Is there a madness to their Methodists?

A few weeks back I wrote In landmark move, Methodist bishop defies church law and colleagues to marry gay couple, about how Methodist bishop Melvin G. Talbert, in defiance of the Methodists’ scary-sounding Council of Bishops, was going to come out of his retirement in Tennessee, and travel to Alabama in order to officiate in the wedding of a Methodist gay couple, Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw.

And, on October 26th, that’s just what he did. That’s Bishop Talbert above, marrying the happy couple. (Photo completely snagged off this great newspaper article about the whole thing.)

Not everybody was as pleased as, say, NALT Christians were about this wedding. Debra Wallace-Padgett, the Methodist Bishop whose jurisdiction includes the part of Alabama where the wedding took place, was downright p.o.’ed about it. So much so that (contrary to the Methodist custom of working out such things in private) she decided to publicly chastise Bishop Talbert for daring to come into her territory to perform a wedding that she personally wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot staff.

So she wrote a big letter (here) complaining about Talbert, in which she essentially warned him to stay in Tennessee and mind his business. Lamely, the Methodists’ Council of Bishops endorsed her attempt to keep Bishop Talbert from coming to officiate at the wedding.

Talbert, being a mature adult, did it anyway.


In normal life, this affair would now be over. But in the world of Anti-Gay Christians Forever Spazzing Out About Gay People, such things die hard.

To wit: today comes news from The United Methodist Reporter that the Methodists’ Council of Bishops, along with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, will be filing a complaint of misconduct against Bishop Talbert, for “undermining the ministry of a colleague and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple.”

You can read their whole … pre-complaint here. (I say “pre”-complaint, because it’s actually a statement wherein the council requests that their own president file the complaint. Yikes. Bureaucratic much?)


I get it. I understand that such things as … the right of gay people to be considered human, takes a while, apparently. Okay. Yes. Things don’t change over night; people have to be lovingly ushered from wherever they are to wherever they should be; we can’t rush these things; the Bible’s a big book with a long history; there aren’t enough pictures in the thing; everyone’s super-sensitive about anything having to do with the general crotchal zone; it’s entrancing to belong to a majority that gets to persecute a minority for not being as moral as you are, etc., etc.

I get all that. I do. I’m an Episcopalian. You can’t dust underneath a pew in an Episcopal church without first holding fourteen meetings in order to thoroughly discuss and discern every last variable relating to the proper shepherding of dust bunnies.

And in truth, the COB’s statement is a touching document. It shows a lot of heart. It’s like … a bully crying as he pushes you around instead of just punching you out.

No, but it really is a movingly humble document; it’s got some real … admirable and even inspiring resonance.

I actually think it’s worth saving, as a historical document, because it so perfectly captures exactly where, at this moment in time, the gay issue is, was, and will inevitably be.

But holy cow it’s like watching a glacier melt, isn’t it? Except instead of dripping water we’re getting the dripping blood of LGBT teenagers who continue taking their own lives because they can no longer stand being bullied by other kids who feel justified in treating them like they’re not really human at all.

C’mon, people. Touching process or not, can we please speed this up already?

* * * * * * * *

(If you’re not in the mood to have exasperated every last bit of your patience with the Methodists’ powers-that-be, do not read this story about Frank Schaefer, a Methodist reverend who is currently in the process of being defrocked for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding in 2007. But if you do read that story, as an antidote follow it up with this awesome story: More than 50 United Methodist clergy show support of marriage of gay couple. UPDATE: Annnnd back down again we go: Methodist jury convicts Pa. pastor [being Frank Schaefer] for gay wedding. Sigh … )

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  • Eric Boersma

    As someone who attends a UMC church (but isn’t yet a member), the best I can is that we’re working on it. It sucks. This isn’t the only high-profile gay marriage case coming up for the UMC (see Rev. Frank Schaefer, who’s being put on trial by the UMC for presiding over the marriage of his son in 2007). Both of these cases are ridiculous, and I’m praying that as a denomination, we’ll cut this kind of gross bigotry right out.

    These rules are part of the reason I haven’t become a full member of the UMC, yet. I love my local church, and I’m working with them to present our collective dissatisfaction at these trials. Pray for us, that we’ll be able to do the right thing and eliminate arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on homosexuals within the UMC (homosexuals also can’t be ordained in the UMC tradition, but they can be granted member status and are encouraged to take communion — like I said, arbitrary and discriminatory). We’ll know a lot more next week.

  • Yes, Eric, thank you for mentioning the Schaefer case. Let me go tag that on to the end of this piece. Thanks again.

  • I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping my super-sensitive crotchel-zone a secret. Guess not…

    Anyway…on another “yayeth” note: did you see the item about the 50 pastors in Philly who officiated the marriage of a gay couple? It happened in a UMC church. The clergy were showing solidarity for Frank Schaefer who’s being tried for presiding over his son’s marriage to another man.

    Change is happening. I need to cling to that or else the injustice and bigotry would just be too overwhelming.

  • DonRappe

    Good one John! I guess the written code still kills. I’m certain the Spirit still gives Life.

  • Ford: YES! Thank you for reminding us of that story. Let me go add that to the end of this piece, too. Good job. Thank you, brother.

  • Matt

    *laugh* However glacial, progress is sweet. And what a sharp-looking couple! You can never go wrong with dark suits.

  • There is a growing groundswell from UMC pastors, active and retired, who are tired of the waiting for the council to get their acts together and live up to the motto of Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors.

  • Timothy Scott Little

    John, if I could put pen to paper (ok, that’s an outdated metaphor) the way you do, I would have to fight off the sin of pride. As usual, you use just enough irony and humor to deliver an excellent, concise summary of a very painful issue. It’s going to take the Methodists a while. But then it took us Episcopalians a while too. It is sad, though, that the hierarchy chooses to waste its not insubstantial authority to inflict pain on the good bishop rather than stand with the marginalized. As a substantially larger denomination than TEC, ELCA, UCC, DoC or the PCUSA, it stands to exert a lot of influence on the issue of LGBTQ equality and safety, and it is squandering that opportunity. May unconditional love prevail.

  • Hi Timothy! No it didn’t. I mean, it took Episcopalians a while in the big scheme, sure. The Church of England can be traced to Augustine in 597, the Anglicans date back from the English Reformation, and then — this is important — in 1784 Episcopalians splintered off from the Anglican Church. Many people think they’re synonymous. They ain’t. James Theodore Holly started the first Episcopalian society for blacks before the Civil War. Women were admitted as delegates in 1970, and still serve pivotal roles in both the clergy and laity. The first openly gay non-celibate bishop in the Episcopal Church was a DECADE ago. It can be done. It should be done. Methodists dragging their feet is … well, lame.

  • Beth

    It is lame, for sure. But in the UMC our polity is decided globally. If we had only US delegates voting at our General Conference, our stance on marriage/ordination, etc. would have probably changed in 2008. But we vote as just a part of the whole, with delegates from around the world holding much more conservative points of view. This is also the part of the UMC that is growing – the church in African in particular. Representation by delegates from Africa at General Conference is on the rise. So I’m not sure when change in polity will ever happen. Still lame. But not quite the same process for change as in denominations where expressions of a denomination in different countries have power to act as a nation. There is no US entity to make unique decisions in the UMC.

  • Toni Browning-Early

    Personally, I just thought it was highly amusing to watch the Episcopal Church of England protest same-sex marriage in Great Britain because it was “redefining marriage”. Irony, thou art defined.

  • Pubilius

    You hit the nail on the head here John. It should be interesting to see if the Western Jurisdiction (college of bishops, a regional “provincial” body) actually does prosecute Bishop Talbert like the Council of Bishops (over the world-wide church) wants them to… There’s so much to say here, about LGBTQ people hunted by the conservatives in the UMC, forced out of ministry and slandered. The trials of those who conduct wedding ceremonies for those who give their time, talents, and tithe to God via the UMC– who grew up there, and found a home in a specific (RMN) parish… but in the end, this truly is about the LGBTQ youth out there– both in conservative churches (and churches becoming more conservative as liberals in the UMC are forced out) and those who use Christ to oppress LGBTQ people.

  • Pubilius

    And, I heard something alarming today: The last General Conference found not just conservative Americans voting with conservative Africans, but actually had conservative Americans pledging funds for the cash-strapped African missions: wheeling and dealing and indirectly buying votes… and I argue taking advantage of African delegates who do not have the personal knowledge of LGBTQ people and other interpretations of the clobber-verses of the Bible.
    The UMC as a whole would not benefit from an Anglican autonomous model, but the US church certainly would. If US delegates were in control of US church policy, the hateful language in church law would be stricken out.

  • Cool insight. I didn’t know that. If you haven’t, check out John’s That woman’s attitude mirrors my experience. In my case, her name was the Rev. Canon Susan Harriss. She was brought up Salvation Army. Left the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to become Rector in posh Rye, NY. Married with children to a Senior Minister in the Reformed Church. Total badass.

  • Rev. Dave Moorman

    Of course we United Methodists take longer than Moses in the Wilderness. We invented institutional religious gay bullying – in 1972, just four years after the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. At that merger, the Central (read: segregated) Conference of all Black Methodist churches was abolished, and black people belonged to the same conferences as white people. Shudder! Black People would now be welcome in White Methodist (that is, United Methodist) churches on Conference business.

    This required, for a certain sector of our broad denomination, some other group to get all holier-than-thou over. Let’s pick on gays, who were clearly identified by their hedonistic ways. We decided that while we must love the sinner, we had to hate the sin so much the guilty sinners could not spread this horrible contagious disease.

    Forty years later, at our last quadrennial General Conference, the obviously hateful bullying position could not be expunged from our Discipline (Church Law), even though the rest of the country (and people who would never consider being UMs on a bet) was mostly over the hedonism epithet.

    We seem to forget that John Wesley, the original Methodist in the 1700s, ministered to people the Church of England refused to let into their church buildings. Yes, “The bleat goes on and on and on and…”

  • Bill Steffenhagen

    AKA Soulmentor. Hi John.

    So the gay friendly Methodist clergy gets tried and what? Defrocked? So? There’s no there there. The “judges” hold no real power. There’s no actual enforcement and sentencing like in a REAL secular court. So this pastor or Frank Schaefer get defrocked. What’s lost? The power lies within the three people involved in the marriage; the officiating person and the persons getting married. With those three and the paper from the state, literally anyone can do it. THE CHURCH has no real power in this matter; only that given to it by the REAL church, which is the people. And THE CHURCH, whichever church, is rapidly losing it over this issue.

  • Bill! You got the avatar thing figured out! (And you’re right, of course. But I’d argue there IS a there there. And that’s the public perception of Christians generally. And that’s not nothing.)

  • Very nicely said, Rev. Moorman. Great comment/addition. Thank you.

  • Thank you for that very kind compliment, Timothy. And terrific statement afterwards. Perfectly said.

  • Beth: You know, what you’ve said here is really so vital to understanding this issue relative to the UMC. It’s something I’m guilty of not often enough bringing to the fore. I appreciate you saying this. (Would you be interested in writing a guest post for us about it? If so, email me:

  • Publius: Do you know anywhere online where we might be able to read more about what you’ve said happened at the last GC? That would be … one interesting read.

  • Pubilius

    I have found no information about this on the Internet. I heard it from a fellow seminarian who attended GC2012 and heard first hand some of the ignorant, homophobic statements the African delegates made. His tone was one of despair and alarm when mentioning all of this– I have asked him for additional information (Internet story, etc) and will post here if he’s able to provide any.
    The challenge is, it is difficult to provide proof of a correlation between vote and infusion of funds to the African conferences, since there’s already such as massive outflow from American conferences to the African conferences.

  • Hi Pubilius. I didn’t find anything based on the ‘carrot’ approach. Maybe the stick. My search terms were “methodist+general+counsel”+transfer+funds+Africa (

    The “What’s New: GCFA Responds to Request from 2012 General Conference” and reports link are also interesting. Particularly the consultants. The Council of Bishops and General Council on Finance and Administration are both blank – fascinating all by itself,
    since transparency is now a by-law – but you can imagine, anyway, how monies might get from listed consultants to Africa.

  • Guest

    Ouch. GCFA really doesn’t want to make that info linkable. Either that, or they need Dan Wilkinson. They work cut-and-paste or from MS Word.

  • Here’s something about the beginnings of that at the 2008 General Conference. Search for “cell phone” at .

  • Pubilius

    Very interesting David… My friend texted me some photos of conservative American delegates and an African bishop signing some sort of contract over dinner (at GC 2012). Don’t know if he took them or what.

  • Robert Rister

    I have to sound a dissident note. I think that what the UMC needs is a more comprehensive return to Biblical morality. For instance, Methodists could reject divorce. And they could hire a lobbyist to petition legislatures to bring back stoning of adulterers. And following the teaching of Jesus, they could apply the same penalties for thinking about sex, which we know is always sinful, as doing it. However, I am sure the Bible allows for multiple wives. This could help them make converts from emerging religions. I am sure this would bring about needed changes in the United Methodist Church, especially if they stone a few divorced bishops for thinking un-Christian thoughts or bishops start marrying second wives. Women don’t get to speak on this topic, by the way.

  • Hi Robert. Woman here. 1) I’m sure the Methodists hire lobbyists. My first ‘real’ job was with the Newspaper Association of America. A fine organization, and we astroturfed with the best of them. That’s… how PR is done. 2) I think about sex almost constantly. Completely unrelated to point 1, although congressmen staffers told me I have a hell of a phone voice. I’m at my sexual peak. God made the XXs like that. I’m not too worried about the lightning bolt.

  • Bill Steffenhagen

    OK. I bow to your expertise. As for the avatar….No, I didn’t figure it out. It’s just there for whatever reason. I’m cool with that.

  • Well, that was weird, Robert Rister.

  • The Borg knows your face. That’s why.

  • DonRappe

    I begin to think that the heresy involved in being unable to distinguish the way of Jesus from the way of Caesar is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church.

  • harrisco

    I grew up in UMC and know it well. In another post, John talked about fundamentalist churches being heavily independent in nature. Each church runs its own show. Methodists are quite the opposite. Each United Methodist congregation does not run its own show. Instead, each church is part of a “connection.” The connection has rules–its own system of laws and penalties. The good part about a connectional system is that Methodists in Ohio and Florida have a hand in UM-led missional work in Angola or disaster relief in the Phillipines and all sorts of good work in the world. They have collective identity, organization, history, resources, and beliefs. The downside of such a system is that it is slow, conflict-laden, and over-structured. It is a tortoise, not a hare. Clergy members in such a system make a commitment to the whole church, not just a single congregation. The UM organization, through the office of bishop, decides where individual clergy members serve. Church law decides if they are eligible to serve at all. Ordained UM ministers live out a call, and earn a livelihood, within a system that gives them little personal control over where they serve or how much they make or even where they live. Thus, to be defrocked is to be excluded from appointment in the whole United Methodist world. No UM bishop has authority to appoint a defrocked minister to a church in his or her area. No Methodist church on its own can ignore the bishop and accept a defrocked minister. The connectional system trumps the local church. In UM system, the authority to perform ministerial duties, like conducting weddings and funerals and baptisms, does not reside in an individual minister or in a local congregation but in the whole church–and the role of a bishop is to care for the whole church. All that to say — there is significance to breaking church laws, at least for ordained clergy and their families–and both bishops’ actions are about the connection more than the individuals involved.

  • Bill Steffenhagen

    So it’s more complicated than my simplistic reaction. A minister can lose his livelihood and, if rule breaking is permitted, the UM “connectional” structure begins to break down and with that, it’s power and influence. I get it. So the “system” protects itself even when there is a cancer within. Seems to me it has two options: Begin a healing process by making internal corrections, or hunker down and face a rebellion and ultimate breakdown anyway. Systems have a way of avoiding the question; WWJD? There’s not much question what that answer would be. Much of life would be easier if we all just answered it honestly, but so many “systems” would collapse it’s nearly impossible to imagine it happening. It would be a chaotic revolution…….a re-birth that I think we are seeing the beginning of worldwide.

  • Can we stop beating up on the UMC for its hierarchy? Yes we have structural issues that need to be fixed, but I think there is an argument that can be made that it was the more progressive folks at our last General Conference that got in the way of starting to fix some of those. But that’s a whole other set of issues .

    This isn’t a structural issue that’s a problem. Its a problem of theology and a worldwide church that is struggling and has been struggling to reach a new understanding. And those of us on the progressive side of things haven’t done a great job of trying to convince the other side. Mostly because we aren’t going to be able to until we find a better way of getting beyond english biblical literalism.

  • Beating up is a little harsh. John likes Methodists. Please see here: and here: They’re practically fanboy material.

    I was raised Presbyterian. My best girl friend, to this day, was raised Methodist. Our churches were across the street from each other. I ran over during coffee hour and stayed for the second sermon. Methodists are, um, methodical. Church hierarchy should be methodical. I, anyway, just want it to be more efficient, voting blocs aside. The tide has turned on LGBT rights.

    In the U.S.A. We’re not a superpower for nothing. Flex some muscle.

  • buzzdixon

    For me the kneeslapper is that a female bishop is complaining about not following church tradition…

  • Yeah, I should give John more credit….I’m a little touchy on that subject because I’m around a lot of non-denominational folks who like to play up their independence, but then I see them suffer because they don’t have a connection to a larger group. And I see the problems that some of the structures we have are causing us…..and then we can’t get them changed.

    I agree whole heartedly. I wish we were more efficient because have your legislative body meet every four years doesn’t work, especially for changes that are happening as fast as LGBT rights are. One of our biggest problems is the traditional progressive problem, and its that we can’t agree on things that would help us change more quickly. At the last general conference we ended up with cobbled together plans for change that wouldn’t fly when if we had gone with one of them, we might be in better shape now.

  • Bill Steffenhagen

    That’s scary!

  • So many people worked so hard. The debate alone was worthwhile. I think all of us were hoping for better than a 61% rejection. Next time. 🙂

  • John Masters

    I’ve been a Methodist my entire life. I was christened in a Methodist Church, and have recently been teaching an adult Sunday School class at a church here in Tampa, but I’m done…really, after 54 years I renounce the United Methodist Church. I recognize there are many good people in the Church, but they can’t overcome the entrenched homophobia that is rampant. As I told the Bishop of the Florida Conference a few weeks ago, “I never thought I’d utter these words, but for God’s sake, the Pope has moved further on this issue than the Methodist.”

    I realized change was unlikely after watching a delegate from Africa at the General Conference take the floor and compare homosexuality to bestiality, and the Bishop presiding at the time said not a word, nor called him out of order.

    But I learned it to be a fact when a new pastor at my church, on his own, rescinded a welcoming statement passed in 2011 by our Church Council. He was dishonest in reasoning, saying the statement (cut and pasted from the Book of Discipline) somehow violated the BoD. When I filed a complaint with the Bishop, the minister changed his explanation completely, the Bishop conceded the statement didn’t violate the Discipline, but the said the Pastor did nothing wrong…so I give up. Especially here in Florida, with nearly ever minister coming out of the Asbury cult, things are never going to change, and tired of Bishops and others asking me to “wait” just a little longer. I think 54 years is long enough.

    The tide has not turned in the Methodist Church. The Bishops run fearful of the African block, afraid they’ll leave…I say, let ’em go do their own thing. but it will never happen. For the sake of membership numbers (because the church in Africa is growing, but declining in the U.S. [for good reason]), The College of Bishops will let this church collapse.

  • John Masters

    Methinks Robert’s post was something of a snark.

  • John Masters

    A distinguishing feature of Methodism since it first appeared (not as a separate religion, mind you, but as a group within the Church of England) is the social action and involvement. Interestingly, the very first principle of the very first social creed of the Methodist’s was, “For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.” How far we’ve fallen.

  • John Masters

    Some of the things that went on there would make a Congressman blush. The IRD and other conservative groups “loaned” African delegates cell phones while here in Tampa, so they could text them with instructions on how to vote.

  • Me too. I enjoy troll bait. It’s a sickness, really. The lady doth not protest too much yet. 🙂

  • John Masters

    Did some of it in 2012 as well, but kept it more on the down low, and didn’t give them out wholesale.

    Here’s another problem…they paid tribute to a woman who’d been a delegate at 10 or 11 General Conferences…while I applaud her service, think about that…A Methodist General Conference is held every four years. That means this lady has been a representative for her Annual Conference for over 40 YEARS…the same person. And there plenty more close on her heels.

    I once spoke to a learned member of Church’s Judicial Council. At the end of the conversation, he summed up the issue, until we get some new delegates voting, the results are going to always be the same. Problem is, as noted above, we’re now getting some new delegates, all coming from a very conservative movement in Africa.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Neither the civil partnership, nor the spiritual bond of what we call “marriage” is taken seriously in any version of “marriage” in our country. I don’t know if this is a function of clergy being able to perform the legal office of what we have come to call “marriage” in our convenience culture of capitalism, or if it is a function of the fear of hell for the unmarried partakers of the pleasures of the flesh.

    Whatever the case may be, they are two very different, very important functions that i think the Jews took more seriously than do our current “Christians.”

    I believe that it is time for our nation’s churches to advocate for real separation of church and state.

    I think it would then be perfectly acceptable to tell those who don’t live within separate boundaries of separate religious “homes”, “We cannot accept your actions in ” ‘our home’.” Donations may suffer in the collection plate, but at least the boundaries would be honest and well-defined as simply religious groups’ fears, not signs of eternal damnation or salvation.

  • JoFro

    [comment deleted]

  • Bill Steffenhagen

    Please, no one take this rotten bait. Let it die of silent inattention. Yes, I read it and comment only to urge no further comment. It is not worthy of discussion. They are losing this culture war issue. Justly so.

  • Guest

    I think it’s called snark, John. 🙂

  • Linnea912

    Ahh, gotta love the snark… 🙂

  • Linnea912

    Yep, you nailed it. Another part of the problem is that the UMC is really a *worldwide* church, not just an American one, and that means that, for example, the African wing of the church (which is still very homophobic) can shoot down any progressive change on this topic. I’ve come to the conclusion that a worldwide church is just too unwieldy, and really needs to broken into smaller, more manageable pieces.

  • Rev. Dave Moorman

    I think “fallen” is too harsh.Billy Graham is center-right, UCC is center-left, Unitarians are Left. Fundamentalists are Right. The UMC spans the whole spectrum, from almost no Christ to almost biblical literalsim. This makes full discussions very difficult, since the far ends of the spectrum are not using the same language. But we hold together to be a denomination that does discuss, argue, and fight. About the only faith position we cannot accept is “I’m right and you’re going to hell.” Some folks don’t realize this, but we accept them anyway. Now if we could be as accepting of the GLBTs.

    Then again, sexual difference more important than theological opinions!

  • Kyle

    Here in Georgia, Emory is producing some very open minded pastors. Even in my rural church, our pastor is very open minded and welcoming.

  • John Masters

    You’re very lucky Kyle.