Before Melvin Talbert was a Bishop of the United Methodist Church, he was a black man in the United States and then a clergy elder in the Methodist Church. Long before he was a bishop, he was following God’s call to justice even if it meant breaking with prevailing laws of the state or church. His faithfulness to the call of justice for all led to his arrest and time in jail, for breaking the law during the civil rights struggles in Atlanta in the 1960’s. His faithfulness to the scriptural call to inclusion and justice for all led to complaints against him as a Bishop of the UMC for presiding over the marriage of two gay men in Alabama in 2014.
Not unlike the marches from Selma to Birmingham, a crowd of others have followed Bishop Talbert down the road of justice and inclusion in the United Methodist Church. Some have crossed that bridge recently. Still others are among you.
In May 2016, six United Methodist Clergy and candidates came out publicly: Rev. John Girard, Rev. Jeff Mullinix, Rev. David Meredith, Mr. Ken Schoon, Rev. John Wooden, and Rev. Laura Young. They joined hundreds of “Called Out” clergy who signed a love letter to the United Methodist denomination. Three of these signatures led to complaints against them and their ministry and all three complaints were dismissed by Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who said “sexual orientation is not a chargeable offense” : John Girard, John Wooden, and Laura Young.
Ken didn’t receive an official complaint but was denied commissioning as a provisional Deacon on the pathway toward ordination, because the Board of Ordained Ministry of the West Ohio Conference (80 members) only mustered 51 of the 54 votes needed to achieve the two-thirds required majority. He stands prepared, supported, and ready to seek their confirmation a third time in January of 2017.
In September of 2014, the Clifton UMC decided to affirm a ministry of inclusion for all same-gender couples who sought to be married by their pastor at their church. Before it was legal in Ohio or the U.S. and before it was permitted in the United Methodist Church, the congregation unanimously voted to provide this basic pastoral service to all of its members equally.
Since June of 2015, five same gender couples have been married at Clifton UMC with another scheduled for November. The congregation at Clifton is not alone. Many Reconciling congregations and other UM congregations and pastors are hosting and presiding at the legal weddings of their same-gender couples.
In the summer of 2016, Rev. Frank Wulf of Los Angeles, Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco, and Rev. David Meredith, each married to their same gender spouse, stood for election as bishop in the United Methodist Church. In mid-July, Karen Oliveto was elected a bishop. In September she began serving as bishop in the Mountain Sky area. In late September she was installed as their bishop. Today she is with other newly elected bishops for orientation and training at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.
There is a sense that the movement toward full-inclusion in church, country, and world is growing. But there is also a sense of resistance. It’s almost like three steps forward, two steps back. There is progress but it seems incremental at best.
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the only decision making body of the entire denomination, met in Portland, OR in May and made no advances for greater inclusion. Instead they asked the Council of Bishops to form a Commission – one of diverse United Methodist lay and clergy leaders from around the world – to consider the current conflict regarding homosexuality and ways to restructure the church so that the UMC might continue in a changed yet unified way.
To date, progress toward the formation of the Commission are not known to the public, which eagerly awaits news and action. Complaints, charges, and threats of trials continue against persons who have followed the call to justice for all.
The efforts of the Reconciling Ministry Network, and the connections between Clifton UMC and other United Methodists, both Reconciling and not, are more important now than ever. For instance, just this past Sunday, two visitors from North Carolina joined us for worship. Their first words to me when I greeted them was, “Thank you for being a Reconciling congregation. Our daughter and grandson have been looking for a place like Clifton UMC. And now they’ve found it!” Their daughter found us because of the Reconciling Ministry Network’s WITNESS on our behalf in their listing of congregations, and because of the WITNESS of our own website. That’s what I mean. THE CONNECTION has never been more important. Continue to be a witness. Share information with your FRANK’s (friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, and kids). Invite them to join you for worship or other church activities.
Last Sunday, the Tri-State Reconciling Group met in Milford. This group of Reconciling United Methodists includes lay and clergy persons from eleven United Methodist congregations or affiliated groups in the Tri-State Region. Together they are supporting one another, growing new Reconciling congregations, and advocating for justice and inclusion in the church and region. That’s what I mean. THE CONNECTION. Please mark your calendars to attend the next Tri-State Reconciling meeting at Milford 1st UMC on Sunday, October 23 from 4:30-7:00pm at which both the superintendent and assistant superintended of the Ohio River Valley District, Todd Anderson and Suzanne Allen, will be present to speak about their perspective on lgbtq inclusion and take questions from members of the group.
The Reconciling Ministry Network is embarking on a strategic plan in light of the changing context of the U.S., world, and United Methodist Church. Your consideration, feedback, and input can help shape that plan. That’s what I mean. THE CONNECTION. Please follow the link to learn more and to participate in the planning.
Bishop Gregory V. Palmer will be visiting the Ohio River Valley District on Tuesday, October 25 at Armstrong Chapel UMC from 5:30-8:00pm. At the Bishop’s Day on the District, Bishop Palmer, like RMN, wants to hear from UM’s in the Ohio River Valley District on a variety of topics and wants to share his perspective. The voice of Clifton UMC and your many and diverse voices are really important. That’s what I mean. THE CONNECTION. Register for the event here, and submit questions to the Bishop here.
Lastly, the complexity, joy, faithfulness, and anxiety of this journey will all come together this weekend when the Reconciling Ministry Team from Clifton UMC presents Ken Schoon the Bishop Melvin Talbert Award. Ken will preach and play at each service (9:15 and 11:00) on Sunday, October 2, 2016, as well as answer questions about his journey and his perspective on the UMC at 6:00 pm in the sanctuary on Sunday evening. That’s what I mean. THE CONNECTION. Plan to attend one or more of the events. Start a social media conversation. Invite others to join you.
Even if the journey is three steps forward and two steps back, I want to be part of the forward movement of the church and its witness to the world. How about you?
See you in church.