and that the Council of Bishops is not of one mind. They go on to note that “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.” What they fail to say is that the pain is not equal. The pain felt by those who are excluded is not the same as the pain felt by those who want to do the excluding and feel like their ability to exclude is being eroded.
After telling the parable of the widow who pleads for justice from an unjust judge, Jesus asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Bishop Talbert lived out that parable when he was arrested with Dr. King, and he has lived it out again more than fifty years later in confronting his colleagues on the Council of Bishops. The good news is that ultimately, he knows how the story will end.
The complete statement from the Council of Bishops is printed below:
THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS
On October 26, 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same-gender couple in Center Point, Alabama. Prior to October 26, 2013 Bishop Talbert advised Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his intention. Bishop Wallace-Padgett requested that Bishop Talbert not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves. After conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, engaged the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a discussion about the proposed action. On October 21, 2013, the Executive Committee issued a statement requesting Bishop Talbert not to perform the ceremony in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area.
They said, in part,
“The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).
The actions of Bishop Talbert raise considerable concerns and have stimulated much conversation, reflection, and prayer among the members of the Council of Bishops. The Council recognizes the deep divisions and pain in our church over these issues. United Methodists are not of one mind, and followers of Christ and people of conscience hold conflicting views. These issues require continuing honest and respectful conversation as well as prayer throughout the church.
The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To that end, bishops are also required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church…..and to share with other bishops in the oversight of the whole church.” (Para 403.1.f) When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required. However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable. Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy. (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f)
Therefore, the Council of Bishops, after much prayer and conversation, takes the following actions:
We acknowledge that we, the Council of Bishops, and the Church are not of one mind in matters of human sexuality; pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them. We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.
We affirm the October 21, 2013 action of the Executive Committee which requested that Bishop Talbert not conduct a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple in the North Alabama area.
We respectfully request that Bishop Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Resident Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, address the action of Bishop Talbert and file a complaint under the provisions of Paragraph 413 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.
We recommend that the Executive Committee initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.
As a Council of Bishops, we affirm the theological task articulated in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 105, page 87). “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel. In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God. Our task is to articulate a vision in a way that will draw us together as a people in Mission….. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”