San Francisco’s former United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert gave a sermon at the denomination’s global conference last year, urging pastors to defy church law by performing gay wedding ceremonies.
On Saturday, Talbert plans to answer that call himself, marrying parishioners Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in Birmingham, Ala.
Church leaders predict Talbert’s action will aggravate a growing conflict between conservative and liberal factions of the United Methodist Church – one of the last mainline Protestant denominations that bans gay marriage.
With roots in the civil rights movement and a past stint as president of the National Council of Churches, Talbert appears destined to become the most prominent of the clergy members headed for formal church trials for their defiance – a process that begins with a complaint from a church member.
“Yes, I expect someone will file a complaint against Bishop Talbert,” said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, a conservative group that advocates continued support for paragraph 304.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“If a portion of the church is not willing to abide upon the mutually agreed-upon policies of the church, that means there is division in the church,” Lambrecht said.
Talbert says he doesn’t want to divide the church or its 12 million members worldwide. His goal, he said, is to address hypocrisy in a denomination that includes hundreds of thousands of gay parishioners and gay pastors living with partners.
“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,’ ” Talbert said.
The first of up to six possible Methodist church trials related to gay weddings is scheduled for mid-November in Spring City, Pa. A jury of parishioners will decide whether the Rev. Frank Schaefer should be defrocked for performing the wedding ceremony of his son in 2007.
To Schaefer, the act was one of love, not protest.
“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,” Schaefer told The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Earlier this week, a group of eastern Pennsylvania pastors announced that more than 30 of them would jointly officiate a same-sex wedding ceremony in solidarity with Schaefer.
Others with complaints filed against them include the Rev. Steve Heiss, who performed an outdoor ceremony about a decade ago for daughter Nancy Willow in upstate New York – a state where he notes that gay marriage now is legal. In Washington state, United Methodist pastors Cheryl Fear and Gordy Hutchins are under scrutiny, each for officiating the marriage of a parishioner last year.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired Yale Divinity School dean, has been charged with performing a wedding ceremony in New York last year for his son, Thomas. He said even Jesus violated unjust church law.
In 2011, Lambrecht prosecuted the Rev. Amy DeLong of Wisconsin, who was convicted by the church of performing same-sex weddings. She received a 20-day suspension. Now, Lambrecht is advising the team prosecuting Schaefer.
Lambrecht offers what he considers a simple solution.
“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.
True to its name, the United Methodist Church is methodical in how it sets church doctrine. Every four years, Methodists gather at a General Conference patterned after U.S. legislatures. In spring 2012, nearly 1,000 delegates from California to the Congo met in Tampa, Fla., where liberal factions lobbied to loosen the church’s view on homosexuality.
Thanks in part to growing Methodist membership in socially conservative African countries, the final vote was not close: 572-368 to preserve the church’s stance.
Afterward, supporters of the failed measures to change the doctrine gathered to hear Talbert’s sermon.
“I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience,” he preached.
Since then, Talbert said, more than 1,000 ministers have signed a letter promising to follow his call.
For clergy members who violate church law, the church has patterned a trial system on U.S. courts. A bishop sits as a judge and appoints a jury of church members. Other church members serve as the prosecutor and defense counsel.
Methodist trials over gay unions began at least 14 years ago, when a jury convicted and defrocked Omaha, Neb., pastor Jimmy Creech for joining two men in holy union.
Also in 1999, 68 Methodist pastors in Sacramento, Calif., jointly performed a ceremony for two lesbian church leaders to protest church policy. (The reporter’s father, then a retired minister, was one of the 68.)
In that case, Talbert, then-bishop for Northern California, assigned the case to an investigative committee. The committee found the pastors’ offense unworthy of a trial.
Today, as the new wave of clergy members heads toward trials, gay rights advocates in the church hope they are headed for a truce. While church policy calls for punishing those who perform same-sex weddings, the denomination announced Tuesday that it would nonetheless extend employee benefits to same-sex couples.
Official decisions against harsh punishments for the pastors, some suspect, will embolden liberal congregations to ignore the church prohibition of gay marriage. That prospect outrages conservative activists, who believe allowing varying interpretations of church law will pull the church apart.
Maxie Dunnam, former president of the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, said accommodating same-sex marriage has harmed other mainline Protestant denominations.
“The United Church of Christ has lost a huge part of its membership,” he said. “The Episcopal Church is in tremendous disarray, with the entire diocese trying to withdraw.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle. It was copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.