Is It Time?
The Internet is abuzz with the recent actions of (retired) Bishop Melvin Talbert. Following-up on a threat to violate the United Methodist Book of Discipline, Talbert officiated a same-sex wedding in Alabama. The threat was made as early as May, 2013. In the 4+ months in between, Talbert notified North Alabama Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett that he intended to officiate said wedding within her jurisdiction. This is the proper method to take in our polity. Part of the covenant of pastors, elders and bishops is to never
undermine the ministry of another UM pastor, thus weddings, funerals, etc. within another’s area of authority are to be approved prior to the ceremony as a part of our covenant relationship.
However, Wallace-Padgett requested in no uncertain terms that Talbert not officiate this service within her area of authority. She wrote, “For a bishop or any ordained or licensed minister to disregard a law of the church creates a breach of the covenant they made at their consecration, ordination or licensing.” (UMNS) Knowing that this service would violate Church law and create a season of chaos within the congregations of the North Alabama Conference (and beyond), she did not grant permission…adding a second layer to Talbert’s breach of covenant.
Because there was ample time leading up to this event, the Council of Bishops also made a public statement (somewhat unprecedented). “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline,” the [executive] committee wrote. “‘Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies’ are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church. (¶2702.1.b)” (UM Reporter)
On October 26, 2013, Talbert defied the Book of Discipline, the Presiding Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, the Council of Bishops and every United Methodist by officiating at the wedding.
Agree or disagree with the United Methodist position on homosexuality, gay marriage and ordination, this is still a breach of Talbert’s covenant with the rest of us. If he does not suffer the consequences for such a violation, the door opens for all sorts of brazen disregard. (And suffering the consequences is an integral part of ‘civil disobedience’.)
At General Conference 2004, several church leaders proposed an “amicable separation.” The proposal was quickly pulled from the floor, followed by a hastily drafted statement of unity being passed. (Steven Tipton, Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life, p. 123)
I have no doubt that we are indeed headed to a schism of some form. The ‘amicable separation’ proposal seems like a proposal to keep such from becoming a fiasco like the Episcopal Church experienced with legal wranglings over buildings and pensions. Perhaps now may be the time to start discussions.
Why schism? Because this argument has not been settled in over a quarter-century of infighting about it. Because the side who has not succeeded in forcing a change in the doctrine is willing to blur and push the lines of the covenant they agreed to uphold to make their statement. (Note that covenant is not negotiated like a contract. Covenant is offered and accepted or rejected as offered.) But mainly because the issue at hand is not really homosexuality.
I have had the homosexuality and Christianity discussion with countless people. I fall on the side of the current UM position (Peyton Jones wrote the best explanation of my position in this article. If this link only allows you to see Page 1, see the link/explanation below.) I have only had one person on the other side of the debate admit that the discord is really about the position the Bible holds in our lives. Is the Bible an authoritative book, or is it a collection of stories, songs, allegories, histories, letters, etc.? That person was a nationally known leader within the denomination.
Given that the issue is deeper than a surface discussion of a cultural topic, this is a schismatic issue in my opinion. Having just completed the process (fight?) to join this covenant, I cringe to think some (any) would intentionally breach the covenant for just a cultural issue. It is a deeply held difference that is not going away…in fact it is growing worse with age. With such an insolent defiance, maybe the time has come?
How would it look? How could a separation be achieved with diminished ire and legal fighting? I have some ideas for a start, but what do you think?
EDIT: The Peyton Jones article is only available in full if you subscribe or google search for it first. Try this link to the google search, and click on the article. Sorry for any confusion.