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A call for biblical obedience

It is time to do the right thing

Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert spoke those words to more than 550 people Sept. 1, during the 2013 Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) Convocation held at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center in Chevy Chase. RMN’s mission, according to its web site, is to “mobilize United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”

By “doing the right thing,” the bishop was speaking about biblical obedience, specifically in reference to Micah 6:6 and Mark 12:28-31. In those passages, the bishop said, you will find the heart of the prophetic witness and the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ.

In a nutshell, the bishop was saying to love God and to love one another.

That may sound simple, but Bishop Talbert reminded his audience that since 1972, The United Methodist Church has had language “enshrined in the Book of Discipline” that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In fact, he said, over the last 40 years, the denomination’s stance has “hardened” to the point where United Methodist clergy are forbidden from performing same-gender weddings or unions, and United Methodist facilities are forbidden from hosting such services.

In the bishop’s mind, this stance is not just wrong, it is “immoral, evil, unjust and oppressive,” a phrase he repeated several times in his 30-minute speech Sunday afternoon, and repeated again during his sermon Sunday night at a packed Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington.

“Giving loyalty to God is higher than giving loyalty to the laws of the church,” the bishop said. “The goal is to be faithful to God.”

Biblical obedience, the bishop said, means doing the right thing – loving one another – no matter what. It is also, he said, “a soul-searching struggle,” one that has led him to give his life to the cause of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer United Methodists. 

After verbally re-committing himself to this cause, he received a standing ovation.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, also retired, spoke after Bishop Talbert and explained why she, too, has given her life to this cause. A child of segregated schools in Mississippi, Bishop Swenson said that in her ministry, she has dealt with public and private scorn with people quoting Scripture to her that “women should be silent in church.” She has also witnessed biblical obedience, she said, in response to those issues.

“There used to be ‘kneel-ins’ at my home church,” she said. People seeking for full racial inclusion in Capital Street Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss., she said, used to simply walk into the sanctuary at the beginning of worship and kneel at the communion rail. There they would stay for the whole service, a silent witness, she said.

Swenson said she learned at an early age that “Christ has set us free, and those who are children of God in Christ are heirs” of the Kingdom. That helped form her life, she said, and her belief that “all means all.

“God doesn’t want us to put limits on God’s love and when it should be shared,” Bishop Swenson said. “(This movement) has helped me love the church again. Love one another. Practice it. Amen.”

At a celebration of marriage equality worship service Sunday night, Metropolitan Memorial UMC’s full sanctuary bore witness to the importance of this issue for many United Methodists. 

The Rev. Dean Snyder, pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., estimated that 25 members of his church were present. 

“This is an opportunity to connect with people committed to a just and equitable stance in our church,” he said. Snyder and a cohort from his church are working at drafting legislation yet again for the 2016 General Conference, seeking to overturn the church’s current stance on homosexuality and same-gender marriage.

The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District, was present at the worship service. 

“We say that we are a church of ‘Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.,” she said. “We are still working towards that as a denomination. As Bishop Talbert has called us to biblical obedience, it is time to let go of the last vestiges of segregation.”

For the Rev. Mary Kay Totty, pastor at Dumbarton UMC, the worship service was important to her. 

“The Celebration of Marriage Equality worship service lifted up the growing justice for same-sex couples as more and more places in our country and world embrace the justice of marriage equality,” she said. “I long for the day when our own beloved United Methodist Church will also embrace the justice of marriage equality.”

Totty served as part of the design team for the service, and said that one of the hopes in planning the service was to witness to the fact that more and more same-sex couples are getting married and more and more United Methodist clergy are willing to officiate at same-sex weddings. 

“For me, it was important to be a part of a team creating worship which acknowledged and affirmed the value of same-sex marriages. I believe that God was delighted with us on Sunday evening as we celebrated marriage equality,” she said.

During his sermon, Bishop Talbert repeated his calls for biblical obedience, and a call to live “as if the beloved community is already here, now.”

The bishop said that the current, active bishops of the church “have failed us. If they say, ‘We will no longer enforce your unjust laws,’ this matter will be over with.”

The bishop also warned his hearers that “we dare not surrender the Bible to the Religious Right. We believe God is still revealing God’s self every day.”

He called on clergy, again, to “do the right thing,” and added that part of this is the refusal to convict anyone charged for violating church law.

“It is in the midst of struggle that our faith is tested,” he said. “We celebrate tonight how blessed we are to be the vessel through which those who are hurting have the love of God make known to them.”

Those aren’t just words, he added, noting that with the current statistical decline of United Methodism in the United States, “something’s gotta happen.” 

The bishop then observed that many young adults are joining in the movement, something not seen in most parts of the church. 

“Maybe God has called the Reconciling Ministries Network to be the vessel through which the church becomes who God wants it to be.”

Issue Date: 
Tue, 09/03/2013