The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church announced last week that formal complaints were filed against retired bishop Melvin Talbert after he officiated a gay wedding celebration in Alabama last October, despite requests from the local bishop and Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops that he not do so. The complaints come after the Council of Bishops formally requested that charges be filed against Talbert for “conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple” and “undermining the ministry of a colleague.”
Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), the unofficial pro-homosexuality caucus of the UMC, was obviously less than happy. But their response to the complaints was rather unfortunate. In an article entitled “Crosses and Crowns: Racism, privilege, and homophobia,” RMN’s Executive Director Matt Berryman alleges that there is a racial component to the complaints against Talbert. In marrying the two men, Berryman writes, Talbert, a “prophetic bishop of color,” revealed “the racism and homophobia embedded in both culture and church.”
The villains of RMN’s blog post is the Council of Bishops, and their request for complaints to be filed is painted in starkly racial terms: “The Council, comprised in large part by white straight male bishops from the US, made a decision as a whole to request the filing of a complaint against their black brother bishop. Were active white bishops not willing to speak up on behalf of Bishop Talbert? We hope they were.”
There are two unspoken admissions here. First, saying that white straight male US bishops make up a “large part” of the Council of Bishops is a tacit admission that they do not form a “majority.” By my count, they make up 3/7 of the Council. Placing the blame for the Talbert charges on just them is almost like blaming Democrats for any bill that comes out of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Certainly they are a large faction, but not a controlling faction by any means. The other telling remark is that they “hope” active white bishops stood up for Talbert, which means, except for those who have disclosed their vote, RMN has no idea how the bishops voted. For all we know, white American bishops were more likely to have voted against the decision.
“It is no accident that the strongest active episcopal voices within the movement for queer inclusion in The United Methodist Church are bishops of color,” the blog post reads. Well, two can play that game. Everyone knows that the loudest voices in opposition to liberalizing the Church’s stance on homosexuality are African United Methodists. Given that there are more African bishops than African-American bishops, and far, far more African United Methodists than African-American United Methodists, it’s a fair bet that the consensus among black United Methodists is not exactly favorable towards Talbert’s actions. Especially since one Zimbabwean news outlet has reported that the UMC in Zimbabwe has moved to block Talbert from attending an African conference, out of fear he’d push for acceptance of gay marriage.
So basically, Berryman brings up the issue of the racial makeup of the Council of Bishops without any evidence that it was a factor in their decision. Of course he never says that race ever played a part in their decision, and at one point allows that they were “well-meaning.” But making constant references to Talbert’s race and the supposed whiteness of the Council does that on its own. It’s like when the media reports that a person of color was convicted by an “all-white jury.” They don’t have to say the verdict was racially motivated; they just bring up race and let their viewers draw the inevitable conclusion.
The notion that race had anything to do with the complaints filed against Melvin Talbert is almost not worth refuting, because the notion is absurd on its face. Countless other United Methodist clergy have faced church trials or official complaints for violating the Book of Discipline on sexuality issues, the vast majority of which have been white. None of them had had the Council of Bishops explicitly instruct them on how not to act beforehand, only to ignore their pleas. And none of them were bishops who intentionally and provocatively entered another bishop’s jurisdiction to do so. In short, Talbert’s breaking with the Book of Discipline went so far beyond the pale that it would have been more shocking if no one filed a complaint.
Examinations of “privilege,” white or otherwise, are increasingly common these days. The basic idea is benevolent: Americans who are white/male/upper class/etc. often grow up with advantages, such as the knowledge that they won’t be profiled as a criminal or that they will almost certainly be able to hail a cab. These “privileges” are often small and unnoticed, and by “checking our privilege,” we can understand the plight others face. Most of the time, I think this sort of discourse is helpful and ought to be encouraged.
But sometimes, as in the RMN post, the idea of “privilege” is invoked in a way that is unfair and unhelpful to discussions of racial understanding. Take, for instance, the fact that Berryman calls out the “white straight male bishops from the US” for their racial privilege. Don’t the female white bishops also enjoy white privilege? Or Europeans? Or gay white men? And why is the privilege of the bishops important, but not the white straight males Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree and Frank Schaeffer? Where are the discussion of white privilege when it comes to the ongoing gross imbalance of power in the United Methodist Church between the Westerners and Africans?
In practice, what should be used for racial reconciliation is used to designate villains based on demographic details outside of their control, while allies get a pass on their “privilege.” (For what it’s worth, I’m half-Hispanic and half-white. Does that make me privileged, half-privileged, or underprivileged? Luckily, I’m male and straight, so my place amongst the evil oppressors is secure.)
The article is almost insulting to one’s intelligence, because everyone knows the real reason RMN opposes the complaints against the Talbert: it’s an LGBT organization that supports same-sex marriage. If tomorrow Talbert drastically reversed course, opposed the moral acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, and became a strong voice against the “Biblical Obedience” campaign he founded, RMN’s support for the retired bishop would evaporate and IRD would hail his brave decision. Our respective stances have nothing to do with skin color or Talbert as a person, and everything to do with his beliefs and actions.
Matt Berryman ended his post with (what else?) verses from a Jim Crow-era African-American gospel song. I was tempted to end mine with Dr. King’s famous dream that one day, his children would be judged based on the content of their character, instead of their race. But really, my hope is that Melvin Talbert and the Council of Bishop are not judged on their race or the content of their character. Well-meaning and faithful Christians of good character can disagree fundamentally on these issues, even if in the end one side must be in error. Instead, I pray for judgment based on actions and how those actions conform with church law and the laws of God. And on that count, regardless of his race, gender, or sexuality, Talbert is guilty.