It is a little obvious, but The United Methodist Church is in the midst of some major transition challenges. As the church and society reacts to the Frank Schaefer trial and Bishop Melvin Talbert’s blessing of a same gender wedding in another Bishop’s area, the tensions from within and outside the church heighten our cultural conflicts.
Recently, our Council of Bishops had to deal squarely with this issue, as Bishop Talbert disregarded the request of the Resident Bishop of North Alabama, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, and went ahead to perform a blessing of the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw. I know both of these Bishops personally, and I have the utmost respect for the integrity of both of them.
Our Council of Bishop’s Executive Team asked Bishop Talbert not to be involved in this same gender blessing, but Bishop Talbert, acting out of his personal convictions, went ahead with the blessing. It was an action that the Council of Bishops could not ignore, and we dealt with it extensively in Executive Session (closed session). I am bound by the confidentiality of our covenant as Bishops, so the details of our discussions cannot be shared in public.
However, I believe I can share that there were two issues at stake for the Council of Bishops: One is the issue of our covenant with each other, as what does it mean for a retired Bishop to disregard the request of an active Bishop in whose area of responsibility an action is taken. The second issue is the Council of Bishop’s action when a Bishop commits an act of ecclesial disobedience. I believe the former was more important to the Council of Bishops than the latter.
It is a matter of public record, and was expressed a number of times, that there have been examples of historical precedence of United Methodist Bishops disregarding the request of fellow residential Bishops by coming to their area to protest racial civil rights violations. This happened during the height of the civil rights movement in our country, and out of personal convictions, some of our UMC Bishops traveled to another Bishop’s area to stand in solidarity with those fighting for the civil rights of African Americans. History has proven that such violations of the covenant were acceptable and right.
I am of the opinion that we face a similar situation when it comes the rights of LGBTQ persons currently. Only the passing of time will tell if we are right in this conviction, but I believe we are witnessing the same situation of equal justice for all. It was for this reason that I stood outside the majority vote of the Council of Bishops on the questions of whether Bishop Talbert should be charged for his actions.
As I have stated many times in the past, I acknowledge my human sinfulness, and do not presume to believe that my position is the unequivocal truth. I cannot know God’s Truth on this issue, and can only stand on my limited conviction of what I believe. I will not force my convictions on those who believe the opposite. Like all of you, I only know what I believe is right, and I need to be in constant prayer and discernment.
Our United Methodist Church is in for some tough sledding now and in the future, but I believe that there is a way forward for our church. It must begin with our return to prayer, study, and deep discernment. Only in this deep place of spiritual depth will we find a way forward. We cannot resort to beating each other up because we are on opposite sides of this issue. We need to model the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ in our relationships. This means we need to do the hard work of sharing openly how we disagree, not to try to convert the other, but to work to a greater understanding and acceptance of our differences. This is what it means to be unified in Christ Jesus: It is not a bland acceptance of everything, but to hold together even when we vehemently disagree with each other.
This is what I am asking of all of us. Let us be open to really hear each other, not attempt to destroy the convictions that are opposite to our own, and finally come to an acceptance of each other, even when we disagree with each other. It is hard, hard work that I am asking of us, but God never promised that it would be easy for us as Christians. In fact, Jesus told us that it was going to be the most difficult work we have ever done. This is the cost of discipleship, and the reason that I am a Christian. For in going through the fire, we will find a greater truth, and in the end, God will be waiting for us.