September 4, 2023
Bishop Melvin Talbert died on August 3rd at the age of 89. One of seven children born to sharecropper parents in rural Louisiana, he was ordained a pastor in 1963 into a segregated Methodist church. He was elected and served as bishop of The United Methodist Church from 1980 until the year 2000.
Bishop Talbert always understood his ministry was larger than the institutional church—justice was for all people around the globe. He fought apartheid in South Africa, called for peace in the Middle East, accompanied President Clinton to Ireland, and made multiple trips to the White House. Throughout his life, Bishop Talbert remained on the frontlines of issues that mattered.
Bishop Talbert’s life changed after spending three nights in jail for protesting segregated lunch counters in Atlanta:
“I met Dr. King back in 1960. I was privileged to be in the same jail cell with him for three days and three nights. I was very radical at that time. I know what it means to go into a lunch counter where it says white only, black only. Some of us had said we aren’t going to continue to accept this. We’re going to bring about change. Being with Dr. King gave us a chance to express our views and to get his views because he was talking about something a little different than what we were talking about. We were talking about change. He was talking about non-violent revolution. It was in those experiences that I said, you know, there is another way. And the other way is the way of love, the way of justice.”
In 2011, I was serving as a pastor in Lakeland, Florida, and I had just said no to a lesbian couple who asked me to officiate their wedding. I wanted to keep the rules of the church even though I knew it was wrong. Feeling torn and lost, I took personal leave. It was in that place that I heard the words of Bishop Talbert after the conclusion of General Conference in Tampa in 2012.
Instead of things getting better for LGBTQ people, they had gotten worse, and a retired Bishop Talbert felt led to take a more radical position. He asked all of his colleague bishops, who professed to be LGBTQ allies, to stand with him. They showed up, but stopped short of getting on stage with him. Bishop Talbert would make this radical proclamation alone:
“Now, I arrived at this 2012 General Conference thinking that the time had come to call for ecclesial disobedience, but in consultation with many of my colleagues, I came to the conclusion that I needed to modify that thinking just a little bit. So in light of the actions taken by this General Conference, I believe that the time has come to call and invite others to join in what I’m calling an act of “Biblical Obedience.” You see, we too, have the good book on our side! Based on the two-fold commandment of love. You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself. This is our biblical marching order… I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience…I call on the more than 1,100 clergy who have signed the pledge to stand firm on their resolve. Stand firm on their resolve to perform marriages among same-sex couples, and to do so in the normal course of their pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so. Plus, I encourage you to invite your congregations to support and help you in efforts to be faithful to the Gospel by taking actions to support you and using local church facilities for such marriages… The time for talking is over. It’s time for us to act in defiance of unjust and immoral and derogatory words of discriminations and laws that are doing harm to our LGBT siblings. May God bless each of us as we seek to do what the prophet Micah calls us to do: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. This is our Biblical Obedience.”
Through my tears, his words called me back into ministry and to join the fight for LGBTQ inclusion. In five short months, I would move to Chicago to be in charge of communications for this movement of “Biblical Obedience” at Reconciling Ministries Network.
A year later in 2013, Bishop Talbert, now joined in number by the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, reflected on his call for Biblical Obedience. 1100 clergy had signed a pledge to officiate weddings, and another 1500 wrote a letter calling for Bishop Talbert to be censured by the church.
“Over the past several weeks, I’ve gone through a period of personal struggle. I began to wonder if I had been a failure. I declared publicly that the position of our church on homosexuality is wrong. It’s immoral, evil, unjust, and oppressive. It’s been a lonely struggle. Many of my colleague bishops have expressed their support to me privately, but not until recently have some dared to go public. I’m proud to say that I got the word from my entire College of Bishops of the Western jurisdiction, saying they stand solidly in support… The Spirit asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Moses? You know, he was 80 years old when I called him and sent him to Egypt to confront Pharaoh.’ And then the spirit said, ‘No, Talbert, your own church is your pharaoh. Go do what I called you to do.’ I’ve received a renewed sense of my calling since the 2012 General Conference. If our church is to be a community of open hearts, open minds, open doors, we must act as though the restrictive barriers of language and laws no longer exist. We must live and act as though our vision of the beloved community is already here. Now. It’s time for us to act like it and to celebrate it. The bishops of the church, I believe, have failed us. If the bishops of the church, together, decided to say to the general conference, ‘We will no longer enforce your unjust laws.’ This matter will be over. I can’t speak for them, but I can speak for myself. It’s time. It’s time.”
Bishop Talbert was ready one month later to back up his words with action, agreeing to officiate the marriage of Joe and Bobby in Birmingham, Alabama. A bit of context… in 1963, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was headed down to Birmingham, the Methodist bishop of that area joined other clergy in writing an open letter asking King to stay away. In response, King wrote his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail. History would repeat itself 50 years later when Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett would write a very similar letter asking Bishop Talbert to stay away. Spoiler alert: he would not. The wedding was beautiful. Bishop Wallace-Padgett would have a complaint be filed against Bishop Talbert.
I was privileged to accompany him in Birmingham (along with organizer Laura Rossbert), and I promised myself that if I ever got the opportunity to pastor again, I would do it with the same courage and boldness as Bishop Talbert. He called it “ministry without fear.” In 2014, Bishop Talbert spoke on this topic in Florida, where there were zero clergy willing to publicly officiate same-sex weddings:
“In calling this church to Biblical Obedience, I am not unaware that this is risky business. I know. We don’t know which way the winds will blow when you decide to do the right thing in your given setting. And so my prayer is that you will take responsibility for that action and let the Spirit lead you—in the final analysis, please don’t disobey the Spirit.”
I would likely not still be the pastor of a church without the witness of Bishop Talbert. After my time spent with Talbert, I would return to pastoral ministry in Florida, forming a 100 year old congregation into the shape of Bishop Talbert’s legacy of Biblical Obedience. In the wake of his death, I vow again to live out his prophetic imagination of what Beloved Community could look like—doing what is right all the time, no matter the consequences. The UMC as a whole is further along on the path toward repairing the harm against LGBTQ people in major part due to the bold witness and courageous heart of Bishop Melvin Talbert.
May you rest in power, you beautiful, beautiful soul. It is only fitting to give him the last word:
“May God bless you. And may God send you forth, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Amen.”