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Conservative Coalition Brings Charges Against Disobedient Cal/Nev Bishop

Complaint filed against Bishop Talbert

April 20, 2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn. 10-21-28-71B{215}

By United Methodist News Service

A formal complaint has been filed against United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, charging him with "disobedience to the order and discipline" of the church for his handling of a case involving 68 pastors who participated in performing a same-sex union service.

Talbert leads the United Methodist Church's California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference. The same-sex union service, involving two women, occurred Jan. 16, 1999, in Sacramento, Calif.

The complaint was brought by Jacque Vance, a laywoman from the Orangevale (Calif.) United Methodist Church, with help from the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability (CUMA). Vance's complaint was filed April 18 with Bishop Elias G. Galvan of Seattle, in the belief that Galvan was president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

When contacted for comment early April 20, Talbert said he hadn't seen Vance's complaint. "Bishop Galvan informed me that this had reached his desk," he said.

Galvan told United Methodist News Service that he had received two pieces of correspondence but hadn't examined them to see whether they were complaints. Moreover, he is not the president of the jurisdictional college of bishops and therefore isn't the appropriate person to handle this matter. He plans to take the correspondence to the jurisdictional college of bishops when it meets in Cleveland during the last week of April, and the college will decide whether the current president, Bishop Edward Paup of Portland, Ore., or the incoming president should handle it.

Vance, a personnel consultant, charged Talbert with failing or refusing to respond properly to initial complaints from lay people in the Orangevale church, according to a CUMA press release. Those complaints were filed soon after the 68 pastors participated in the service. Talbert "put aside" the complaints, CUMA said. After two members of his cabinet filed a complaint, Talbert referred the case in May to the conference's Committee on Investigation.

The denomination's Book of Discipline states that same-sex unions shall not be conducted by United Methodist pastors nor held in United Methodist sanctuaries. The Sacramento service, held in a non-church setting, involved the 68 Cal-Nevada pastors plus clergy from around the country participating either in person or in absentia.

The investigative committee handled the case over a nine-month period, which culminated with hearings in February. Following the hearings and private deliberations, the committee decided to drop the charges against the 68 pastors.

Bishop Talbert, who was not a member of the committee, announced the decision Feb. 11. In the process, he added in his own personal perspective on the issue. One comment, in particular, drew criticism, especially from evangelicals and other conservatives in the church. The bishop said that while the investigative committee "may appear to have broken covenant with the Book of Discipline, there is another more basic and fundamental covenant that has precedence over this one narrow focus of law."

"In our polity, the annual conference is the basic body of the church," he said. "The annual conference is the covenant into which clergy members are received and held accountable for their ministry. It is my humble opinion that the decision of this committee on investigation does reflect the longstanding covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, within the spirit of our longstanding commitment to Jesus Christ as the people called United Methodists."

In the CUMA press release, Vance echoed earlier criticism about Talbert's comments. "This bishop is saying that the California-Nevada Annual Conference may make its own law, that it is above the established and adjudicated law of the United Methodist Church and that it does not have to comply with it," she said.

Talbert's action "gives a license to everyone in the United Methodist Church to disregard any and all parts of the doctrinal standards and the Discipline of the denomination," Vance said. Bishops "have equal standing before the denomination to obey its laws," she said, and a bishop "has no right to stand above the law without paying the consequences."

Talbert said he would await the outcome of the church's due process regarding Vance's complaint. Not having seen the complaint, he couldn't respond to the particular charges, and he said he wouldn't make any comment outside the church's process.

"At this point, I do not feel that it is appropriate for me to respond," the bishop said. "I believe that my response needs to be in the context of the due process."

The Book of Discipline states that when a complaint is filed against a bishop, the president of the jurisdictional college of bishops shall make a supervisory response. The response is "directed toward a just resolution and/or reconciliation among all parties." This may include consultation with the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy or voluntary mediation in which a neutral, trained mediator or mediation team is brought in.

The supervisory response "is not a judicial process," the book states. If the response doesn't lead to a resolution, the case could be referred to a bishop from another jurisdiction or central conference or a pastor from the same jurisdiction or conference. That person would serve as church counsel, representing the denomination in pressing the complaint. The counsel would sign the complaint and forward it to a committee on investigation. From there, the complaint would go through a clearly defined process. Meanwhile, efforts for resolution would continue.

The committee would have the power to call witnesses and hold hearings during its investigation. If it decided that the charges were valid, it could recommend that a trial be held. In that case, a trial court of 13 United Methodist clergy members would be convened. Nine votes would be needed to convict. The court would then have the power to impose a number of penalties, some severe - such as expulsion from the church - and some less so.

CUMA, formed in February, describes itself as a group of "laity and clergy who have come together to seek doctrinal, fiscal and procedural accountability in the life of the United Methodist Church." The member organizations are Good News, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and the Confessing Movement.

Neither the committee nor Talbert handled the Sacramento case in a manner that adhered to church polity, said Ira Gallaway, chairman of the steering committee for CUMA, in the same press release. "Unfortunately, they didn't judge the facts of the case. They chose, rather, to judge the law of the church, with which they disagree."

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