An open letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops

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From the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, retired elder, Rocky Mountain Conference

On July 19, 2012, more than 70 people sent a letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops demanding that the bishops charge Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert with “violating his responsibility to uphold church law, disseminating doctrine contrary to the standards of The United Methodist Church and engaging in behavior that undermines another pastor’s ministry.”

This open letter I now write to the United Methodist Council of Bishops speaks for those of us who, like Jesus and Paul, prioritize love over law, grace over judgment. Like Wesley, we say, “If your heart is like my heart, take my hand.”

The Social Principles in “The Nurturing Community,” Paragraph 161 F, p. 103, contain these words: “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…. 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.”

Bishop Melvin Talbert is calling for OBEDIENCE to the mandate, “… ALL persons need the ministry of the Church… ” In 1972, The United Methodist Church declared that people who are gay or lesbian are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” From that moment until now, the church has been in DISOBEDIENCE to the way of Jesus by denying ministry to lesbian and gay persons. Today, as gay and lesbian couples request United Methodist clergy and church to bless their civil unions or marriages, the laws of the church say, they are not good enough. Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who felt superior to others in the eyes of God.

The call to “publicly censure” and “file a formal complaint” against Bishop Talbert brought to mind two other bishops who on April 12, 1963 issued a public statement requesting that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. end the demonstrations for racial justice in Birmingham. Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference, with their white clergy colleagues, said, “We further urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Martin Luther King responded to Bishops Hardin and Harmon and their colleagues with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter now affirmed by most as a classic expression of how essential it is for men and women of conscience to disobey unjust laws. History has shown that Martin Luther King and those who with him sought justice for African Americans were right, and those who requested that justice be delayed, were wrong.

Those who are requesting censure of Bishop Talbert with claims of “Disobedience” are ignoring what The Book of Discipline says about civil obedience and civil disobedience:…governments, no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust and discriminately enforced.” (From “The Social Principles,” Paragraph 164F, p.125.)

We would simply add that church laws are subject to conscience as well. After 40 years of challenging church laws that discriminate against lesbian and gay persons and same sex couples, the words and actions of Bishop Talbert and many other lay and clergy United Methodists must be understood as acts of conscience that should be celebrated, not punished.

Many of us who are African American have remained in the United Methodist Church that once relegated us and our churches to racially segregated and second-class status. From 1939 to 1968 we were shunted into a segregated jurisdiction. We know what it feels like to be called “children of God” or “persons of sacred worth,” but be treated as inferior and blocked from full participation.

We cannot be silent as another group of persons are humiliated by the church — this time because of whom they love. It is not Bishop Melvin Talbert who ought to be charged for “urging disobedience”; rather it is those who insist on maintaining our current language and legislation who are being disobedient. They are being disobedient to the gospel of love and freedom over law. They disrespect our hard-earned United Methodist diversity. Once slavery, racial segregation and prohibitions against the ordination of women were thought to be essential expressions of church law — grounded in the Bible, Christian teaching and doctrines. Our history has proven that they are not!

Once, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King were viewed by many as worthy of “public censure” because of their obedience to the higher law of love. But it was those who sought to censure them who were wrong. Bishop Melvin Talbert and the many, many United Methodist clergy and lay people who agree with him, want The United Methodist Church to be a church for the 21st century and not the centuries that have gone by — we want a church that Jesus would recognize as committed to the Gospel of love, not law — grace, not exclusion.

Speak out for Bishop Melvin Talbert! A simple act is to join more than 2,000 people who “like” the “I Stand with Bishop Talbert” Facebook page. Work together and urge the church we love to become The United Methodist Church of all God’s children. Follow the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. We need a church of the present and the future, not just for ourselves but for those who will follow us long after we are gone.

Caldwell, retired United Methodist pastor, lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Massachusetts and participated in the civil-rights movement throughout the nation. He was the co-founder of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, is working on the documentary Truth in Progress, and published his book, Something Within, through Church Within a Church. He is a national board member of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

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