(Originally published in Bay Windows, April 16, 2009. I wrote this as coverage for a local event, but I think it has broad interest, especially in light of a recent ruling by the Judicial Council, the highest court of the United Methodist Church, which said clergy may not officiate at marriages of same-sex couples, even in states where the marriages are legal.
For the record, I'm not Methodist myself, nor even particularly religious, but I feel it is important to recognize that there is no necessary divide between the LGBT community and communities of faith, and the two may even overlap.)
"The church was divided because people felt that it was right to discriminate against people because of their race," says retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert. "That changed over the years. I think just as race was a civil rights issue, [LGBT rights are] a civil rights issue in the church, and someday we will get to the point of saying how foolish it is for us to keep fighting over this issue."
Cambridge Welcoming Ministries (CWM), a United Methodist community that openly includes and supports the LGBT community, has named Talbert their 2009 "Reconciling Saint," an honor he will receive on April 19.
"Our reconciling saint embodies the qualities of a faithful believer who's passionate, courageous, caring, audacious, and dedicated to a vision of a fully inclusive church," said Pastor Tiffany Steinwert. "Bishop Talbert is someone whose entire life and ministry has been dedicated to ensuring both the full participation and the equal rights of people on the margins, and in many different ways. Bishop Talbert was a tireless advocate for civil rights, and it was a natural leap for him to also work for the LGBT community in doing that."
One of Talbert's most visible moments of support for LGBT rights came during the 2008 General Conference, the church's quadrennial meeting of its legislative body. Following a vote that allowed pastors to continue to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity with regard to church membership, hundreds of attendees rose to file past the communion table in protest. Talbert did not plan to speak, but stood and told the crowd that the church's action was akin to one taken in 1939, when black and white churches were broken into separate jurisdictions. "That action was wrong. That action was a sin against God," he said. "Thank God we have moved through and discontinued that segregated structure. But my sisters and brothers, here we are again. In the name of Jesus Christ, we have taken an action that is wrong."
"It meant so much . . . for those who were in the protest," said Steinwert, "to have a bishop speak such bold words of condemnation of the church, calling [its action] sin and also calling the church into a future of really being the body of Christ that we're called to be. . . . To have Bishop Talbert, in such an unexpected and courageous way, publicly condemn and call the church to something more meant so much. It was as if he embodied the church that we longed to be embraced by."
Talbert's support of LGBT rights took on additional meaning after the Prop. 8 vote in California, when many in the LGBT community blamed the black community for the measure's passage. As someone who came out of the historically black church, explained Steinwert, "Bishop Talbert offers one way for us to reconcile that divide even within our own movement, because he's able to articulate and connect the two communities in ways that move us forward rather than polarize."
Talbert himself says that communication is the key to bridging the divide. "What we need to do is to make it possible to open up opportunity for us to sit and have dialogue with each other," he asserted. "That's the thing that I have been trying to do, to get my black sisters and brothers to be able to talk about it. I certainly do that in every situation that I find myself."
Steinwert adds that the United Methodists are well suited to the task. "[John] Wesley founded our denomination on a belief of theological diversity, so that what unites us is this mission of seeking justice in the world," she explained. "That mission can hold in it a multitude of diversities. I do believe passionately that it is possible for the United Methodist Church to fully include people of all sexual orientations and gender identities without having to exclude those who may consider homosexuality or different expressions of sexuality as sinful. It's in our DNA as a denomination to hold that diversity and to seek justice for all people."
The United Methodist Church, as the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States, has an impact on such issues that goes beyond just its own members, Talbert believes. Other denominations may point to the United Methodists' position on LGBT rights and use that as a basis for not being more open and welcoming themselves, he said.
He sees signs of progress, however, with more and more people in the church being open to inclusion of LGBT persons in church life. At the 2008 General Conference, he notes, a bill to remove anti-LGBT discriminatory language made it out of committee for the first time since 1972. "I see that as a significant step in the right direction," he says. "I am very hopeful that maybe in my lifetime, we will see that shift change."
Faith communities like CWM are even more vital to this process than his work as an individual, he insists. "I agreed to come and celebrate with this church not because of what I have done, but because of what they are doing. I think churches that are bold enough to say no one is excluded from God's table, to take that stand and say we will not judge people, we will invite people no matter who they are to come and be around God's table, I think that's the message of openness and salvation that Jesus talked about when he was among us."
Cambridge Welcoming Ministries will honor Bishop Talbert at its Reconciling Saint Sunday, April 19 at 5 p.m., at College Avenue United Methodist Church in Somerville, Mass.