By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Joe Openshaw, 59, and Bobby Prince, 54, met on a beach 12 years ago “and the rest is history.”
The two have been together through the ups and downs most couples face. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, Openshaw and Prince decided to go to the nation’s capital to be legally married.
For these two United Methodist men, the only thing missing from their love story is a holy ceremony officiated and blessed by a United Methodist pastor in the presence of their family and friends in Birmingham, Ala.
That day will come on Oct. 26, and retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert will officiate at their wedding.
Openshaw, Prince and Talbert are publicly defying the denomination’s law book, which states marriage is only between a man and a woman and that no ordained United Methodist elder can officiate at a same-sex union.
They do this knowing the consequences.
“All my life I have been an outspoken person for justice. I just see this as a continuing effort on my part to be faithful to the gospel, to speak truth and to do it out of love,” Talbert said. “It is no more than what I did in 1960 when I sat in at a lunch counter and refused to obey the unjust law of segregation. It’s the same. The principal is the same.”
Openshaw and Prince know this opens them to criticism on what should be one of the happiest — and private — days of their lives. However they feel that a holy wedding will “make their lives complete.”
Their plans prompted the episcopal leader of the area, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, to issue a statement asking Talbert not to come to Alabama to disobey church law. She said she fears the distraction of the wedding will take focus away from the ministries going on in North Alabama United Methodist churches such as feeding the hungry, serving in ministry with the poor and welcoming all people to worship together.
“As a bishop of the United Methodist Church, I took a vow to abide by and uphold the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I am also committed to continuing to focus those I lead on our mission, which is broader than any one issue. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” She declined to be interviewed for this story and stands by her statement.
Time to push
The same-sex wedding is taking place in one of the most conservative regions and jurisdictions of the church in the United States.
The North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference is in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which includes Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Of the five jurisdictions of the church in the United States, the Southeastern Jurisdiction has the largest membership with 2,837,330 members (2011 figures).
With the law and culture changing toward acceptance of LGBTQ people, Openshaw and Prince decided it was time to push the church’s stance.
The Supreme Court ruling does not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but it does establish that same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law.
“We kind of knew this may be a church quake, this wedding. … We felt 100 percent certain that charges would be filed in this case,” Openshaw said.
“I grew up during the ‘60s in Alabama, and I know about civil disobedience, and I know disobedience to church law is a little bit different, but it is still the same thing. Nothing is going to change without things like this happening.”
Their wedding will not take place in a United Methodist church, which also is forbidden by the Book of Discipline.
Prince said they were doing this for friends who don’t have the funds to go to Washington or other states where same-sex marriages are legal.
“We are settled; we can be examples for younger people who have no place to turn,” he said. “It would be good to see a little modification with the church. If we are going to say we are going to be welcoming, be welcoming.
“Joe and I have both lived in Alabama all our lives. We don’t want to go to New York or San Francisco; our roots are here. If we could just bring about a little bit of change … be role models for other people.”
What would Jesus do?
People on both sides of the issue are passionate about what the Bible and The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline says — or doesn’t say — about same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Leicester R. Longden, associate professor of Evangelism and Discipleship at the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, recently wrote a study paper quoting the Book of Discipline when the seminary was asked to state its opinion regarding housing in the dormitories for same-sex couples.
“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. 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.”
Longden said the church specifically declares, “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
“In addition, we must not overlook the possibility that we would lose some African students if we made this change. In addition to their theological convictions, another reason many African Christians are leery of aligning themselves with Western groups who endorse homosexuality is that they live in contexts where such an endorsement would expose them to death threats and persecution,” Longden said.
“The progressive stance always claims the mantle of inclusion and inevitability. We have the opportunity to claim another kind of inclusivity. The vast majority of Christians are in agreement against same-sex marriage,” he said. “Why not remain aligned with those Christians living and dead who have maintained this stand? It is the progressive stance that narrows and excludes the orthodox position. Maintaining the traditional teaching allows us to remain in conversation, even with those with whom we disagree.”
Breach of covenant
Talbert called Wallace-Padgett to tell her a same-sex couple had asked him to officiate at their wedding and that he had agreed.
“For a bishop or any ordained or licensed minister to disregard a law of the church creates a breach of the covenant they made at their consecration, ordination or licensing,” Wallace-Padgett said.
During a planned Gathering of Orders meeting Oct. 14-16, the bishop will hold a “holy conversation” with the ordained and licensed pastors of the North Alabama Conference to discuss the wedding and talk about ways pastors can talk to congregations about difficult subjects.
The Rev. Dave Barnhart, pastor of Saint Junia United Methodist Church in Birmingham, said he is “pleased as punch” his bishop has chosen to have this conversation.
Saint Junia is a new church Barnhart started and was appointed to in 2012. The church’s vision statement is “to become a diverse community of sinners, saints and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things.” Barnhart said the church’s target demographic is people who have been hurt or burned by the church in the past.
His October sermon series is “Just Sex: Justice, Sexuality and Christian Ethics,” which will address reframing Christian ethics and “undoing centuries of LGBTQ oppression.”
Barnhart, 40, said 80 percent of people younger than 40 don’t have an issue with homosexuality.
“And that’s who we are missing. We don’t want to alienate more people; we want to show we are a diverse church not afraid of conflict. There is so much opportunity here if we take advantage of it.”
Other pastors in the conference wonder why Talbert is coming to Alabama to perform this wedding.
“I deeply regret, though am not altogether surprised, that Bishop Talbert has chosen to cross jurisdictional lines to perform this ceremony,” said the Rev. Mark Parris, director of development for Sumatanga Camp and Conference Center in Northport, Ala.
“I have questions as to why he chose a couple in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. I would imagine he gets requests from around the country. Is this a grandstand effort to move his agenda forward, or is he acquainted with one or both men? Is he attempting to make a comparison with the church bombing and the civil rights movement in Birmingham of 50 years ago? If so, it would seem that apples and oranges are being compared here.
“For me … the bottom line is both Scripture and our United Methodist position as stated in the Book of Discipline.”
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, calls Talbert’s decision “disturbing.” Good News is an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus that advocates maintaining the Book of Disciple’s stance on human sexuality.
“Bishop Talbert, who no doubt has previously told pastors under his charge that they were not free to disregard the (Book of ) Discipline as they saw fit, is now ready to do so himself, disregarding our process of holy conferencing and the will of the General Conference,” Lambrecht said.
“As a retired bishop, assured of his pension, Bishop Talbert has little to lose by taking this action. Unfortunately, his words and actions are already causing great harm to our church, and if he follows through on his plans, the resulting consequences could be devastating to the unity and mission of The United Methodist Church,” he said.
Lambrecht praised Wallace-Padgett for her “courageous and faithful” statement to uphold the denomination’s law book.
“The Council of Bishops has an opportunity to provide real leadership in this situation,” he said. “The church looks forward to the council’s (1) offering both private and public support to Bishop Wallace-Padgett in maintaining the integrity of the church and (2) (making) a proactive statement to Bishop Talbert strongly urging him to cancel his planned violation of the covenant.”
Barnhart wishes the church could create an environment where advocates are not marginalized or punished.
“This is not a showdown between bishops; it is recognition that even in a place as conservative as North Alabama, Bishop Talbert is taking his role seriously and Bishop Wallace-Padgett is taking her role seriously,” he said.
Speaking truth to power
Talbert will be the first bishop to officiate publicly at a same-sex ceremony. He is no stranger to conflict or to Birmingham.
He was a 25-year-old seminary student caught up in the civil rights movement when he landed in a jail cell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960. It was a life-changing experience for him. King’s commitment to nonviolence and to seeing all humans as brothers and sisters changed Talbert.
Since 1972, The United Methodist Church has said, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The 2012 United Methodist General Conference, which meets every four years and sets the laws for the denomination, retained that language and rejected a resolution that stated the church disagrees on sexuality. The next General Conference will be in 2016.
“When our 2012 General Conference failed to do the right thing by removing such derogatory and hurtful language from our Book of Discipline, I was moved by the Spirit to speak a word of hope to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers at every level of the life of our church and society,” Talbert said in a statement about why he is officiating at the wedding.
He points out the church has been on the wrong side before.
The church split over race in 1844 and in 1939, when the church merged with the Methodist Episcopal; Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and the Methodist Protestant Church, it “made a terrible deal in order to merge,” he said.
The uniting churches created the Central Jurisdiction, a unit of the new denomination based not on geography but race. The church remained segregated for nearly 30 years, until the Methodists merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form The United Methodist Church. With that 1968 merger, the Central Jurisdiction’s churches, clergy and bishops were integrated into the denomination’s five U.S. geographical jurisdictions.
The church also refused to ordain women until 1956.
“I just think as a bishop of the church,” Talbert said, “we have the responsibility to speak truth to power and if we are charged to do that in society, I think we are also charged to do that within the institution of our own church.
“I just believe deep in my heart that this is wrong, and someone needs to speak out. I am fully aware of the role of bishops in The United Methodist Church, but I am reminded that the role of a bishop is not only to do certain things for the church; it has the responsibility to do some things to the church. That is to speak to the church regarding its official ministry and decisions,” he said.
“I love my church, I was born and raised a Methodist and I expect to die as a United Methodist. It is my church that has helped make me and mold me into the person I am today, and I’m grateful. I think I would be derelict if I did not do all I could to help this church continue being what God is calling it to be. That is all I see myself doing is being faithful to the call of God upon my life.”
The Rev. Kevin Higgs, author of “Hospitality to Strangers” and pastor at Brownsville United Methodist in Birmingham, is serving as pastoral counselor to Openshaw and Prince. He has known the couple for many years.
Higgs said he has been involved in pushing for justice for LGBTQ persons for 25 years. He said all the congregations he has served — large and small — have included gays and lesbians. He said many people in the church in the South are “in the middle, sitting on the fence, not sure if they are on the right or the left.”
He thinks this wedding will start conversations that will lead to acceptance of gays and lesbians.
“This request is going to come like a tsunami … like a landslide to the church because gay folks are going to start asking their pastors to provide for them the pastoral care and blessing of the church,” he said.
“The church is going to have to change and recognize that homophobia is the sin, not homosexuality.”
At the heart of the story
Openshaw grew up in The United Methodist Church, and he introduced Prince to the denomination when they joined Discovery.
Prince said he had stayed away from religion for 15 years because he had not felt welcome in other churches.
Openshaw and Prince started and are members of a reconciling group at Discovery that is recognized by Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that advocates for the denomination’s greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Both men watched the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., via live streaming and were disappointed and hurt when the church failed to change its stance on homosexuality.
“Joe and I have a commitment. I don’t see how that can take away from a heterosexual marriage; it should have no effect on a straight couple,” Prince said.
“Gay people are vulnerable because if they don’t mature and develop and have someone to talk or turn to, they lead a very unstable life. What if heterosexuals had no marriage? What if it didn’t exist? That’s what the gay people have been going through,” Prince said.
Openshaw knows change is always slow.
“I think 50 years from now (The United Methodist Church) will be looking back on this and making an apology to gay people.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.