In a recent letter from Reconciling Ministries Network, Executive Director Matt Berryman alleged that the complaints filed against Bishop Melvin Talbert were motivated by racism. “The Council, comprised in large part by white straight male bishops from the U.S., 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?”
First, Matt is factually in error. The “straight white male bishops from the U.S.” make up only 28 percent of the active members of the Council of Bishops. (I am counting only active bishops, as listed on the umc.org website, because it is hard to predict which retired bishops will participate in any given COB meeting.) White male bishops are only 39 percent of the U.S. bishops! There are 18 white male bishops and 17 male bishops of color in the U.S. alone.
Altogether, 32 of the 64 active bishops are white (U.S. or European, both male and female). The charts below give a complete breakdown.
Based on the membership of the Council of Bishops alone, the complaints against Talbert could not have been carried by straight white men alone.
Second, Berryman goes on to allege that Talbert is being subjected to “an unjust juridical procedure” — just like Jesus. To compare any disciplinary procedure that Bishop Talbert might experience to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the sake of all people is simply outrageous. Talbert has not been subject to any juridical procedure thus far, much less an unjust one. (The complaint process begins with an informal “supervisory response” that is not part of any judicial proceeding.) Matt claims that the reason that Jesus underwent “an unjust juridical procedure” was “for his identification with and liberating love for, the oppressed.” Funny, I thought Jesus identified with and loved all people, and that all people are liberated from the power of sin and death through faith in Jesus and through his death and resurrection for us.
But Matt wants to make both Jesus’ death and Talbert’s accountability process about “institutional covenants and the preservation of rules meant to sustain power,” about “social injustices” and “the maintenance of oppression.” This kind of Marxist analysis does not truly reflect orthodox Christian doctrine. Jesus died first and foremost because of human sin expressed in a myriad of ways, not limited to abusive power or social injustice.
Third, the effort to hold Bishop Talbert accountable to his vows of membership, ordination, and consecration as a bishop is not about an attempt to maintain institutional power and oppression of GLBT people. Rather, it is an attempt to say that vows and covenants matter. Our promises matter to God and to other people. And if we decide on our own to violate those vows and break those covenants, we must be held accountable, or the vows and covenants in question become meaningless.
The attempt to hold Talbert accountable is also part of the larger issue in our church as to whether the Bible is the divine revelation of God and “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Our doctrinal standards say that “whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Confession of Faith, Article IV – Discipline, p. 71). Instead, some want to make the Bible a human testimony about God, making it perfectly legitimate for the church and even individual Christians to sit in judgment of Scripture, rejecting those parts of it they disagree with.
To take that “humanizing” approach to Scripture is to fundamentally alter the character of our Christian faith. It would be a blatant contradiction of our doctrinal standards. The church’s teaching about human sexuality is a “test case” for our understanding of Scripture in the church. That is why we passionately defend the church’s biblical teachings on this matter. Calling it an act of racism is simply a convenient way to sidetrack the discussion and make true dialog impossible.