By Riley Manning
The United Methodist Church is embroiled in heated discussion over the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage following the resolution of the Rev. Frank Schaefer’s trial for performing the 2007 wedding ceremony of his gay son.
Schaefer’s resolution comes on the heels of retired bishop Melvin Talbert’s defiance of the Council of Bishops’ request to not conduct a same-sex ceremony in Birmingham last month.
In a statement following Talbert’s actions, the Council admitted the denomination is “not of one mind” over the matter of homosexuality, acknowledging that “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.”
But the Council still advised the North Alabama Conference bishop to file complaint against Talbert so charges may be brought to bare for undermining the ministry of a colleague and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple.
The Book of Discipline
The Rev. Jim Curtis, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, said Talbert and Schaefer’s actions directly contradict the UMC’s Book of Discipline, which spells out the laws and doctrine of the denomination.
“The Book of Discipline explicitly says United Methodist ministers are not to perform same sex unions, blessings, or marriages,” he said. “If a clergy does perform one, a complaint must be filed with the Conference Bishop, who can then move forward to bring formal charges against the minister.”
Curtis said matters addressed in the Book of Discipline may be brought up for reassessment every four years at the UMC’s General Conference. Between General Conference sessions the Book of Discipline, which governs United Methodists worldwide, is interpreted by the UMC’s Judicial Council, nine laity and clergy members elected by the General Conference to review all decisions of law made by bishops.
“I think what people don’t often understand is that the Methodist Church is growing much faster outside the U.S. than in it,” Curtis said. “Many of these countries – the Phillipines, Africa, Eastern Europe – are much more conservative on this issue than America is.”
The Rev. Jimmy Criddle, pastor of Amory United Methodist Church agreed. Though policy on homosexuality is brought up every General Conference, it is voted down each time.
“We have to keep a global perspective in mind, especially being such a connectional church,” he said. “The General Conference is a time where Methodists from around the globe can have their voices heard, and many of them are very opposed to changing the language in the Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality.”
A system allowing doctrine to be decided on a regional level, Criddle said, would allow for more flexibility, but would ultimately work against the unity that holds the utmost importance for the UMC.
At his trial, Schaefer testified that his actions were what Jesus called him to do for the sake of love. Found guilty on Monday, Schaefer was sentenced on Tuesday to either promise to uphold church law, or face defrocking and surrender his credentials.
“I cannot go back to being a silent supporter,” he said.
He would not promise to quit officiating same-sex ceremonies.
Talbert, who served as bishop of the San Francisco Area, has in the past claimed the church’s position on homosexuality “is wrong and evil… it no longer calls for our obedience.”
“Talbert and Schaefer are pushing these barriers because they see it as a social justice issue,” Curtis said. “Talbert went to great lengths to perform that ceremony in Birmingham, obviously a nod to the Civil Rights movement.”
But Mississippi Conference Bishop James Swanson said Talbert’s actions went too far when he disregarded North Alabama Conference Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett’s request that he not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves.
“I consider that he has not only disregarded the restriction of the Book of Discipline in regard to same sex marriages,” Swanson said in a statement, “but also violated the covenant between clergy that we will not undermine each other’s ministry.”
Criddle said the tension may be evidence of the painful separation of a secular, cultural moral code, and religious codes.
“There certainly may be a place in our society for civil unions,” he said. “But it may not be within religious structures. The other Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Islam – don’t exactly condone it either, and because of the Constitution, it can’t be forced on the church. I just don’t see the policy being overturned from within the church in the near future at all.”
Also in response to Talbert’s actions, the Council of Bishops recommended UMC’s Executive Committee to initiate a task force leading “honest and respectful conversations” regarding human sexuality, race and gender on a global scale “in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.”