With much public fanfare, and cheered by well-funded liberal caucus groups, retired United Methodist Bishop Mel Talbert performed a same-sex union service in the Birmingham, Alabama area for a self-described “gay activist” and his male partner last weekend. Bishops and all others who make the choice to serve as UMC clergy vow to God and the church that they will follow the UMC Discipline, which forbids any clergy from “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions.” Talbert used the ceremony as an occasion to publicly denounce as “wrong, evil, [and] immoral” the official, biblically grounded UMC stance that sex is gift only for “the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
IRD/UMAction’s press release on the event can be found here.
Before the October 26 publicity stunt, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of North Alabama commendably urged him to not do this. Bishops Bill McAlilly of Nashville and Paul Leeland of Alabama-West Florida issued separate statements supporting Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the Discipline. The executive committee of the UMC Council of Bishops, which includes several liberal bishops, had even publicly expressed a collective commitment to “following the Book of Discipline” and called on Talbert to abandon his plans.
Now that Talbert has so arrogantly disregarded their clearly expressed wishes, the leadership of the Council of Bishops doubtless realizes that if they do not work to ensure meaningful, lasting consequences for him, Talbert’s defiance will effectively parade them before our entire denomination as even more weak and ineffective than how Talbert is already making them look in the eyes of many.
Many of our bishops understand that Talbert’s actions violate not only the Discipline and his own ordination vows, but jettison clear Scriptural teaching, reject 2,000 years of extremely consistent Christian tradition, alienate him from the overwhelming majority of global Christianity, and do very real pastoral harm to the misguided two men he was supposedly serving. Even many of our more theologically liberal bishops understand that a connectional denominational community in which there is no effective, communally determined covenant of conduct, in which members do not treat each other according to the Golden Rule, and in which vows or guarantees from leaders cannot be trusted as having honesty or integrity is not really much of a “community” at all.
Meanwhile, retired bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who our active bishops recently elected to serve as the UMC’s Ecumenical Officer, issued a lonely public dissent from the executive committee, supporting Talbert’s covenant-breaking invasion into Alabama, denouncing the UMC’s biblical standards for sexual self-control as “antiquated and unjust,” and, almost laughably, lamenting that United Methodism was not more like the Episcopalians.
Talbert represents the fading liberal old guard of United Methodism, having not pastored a congregation for decades. As bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, he was known for his bullying persecution of California-Nevada ministers who supported biblical, United Methodist teaching. As noted earlier, the timid hesitance of his fellow bishops to hold him accountable over the years has only emboldened Talbert to become increasingly brazen in disregarding his ordination vows.
Aside from all the rumblings elsewhere in our denomination, it seems rather revealing how this conflict now prominently features a clash between two retired bishops from the radicalized, rapidly dying Western Jurisdiction (whose disproportionally outsized voice in the UMC is subsidized by apportionments from churches in the rest of the USA) against three much younger bishops from the increasingly resurgent, orthodox-leaning Southeast (two of whom were just elected as bishops a year ago), with the latter group being the one supported by the leadership of the Council of Bishops. In the short run, people like Talbert, Swenson, and other church-killing beneficiaries of the last several decades of disastrous liberal dominance of the UMC hierarchy can be expected to become increasingly shrill and divisive in their immature protest antics as they panic over seeing the emergence of a newer generation of faithful denominational leaders with the courage to say “no!” to our unsustainable status quo, and watch the centers of denominational authority finally starting to draw the line against blatant unfaithfulness.
Such noisy protests of biblical sexual boundaries cause a stir, but they do NOT reflect the official teachings of the United Methodist Church, the views of the majority of United Methodists, or any sort of growing momentum for liberalization within the denomination. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The liberal side is demonstrably losing ground in its decades-long campaign to change our denominational covenant through our established democratic processes, and many liberals are now openly despairing of prevailing later. It is precisely because of the growing conservatism of United Methodism that some members of the liberal minority are in desperation resorting to such extreme, divisive tactics as ministers sacrificing their own personal integrity, bizarrely bragging about having no regard for the sacred promises they themselves chose to make to God and to the church community they chose to be a part of.
But when any liberal clergy, from the most remote licensed local pastors to the most self-important bishops, callously disregard core United Methodist doctrine, refuse to extend basic Golden-Rule respect towards other United Methodists, shamelessly admit that their own word to United Methodists is fundamentally untrustworthy (even when that word was given in one of the most sacred covenants a Christian can make to Christ and to His church), and pridefully act as if they are accountable to no one beyond their individual selves, they raise very serious questions about the extent to which they are still a part of “United” Methodism.