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California-Nevada Bishop to Allow Homosexual Unions


Bishop Talbert: Holy unions don't violate church law

May 14, 1998 - By Charley Lerrigo*

SACRAMENTO (UMNS) -- Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of the San Francisco Area has told clergy and lay members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference that unless the denomination's Judicial Council rules otherwise, he does not consider a pastor's performing a "holy union" to violate church law.

Talbert leads a conference in which at least two congregations have publicly said they have long performed such ceremonies for same-sex couples. The bishop has maintained that he and his district superintendents have adhered to the law of the church contained in the denomination's Book of Discipline.

In a May 14 letter to the conference, Talbert acknowledged that performing such a same-sex union "does go against the spirit" of the United Methodist Social Principles (where it is specifically forbidden). But the Social Principles, he said, "are not law."

"As stated in (the document's) preface, ‘They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit,'" Talbert said.

He noted that the recent pastoral letter from the Council of Bishops was a unanimous statement, and one with which he agreed. But achieving such a consensus, he reported, was "a very painful effort" and "there is disagreement within the council as to how various parts of the Book of Discipline are interpreted."

The council's pastoral letter stated the bishops' commitment to uphold the variety of General Conference actions on homosexuality and "all specified issues contained in the Social Principles, including the prohibition of ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions by our ministers and in our churches." But the council's letter also "affirms (the bishops') pastoral responsibility to all peoples, including those who feel excluded from the church."

The California bishop also observed that the Discipline is unchanged by the verdict of the Jimmy Creech trail, in which an ecclesiastical court fell one vote short of convicting the Omaha pastor of violating church law by performing a covenantal union between two women. The church's law book "remains the same and reflects the stance of the United Methodist Church on many issues, including homosexuality and holy unions." But those rules and positions need to be interpreted, the bishop wrote.

"As one bishop," Talbert wrote, "I will hold to the principle that the Social Principles are not law, until instructed otherwise by our Judicial Council, which meets in August to deal with the issue of holy unions."

Talbert's letter echoed a theme struck in the bishop's pastoral statement: that a furor over the Creech trial and disagreements about homosexuality should not distract the denomination from the rest of its mission -- and should not result in a church split.

"Homosexuality is not the first controversial issue faced by our church," Talbert wrote. "There have been many others. As we have debated and will continue debating such issues, we must never forget that we all belong to the family of God."

Turning to an upcoming conversation with some evangelical pastors in the California- Nevada Annual Conference who have said they wish to take their congregations and withdraw from the Conference, Talbert said he approached that dialogue "with the spirit that we are all part of God's family. We belong together."

Talbert began and ended his letter with Scriptural affirmations.

"Our denomination is inclusive and tolerant enough to accept, embrace and welcome all persons, irrespective of their age, gender, political or theological differences. For you see, such differences matter very little when faced with what is required to be around God's table."

As Talbert issued his pastoral letter to the whole conference, Delta District Superintendent Dave Bennett revealed in a district newspaper column that the cabinet had gone on record to support the decision by Bethany United Methodist Church, San Francisco, to allow same-sex unions in their facility.

However, that was "not a blanket policy statement," Bennett wrote. "This was an individual church using its facilities to perform a ministry important to that congregation within its community."

The Delta District, with offices in West Sacramento, includes many churches within the state's central valley. Those include Oakdale Community United Methodist Church, where conservative evangelical laity and clergy issued their plea to discuss withdrawal from the conference.

The Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist in San Francisco, has also publicly stated that his 6,000-member congregation has long been celebrating holy unions. And at last count, there are 27 Cal-Nevada clergy among the 178 clergy nationally who have signed the "Statement of Conscience" declaring that they will perform such holy unions as a protest of the Social Principles' ban -- which was added at the 1996 General Conference.

In a separate interview, Bennett reported that when he met with more than 150 persons from the Oakdale church, he found a variety of opinions regarding withdrawal. Bennett's experience reflects remarks by a variety of "evangelical" pastors in the conference, who clearly have deep disagreements with the generally liberal conference leadership but differ widely on which strategy best expresses their dissatisfactions.

*Lerrigo is editor of the California Nevada United Methodist Review.


The entire text of Bishop Talbert's letter follows:

May 14, 1998

To: Clergy and Lay Members California-Nevada Conference

Dear Friends:

In this post Easter season, I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, our risen Savior. As hymn #318 proclaims, "Christ is Alive! Let Christians sing. His cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. His love in death shall never die." In response I say, Alleluia! Praise God!

As you know, the verdict in the Jimmy Creech trial in Nebraska has caused mixed responses. Some people are deeply pained and hurt, while others are rejoicing. One such response has been the expressed desire of some associated with the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship to separate from this Annual Conference. Your Council of Bishops, meeting in Nebraska, April 26-May 1, spent considerable time struggling with how best to respond to the many requests for action. By now, you should have seen the pastoral statement from the Council. It was a very painful effort to get a unanimous consensus on the statement as released.

Having been in that council meeting and given my approval to the statement, I feel the need to say an additional word.

First, the verdict of the Jimmy Creech trial does not change the Book of Discipline. It remains the same and reflects the stance of The United Methodist Church on many issues, including homosexuality and holy unions. Bishops do not have legislative authority. Our role is to interpret and to implement the Book of Discipline. We shall continue doing that as one of many responsibilities.

Second, while I agreed with the statement as released from the Council of Bishops, I want you to know that there is disagreement within the Council as to how various parts of the Book of Discipline are interpreted. Let me speak for myself. While the Book of Discipline is commonly referred to as "the book of law" for our denomination, all sections are not understood to be law. In the case at point, the statement regarding holy unions is found in the "Social Principles." My understanding is that the "Social Principles" are not law. As stated in the preface, "They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit." Also, I can recall during debate at General Conferences that the "Social Principles" were referred to time and time again as not being law. Rather, they are guides to faithful living. So, while we may agree or disagree with much of what is in the "Social Principles," they are not law. Thus, one performing a holy union does not violate the law of the Church, even though such an act does go against the spirit of the "Social Principles."

So, as one bishop, I will hold to the principle that the "Social Principles" are not law, until instructed otherwise by our Judicial Council, which meets in August to deal with the issue of holy unions.

Third, allow me to say a pastoral word to all in the California-Nevada Conference. My sisters and brothers, homosexuality is not the first controversial issue faced by our Church. There have been many others. As we have debated, and will continue debating such issues, we must never forget that we all belong to the family of God. As such, we are all invited to the Table of the Lord. Historically, our denomination has taken great pride in affirming our tolerance and inclusiveness. This means we bring with us our cultural and theological differences.

As I completed my two-year term as President of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, I reminded the 34 member communions that we are not one in Christ until all of us can be around the one Table of the Lord. I say the same to us as we continue our struggle to be faithful to the Gospel of our Lord.

In a few days, the Ministry Staff will be in dialogue with representatives of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship. I shall approach that dialogue with the spirit that we are all part of God's family. We belong together. Our denomination is inclusive and tolerant enough to accept, embrace and welcome all persons, irrespective of their age, gender, political or theological differences. For you see, such differences matter very little when faced with what is required to be around God's Table. Please pray for us as we come together guided by Christ's Spirit.

By God's Grace, through Jesus Christ we are invited to God's Table and are members of God's family. As those granted the privilege to be representatives of Christ, we are called to extend God's invitation to all. It is not for us to judge. God, alone, judges.

In the meantime, let us seek to be examples of Christ as we continue in our efforts to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Sincerely,

Melvin G. Talbert


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