Good News Magazine has reported that Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert "will be the first publicly known United Methodist bishop to perform a same-sex wedding, according to a September 25 press release from the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). The ceremony will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, on October 26, 2013."
Bishop Talbert is among the most vocal leaders who have for years been lobbying United Methodist clergy to change the denomination's stance on human sexuality. However efforts to overturn UM doctrine on same-sex relationships have failed consistently at each General Conference over the past four decades (General Conference is the highest and only authoritative voice of official UM doctrine and polity and meets every four years). Despite the efforts of Talbert and others within a vocal minority advocating for change, the global body of Methodism has chosen to remain with the historic Christian ethic regarding human sexuality while nearly every other American mainline Protestant denomination has changed their position to accommodate widespread cultural shift on the subject of same-sex sexual ethics.
So Bishop Talbert has begun openly calling for disobedience on the part of clergy:
“The time for talking is over,” Talbert said at a May 4 rally at the conclusion of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. “It’s time for us to act in defiance of unjust words of immoral and derogatory discrimination and laws that are doing harm to our GLBT sisters and brothers.”
In June, the following month, Talbert used the ordination service at the California-Pacific Annual Conference to reissue his call for schismatic action by United Methodist clergy. “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” He encouraged the newly ordained clergy to perform same-sex weddings, “thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so.”
For those who do not know the official doctrinal stance of the UMC, which Talbert and others see as "derogatory" and "unjust", here are the relevant excerpts from the United Methodist Book of Discipline:
¶ 161 F) Human Sexuality—We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. We deplore all forms of the commercialization, abuse, and exploitation of sex. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children and for adequate protection, guidance, and counseling for abused children. All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence. The Church should support the family in providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth, and adults.
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
¶ 162 J) Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation—Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. ["Self-avowed practicing homosexual" is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.]
Personally, I find it hard to even conceive of a more inclusive and welcoming approach to the same-sex issue that also remains faithful to the overall teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of Church history on the subject.
Yet Bishop Talbert and many others disagree.
It seems that nothing short of full affirmation and celebration of the legitimacy of sexual relationships between members of the same gender will be acceptable. Therefore, I propose the following to Bishop Talbert and every other member of the UMC who disagrees with the denomination's view:
Bishop, and those fellow Methodists who believe the denominational stance on human sexuality should be changed, ignored, or disobeyed, I say this with no ill-will or bitterness:
It is time for you to find (or found) another church.
There are a number of other mainline Protestant denominations that have moved to embrace and affirm same-sex sexual relationships (PCUSA, UCC, Episcopalian, etc.). I believe those of you within our denomination who have spent four decades trying to change our doctrinal stance on the subject would be welcome with open arms in most of them.
Or, if you are so deeply convicted and truly do believe that the UMC is in grave error and that the Holy Spirit is leading the Body of Christ to embrace behavior that was once seen as incompatible with a call to discipleship, then maybe it is time for you to follow that spirit's leading and step out into this new thing in faith...rather than remaining within what you believe to be a "discriminatory" organization that is "doing harm to our GLBT sisters and brothers" (while still partaking of its financial resources, social standing, and tying up countless thousands of dollars in church trial litigation and lobbying efforts that could be better spent in feeding the poor, caring for the orphan or fighting the worldwide slave trade and sex-trafficking).
If it is the Holy Spirit who is actually trying to lead the Church into full acceptance and affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships, and if that Church is refusing to follow such leading, then shouldn't those of you who feel the UMC is on the wrong side of history "shake the dust from your sandals" and leave us to experience the judgment of God on a disobedient people? If you are correct--if the real reason for the UMC's decline over the past 40 years is the lack of acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships--if as a colleague of yours has put it, the global (i.e. African) Methodists need to "grow up"--then isn't it time to "come out of Babylon"? Isn't it time to walk in what you believe to be true faithfulness to the Gospel in another denomination? Or step out from the shelter of UM bureaucratic procedure and form what you believe to be a better and truer community of faith?
If you are correct, then given the fact that global United Methodism has consistently chosen to remain committed to an historic and orthodox sexual ethic, is it not time to part ways with those whom you see as "discriminatory" and "disobedient" to God?
I believe it is.
You see, rather than being a minor or peripheral issue, the Church's stance on human sexuality comes from a foundational difference we have with you regarding what it means to stand under the authority of Scripture, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and deny ourselves as Disciples of Jesus. The issue cuts to the core of who we are as a Wesleyan community "of one book", and will never be an issue over which we simply agree to disagree (despite the best efforts of some respected and influential leaders within our ranks whom I admire).
That being the case, and with the global body of Methodists haven spoken so clearly and unequivocally on the subject for decades, I believe it is now time for those members who cannot in good conscience abide with such "unjust" doctrine to boldly step out into whatever it is you believe is a more faithful reflection of the Gospel and allow God to bless you and validate your movement. Just as He did with our first Methodist ancestors.
We cannot both be right. Thus, time will then tell who is being obedient to the Spirit and who is "doing harm" to all who are created in God's Image and who are of sacred worth. But a house divided simply cannot stand. And a denomination divided will continue its decline into cultural and spiritual irrelevance.
I genuinely ask that if you cannot in good conscience obey the vows you took at your ordination, that you please find a faith community in which you can serve without reservation.