UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
A Bishop's Prayer
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert (right) prays with a delegate during April 26 evening worship at General Conference. The bishop's rainbow-colored scarf signifies his longtime support for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the work and life of The United Methodist Church.
In a July 19, 2012 letter drafted and endorsed by ultra conservative members of the unofficial United Methodist "Renew and Reform Coalition" groups (Good News, Renew, Confessing Movement within the UMC, Lifewatch, Transforming Congregations and the United Methodist Action unit of the Institute for Religion and Democracy), the Council of Bishops is being asked to "publicly censure" Bishop Melvin Talbert and "file a formal complaint against him under ¶ 2702 (e) [disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church in violating his responsibility to uphold that order and discipline], ¶ 2702 (f) [dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church], and ¶ 2702 (g) [engaging in behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor]."
They state that "Bishop Melvin Talbert made the following comments on May 4, 2012, at the Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle in Tampa, Florida:
'The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty aand obedience. Thus 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. I call on the more than 1,100 clergy [who have signed marriage initiatives] to stand firm in their resolve to perform marriages for same-sex couples and to do so in the course of their normal pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so…The time for talking is over. It's time for us to act in defiance of unjust words of derogatory discrimination and laws that are doing harm to our GLBT [gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered] sisters and brothers.' "
In addition, the letter calls for "the executive committee of the Council of Bishops request that those retired and active bishops who stood with Bishop Talbert as he called for disobedience to the Book of Discipline issue specific statements repudiating Bishop Talbert's call to perform same-sex unions, and should they fail to do so, publicly censure them for their actions.
The real agenda for this group is simply stated in one paragraph of the letter:
"We are deeply concerned that Bishop Talbert has undercut that very discipline and order, 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."
What is incorrectly implied by this statement is that the United Methodist Church has somehow achieved consensus, unity and complete loyalty to the prejudicial treatment of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) clergy and laity in our denomination who faithfully serve God in and through the church every day.
What I believe is really intended by this letter, is to silence any dissent or disagreement within a denomination that was built around democratic principles of discerning the will of God together through Holy Conferencing. If they cannot achieve this false unity of conformity by legislative means at General Conference, narrow and selective interpretations of scripture and veiled threats of defunding the UMC (see letter signer, Rev. Tom Harrison's statement about his congregation's apportionments in a recent UMCom article), then they will continue to use the churches structure and processes of judicial complaint in an attempt to intimidate both Bishops and clergy into silence and conformity.
Where is The United Methodist Church on unity around the issues of LGBT bias and inclusion? That is probably best summarized by the UMCom (United Methodist Communications) article, "Delegates cannot agree they disagree on sexuality" written about a compromise, substitute petition submitted by the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter at General Conference 2012. For me, two quotes summarize where we are:
"Many feel we need to take a strong stand against homosexuality," said the Rev. James Howell, of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference "What matters is God's will. We have said for a long time we do not condone homosexuality, but they are here, they are in our delegations, they are serving our churches. They keep coming back… there is a kind of miracle in that."
"The Rev. Maxie Dunnam (a signer of the letter calling to censure Bishop Talbert) of the Kentucky Annual (regional) Conference spok against the substitution saying, "It leaves out good teaching. There is no reason at all to state we disagree, because we disagree about almost everything, he said."
If Maxie Dunnam is to be taken at his word, then it appears that Bishop Talbert's statement that "the time for talk is over" was more of an observation of our UMC reality then a call to disobedience.
On May 3 at General Conference, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner (Germany Area), newly installed president of the Council of Bishops, spoke to the LGBT United Methodists present on behalf of the Council, saying, "You have been hurt by actions of General Conference and by the polity of the United Methodist Church. I feel your pain. We see your pain." And then speaking to everyone at GC 2012, "We ask you, gathered here, to join us in that commitment to Holy Conferencing and to steps toward unity which help us to recognize the divisions we are in."
For some of us, myself included, Bishop Talbert's statements at the Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle on May 4 may have done more for taking "steps toward unity which help to recognize the divisions we are in," than anything that took place in the political posturing that was taking place on the floor of General Conference. His words were meant to encourage a group of 1,100 of us clergy who have already decided that the only way we can stay and serve within our beloved United Methodist Church, is by being obedient to our call to serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the people we have the privilege to be appointed in service with, even if that obedience puts us at odds with policies (polity) of the denomination that even the Council of Bishops agrees cause "pain" to some of our United Methodist sisters and brothers.
When our Council of Bishops meet this fall to discuss the letter coming from the far right of our church, I hope they will consider Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience!
- I hope they will remember the Pharisees who tried to use threats and intimidation to silence Jesus and force a false unity of beliefs through coerced conformity upon their congregants. I'll hope they will remember Jesus' words found in Luke 19, "Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, 'Teacher, rebuke your disciples!' 'I tell you,' he replied, 'if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.'" Censuring is a rebuking! And when they tried to trap him using the rules of his day, Jesus responded with the "Great Commandment as the basis for all of the laws of God: Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:35-40).
- I hope our Bishops will remember our Wesleyan heritage of our "Three Simple Rules: Do no harm. Do all the good you can. Stay in love with God;" and, our connectional practice of "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity."
- I hope our Bishops feel free of the intimidation of threats and charges to speak and do what is in their hearts and minds according to the Grace of God. Reason and Experience coming together in an act of God's Grace for others. In other words, I hope they are able live out in leadership what they asked of all of us at General Conference: "to join… in that commitment to Holy Conferencing and to steps toward unity which help us to recognize the divisions we are in." Remembering that forced conformity has and never will equate or work out to the kind of unity God calls us toward.
The letter calling for censure of retired Bishop Melvin Talbert and the Bishops who stood with him, is nothing short of an attempt to keep our bishops' hands and tongues tied. It's trying to force the Council of Bishops to take sides, rather than allowing them to speak their hearts and minds. As issues of Biblical interpretation; the validity of God's Grace being available to all; and, the roles and monitoring of how the church and society marginalize others based on sexual orientation, race, gender and gender expression continue to divide us, I want to have a group of Bishops that are free to lead, not bound by fear and intimidation.
So I hope you will join me in keeping our United Methodist Bishops in prayer and committing to work to create a space in our church where the Spirit can truly be free to do its work of guidance and creativity. I'm praying in hopes that the sanctifying and perfecting Love and Grace of God may take hold of our Bishops and thereby our beloved community, the United Methodist connection, and take us all to new places of hope and faithfulness!
The Rev. Steve Clunn served as coordinator of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition at the 2012 General Conference.