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Congratulations to Retired UMC Bishop Melvin Talbert
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/26/13
Last updated on: 10/27/13
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Bishop Melvin Talbert.

Congratulations to retired United Methodist Church Bishop Melvin Talbert, who presided over the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in Birmingham, Alabama on October 26, 2013. Prince and Openshaw are members of the United Methodist Church, but their bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, refused to allow a minister under her jurisdiction to perform the ceremony. In response, Bishop Talbert volunteered his services, an offer that was condemned by the Executive Council of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

Prince and Openshaw, who have been partners for twelve years, were married in a civil ceremony in Washington, D.C., but upon their return to Alabama, which does not recognize same-sex marriage, sought to have their union celebrated in a religious ceremony. When Wallace-Padgett, citing the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, which forbids clergy from celebrating same-sex marriages and churches from allowing their sanctuaries to be used for same-sex weddings, refused their request, Bishop Talbert stepped forward to offer his services.

In officiating at the Prince-Openshaw wedding, Bishop Talbert became the first UMC bishop to publicly perform a marriage for a same-sex couple.

Bishop Talbert, however, is not new to civil disobedience. As a young man, he became involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helped plan the first student sit-in demonstrations in Atlanta in 1960, and spent three days and nights in the same jail cell with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement.

His experience with Dr. King profoundly affected him and led to his embrace of the doctrine of "Biblical Obedience," a belief based on scripture that calls on clergy to offer all ministries to all people, and to act as if the discriminatory laws in the UMC Book of Discipline that forbid clergy from officiating same-sex marriage do not exist.

"All my life I have been an outspoken person for justice. I just see this as a continuing effort on my part to be faithful to the gospel, to speak truth and to do it out of love," Talbert said in a statement explaining his decision. "It is no more than what I did in 1960 when I sat in at a lunch counter and refused to obey the unjust law of segregation. It's the same. The principle is the same."

He added, "When our 2012 General Conference failed to do the right thing by removing such derogatory and hurtful language from our Book of Discipline, I was moved by the Spirit to speak a word of hope to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers at every level of the life of our church and society."

When Bishop Talbert announced his intention to perform the ceremony for Prince and Openshaw, Bishop Wallace-Padgett asked him to reconsider. When he refused, she appealed to the Council of Bishops, whose executive committee strongly urged him not to perform the wedding.

Interestingly, however, one member of the executive committee strongly dissented. Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson issued a statement in support of Bishop Talbert's decision. "The language in our Discipline is wrong. Indeed, we must work to change these immoral laws at General Conference. But General Conference only comes every four years and no LGBTQ person should have to wait any longer to experience the full love of God in Christian community at a United Methodist church."

She added, "The time has come for acts of faith and courage. I support Bishop Talbert in his willingness to officiate a service of Christian marriage for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, two faithful men whose story I personally have heard and whose deep love for each other I have witnessed. Until we can revise the discriminatory language of The Book of Discipline, I encourage my colleague bishops to follow the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to ignore these unjust laws of our Discipline, and to permit United Methodist clergy who find it in their consciences and in their duties to fulfill the pastoral needs of those in their flock to celebrate ceremonies of Christian marriage for same-gender couples to do so."

The United Methodist Church remains the most discriminatory of the mainline Christian denominations. The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all moved toward inclusion and acceptance, while the UMC has been resistant to change.

It may be, however, that the long battles over sexuality and the place of glbtq people in the UMC will soon come to a crisis, one that may ultimately lead to schism.

UMC ministers and churches are increasingly resorting to civil disobedience in order to protest discrimination within the denomination and to achieve justice and demonstrate compassion. Just this month, in solidarity with several ministers who are facing charges of performing same-sex marriages, 30 UMC ministers announced their intention to perform weddings for gay and lesbian parishioners and a dozen congregations agreed to allow same-sex weddings to be performed in their sanctuaries despite the prohibition by the Book of Discipline.

In the video below, Bishop Talbert speaks out in favor of glbtq inclusion in the United Methodist Church.

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