A gay wedding presided over by a United Methodist Bishop? Can it be? Are the progressive leaders of the church finally putting their money where there mouths are, stepping up to the plate, diving into the deep end?
The symbolism of this wedding was significant. There have been same-gender weddings performed by Methodist clergy for decades. Some have even been out in the open, and have resulted in the pastors who presided over them being put on trial by the church. This is the first to be performed by a Bishop, who did so over the objection of the actual Bishop in charge of the Conference where the wedding took place. So it appears that Bishop Melvin Talbert was putting his career on the line, risking the highest-profile discipline yet meted out by the denomination, a church trial that could bust this issue wide open.
Except for one thing: Bishop Talbert is retired.
Which means there's little of real significance being put at risk. Bishop Talbert will not lose his episcopal area, because he no longer presides over one. His pension is (I believe) secure. It's conceivable the denomination could, as the result of a trial, strip him of his ordination, but again, since he's retired, it's not as if he can be barred from ministering to his parish, since he doesn't have one.
I hear about many bishops who are in accord with Bishop Talbert. In fact, the entire Western Jurisdiction--Bishop Talbert's home region--has sided with him in his call for "Biblical Obedience" over mindless allegiance to the backward dicta of the Discipline. It's unlikely the Jurisdiction will put him on trial, despite the uproar he generated in the Alabama Annual Conference, where he performed the wedding over the objections of the resident Bishop. The Council of Bishops condemned him for doing it. So, of course, did the Good News movement, a faction that is to Methodism what the Tea Party is to Republicanism. The Reconciling Ministries Network, Methodism's movement for the rights of sexual minorities, has praised him. One fellow Bishop, Mary Ann Swenson, has issued a statement supporting Bishop Talbert's actions. Bishop Swenson is--wait for it--also retired.
These two Bishops are far from alone in their principled stance. Throughout the Western Jurisdiction, retired and honorably located ministers have expressed their willingness to perform gay and lesbian marriage services. And why shouldn't they? They have little at stake save their ordinations. And, by the way, as an honorably located United Methodist elder, I'm both able and willing to marry any and every gay or lesbian couple who come knocking, up until the church takes away my orders. Bring it on. I'm not using them.
But that's not going to advance this cause. If things are going to really change, ministers, superintendents, and bishops--active bishops, appointed ministers and superintendents--will have to stand up and preside. As long as gay weddings are performed in secret, or by retired or located church officials like myself who have nothing substantive to lose, there will be no progress. The air waves will need to crackle with the sheer volume of church trials before the abomination of church-sanctioned homophobia finally collapses. They must believe so strongly in the full inclusion of all people that they will put their careers on the line.
Unfortunately, I don't see that happening, because time and again United Methodist church officials have proven themselves far too cowardly to risk that scrap of paper hanging on the wall to minister in this way. Bishops can go on looking the other way as they ordain gay and lesbian ministers, or as the clergy under their supervision perform same-gender wedding ceremonies; but allowing things to happen is a far cry from openly, publicly, proudly advocating for them and participating in them.
I may be wrong about this. The tide is certainly turning, and it has Good News running scared, screaming for the church to take immediate disciplinary action against Bishop Talbert. In the screed with which they reacted to the wedding, they ominously foretold the division of the denomination, the loss of the unity to which it has clung for almost fifty years. My thought on that is "good riddance," but I know there are many Methodists to whom the wholeness of the church is precious--just as I know there are many clergy for whom risking their elder's orders really is a huge thing.
I'm just not there anymore. If the price of staying ordained in a united denomination is sanctioning bigotry, then neither of those treasures is worth keeping. I suspect there are many active bishops who agree with me. I just wish they were brave enough to follow the example set by Bishops Talbert and Swenson.