Bishops called to embrace "team spirit"

November 12, 2013

5:30 P.M. ET Nov. 11, 2013 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. A web-only photo courtesy of the Council of Bishops.
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.
A web-only photo courtesy of the Council of Bishops.

As they meet this week for their annual meeting, active and retired United Methodist bishops clearly are not of one mind regarding human sexuality and other issues the denomination faces.

But bishops will need to talk and listen to each other “in an attitude of team spirit,” Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner said in her presidential address to the Council of Bishops. She spoke Monday, Nov. 11, to a gathering that included 63 active bishops and 61 retired bishops from four continents.

Such holy conferencing is needed, she said, “not because of courtesy and politeness. But because we depend on one another in order to be faithful to God’s mission.”

She delivered her presidential address at a time when the differences among bishops have rarely been more pronounced or more public — especially about how to best minister with gay and lesbian individuals.

Public disagreements on same-sex marriage

Two weeks before the Council of Bishops meeting, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, in defiance of church law, officiated at a ceremony in Birmingham, Ala., that celebrated the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince.

Ahead of the ceremony, Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett had requested Talbert not to go to Birmingham for that purpose. “For a bishop or any ordained or licensed minister to disregard a law of the church creates a breach of the covenant they made at their consecration, ordination or licensing,” she said in a statement.

The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops issued a statement also urging Talbert not to officiate, reminding him that conducting same-sex wedding ceremonies is a chargeable offense under church law.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

Talbert, who has long advocated changing this part of the Discipline, said after last year’s General Conference he “felt compelled as a bishop to declare that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in our Book of Discipline are wrong, immoral and unjust, and no longer deserve our loyalty and support.”

Increasingly, other United Methodist clergy in the United States are making headlines for officiating at same-sex weddings despite church law.

Bishops’ challenge

Bishop William T. McAlilly. A web-only photo by Lane Gardner Camp.
Bishop William T. McAlilly
A web-only photo by Lane Gardner Camp.

At the Council of Bishops opening worship service, Nashville (Tenn,) Area Bishop William T. McAlilly acknowledged the dispute during his sermon.

“We differ theologically on how best to navigate the changing cultural landscapes as it relates to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” he said.

McAlilly said some of his bishop colleagues “feel called to be prophetic, others of us feel we need to hold the tension between these two polar opposites, and others feel strongly that God has spoken.”

Wenner, in her address, offered her own suggestions for a way forward. She noted that Jesus’ apostles faced disagreements no less strong than those today when they called a council to deal with the questions of the place of gentiles in the budding Christian movement. Acts 15 records the concerns.

She said the bishops need to bring their disagreements to the table, all voices must be heard and they must search for compromise.

The leading question has to be missional, she said, and address how not to hinder the Holy Spirit from saving human beings. Finally, she said, the bishops will have to recognize that conflicts are an ongoing reality in the church.

“Because the church of Jesus Christ is composed of many diverse people, unity is not a static agreement, but a constant move, where we engage with one another in discerning God’s will for all,” she said.

She said the bishops must speak publicly and lead.

“We have to avoid, however, that through our speeches we multiply the anxiety and even the fights many groups in the church are living in,” she cautioned. “There is plenty of ‘more of the same.’ Instead of that, we need an invitation to prayer, biblical and theological reflections, mutual awareness and humble service for the people in need.”

Both Wallace-Padgett and Talbert are among the bishops at the meeting.

Talbert told United Methodist News Service he was deeply moved by what McAlilly said during the morning session. Talbert praised McAlilly for naming the issue and not trying to skirt it.

Talbert also praised Wenner’s address. “I think she likewise is trying to be conciliatory, to make sure we don’t rush to judgment, that we allow for a free flow of conversation and not exclude anyone in order that we can work together.”

Responses to meeting

Representatives from United Methodist interest groups on multiples sides of the dispute are in attendance and observing the public parts of the meeting.

They include the Rev. Amy DeLong, an elder in Wisconsin who was convicted in 2011 by a church court of officiating at a same-sex union.

Also in attendance is the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, which advocates maintaining the denomination’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The group has called for the Council of Bishops to hold Talbert accountable.

Lambrecht said Good News has not at this point filed a formal complaint against Talbert but is instead waiting to see how the bishops respond.

Under the Book of Discipline, complaints against bishops must be filed with their college of bishops. Church law also describes the process as confidential. Talbert lives in Nashville, Tenn., but retired from the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses much of the western United States as well as Hawaii and Guam.

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky is the president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops. She said she has the responsibility to protect the confidentiality of the proceedings and will not say anything publicly now.

Talbert said he does not know if a complaint has been filed against him.

The council has scheduled several hours of executive sessions throughout the week. During those times, Wenner told the United Methodist News Service that she expects the bishops not only to discuss Talbert’s actions but also other sources of division.  

“As soon as we mention Israel and Palestine, we are not of one mind,” she said. “As soon as we engage in how to relate to one another in the central conferences (areas in Africa, Asia and Europe) and the United States, we come to tough questions.”

The overall question, she said, is “how to live in covenant with one another and model for the church, what it could mean to work together and live together even though there are disagreements.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or