By Kathy L. Gilbert*
CENTER POINT, Ala. (UMNS)—At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, the doors shut out the disagreements about church law as United Methodists Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince vowed to love each other for the rest of their lives in a wedding ceremony performed by retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert.
Before the wedding. television cameras from several news stations rolled outside Covenant Community United Church of Christ. The two men and Bishop Talbert faced questions about why, and what it would mean for them to disregard their denomination’s stance that the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching and that ordained clergy are forbidden to perform a same-sex marriage.
For Openshaw and Prince, the answer to why was simple. They love each other, they said.
For Talbert, the answer to why and what lies ahead is more complicated.
“On May 4, 2012 (during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference), I declared that the church’s official position is wrong and evil …it no longer calls for our obedience.”
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016.
When he made the statement in May, Talbert said he would be willing to perform a same-sex marriage if asked. He said he did not envision going to Alabama to perform a wedding but, when asked, he accepted.
Talbert said this is the first same-sex marriage he has officiated.
“When I met the couple I realized they were deserving of this and they needed it, and I felt honored to be asked. I am very pleased, at peace and ready to face the future — whatever that holds — as well as complaints being filed against me. I didn’t go into this with my eyes closed,” Talbert said.
Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law.
Controversy within the church
Talbert’s decision to perform the ceremony has created much controversy within The United Methodist Church since the announcement of plans for the ceremony.
The executive committee of the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a statement Oct. 23 urging “Bishop Melvin Talbert not to perform the same-gender marriage in Birmingham” and noting that the resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, had “requested him not to come to the Birmingham Area for this purpose.”
The Book of Discipline affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”
At the start of the ceremony Talbert thanked the Rev. J.R. Finney, pastor of Covenant Community, for opening his church to the couple for their wedding. Same-sex marriage is not legal in Alabama, and Talbert signed a certification of marriage that is not binding by state law but significant to the couple who wanted a holy ceremony. The couple were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington.
“These are two men, created in the image of God, loyal United Methodists, servants of Jesus Christ and in love with each other,” said Talbert as he pronounced them united in marriage.
“It is a great privilege to host this momentous event,” he said. “Every day is a good day to celebrate. Let’s celebrate Bobby and Joe’s love.”
Home church says no to ceremony
It was a traditional wedding with a flower girl, love songs and a harpist. Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, the couple were flanked by United Methodist pastors in white robes and stoles of different colors.
Becky Mantooth was the liturgist. She and her daughter, Joy, who was the flower girl, are members of Openshaw’s and Prince’s church, Discovery United Methodist Church in nearby Hoover.
Openshaw and Prince said their pastor at Discovery said she could not marry them and the wedding could not be in their church because of denomination’s lawbook.
The Rev. Michele Johns, a deacon and hospice chaplain in Washington, said she was at Openshaw and Prince’s legal wedding and “it was important for me to be at this wedding.” She is a member of the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.
“For me, the risks in not acting are more significant than the risks of acting. It is about living into my baptism, my confirmation, my ordination. It is about being faithful to a loving God,” she said.
Support from pastors
Several United Methodist pastors from the North Alabama Conference as well as from other states attended the wedding to stand in solidarity with Talbert. Before the ceremony, Talbert gathered them together to thank them for being there and to pray for their protection.
Talbert spoke to the clergy before the wedding.
“I understand who you are as clergy who have come from this conference and across the connection. Thank you for coming and thank you for having the courage to be present for this. I hope we are going to experience a shaking of the foundation of our church as a result of what is happening here today,” he said.
“I think the spirit of God is at work, and I believe more people within our connection think the way we do than are speaking about it. It is the fear that is keeping them from speaking out. We have to stop letting fear guide our prophetic witness.”
During the emotional ceremony Openshaw and Prince faced each other, voices breaking from tears as they exchanged vows, rings and roses.
At the end of the ceremony, the wedding guests stood and applauded as the couple walked down the aisle holding hands.
* 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.