By RMN Executive Director, Matthew Berryman & Deputy Director, Bridget Cabrera
On October 26, 2013, retired United Methodist Bishop Mel Talbert, acting according to his own conscience and inspired again by a lifelong commitment to a gospel of love and justice, celebrated the marriage of two United Methodists from Alabama, Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw. In doing so, Bishop Talbert’s ministry with Bobby and Joe brought to bear a vision of justice and love powerfully embedded in the words of scripture and poignantly anticipated in the innocence of the Christmas crib—a deep sign of the renewal of the church.
Acting according to the often costly demands of Biblical Obedience, Bishop Talbert beheld the presence of the ‘signs and wonders’ of God’s activity within the love shared between Bobby and Joe, and with them, set-out to celebrate this ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ in the face of The United Methodist Church’s ongoing failure to recognize such faithfulness between persons of the same sex. In response, The UMC’s Council of Bishops encouraged the filing of a complaint to hold Bishop Talbert accountable for officiating at the wedding ceremony of Bobby and Joe. Bishop Deborah Wallace Padgett of Northern Alabama filed the complaint, and after months of administrative review by Bishop Elaine Stanovsky and the College of Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Talbert and Bishop Wallace-Padgett have reached a just resolution.
It seems curious that marriage, or same-sex marriage more specifically, would be the location for front-line battles around United Methodist orthodoxy and practice. Since United Methodist identity and practice is grounded in the story of God-with-us—a story first about who God is, how God is with God’s creation, and God’s reign of love and justice—the current United Methodist proscription against and obsession with “homosexual practice” and same-sex marriage seems a rather marginal location from which to assess Christian theological consistency and scriptural faithfulness. I would have thought that practices of repentance, forgiveness, and mercy, the absence of regular community-constituting practices of Eucharist, and the deep connections between faithfulness and justice would be places to aim a restorative focus for the renewal of our common life together as United Methodist Christians.
Instead of recognizing and blessing the ‘signs and wonders’ of God’s presence in the love between faithful United Methodists Bobby and Joe, welcoming them as a couple into Christian service, and moving forward with this couple to do the work of God in a hurting world, the church continues to act as if this were the fulcrum on which Christian identity and practice must be measured for its orthodoxy. As a result, the church misses an opportunity to claim the ‘essentials’ of the Gospel entrusted to it, silences the proclaiming of these ‘loves’ by refusing their blessing at the altar, and punishes the prophets who dare to proclaim the gospel for all and renew the Church for ministry in today’s world. These same-sex couples who long to present their love before God, as it turns out, have stories that have been drowned out by the misplaced and irrelevant megaphones of church trials, complaints, headlines, and dialogues—these couples, their lives, and their stories are part of the renewal of The United Methodist Church.
In a world of oppression from families, culture, and churches, the love expressed in the Christian marriages of same-sex couples has much to teach the church about disciple-making, inclusion, and renewal. First, same-sex love must always persist in the face of marginalization, against many odds, and in opposition to the ‘norms’ of traditional culture. In this way, the faithful commitment of same-sex couples demonstrates to the world and the church how steadfast love can persist in the face of such adversity, particularly in a culture of the “next best thing” and “instant gratification.”
Second, given the ambiguous history of marriage as a “property” transfer involving sexism and the commodification of women as a commercial “good,” the marriage of two persons of the same sex subverts the colonizing gender stereotypes of “man” and “woman” and the inherent inequities characterized by historical definitions of marriage—marriage is based in partnership, not power differentials. Same-sex couples, in this regard, can remind the church of the baptism equality we proclaim and the degree to which our ‘genders’ are performed since what we think of as “man” can be performed by a “woman” and vice-versa. The letter to the Galatians warns that “there is neither male nor female” in Christ and same sex couples remind us that marriage is the celebration of divine love incarnate between two baptized persons.
Third, to bless same sex couples is to raise gospel questions around the procreative capacities often thought necessary to justify love and marriage. A theological construal of marriage should be funded by its ability to bear witness to God’s covenantal love in Christ—faithful, committed, eternal, and for our highest good. Christian marriage is theological, not biological. Couples’ readiness for Christian marriage hinges on their spiritual capacity to marry for the sake of the Church’s mission and ministry in the world—to be ‘signs and wonders’ and expressions of God’s never-ending love.
Today, Reconciling Ministries Network recognizes the continued injustices and ongoing oppression that limits the full personhood of LGBTQ persons within the community of the body of Christ within The UMC. And yet today, we celebrate the just resolution reached between Bishop Talbert and Bishop Wallace-Padgett. As a renewal movement within the Church, we call all United Methodists to the practice of Biblical Obedience for LGBTQ persons, their allies, and all people that the Church may grow into a place of inclusion, love, and justice for all. Today’s resolution signals a future for The UMC and as such, we call all those who seek to follow in the ways of Love to join with Reconciling Ministries Network in working for a fully-inclusive church.