Bishops

by Chris Ritter

“to provide for the discontinuance of a bishop because of…. unacceptability.”  -Powers of General Conference, ¶16, Article IV, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (2012)

Three United Methodist bishops now formally agree that there should be no consequences for a bishop who blatantly commits chargeable offenses listed in our Book of Discipline.  This was the news coming from a December 30 press release announcing a “just resolution” in the complaint against Bishop Melvin Talbert for officiating at a same-sex wedding ceremony in Alabama against the wishes of the resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett.  Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the then President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Rosemary Wenner, filed the complaint against Talbert several months ago.

There just don’t seem to be quotation marks large enough to hang around the words “just resolution”.   The timing of the press release reminds one of the calculated date chosen by U.S. Presidents to announce unpopular presidential pardons.  Maybe controversial news will become clouded in a haze of tinsel and New Year’s revelry?  A few of us noticed, however, and there are some facts hard to ignore:

  • Bishops vow before God to uphold and enforce the teachings of our church.
  • Those who are entrusted with power are to be held to a higher standard.
  • Our Discipline is painstakingly clear that  “performing same sex wedding ceremonies”,  “disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church”, and “behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor” are all offenses that invite formal charges against a clergy.
  • Bishop Talbert understood his actions to be a stance of open defiance.

The shame is on Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett for consenting to this agreement, which exercises the hubris of lecturing the Council of Bishops and the Church about what it ought to be doing better.  The only regret indicated by Bishop Talbert is a mumbled “I’m sorry you feel that way”, but we knew that before the handling of the complaint ever began.

What is a “just resolution”?  Whenever there is a complaint in the UMC, the preferred outcome is that all parties get together, talk it out, and decide on a fair outcome.  Conversation is always the first step in any complaint.  At the early stages, no notes are kept and all conversations are private.  A just resolution process can happen at any point in our process, including during a clergy trial.

The rub in the Talbert case is that a mechanism invented to help the church work through difficulties in a quiet and confidential manner has been used as a cloak to shield a very public figure that chose to defy the church in a very public way.  If the “just resolution” had not been reached, the matter would have been referred as a Judicial Complaint and handled under the provisions of ¶2704.1, which includes the appointment of a Counsel for the Church, a prosecutor who organizes and substantiates the charges against the bishop so that a Committee on Investigation can consider whether the evidence is weighty enough for the matter to go to trial.

Because Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett consented to do nothing in the case but issue a vacuous joint statement with Talbert, the actual charges against the bishop were never formally investigated.  If you want to protect a fellow bishop, it is important jump to an early resolution because the prosecutorial discretion allowed in cases against clergy are not included in the judicial processes for bishops.  If the point of appointing someone to represent the interests of the church is reached, a Committee on Investigation “shall” be assembled (¶2704).  The question then becomes whether someone broke our rules which, obviously, he did.

The net result is that three bishops killed an accountability process before it ever got started by stating that they had reached peace with each other.  They ignore the fact that how they feel about each other is totally irrelevant to the fact that the laws of our church have been egregiously broken.  The victim in this case is the church and the church was not allowed representation.  Bishop Talbert should have been made to withstand the scrutiny of someone tasked with representing the standards of the UMC.

A just resolution is one way, the preferred way, for a complaint to be resolved in the UMC.  The three bishops involved would undoubtedly claim to any future complainants about this matter that the case is closed.  After all, our Book of Discipline includes protections against Double Jeopardy, prosecuting a person more than once for the same offense.  Because the resolution reached had to do with how three bishops feel about each other, however, and not about church law, I would argue that the matter is still open.  Charges were never filed or answered.  Prosecution is yet to happen.

I would like an official ruling by Bishop Wenner about whether the matters of church law were addressed in the process with Bishop Talbert and whether future complaints are admissible.  All official rulings by bishops are subject to review by our Judicial Council.  If no prosecution has happened in the Talbert case, this is something that the Council of Bishops still owes to the church if that group has integrity in upholding our Discipline.

I would also remind those who are electing delegates to General Conference this year that one of the constitutional duties of GC is to provide for the discontinuance of an “unacceptable” bishop.  What Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett were unwilling to do will now be left to the delegates of General Conference 2016.

Since 1844 General Conference has never seen a better example of an unacceptable bishop.  The handling of the Talbert case is likewise unacceptable and must be reviewed.  Only when the voice of the church is heard and our bishops are held to account can we claim integrity for the sake of the Gospel.