An open letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops

From the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, retired elder, Rocky Mountain Conference

On July 19, 2012, more than 70 people sent a letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops demanding that the bishops charge Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert with “violating his responsibility to uphold church law, disseminating doctrine contrary to the standards of The United Methodist Church and engaging in behavior that undermines another pastor’s ministry.”

This open letter I now write to the United Methodist Council of Bishops speaks for those of us who, like Jesus and Paul, prioritize love over law, grace over judgment. Like Wesley, we say, “If your heart is like my heart, take my hand.”

The Social Principles in “The Nurturing Community,” Paragraph 161 F, p. 103, contain these words: “All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self…. We implore families and churches, not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

Bishop Melvin Talbert is calling for OBEDIENCE to the mandate, “… ALL persons need the ministry of the Church… ” In 1972, The United Methodist Church declared that people who are gay or lesbian are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” From that moment until now, the church has been in DISOBEDIENCE to the way of Jesus by denying ministry to lesbian and gay persons. Today, as gay and lesbian couples request United Methodist clergy and church to bless their civil unions or marriages, the laws of the church say, they are not good enough. Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who felt superior to others in the eyes of God.

The call to “publicly censure” and “file a formal complaint” against Bishop Talbert brought to mind two other bishops who on April 12, 1963 issued a public statement requesting that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. end the demonstrations for racial justice in Birmingham. Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference, with their white clergy colleagues, said, “We further urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Martin Luther King responded to Bishops Hardin and Harmon and their colleagues with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter now affirmed by most as a classic expression of how essential it is for men and women of conscience to disobey unjust laws. History has shown that Martin Luther King and those who with him sought justice for African Americans were right, and those who requested that justice be delayed, were wrong.

Those who are requesting censure of Bishop Talbert with claims of “Disobedience” are ignoring what The Book of Discipline says about civil obedience and civil disobedience:…governments, no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust and discriminately enforced.” (From “The Social Principles,” Paragraph 164F, p.125.)

We would simply add that church laws are subject to conscience as well. After 40 years of challenging church laws that discriminate against lesbian and gay persons and same sex couples, the words and actions of Bishop Talbert and many other lay and clergy United Methodists must be understood as acts of conscience that should be celebrated, not punished.

Many of us who are African American have remained in the United Methodist Church that once relegated us and our churches to racially segregated and second-class status. From 1939 to 1968 we were shunted into a segregated jurisdiction. We know what it feels like to be called “children of God” or “persons of sacred worth,” but be treated as inferior and blocked from full participation.

We cannot be silent as another group of persons are humiliated by the church — this time because of whom they love. It is not Bishop Melvin Talbert who ought to be charged for “urging disobedience”; rather it is those who insist on maintaining our current language and legislation who are being disobedient. They are being disobedient to the gospel of love and freedom over law. They disrespect our hard-earned United Methodist diversity. Once slavery, racial segregation and prohibitions against the ordination of women were thought to be essential expressions of church law — grounded in the Bible, Christian teaching and doctrines. Our history has proven that they are not!

Once, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King were viewed by many as worthy of “public censure” because of their obedience to the higher law of love. But it was those who sought to censure them who were wrong. Bishop Melvin Talbert and the many, many United Methodist clergy and lay people who agree with him, want The United Methodist Church to be a church for the 21st century and not the centuries that have gone by — we want a church that Jesus would recognize as committed to the Gospel of love, not law — grace, not exclusion.

Speak out for Bishop Melvin Talbert! A simple act is to join more than 2,000 people who “like” the “I Stand with Bishop Talbert” Facebook page. Work together and urge the church we love to become The United Methodist Church of all God’s children. Follow the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. We need a church of the present and the future, not just for ourselves but for those who will follow us long after we are gone.


Caldwell, retired United Methodist pastor, lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Massachusetts and participated in the civil-rights movement throughout the nation. He was the co-founder of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, is working on the documentary Truth in Progress, and published his book, Something Within, through Church Within a Church. He is a national board member of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.


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  1. Rick Edwards

    Thanks to Gil Caldwell for raising his voice. “It is not Bishop Melvin Talbert who ought to be charged for “urging disobedience”; rather it is those who insist on maintaining our current language and legislation who are being disobedient. They are being disobedient to the gospel of love and freedom over law. They disrespect our hard-earned United Methodist diversity.”

  2. Carol Abrahamson

    As a lay person in a UMC Reconciling Congregation, I am so thankful that Bishop Talbert has written this letter. I fear that many non-retired pastors are afraid to take a stand. Other pastors and their congregations have been misled by years of cultural bias. Our continual upholding of discriminatory language in church documents is a disgrace. I agree with the previous comment that those who insist on maintaining our current language and legislation are being disobedient. These persons have been poorly led by pastors and spiritual leaders to whom love has many definitions, many exclusive of many of God’s children, as if our eternal and all-loving God is pointing at this bit of his creation and saying this part is not good. Shame on us for putting up with that in the Christian church. Furthermore, we lead our society into a sorry state when we think that being Christian means, “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. Who are we to point fingers.

  3. Carol Abrahamson

    I’m sorry, my previous statement mistakenly attributed the letter to the Bishop, to Bishop Talbert, when it was actually Gil Caldwell’s letter. My sentiments remain.

    1. Carol Abrahamson

      In my previous comment at 9:17 Sept. 19, I mistakenly attributed the letter to the Council of Bishops to Bishop Talbert when it was actually a letter from Gil Caldwell. Sorry for the error. My sentiments remain the same.

  4. stan cardwell

    the moment the bishop misquoted the Book of Discipline is the moment his appeal was lost. people are NOT “incompatible with Christian teaching . . .” Bishop Caldwell knows this well enough so as to intentionally misquote a book he swore to uphold. his statement thus is a blatant lie and paints an untrue picture of the UM church’s stance towards LGBT persons. obedience to a mandate is a two way street. LGBT persons are not excluded from the life of the church. they, like ALL, are being called to obedience in PRACTICE. Obedience, according to Jesus, is the great expression of love.

    1. Dave Nelson

      I agree if you disagree fine, but don’t misquote the Book of discipline to make your point.

      That is how they jump to “you hate LGBT people”

  5. Michael Duvall

    Show me one place in the Old or New Testament where God blesses homosexuality and I will change my position, until then, I refuse to listen to false prophets.

  6. Rev. Mike Childs

    If Bishop Talbert is not strongly disciplined, then schism is the only alternative. There is no United Methodist Church if Bishops defy the Book of Discipline, General Conference, and above all, the clear teaching of Scripture. Our deepest convictions are apparently so incompatible that like Abraham and Lot, it is time to quit arguing and separate. In this life one can love everyone, but there are some that you just cannot live with in integrity.

    The Coucil of bishops only has a short time to take action and maintain the status quo. Perhaps thy have already decided to do nothing and bring about schism?

  7. Elsie Gauley Vega

    Stan and Michael, show me one verse wherein Jesus condemns same-gender oriented people!! Please remember the verse where Jesus said that there was much he didn’t have time to teach us, so He was sending Holy Spirit to speak to up and guide us!! As our friends in the Congregational UCC congregations remind us “God Is Still Speaking.” Are we listening????? Some of my UM friends still need to OPEN THEIR MINDS and OPEN THEIR HEARTS. THOSE OF US WHO ARE NOT HETEROSEXUAL ARE TIRED OF THE DOORS BEING OPEN, AND THE COLLECTION PLATES BEING PASSED TO US……..BUT OUR CALLS TO MINISTRY NOT BEING RECOGNIZED, OUR FAITHFUL UNIONS/PARTNERSHIPS/MARRIAGES NOT BEING RECOGNIZED AND HONORED. The word OPEN must be a verb before it can be used as an adjective.
    I hope you understand that any sex that would have taken place at Lot’s home would have been drunken gang rape….not a homosexual act. Homosexuality, by definition, involves love of a person of your own sex.
    Any doctor or counselor could inform you that many heterosexual couples practice annal sex. Is that a sin?
    And many heterosexual couples have sex with the man flat on his back “in the female position”….is that a sin?
    To the tribes of the Old Testament, the man HAD TO BE in the TOP position or he would loose his position of power, of dominance. We all need to learn to read scripture within its historical context. The New Test-
    ament verses used against those of us who are not heterosexual are references to fertility cults, or other attitudes that are local prejudices not correctly translated as ‘homosexual’.
    Blessings on all the Bishops and clergy both retired and active who speak up for full inclusion of all of us in God’s family….all of us living as God created us…being faithful followers of Jesus and being faithful to our
    The judgmental language against gay men and lesbians was put into our policy only a few decades ago–
    if we live up to our slogan of OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS, OPEN DOORS we will vote those statements back out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Susan Coho

    What does the NT have to say about homosexuality?: 1 Cor. 6:9-10, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
    Rom. 1:26-28, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” God is love,. but it is love tempered with judgement and also mercy. If we bless actions that scripture tells us directly is sin, we deceive ourselves. Open minds, open hearts, open doors….yes, let all enter our sanctuaries and be received with God’s love to hear the undiluted truth of God’s Word proclaimed.



  10. BAH

    For those who argue that the doors of the church are closed to certain people, please know that no matter how wide we open them (and we should open them as wide as possible), the path to heaven/salvation will always remain narrow. We can change through legislation the way we do church, but we will never change the One who is the reason we are church – God.

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