| Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 28, 2000
I am writing you to express concern about the role of Bishop Melvin Talbert as the Ecumenical Officer for the Council of Bishops. In particular I am distressed about Bishop Talbert's performance at the recent General Assembly of the National Council of Churches.
During the General Assembly meeting held in Atlanta, Bishop Talbert, professing to speak for the United Methodist delegation, spoke in favor of the NCC's acceptance of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC). The UFMCC is a small and predominantly homosexual denomination that advocates full acceptance of homosexual behavior. The UFMCC was not being discussed at this particular NCC meeting, but Bishop Talbert chose to inject it as an issue during a roll-call vote over acceptance of another denomination. In past years, the NCC has several times rejected the UFMCC's application for membership.
The United Methodist delegation had not, as a group at this meeting, discussed the UFMCC issue. Wanting to correct the record, the Rev. Leland Collins, executive director of the Georgia Christian Council, told the NCC General Assembly that Bishop Talbert was not speaking for the United Methodist delegation or the United Methodist Church when he endorsed acceptance of the UFMCC.
Afterwards, and in front of several other NCC delegates, Bishop Talbert angrily confronted the Rev. Collins, accusing him of "flagrant racism" for having contradicted him as the leader of the United Methodist delegation. When Rev. Collins asked how he had been racist, Bishop Talbert did not explain.
Earlier in the day, Bishop Talbert received an award from the "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus" within the NCC for the support he gave to clergy in the California/Nevada Conference who participated in a lesbian union ritual last year, in defiance of church law.
Bishop Talbert's behavior contrasted with that of Bishop William Grove, his predecessor at the Ecumenical Officer for the Council of Bishops. At the 1998 NCC General Assembly, following a speech there by a UFMCC officer, Bishop Grove rose to tell the NCC what the "law of the church" is for United Methodists regarding homosexual practice. I do not know what Bishop Grove's personal beliefs are regarding homosexuality. But as the Ecumenical Officer, he felt obligated to state the official teachings of the church.
It seems clear that Bishop Talbert's strong disagreement with the official United Methodist Church stance on homosexual behavior prevents his representing our denomination fairly or accurately. His angry response to the Rev. Collins raises the question as to whether BishopTalbert has the irenic spirit that is required in an ecumenical officer.
Now is an especially sensitive time for the NCC. Deficit spending and the exhaustion of all undesignated reserves have placed the NCC's future in real jeopardy. The general secretary, Bob Edgar, has made ecumenical outreach to Evangelicals and Roman Catholics a centerpiece of his recovery program for the NCC. He and other NCC leaders have even suggested dissolving the NCC in favor of a larger umbrella group that would include Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
But even that initiative seems to have floundered because of the issue of homosexuality. During the NCC General Assembly, the Rev. Edgar withdrew his name from a Christian Declaration on Marriage that he had endorsed along with the National Association of Evangelicals, the U.S. Catholic Conference, and the Southern Baptist Convention. The statement simply called for churches to work harder to strengthen marriage in our society. But a single sentence defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman upset pro-homosexuality activists within the NCC.
The Rev. Edgar felt compelled to apologize to the General Assembly for endorsing a simple pro-marriage statement that merely assumed the traditional definition of marriage to which every major branch of Christianity subscribes. He also made clear his own support for sanctioning sexual arrangements outside heterosexual marriage.
This action by Rev. Edgar has effectively undermined any future cooperation with Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. It shows that rejection of traditional Christian teachings about marriage is a hindrance to wide and meaningful ecumenical cooperation.
Additionally, it has been clear that if the NCC ever were to accept the UFMCC into full communion, several or more churches likely would withdraw from the NCC, starting with the Eastern Orthodox. Such developments certainly would strengthen a movement at the next United Methodist General Conference to withdraw our denomination from the NCC, assuming the NCC survives until 2004.
In short, if the NCC were to accept Bishop Talbert's advice regarding the UFMCC, it would surely hasten the demise of the NCC.
I personally believe that our ecumenical commitments can find a much better vehicle than the current NCC. But so long as the NCC exists, it is important for The United Methodist Church to be represented fairly and accurately. In all of our ecumenical commitments, we will find unity and common purpose only by upholding basic Christian principles that unite rather than divide.
I urge you to appoint a new Ecumenical Officer who can carry out that task.
Mark Tooley UMAction Executive Director