Fourteen months after the event and nine months after complaints were filed, we finally received notice about the complaints against Bishop Melvin Talbert for performing a holy union service in North Alabama. I applaud the openness of all the parties in sharing publicly the resolution that was reached. Leaders need to be transparent in their leadership in order to inspire confidence from those who follow. Since Talbert’s action was so very public, it is only fitting that the resolution of the matter be public as well.
Much will be written and spoken about this case, as I believe it will be a watershed event in the life of The United Methodist Church. In this three-part series, I would like to analyze exactly what was agreed to and what the implications are for United Methodists and our denomination. (Quotes are from the text of the agreement, which is available HERE.)
“We … are not of one mind on matters of human sexuality.” Actually, the church is not of one mind about anything. We could make this statement about any paragraph in the Social Principles. What is more important than the fact of disagreement is where the church comes down on an issue. And that the church’s position have sufficient consensus as to reflect a clear majority. Up until now, the church has had such a consensus.
“We have harmed one another … we further acknowledge and express regret over harm to gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, and all those involved, through the complaint process.” The language here is a bit unclear, but it seems to be saying that the complaint process itself caused harm. If that is what was meant, I reject the conclusion. My colleague, Rob Renfroe, has helpfully made the distinction between “hurt” and “harm.” When a doctor does surgery on a patient, it may hurt, but it does not (normally) cause harm. In fact, it is meant to heal. Sometimes, finding healing means going through pain. But if we are unwilling to experience the pain, we will never be healed.
The complaint process is meant to lead to “a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ” (Discipline, ¶363.1). If we agree that the complaint process is inherently harmful (as distinguished from hurt that leads to healing), then we are left without a way to resolve violations of the sacred trust of ordination and conference membership. The complaint process can be abused or misused in a way that is harmful and not redemptive. But to say that complaints inherently cause harm is an unfounded conclusion that weakens the connection and accountability of the church.
“We strongly reaffirm that all are welcome in the church and we express our pastoral concern and care for all people.” This is one statement that all can agree on. However, welcome and pastoral concern and care does not equal approval of all behaviors. I can minister pastorally to a man troubled by greed without approving of his grasping behavior. Indeed, I might need to point out to him his problem with greed as part of my pastoral care. My ministry to him might even be somewhat hurtful to him at times; he might be offended by some of my preaching against greed. Yet, to say that I must not confront his sin would be to deprive him of the very ministry that he might need the most.
Unfortunately, many LGBTQ persons and their advocates believe that welcome equals approval, and that if the church does not approve of same-sex intimacy, the church is not truly welcoming LGBTQ persons. However, such approval would, for many Christians, contradict the Bible’s teaching about the God-given parameters of sexual behavior. So this one statement of agreement masks a deep divide over how welcome, pastoral concern and care are validly expressed within the church. Agreement to this statement brings no resolution of the conflict.
“Bishop Talbert expresses regret for felt harm and unintended consequences …” This statement is equivalent to saying, “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I did.” It fails to acknowledge that Talbert’s action caused real harm to people, congregations, and ministries. We received reports from a number of churches who lost members in response to Talbert’s action. And the consequences might have been unintended, but they were surely not unforeseen. Anyone should have been able to predict that for a bishop to intentionally, willfully, and publicly violate the church’s law and policy would result in harm to congregations’ ministries. Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the executive committee of the Council of Bishops were particularly harmed when Talbert ignored their requests not to go ahead with the service. He publicly disrespected them, their office, and their authority, essentially thumbing his nose at those under whose authority he pledged to serve. Yet this real harm is unacknowledged, reduced only to a matter of “feelings.” There is no justice to be found here, and no apology for wrongdoing.
“Bishop Talbert holds steadfastly to the conviction that his actions were just and right.” This statement is the crux of why this “resolution” resolves nothing. Where there is no repentance, there can be no restoration of relationship. Talbert is quoted in the report on this agreement in UM News Service as saying, “I believe embracing biblical obedience offers the best way forward for maximizing [the church’s] potential for growth and full inclusion.” His term “biblical obedience” is code for continuing to do same-sex services and working for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Talbert’s arrogance is breathtaking. He sets his own conscience and judgment above the considered judgment of his episcopal colleagues, the General Conference, over forty years of United Methodist discernment, the wide consensus of today’s Christians worldwide, and 2,000 years of church teaching.
One could understand and even affirm if Talbert had said something like: “I understand what the teaching and requirements of The United Methodist Church are. I can no longer agree to or support them. Therefore, I am resigning my episcopal office and my membership in the UM Church.” Such a course would be one of integrity, honor, and honesty. Instead, Talbert is saying, “I can no longer agree to or support the teaching and requirements of my church, but I insist that you continue to recognize me as a bishop and leader in the church, pay for my travel to and participation in meetings, and continue to subsidize my health care and pension. Furthermore, I expect you to change the church’s teachings to bring them into agreement with my opinion.” It has often been noted that no secular company would retain an employee in senior leadership who publicly opposed and even disregarded the company’s policies. The failed leadership exemplified by Talbert’s lack of integrity is killing The United Methodist Church.
This analysis will continue in my next post.