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Reflections on the United Methodist General Conference: A Call for Biblical Obedience

I attended the United Methodist Church General Conference in Tampa last week, which was filled with challenges to the spirit. Perhaps the saddest moment was not the decision to leave unchanged from the Book of Discipline the clause that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” but another decision to put God's grace up for a vote. Delegates voted on the proposed clause: "We stand united in declaring our faith that God's grace is available to all--that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus." Grace won out; but only by 56 percent. A startling percentage of delegates were prepared to defeat the declaration and assert that Paul got it wrong when he declared in Romans, "I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created" (Romans 8: 38-39). 

Grace is at the heart of what it means to be a Methodist. John Wesley wrote, “The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all." This is a message of inclusion that has made the Methodist church such an inviting place for so many and for so long. It is the idea that no institution or person can separate us from the love of God no matter who we are, what we look like, how we identify, or who we love. It was painful for me, a non-Methodist, to witness this teaching put to a vote, but it was devastating for many of the Methodists who I know felt that the core of their faith was on trial. 

Grace did, however abound in Tampa last week, just not at the Conference Center, where the General Conference voting occurred. Just as with Jesus’ ministry, we found grace on the margins of institutional power in a tent called “the Tabernacle” where those who felt left out and without a voice or those in solidarity with those denied a place in the Methodist structure, worshipped, broke bread together, created sanctuary and built community for the long haul.  The Tabernacle, supported by the Common Witness Coalition, which included Affirmation United Methodists for LGBTQ Concerns, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Methodist Federation for Social Action, National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, Native American International Caucus, Reconciling Ministries Network, and United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities, reflected a rich diversity of voices, the heart and soul of the church. 

On May 4, the last official day of the conference, HRC was privileged to sponsor a luncheon in the Tabernacle, created in partnership with Reconciling Methodist Network and Foundry United Methodist Church to speak to the right of Methodists to marry and for clergy, ordained deacons, and elders to “preach, teach, lead, counsel, conduct marriages and funerals, and offer the sacraments of baptism and communion.”  Over 1,200 ordained leaders from across the country signed this “Altar for All” pledge. But perhaps most moving were those who held a secure place inside the Convention Center and in the inner circle of the Methodist church structure who chose to stand with us.  Fifteen Bishops stood alongside retired Bishop Melvin Talbert as he called for “Biblical Obedience” which he made clear sometimes means “Ecclesiastical Disobedience.” This event occurred while Fred Phelps and supporters from Westboro Baptist church stood outside spewing hate. 

The Spirit of John Wesley was in the tabernacle that day, and I was privileged to be a witness to it.  The United Methodist Church as an institution  is currently in the wilderness, but there are prophets on the margins of the church who are leading the way to a better day and a better church that lives up to its vision to share the news of God’s abounding, freely given Grace for everyone. We only need to listen. 

Bishop Melvin Talbert May 4 Lunch Address
Sponsored by HRC

As I stand before you here this afternoon, I declare that God has already settled this matter. All human beings are created in the image of God. There are no exceptions, no exclusions. We belong to the family of God. At the same time, I declare to you that the derogatory language and the restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience. Thus I think the time has come for those of us who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ do what is required of us.

You know the story. A young lawyer approached Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And rather than answering the question, Jesus turned the table and asked him, What is written in the law, And the proud young lawyer said, you shall

You’ve answered rightly, do this and you shall live.

That same gospel imperative calls us today. Do this and you shall live.

I came to the conclusion that I need to modify that a little bit.

I believe it is time for an act of biblical obedience. Based on the two-fold commandment of love God and your neighbor as yourself, “This is our biblical marching order.”

What does this mean—perform marriages in the normal course of their ministerial duties. Be faithful to the Gospel by using local facilities for such marriages.  Also I call on my colleague bishops, to be pastoral in implementing investigations of clergy who perform same-sex marriages.

The church’s position is wrong and I don’t support it.

I know the seriousness of what I am suggesting, I know the consequences for some of you for what is being asked. 

You need to work with your churches and work with yourself

“The time for talking is over. It’s time for us to act in defiance of unjustice and immoral laws that are doing harm to our GLBT sisters and brothers.  The time for talking is over, it’s action times.

Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

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