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Photo by Laura Rossbert, Reconciling Ministries Network.

United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, center, marries Joe Openshaw, left, and Bobby Prince at Covenant Community United Church of Christ in Center Point, Ala.

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Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert

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Updated March 14: Same-sex union complaints filed against bishop

By Heather Hahn
March 13, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn (UMNS)

Formal complaints have been filed against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert alleging “he has violated the sacred trust of his office,” said a March 13 statement from the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops on Nov. 15, 2013, requested the complaints be filed against Talbert, after he officiated at the union of two men — Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince — on Oct. 25, 2013, in Birmingham, Ala., despite prohibitions in church law.

Before the ceremony, both Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked Talbert not to officiate.

The Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

The Council of Bishops requested that Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the council’s president, and Wallace-Padgett, who leads the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, submit the complaint.

The council also directed that the complaint against the bishop be “under the provisions of Paragraph 413 (of the Book of Discipline) for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.”

But the March 13 statement from the council did not specify who filed the complaints or their contents. 

Both Wenner and Wallace-Padgett when asked for comment noted the complaint process is confidential and so they could not answer specific questions. Both bishops also said they were praying for the whole church.

The news of the complaint against Talbert came the same week that the New York Annual (regional) Conference announced that it had resolved without a trial a similar complaint against the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a former seminary dean who officiated at his son's wedding to another man.

Talbert on March 13 cheered that resolution as "an excellent outcome." However, he demurred when asked if he hoped for a similar resolution of the complaints against him. "You cannot impose what happened in one case on another," he said. "Each case stands on its own."

The complaint process

The complaint process is now before the denomination’s Western Jurisdiction, from which Talbert retired after serving as an active bishop from 1980 to 2000 in the Seattle and later the San Francisco areas. Church law requires that complaints against bishops be heard in the jurisdiction where the bishop is a member.

The March 13 statement said that in accordance with church law, a supervisory response has been initiated by Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky. 

Stanovsky is the president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops. She also leads United Methodists in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences.

“Whenever a bishop receives a complaint, we keep faith with the guidance that we get from the Book of Discipline,” Stanovsky told UMNS in November after the Council of Bishops requested the complaints.

Paragraph 413.3b in the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, says a supervisory response is a review of the bishop’s ministry that “shall be directed toward a just resolution” of the complaint. "It is not part of any judicial process" that precedes a trial, the law book says.

If the supervisory response does not reach a resolution, the matter could potentially become a judicial complaint. The Discipline also calls church trials “an expedient of last resort.”

The supervisory team consists of two bishops working in consultation with one clergy and one lay member of the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy. 

The supervisory team carefully maintains the confidentiality of the supervisory response, as guided by the Book of Discipline. 

“We find that confidentiality protects the integrity of the process and provides the best hope of the parties reaching a just resolution and offering healing to the Church,” Stanovsky said in the March 13 statement. “We need the whole Church to respect the supervisory process and uphold it in prayer. Everyone involved takes their role very seriously and is working for a just, healing and faithful outcome.”

Reactions across the theological spectrum

Leaders of unofficial United Methodist advocacy groups, with very different takes on same-gender unions, also have responded to news that the complaint process is under way.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of the evangelical renewal group Good News, told UMNS that his organization is “grateful” for the announcement. Good News supports maintaining the denomination’s current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Lambrecht said the group has been counseling church members to allow bishops to take the next steps in filing the complaints.

“That announcement removes the uncertainty and questions that were swirling around Bishop Talbert’s situation,” he said. “It assures the church that an accountability process is moving forward.”

He added that Good News supports the confidential nature of the supervisory process but also hopes the Western Jurisdiction will announce how the supervisory process is concluded.

“It will be important to bring a sense of resolution to the concerns that were lifted up in the complaints,” Lambrecht said.                                                

Talbert, a veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement, also has long campaigned to change the church’s stance on homosexuality and has been an outspoken advocate for clergy officiating at same-gender unions. He comes from a jurisdiction where many United Methodists share his views.

Delegates to the Western Jurisdiction’s meeting in 2012 asked Talbert to oversee a Western Jurisdiction grassroots movement to act as if the stance against homosexuality in the Book of Discipline — Paragraph 161F — “does not exist.” Talbert calls the movement “biblical obedience.”

Matt Berryman, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said in a statement his group’s “hope for vindication of Bishop Talbert’s liberating work through a very good and very just resolution.”

Reconciling Ministries Network advocates for the blessing of same-gender marriages and for greater inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of the church.

“Since this jurisdiction has committed itself to Biblical Obedience,” Berryman said, “we have every reason to believe that those who process this complaint will do so with Christ as their guide.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.