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.