The United Methodist Church's African-American caucus announced Sept. 5 that it stands with retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert. More than 70 United Methodist clergy and lay people have accused him of urging defiance against the denomination's stance on homosexuality.
The statement by Black Methodists for Church Renewal Inc., which represents African-American United Methodists and congregations across the United States, acknowledged that the group's membership has "varied interpretations of scriptural holiness, human sexuality and justice."
"Though there are differences within the body, we do not advocate for the censure of any member of the body who we may disagree with," the group's statement said. The statement received the approval of the board of directors of the caucus.
Talbert, who is African American and a veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement, is one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
The caucus statement responds to an open letter signed by more than 70 U.S. clergy and lay people to the Council of Bishops. The letter asks the council to "publicly censure" Talbert for remarks he made May 4 outside General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, and that he reiterated during a June 16 sermon at the ordination service of the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.
In those remarks, Talbert called on more than 1,100 clergy who have signed pledges to officiate at same-sex unions to "stand firm."
"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," the letter said.
It also asked the executive committee of the Council of Bishops to file a formal complaint against Talbert. It requested he be charged 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.
"What some may call 'encouraging dissension, disunity and disobedience' and 'advocating anarchy and chaos,' we call advocating for a positive peace that is the presence of justice," said the Black Methodists for Church Renewal statement. "Rather than attempting to silence prophetic leaders of the church, we should encourage just dialogue and the tension that comes with it."
Debate over motives
That caucus statement went on to question "whether the motives of the letter's signers have more to do with personal profit, gain and power and less to do with God's justice and the coming of the beloved community."
The Rev. Kenneth R. Levingston, pastor of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, said that was not the reason he signed the letter.
"I have a deep love for the church of Jesus Christ and the biblical witness and tradition of the church," said Levingston, who is also a member of the Houston chapter of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. "I have no personal animosity toward Bishop Talbert."
He said that while some believe Talbert's call to be prophetic, Levingston said he felt he needed to stand up for his own discernment of the "biblical witness, which I believe to be clear, and to the voice of the General Conference, which all of us have taken a covenant to support."
He added that he wants the episcopacy to have accountability to the whole church.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, says the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from officiating at "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions."
The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.
Talbert, in his May 4 remarks at the Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle outside General Conference, called on United Methodists to "join in an act of biblical obedience."
Common Witness Coalition
The Love Your Neighbor Tabernacle was sponsored by the Common Witness Coalition, which includes groups that have historically advocated for greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in The United Methodist Church.
At its annual meeting before General Conference, Black Methodists for Church Renewal voted to affirm the Common Coalition's platform. The National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, the denomination's Asian American caucus, also joined the coalition.
"We stand with Common Witness and we stand with Bishop Talbert, particularly in their conviction to speak their conscience," said the Black Methodists for Church Renewal statement. "Most importantly, however, we stand with Jesus Christ, who proclaimed that as we have done to the least of these, we have done it unto him, who read in his inaugural sermon that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to let the oppressed go free and who told us that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves."
Talbert said he was heartened by the caucus' "affirmation and support."
"As one of BMCR's founding members, it gives me great pride to know that BMCR is still on the side of justice for all," he said.
The Council of Bishops will next meet as a body the first week of November.
*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or mailto:[email protected]