The Council of Bishops’ call for a complaint to be filed against one of its own is prompting mixed reactions from United Methodists across the theological spectrum — including from the bishops themselves.
On Nov. 15, the council “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’s statement specifically urged the complaint be filed 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 ceremony took place.
Many of the bishops sent out copies of the statement to the areas they oversee, and some added their own thoughts in pastoral letters.
“I affirm this statement, and I do ask for the people of Holston Conference to be in prayer for all who are hurt,” said Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, who leads the Holston Annual (regional) Conference that includes United Methodists in Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.
Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya offered a different message, showing that the bishops are in many ways as divided as the denomination they lead on how best to minister with gay and lesbian individuals.
Hagiya commended the council’s commitment to address the topic of human sexuality in a task force. And, like Taylor, he asked for prayer.
“However, I do not support the actions suggested in response to Bishop Talbert, and stood outside the majority vote of the Council because of this,” he said. “I will address my personal opinions and concerns in a deeper way in the near future.”
Hagiya’s area includes the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest conferences. He, like Talbert, is a member of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.
Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck, who leads the Northern Illinois Conference, issued a statement on Nov. 20, encouraging United Methodists to be welcoming and discouraging formal complaints as a way forward.
“I love this annual conference. But I don’t want our annual conference, which is made up of diverse but divided beliefs on human sexuality, to exhaust our resources of time, focus, energy and money (up to $100,000 if it goes to a trial) on filing complaints against clergy who are following their conscience,” she said.
She added that she planned to hold open gatherings in the conference where we can discuss how we can reframe this conversation, based on Acts 15.
Wenner, in a news conference Nov. 15, said she and Wallace-Padgett would use “prayerful consideration” in deciding when and how to respond to the council’s request.
Wallace-Padgett is in Nashville this week to attend a meeting of the Connectional Table, which coordinates the mission, ministry and resources of the church.
“My prayers are with all of us during this time,” she told United Methodist News Service.
Talbert said on Nov. 15 that with a complaint likely, he did not think it appropriate to comment. Much of the complaint process in The United Methodist Church is confidential.
Church law and ‘biblical obedience’
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.”
Talbert, a veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement, long has campaigned to change the church’s stance on homosexuality and has been an outspoken advocate for clergy officiating at same-sex unions. He calls the movement “biblical obedience.”
But going against church law, like civil law, carries repercussions, said the Rev. Chappell Temple, the senior pastor of Lakewood United Methodist Churchin Houston and a frequent blogger on church matters.
“Whatever else one might think about the social question itself, the action of the Council of Bishops in the Talbert case was not only appropriate but it was necessary,” Temple told United Methodist News Service.
“For as our Social Principles make plain, even when individuals follow the constraints of conscience they are called to so with ‘respect for law’ and with a willingness ‘to accept the costs of disobedience.’ If there are no real consequences thus, there can actually be no genuine civil disobedience or even — as some might wish to call it — ‘gospel obedience’ either.”
Advocacy groups respond
Leaders of unofficial United Methodist advocacy groups also have responded.
The Revs. Thomas Lambrecht and Walter Fenton of Good News were observers at the Council of Bishops meeting. Good News is a renewal group that seeks to keep the church’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
After the council’s statement, the group released a response applauding the bishops’ recommendation.
“We view the statement as an implied rebuke of Bishop Talbert’s actions,” Good News said. “The fact that the Council requested that complaints be filed against Bishop Talbert … is very significant. It is virtually unprecedented for a bishop to file a complaint against another bishop.”
The group also said it wished the council had called for Bishop Talbert’s resignation. But the group added, “we are pleased that the Council united to hold him accountable by criticizing his actions and initiating judicial processes against him.”
The Revs. Amy DeLong and Julie Todd of the group Love Prevails also were observers at the council’s meeting. After being convicted in a church trial of officiating at a same-sex union, DeLong established Love Prevails as an action arm of Kairos CoMotion, her nonprofit that provides advocacy and education on progressive theological issues.
Couple responds to bishops
Bishops and advocacy groups are not the only United Methodists speaking out. Among those responding publicly to the council’s statement were Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, the couple whose union Talbert celebrated.
Prince and Openshaw took issue not only with the council’s recommended sanction against Talbert but with the fact the council did not use their names.
“We are two men who are loved by the people at Discovery United Methodist Church (in Hoover, Ala.), but are pushed aside by the United Methodist Church,” the
couple wrote in a Nov. 16 letter to the Council of Bishops.
“And we are two men who feel that their relationship has been blessed by God and that this blessing has been enhanced by our public wedding and by Bishop Talbert’s participation in our ceremony,” the letter added.
Eight members of the group, including DeLong and Todd, were attending the Connectional Table meeting this week. Todd told United Methodist News Service that the council’s statement is “no surprise.”
“The bishops do not display prophetic leadership but continue to believe they need to persecute and prosecute one of those who has served as a prophet,” said Todd, an elder in the New England Annual (regional) Conference and adjunct professor. “This is a familiar theme in the Christian tradition.”
The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, another renewal group, has not released a formal response. But the group’s executive director, Indiana State Sen. Patricia Miller, shared her thoughts.
“The statement by the Council of Bishops is very positive,” Miller said. “We can expect the bishops to be responsible and hold each other accountable. Unfortunately, we still have a divided church.”
Western Jurisdiction past and future
That division is particularly apparent with the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses eight conferences in the westernmost United States. Delegates to the jurisdictional meeting in 2012 voted to extend “extravagant hospitality” to all people including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or persons whose gender expression is ambiguous.
At the same meeting, delegates asked Talbert to oversee a Western Jurisdiction grassroots movement to act as if the stance against homosexuality in the Book of Discipline — Paragraph 161F — “does not exist.”
The Methodist Federation for Social Action, a progressive group that advocates for fuller inclusion of gay and lesbian individuals, referenced that background in its response to the Council of Bishops statement.
“The idea of forcing a region of the Church so deeply committed to inclusion of persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities to file charges against Bishop Talbert is preposterous,” said Chett Pritchett, the group’s executive director. “In essence, the Council of Bishops has begun to cannibalize themselves, rendering their leadership questionable, harmful and life-less.”
Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky is the president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and will receive any complaint filed against Talbert. She told United Methodist News Service on Nov. 15 that her college would follow the protocols outlined in the Book of Discipline for addressing complaints.
After a complaint is filed against a bishop, the Discipline gives the president and the secretary of the college of bishops 10 days to consult with the chair of the jurisdictional committee on the episcopacy. The chair will then appoint one clergy and one lay member of the committee — who must be from different episcopal areas and must be of different genders — who will further pursue the matter and seek a just resolution.
The Discipline calls church trials “an expedient of last resort.”
Leaders stress that the complaint process is usually very confidential.
“If it’s dealt with as a supervisory response, the seal of confidentiality is never lifted,” said Greg Nelson, who has previously served as the chair of the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy. “If it’s dealt with in other ways, it still may not become public until the committee on episcopacy makes its report at the next jurisdictional conference.”
Like other bishops, Stanovsky also sent out a statement to her area on the council’s actions. Her area encompasses the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences.
“I know that the faithful discernment of many in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences leads to a very different position from that of the Council, and that many will experience this statement as a failure of the bishops to recognize the variety and breadth of the way God’s love expresses itself in human relationships,” Stanovsky wrote.
“Please pray with me for Bishops Wallace-Padgett and Bishop Talbert, for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, two United Methodists whose marriage Bishop Talbert celebrated, and for all people and the whole church as we continue to grow in our love and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].