In a move meant to prod the Methodist Church toward modernity, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert will preside over the wedding of longtime partners Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince (left) in Birmingham Alabama today. For his action, the bishop expects to be brought before a jury of parishioners who will decide whether or not he should be defrocked.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline paragraph 304.3 calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” language that progressive church leaders have been trying for years to change. In 2012 at a General Conference attended by 1000 delegates from around the world, a vote to strike paragraph 304.3 went down 572-368 in large part because of obstinate delegates from the homophobic African countries.
Gay marriage has caused a schism in the Methodist Church in America. On one side are the progressive clergy like Bishop Talbert, who don’t want to wait for Africa to come around before they can both preach and practice marriage equality. On the other side is a conservative church group called Good News, that supports paragraph 304.3 and wants to keep it.
The conservative Methodists want the pro-gay Methodists like Bishop Talbert to leave. The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, general manager of Good News, the man whose job it is to investigate complaints that a member of the Methodist clergy has performed a gay marriage, told reporters he wants them gone:
“I think it would be appropriate for those who think they cannot live within the policies of the church to withdraw from the church, and we would be willing to allow them to keep their property, their pensions, and send them forward,” he said.
But Bishop Talbert says he doesn’t want to leave the Methodist Church, he wants to change it. He says he wants to bring the hundreds of thousands of gay parishioners and gay clergy out of the shadows. Bishop Talbert:
“Weddings are going on all the time, all across the church, but it’s privately done, and bishops are just looking the other way, and it’s time for someone to say, ‘Let’s deal with the elephant in the room.’ ”
There are currently six Methodist clergy members awaiting trial for performing same-sex marriages, including Rev. Frank Schaefer who will be tried in Pennsylvania next month. His crime? He married his son and his partner in 2007. The Rev. Schaefer:
“After years of affirming him and standing by him through his struggles over sexual identity, to refuse to perform the wedding would have negated everything I told him, which was that you were created by God the way you turned out.”
Last week, a group of thirty Pennsylvania ministers officiated at a same-sex wedding to show solidarity with Schaefer, and the four other ministers awaiting trial. Today, Bishop Talbert will add his voice to the protest.
I am not familiar enough with the Methodists to predict who will win this struggle for the Methodist Church in America. But there is one incongruous fact that I came across while researching this story that makes me believe Bishop Talbert may be on the right track:
It was announced this week that spousal benefits will npw be part of the benefits package provided for gay Methodist clergy.
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