Two Simple and Central Questions for the UMC

There’s an old story of a rabbi in a Russian city at the turn of the twentieth century. One night he was wandering around aimlessly questioning his faith in God and his calling to ministry. In the midst of his despair and lack of direction on that bitterly cold night he wandered into a Russian military compound. It was off-limits to any civilian. The bark of a Russian soldier broke his brooding thoughts, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” The rabbi replied, “Excuse me?” The soldier asked again, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” After a brief pause and the dawning of enlightenment that came from the soldier’s questions, the rabbi responded in a most gracious tone, “How much do you get paid every day?” The soldier shot back, “What does that have to do with you?” The rabbi then said, “I will pay you the same wages if you will ask me those same questions every day: ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” When faced with an identity crisis these two questions will help anyone get back on track!

We all need to answer these two questions, but this weekend they are especially important for the United Methodist Church. This coming Saturday Bishop Melvin Talbert is supposed to conduct a marriage ceremony in Alabama for a homosexual couple against the advice of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Annual Conference and the Executive Committee of the whole denomination’s Council of Bishops. While I affirm the sacred worth of all people and the fact that we all stand in the need of Christ’s grace, another issue at hand is one of ecclesiology, and hence identity, for our denomination.  Are we headed to schism? Will we live and be in covenant with one another? What are we doing? Why are we here? Bishop Talbert is answering from one perspective while the General Conference and the Council of Bishops has answered from another. What say you?

Here are my thoughts: God holds us together, but so does the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Walk with me through a few pertinent paragraphs of our Discipline as we ponder Bishop Talbert’s actions or the actions of others who might be tempted to do likewise. Paragraph 340.2(a)(3)(a) says that pastors  can perform marriage ceremonies “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” Neither the state of Alabama nor the rules of the UMC allow homosexual unions. Furthermore, Par. 339 defines “Pastors” as elders, etc. which would have to include bishops of the church since they are elders consecrated for a particular task. Paragraph 403 states: “Bishops and superintendents are elders in full connection.”

Some say that Bishop Talbert’s actions will not violate church law, and that the situation is a moot point, because the couple was already legally married in Washington earlier this year and his intention is merely to perform a “ceremony.”  But things get complicated as one follows the Book of Discipline on the matter.

First, what about permission to do such a service in an area under another clergyperson’s charge? Paragraphs 341.4 and 341.6 are instructive in terms of our polity and procedures. Paragraph 341.4 states that no pastor (remember that Bishops are pastors) can hold a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without consent of the pastor of the charge. In this case the pastor of the charge is Bishop Wallace-Padgett and though Bishop Talbert appropriately contacted her about his plans, she told him that he did not have her permission.

Second, does it matter if what Bishop Talbert is doing is just a “Blessing Service?” Par. 341.6 clearly says that “Ceremonies that celebrate (italics mine) homosexual unions” are off-limits. Maybe the Judicial Council will rule that the General Conference will have to define what a “ceremony” is or what “celebrate” means, but for the time being it’s pretty clear: any service that even “celebrates” such a union is non-compliant. Plus the UM Constitution in Paragraph 16.6 gives the sole right to “provide and revise” the hymnal and ritual of the Church to the General Conference. Therefore, if anyone, including Bishop Talbert, tries to perform a “Blessing Ceremony” for a homosexual union then they are essentially creating a liturgy/ritual that the General Conference has not approved. Any such action by a bishop would be in direct violation of Par. 403.1 that states that bishops are “authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” This, of course, would be an ipso facto violation of Par. 2702.1(d) which is “disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.” The same would be true for anyone, bishop or not, who would try to rewrite General Conference-approved liturgy.

This gives rise to the nature of any official denominational complaint or charge against Bishop Talbert. Is he violating Par. 341.6 and 2702.1(b), that prohibit a United Methodist clergyperson from conducting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” or is he violating Par. 2702.1(f), which is defined as “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor”? In this case, the undermined would be the Bishop of North Alabama and at least the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops if not the whole Council. These are key questions that speak to larger issues of covenant and our connectional polity.

The United Methodist Church is a covenantal body bound together by allegiance to Jesus Christ and our vows as lay members and clergy to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and uphold it by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This loyalty to the UMC is most clearly postulated in our Book of Discipline. As a denomination we are at a critical ecclesiological juncture. Will we be a covenantal body with an episcopal polity or shift to a “free church anything goes” polity? Will we be able to stay in covenant with one another? These are the ultimate questions that the Bishop Talbert situation beg – “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?”

Even the way that complaints against bishops are handled is troubling in answering these questions. Bishop Talbert is a member of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops yet seeks to violate the discipline and order of the church in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Even if a complaint is made by persons in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, South Central Jurisdiction, North Central Jurisdiction, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, or any Central Conference, the case will be remanded to the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops per Par. 2704.1(a). This process is evidence of the disunity within the church and may even be a planned exercise to further fracture our denomination or expose regionalism. My plea is for us to stay the course and remain faithful to our covenant as United Methodists. Yes, we should love everyone and hold all persons of both sacred worth and in need of grace, but in doing so we must not trample underfoot our identity as a connectional church.

General Conference 2016 is lining up to be historic for our denominational future. There must be thoughtful discernment as we prepare. How can we preach the unity of the church universal if we ourselves don’t live it? Who are we and what are we doing here? How we answer those two questions will either lead us to “Gospel Disobedience” as coined by Bishop Talbert or Obedience to the Order and Discipline of the Church. Which is it? As an elder in the UMC, I know what I have already promised. It is not a question of one over the other. For me, it is both/and by the grace of God that is for all and in all.

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34 thoughts on “Two Simple and Central Questions for the UMC

  1. How do we fire Bishop Talbert so as to encourage his faith journey to a more Talbert-compatible denomination?
    This prideful man is pushing division and tearing the Methodist Church apart.

    1. Steven, The process is laid out in the 2700 paragraphs of the BOD. I cannot speak to Bishop Talbert’s pride. I know him to be a person of conviction and goodness but in this instance I believe that he has overstepped the boundaries that are prescribed for a bishop of the church. Peace, tim

  2. First of all, my respect for you has grown by your courage in tackling what is certainly a “third rail” issue. I was not aware of this situation, but in reading publicity some years back about an elder in Pennsylvania I had similar thoughts as yours: If one values the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church and respect the individuals who make up the General Conference, how can someone just decide to go against that and then be upset when their credentials are pulled? If one holds such contempt for the polity of the church and the position of the church, why would that person even WANT to represent that church?

    If someone feels the Discipline needs to be changed, there are ways to do that through the connection of brothers and sisters in Christ who are charged with wrestling with scriptural truth and applying God’s Word to the governance of the church.

  3. Thank you, Tim. As I approach my seventh decade I find I don’t hold the same certainties about what God thinks of certain persons or situations as I did in my second or third decade. I’d like to think that the Spirit has led me forward in my thinking and my openness to ever new possibilities of God’s grace. I have remained clear, however, about my covenant relationship to this denomination which has accepted, nurtured, protected, and challenged me through the years. I don’t have any reason to think that Bishop Talbert is not acting in response to what he believes is the mandate of the Gospel, yet he is still a member of this connectional covenant. If he feels it necessary to conduct a ceremony, a celebration, a service of union, or whatever, then would it not be more genuine to first officially step out of his role of Bishop, surrender his credentials and sever his connection to the UMC rather than to maintain a relationship to a fellowship which he apparently feels is at odds with the Gospel mandate he perceives? If he chooses not to do so, I pray that he will be held accountable to the standard of conduct required in The Discipline in a manner that will exceed an ecclesiastical, “Now, Melvin, you shouldn’t have done that!” May God help us!

  4. Tim, this protest seems to be in the realm of conscientious objection which should by definition bring the protest-action into the courts … both Church and civil … and with all CO action, the objector must yield himself or herself to the law that he or she is protesting.

    jim mcwhinnie

    1. Jim, A very interesting perspective. Sort of like family systems theory – can’t change the system unless you are a part of it. If I’m hearing you right, no one is above the law or covenant; i.e., don’t have the right to protest something if one refuses to be subject to its tenets. Thanks and clarify if I have misunderstood you, tim

      1. Right on the button, Tim. When we subject ourselves to the terms of the covenant then that action and consequence becomes a factor in our future deliberations as to the appropriateness of the specific law. We simply cannot excuse ourselves from the terms of the covenant.

    2. Jim,
      A Conscientious Objector is objecting to an enforcible rule under which they have been placed without choice. As a citizen of the US, we are subject to the laws of the country, state, etc. The State permits CO for conscripted military service and little else. I think the concept you may be searching for is Civil Disobedience, which is also a form of protesting rules/laws that are enforced without choice.
      As a United Methodist professing member, Talbert CHOSE to fall under the Discipline of the Church. Further, as an ordained Elder, he CHOSE to accept the covenant of leading the Church under that same Discipline. Then, as a Bishop, he CHOSE to lead the denomination in that Discipline.
      To disobey at this point is NOT comparable to Conscientious Objection or Civil Disobedience. To disobey at this point is a high form of hypocrisy. He is now wilfully violating his uncoerced membership vows, ordination vows and episcopal vows.

    1. [with text-only, emotions are often attributed to postings without any guidance. I want you to know that I’m not responding with any ‘heat’ or upset. I’m looking at this from a logical perspective since I see the issue at hand as more logical than theological.]

      That is the agreement. Work to change the dictates as we participate in “holy conferencing” or “political conferencing” 🙂 but we agreed to follow and teach the Discipline of the Church, including chargable offenses and potential loss of credentials for disobedience. If we can’t do that any more, we are free to leave at any point, and for one who swore to lead others into and under that very authority (which has not changed substantially since Bishop Talbot wielded his crook) to choose now to willfully disobey is hypocritical in my reading of it.

      While leaving the US is a possibility, to renounce citizenship and find a suitable homeland is extreme when compared to leaving a church or job or surrendering credentials (particularly post-retirement).

      The difference between a contract and a covenant is that the covenant is not negotiable. It is offered and taken or rejected ‘as is’. As a covenantal community, we have chosen to be a part of the covenant (and all that entails).

      Just because my ‘political team’ has failed to win the day (repeatedly) doesn’t give me the right to pick and choose which part of the covenant I will uphold. I’m in or I’m out. That’s the nature of a covenant.

      1. I have no question that Bishop Talbert is using Dr. King’s strategy of non-violent direct action as he undertakes this action. By going to Birmingham he is making a symbolic reference to Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. As a college student, Bishop Talbert was a member of SNCC. He spent 3 days in the same Atlanta jail cell with Dr. King. He is well acquainted with Dr. King’s methodology. By going to Birmingham to “marry” this same-sex couple, Talbert is attempting to expose what he considers to be the “evil and unjust” (his terms) laws of the church regarding homosexuality.

  5. Tim, after experiencing the stalemates at GC2012 and the unwillingness of many of our church’s leaders to deal with violations of our Book of Discipline, I have become convinced that we need to completely REWRITE the Book of Discipline. It just doesn’t work to organize the work of the church in the same way that the United States government is organized.

    Fortunately, General Conference authorized the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to develop some proposals for a new GLOBAL Book of Discipline. They met several weeks ago, and I was quite encouraged by the tweets that were coming from their meeting in Budapest. Tweeking the current Book of Discipline will not solve the problems we face; but a restart with a NEW Book of Discipline might help Wesleyan Christianity move forward.

    Perhaps we can look at this mess as reaping what we have sown. Let’s confess that we have NOT been an obedient church. Let’s seek God, learn from our mistakes, and start again.

      1. I’m glad you agree… FYI the central ideas of the committee include writing a SMALL global BOD which will contain mostly history and theology to bind us together and give us an identity. (Bishop Streiff held up a BOD from the 18th century that was small enough to fit in his pocket.) Then each region would write a second BOD that would be more contextual to it’s situation (a volume 2). I think that is an excellent idea.

        I would hope that United Methodists in the US would NOT choose to model the organization of the church after the US government or use the best practices of American businesses as our model (like CTA did). Instead, I would like to see us take the BEST elements of Roman Catholic and Orthodox polity (which certainly have sustainable Christian polities)–let’s tweek them and make them Wesleyan. This would include making the Eucharist the center of worship, and changing the role of a pastor so that s/he is more of a priest and less of a CEO (laity can handle most other jobs in the church). It would also mean AVOIDING elections, which are inherently polarizing and divisive. (I am remembering our experience of electing bishops at jurisdictional conference. As I watched that on the live-stream, I came to believe that it would be healthier for the church to prayerfully cast lots. ) I would like to see us choose a leader/president/pope/bishop (either male or female and possibly a lay person) who would serve in that position for a limited term.

        I know that I am a “dreamer”; but as a retired clergyperson, isn’t that still part of my job in the church according to Acts 2? We shouldn’t leave all the dreaming to the young folks..

      2. Interesting thought, George. Puts some pressure on the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops and trial court members that are named by the WJ’s College. Certainly ups the ante and says a lot about Bishop Talbert’s convictions. Peace, tim

  6. Thank you Tim, for the courage of your convictions as well as the courage to speak Truth in a profound way. I appreciate your ministry, and I thank God for the opportunity to serve with you. In response to your comments I give a breathy, “Amen!” May God continue to bless you!

  7. I wonder if Bishop Talbert knows about Paragraph 2712.6 of the 2012 Book of Discipline: “A Bishop removed from office shall have no claim upon the Episcopal Fund for salary, dwelling, PENSION and other related benefits from the date of such removal.” Since bishops are bishops for life, he is risking a lot and should be.

  8. Thank God for Bishop Talbert. It is interesting that the wedding he is to perform is in Birmingham, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished a lot of “good Christians” for perpetuating injustice as you do in this column. I don’t care very much about whether the UMC stays together. I care more about justice and acceptance. I admire the loving couple who have been willing to stay in a church that has shown them so little respect and I admire the prophetic voices of people like Bishops Talbert and Swenson, but they are stronger than I am. I am happy to leave a church that perpetuates injustice.

    1. Jay, Everyone has a perspective. I hope we can fulfill Jesus’ desire for unity and stay in covenant. Frankly, I think that it may become most prophetic if those who claim to defend the UMC choose to leave and surrender their privileges. Hard to have it both ways! I much more admire the couple than I do bishops Talbert and Swenson. tim

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      1. Tim, if Bishop Talbert is given a little slap on the wrist by the WJ will you surrender your credentials? I’m seriously thinking about it myself. I’m retired, but as a clergywoman, I don’t really see another church where I would fit. The Anglican bunch in my neighborhood is clearly against the ordination of women and the Episcopaleans endorse the ordination of homosexuals and marriage “equality”.

      2. I love the UMC, therefore the answer is “No!” As a delegate to 5 General Conferences, I am absolutely sure that this case will generate legislation that will create minimum penalties if persons are found guilty. I think the church as a whole will be faithful to the Gospel and our polity. I think that those who can’t get what they want legislatively should be the ones who leave not those who have been faithful!

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    1. A longer constitutional convention/General Conference is a great idea. After the stalemate in Tampa I have my doubts about the willingness of anyone to give on their positions, hence I am doubtful of significant progress. I spent 4 years on Worldwide UMC Study Committee and we made progress but it is extremely difficult to determine what is adaptable and what is not across the connection.

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  9. Tim,
    I appreciate your perspective and careful consideration of the bigger picture. I’ve seen some collateral damage occurring over this issue and I wish the dialog could include some of the broader issues, like the inadequate definition of the “gay community” as being only those who closely identify with the activists’ message. I have folks who are gay and worship in our church and are perplexed at what is being forwarded (by activists and clergy) and they are reluctant to speak up because the dialog makes them feel like the odd person out.
    I cannot condone what Bishop Talbot has done. And I can easily see those who’ve taken a CO stance walking away to form their own covenant. But the restoration of unity and common understanding is a long term project that will take us years to achieve within the UMC. I hate seeing division, and I wish we could get on with the reconciling and restoration within what remains of our denomination.

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