Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, for the second time, has defied church law to officiate at a ceremony celebrating the union of two men.
He co-officiated with the Rev. Val Rosenquist at the April 23 wedding of Jim Wilborne and John Romano at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Wilborne has been a member of the church for 20 years and Romano for about four. Rosenquist is the church’s senior pastor.
Talbert participated throughout the ceremony, finally offering a benediction at the end. “May God send you forth to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God,” he said, quoting Micah 6:8.
More than 20 other United Methodist clergy also came to offer a blessing at the first such public same-sex wedding at a United Methodist church in the southern U.S.
In performing the ceremony, both bishop and senior pastor are putting their clergy credentials at risk.
“We’re just so blessed because we had the good fortune of all these people willing to stick their necks out for the cause,” Wilborne said. “We weren’t just at the church to get married. This is my home church.”
A formal complaint already has been filed against Rosenquist, reported the Rev. Michael Rich, the web and communications manager for the Western North Carolina Conference where the wedding took place.
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster leads the Western North Carolina Conference and will follow the process outlined in church law, Rich said. Most of that process is confidential.
So far, no complaint has been filed against Talbert with the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, which under church law would handle such a complaint.
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The Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law and teachings, has stated since 1972 that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
It defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and lists officiating at a same-gender union as a chargeable offense under church law. It also bans United Methodist churches from hosting such ceremonies. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties.
“My congregation has worked for decades to include the LGBTQ community,” said Rosenquist, who has been appointed to the congregation since July. The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning. In August, the congregation voted to allow any adult member of the church to marry there.
“The United Methodist Church has upheld what I consider to be incredibly discriminatory and unjust legislation for too long,” Rosenquist said.
The wedding comes less than three weeks before the denomination’s 2016 General Conference on May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon. The denomination’s legislative body, which determines most of the Book of Discipline’s contents, will debate once again how the denomination ministers with LGBTQ individuals.
The legislative gathering will bring together 864 delegates from around the globe. About a third of the General Conference delegates come from Africa, most from nations where homosexual acts are illegal.
However, many of the wedding’s organizers hope the ceremony helps shape that conversation, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has made same-sex civil marriage the law of the land.
“What the influence will be, I can’t say,” Talbert said. “I think for those who are open-minded and really ready to give this discussion another look, it might have a positive influence. But for those in opposition, it might harden their views.”
Ultimately, he said he decided to officiate at the wedding because he believes it’s “the right thing" to do.
Second act of ecclesial disobedience
Talbert has been down this road before. He officiated at the union of two United Methodist men — Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince — on Oct. 25, 2013, at Covenant Community United Church of Christ near Birmingham, Alabama. The two had legally married prior to the church ceremony.
Before the ceremony, both Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked Talbert not to officiate. Less than a month after the service, the United Methodist Council of Bishops requested the complaint under church law be filed against Talbert.
Talbert reached a resolution in that complaint in January 2015. In the resolution agreement, the bishop expressed regret for the “felt harm and unintended consequences” of his actions. However, he said he also held “steadfastly to the conviction that his actions were just and right.”
Talbert, a veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement who spent three days in a jail cell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has long campaigned to change the church’s stance on homosexuality. He also has been an outspoken advocate for clergy officiating at same-gender unions.
“I believe the derogatory language and punitive laws are immoral, evil and unjust,” he said. “There are times when one’s commitment to God takes priority over what the church says.”
He calls the campaign “biblical obedience,” and he comes from a region where many United Methodists share his views.
Before his retirement, Talbert served in the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses the church’s eight westernmost conferences in the United States. Church law requires that complaints against bishops be heard in the jurisdiction where the bishop is a member.
Both Talbert and Rosenquist informed Bishop Goodpaster that they would officiate at the wedding before the April 23 service. Talbert said Goodpaster did not request the retired bishop to stay away.
Goodpaster, who plans to retire in September, also has been leading conversations among the United Methodist bishops about their accountability to one another. One focus of those conversations has been that a bishop should not do ministry in another bishop’s area without letting that colleague know first.
Tough opposition ahead
Multiple proposals are heading to General Conference to change the Book of Discipline in ways that would allow clergy to officiate at same-gender weddings if they choose. Those petitions likely will face stiff opposition.
Efforts to change church law lost by a wider margin at the 2012 General Conference than at the 2008 gathering.
African bishops already have explicitly called on The United Methodist Church to hold the line on its teachings regarding sexuality, especially the one that only affirms sexual relations in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Bishops do not vote at General Conference, but their guidance can shape discussion.
Matt Berryman, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, remains cautiously optimistic. His unofficial United Methodist advocacy group seeks to change the Book of Discipline to end what it sees as discriminatory measures, and Berryman personally persuaded Wilborne and Romano to hold their wedding at their church ahead of General Conference.
“What we believe we are doing is really helping The United Methodist Church live into its best self,” Berryman said.
Debate about the church’s stance has surfaced at each General Conference for the past 40 years. The body has consistently voted to keep the same language and over the years has expanded on restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender unions.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]