During part of my active career as a United Methodist elder, United Methodist apportionment dollars supported me to provide leadership to the churches, annual conferences and Council of Bishops in Christian unity. The goal of unity in Christ takes many forms.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the goal of “full visible unity” was at its peak. There was even a strong movement to unify five large denominations into one church (Consultation on Church Union). In 1972, the United Methodist Church (UMC) and other churches said “no” to that goal. In the 1990s, there was a call adopted by general conferences for a plan of union between the UMC and three historic Black Methodist churches (adopted in UMC in Denver in 1996). That movement failed because many saw that portraying visible unity without social justice was not really a unity at all. So other visions of unity emerged such as “reconciled diversity.”
Today, in the UMC as in the United States, there is a divide over same-sex marriage. Passages in our Book of Discipline forbid it in UMC churches and forbid clergy from celebrating those unions. At the same time, the Discipline calls for full inclusiveness, and many UMC churches are in states where same-sex marriage is now legal. Pastors sense a call by God to offer love and support to all couples who want to marry. Those pastors believe our “covenant” in ordained ministry requires that we offer pastoral care and spiritual guidance to all members. The call is so strong that these clergy are willing to violate explicit prohibitions in the Book of Discipline. They are now being brought to trial and, poignantly, some have officiated for their own children in those marriages! I, personally, performed a same-sex wedding in September and it was as joyous and faithful as any wedding I celebrated previously.
Bishop Talbert is in the midst of controversy for agreeing to officiate at a wedding in Alabama. The resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, has asked him not to perform it, and the bishops in leadership of the UMC have joined her in that request. Here are the the reasons that the bishops gave, and some commentary about their rationale:
- This is a local matter and “Bishop Wallace-Padgett is the caring shepherd of all people in the congregations in the North Alabama Conference.” I recall our founder, John Wesley, preaching in another bishop’s area, yet Brother John was compelled by God to offer the love of Christ although it aroused the ire of bishops in the Church of England. Bishop Talbert goes where the gospel calls him.
- The UMC bishops believe they are in “special covenant with all other bishops” (Paragraph 422.1), and in mutual accountability to one another. Yes, of course. These bishops know that Bishop Talbert carries a history of bringing truth to the table at the most difficult times. The charge of not “upholding the covenant” is the most common charge against clergy conducting weddings. After many years of debate, I am convinced that Bishop Talbert and others are faithful to the Bible, to the UMC Book of Discipline, and to God’s call — despite the Discipline’s prohibitions and our bishops’ pronouncements. We are disobedient to our resident bishops and, yet, faithful to our ordination vows. Our bishops can choose not to bring us to trial for this matter.
I pray that we can maintain “visible unity” in the UMC. Even though encouraged, I will never leave the United Methodist body I hold so dear. There is a famous principle of church unity that says Christians should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately. I remember Dr. Janice Love, a UM leader, once saying that Christian unity requires us to remain at the table with those who are offended by us and who deeply offend us. For the sake of the UMC today, I think we need to keep listening and loving one another. Our unity may not be visible but, for sure, God will use us as reconciled people for the hope of the world.
* Robbins recently retired from the Minnesota Annual Conference and served from 1990-2004 as General Secretary of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.