After hours of closed-door sessions throughout the week, the Council of Bishops has “respectfully” requested a formal complaint be filed against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, who officiated at a same-sex union on Oct. 26 despite church law.
The council specifically urged the complaint be submitted by Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the council’s president, and Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who oversees the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference where the wedding took place.
The complaint would go before the Western Jurisdiction, from which Bishop Talbert retired.
The council also recommended that its executive committee “initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a worldwide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of The United Methodist Church.”
The bishops in their statement acknowledged that neither they nor the other members of the church they lead are of one mind regarding ministering with gays and lesbians.
The statement said, “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them. We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.”
Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert Hayes Jr., the Council of Bishops secretary, read the full statement at the start of the council’s session Friday, Nov. 15.
After the statement was read, Wenner told the council and observers that “we commit ourselves as bishops in the church to be shepherds in our church, pastoral leaders for all people in our denomination.”
“We commit ourselves to invite and engage with our people in the areas to be in prayer so that God may through the Holy Spirit guide us to see Christ’s face in all God’s people and guide us to engage with all God’s people to whom we are sent,” she said.
Talbert and Wallace-Padget sat at neighboring tables while the statement was read. Talbert later told United Methodist News Service he did not feel he should speak publicly on the actions of the bishops.
“In our due process in the church, it is not appropriate for me to comment when a complaint is filed,” Talbert said. “So I will just simply wait to see the process unfold.”
Wallace-Padgett also declined to give immediate comment.
Wenner later said during a news conference that determining when and how to respond to the council’s request for a complaint requires “prayerful consideration.”
“I will engage in conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett,” Wenner said. “We will do this discernment in a timely manner. I do not think it appropriate to take immediate action because the question is too important for the church to hurry.”
The Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law bans United Methodist clergy from performing, and churches from hosting, “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
The council directs that the complaint against the bishop be “under the provisions of Paragraph 413 (of the Book of Discipline) for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.”
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, approves the contents of the Discipline and is the only body that officially speaks for the church. Bishops do not have a vote at the assembly, which will next meet in May 2016.
In the news conference, Wenner said she could not disclose the proportion of the council’s vote on its Nov. 15 statement. The bishops prefer to speak to the church as a whole.
“In fact, we are not only of two minds,” Wenner said. “We are of as many minds as there are people here because every single bishop brings a perspective to the table.”
Under church law, only active bishops have a vote on the council’s actions, but retired bishops, including Talbert, are part of the conversation and discernment process.
Background of the tension
Talbert, who has long advocated changing this part of the Discipline, said after last year’s General Conference he “felt compelled as a bishop to declare that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in our Book of Discipline are wrong, immoral and unjust, and no longer deserve our loyalty and support.”
Before the ceremony, Talbert notified Wallace-Padgett of his plans, and she requested Talbert not to go to Birmingham for that purpose.
“For a bishop or any ordained or licensed minister to disregard a law of the church creates a breach of the covenant they made at their consecration, ordination or licensing,” she said in a statement.
She also expressed concern that Talbert’s actions “would encourage the public to only define The United Methodist Church in North Alabama by one matter and not by the rich range of ministries of North Alabama local churches.”
The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops also urged Talbert not to officiate, reminding him that conducting same-sex wedding ceremonies is a chargeable offense under church law.
What happens now
“When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required,” the council’s statement said. “However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable. Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy. (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f)”
That means it is up to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.
Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky is the president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.
“Whenever a bishop receives a complaint, we keep faith with the guidance that we get from the Book of Discipline,” she told United Methodist News Service. She noted that church law gives bishops some leeway in addressing complaints.
“We seek a just resolution,” she said. She also noted that the Discipline calls church trials “an expedient of last resort.”
The 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference adopted a petition stating that “the sense” of the jurisdiction — based on its welcoming attitude to people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — was to impose only a 24-hour suspension on any bishop convicted of ordaining or appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
In October, the Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court — voided the resolution. “The Discipline grants to the trial court the exclusive power to set a penalty in a church trial which results in a conviction and the full legislated range of options must be available to a trial court in its penalty phase,” the court states in Decision 1250.
“A jurisdictional or annual conference may express disagreement with other bodies of The United Methodist Church, but it is still subject to the Constitution, the Discipline and the decisions of the Judicial Council,” the ruling says.
“The current controlling principle is that a conference — jurisdictional, central or annual — resolution may express disagreement with the current language of the Discipline and may express aspirational hopes, but a conference may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline, even when disagreements are based upon conscientious objection to those provisions.”
Stanovsky noted that bishops historically have processed all sorts of complaints in the life of the church, and reiterated that her college will follow the process outlined in the Book of Discipline.
Wenner concluded her news conference noting that it has been a tough week for the bishops meeting in Lake Junaluska.
“We go out of this meeting with many griefs, with many wounds but also with a commitment to engage with the church on these issues where we are divided and more, though, on where we are united,” Wenner said. “That is God’s call to our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].