With a prophetic voice and heart for social justice, bishops from the Western Jurisdiction are mourning the death last week of their colleague, mentor, and friend: Bishop Melvin G. Talbert.
“Mel was an amazingly gracious, approachable, powerful church leader and mentor of emerging leaders in the church.” Retired Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
Talbert served as bishop of the Pacific Northwest Conference and The California-Nevada Conference before retiring in 2000. Stanovsky was ordained as an elder by Talbert during a PNW Conference session in the early 1980s. He died on Aug. 3 at 89 years old.
According to many people mourning his death, Talbert’s legacy was in social justice. He grew up in Louisiana, the child of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. His biography from the Council of Bishops says that one of his proudest accomplishments was being a champion for civil rights, which included spending three nights in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He was also an early and ardent champion for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church – which didn’t always earn him the biggest fan base. He was the first bishop within The UMC, retired or active, to perform a gay wedding.
“He was very prophetic in his witness. He did not take popular positions.” Retired Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky
Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly-lesbian woman elected to the episcopacy in 2016, expressed her gratitude for the life and ministry of Talbert. Talbert, who once served as her bishop in the California-Nevada Conference, supported Oliveto when she had to appear before the Judicial Council in 2017 because her election was challenged as being against the Book of Discipline.
“I am so grateful for the life and ministry of Bishop Mel Talbert, who has passed into glory. I give thanks for his commitment to a fully inclusive church that was expressed by his pastoral acts and prophetic voice. Our church and my life and ministry are richer because of his presence. I am so very grateful I had the opportunity to serve under his leadership. Well done, good and faithful servant!” Bishop Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area
Retired Bishop Grant Hagiya, current president of Claremont School of Theology, is grateful to have witnessed two perspectives of Talbert. As a young pastor, Hagiya witnessed the “bishop” side of Talbert – commanding and prophetic. But Hagiya also called his colleague a mentor – compassionate and caring.
“It was the leadership side of Bishop Talbert that was impressive and even intimidating. However, it was the human side of Mel that made him who he was and the reason why we will never forget him.” Retired Bishop Grant Hagiya
Stanovsky and others have shared stories about Talbert’s longtime commitment to racial justice and full inclusion within the church.
Stanovsky remembers as an ordained elder serving Kennydale UMC in Renton, Wash., she was in a meeting with her then-boss, Resident Bishop Talbert, and told him of her plans to participate in an act of civil disobedience the next day.
The anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum in the U.S., and Stanovsky told her bishop she planned to participate in a protest outside the South African consulate to the United States’ home the next day. She thought her bishop should be aware should anything happen.
“He sat me down and gave me a tutorial on the necessity and power of using personal acts of conscience as a teaching tool. It was really important and has served me well for many years.” Retired Bishop Elaine JW Stanofsky
Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson said her ministry was also formed with Talbert’s guidance. When he was general secretary for the General Board of Discipleship, Swenson said she was elected as a member of the board as a young clergywoman, and they worked together for four years. When he was assigned bishop to the Pacific Northwest Conference, he appointed her as a district superintendent. When she was elected bishop in 1992 and was assigned to what is now the Mountain Sky Conference, Talbert offered his continued encouragement.
“When I retired in 2012 (from the California-Pacific Conference), I invited him to Annual Conference to preach for ordination. It was such a special time, and his sermon was titled ‘Do the Right Thing. That title describes how he lived his life. He was a giant in faith and witness and compassion, and leadership. He was a lifelong learner.” Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
Even those who hadn’t known him long or well know of the legacy he leaves behind.
“He was one true soldier for justice.” Bishop Cedrick D. Bridgeforth of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area
“While I’ve admired Bishop Talbert for years, serving as the interim bishop of the California-Nevada Annual Conference has further deepened my appreciation for his leadership and ministry. He was the episcopal leader for 12 years, and during those critical times in the church – especially related to the full inclusion of all people – he embedded a tone and foundation of ‘all means all’ through his understanding of ‘biblical obedience and ecclesiastical disobedience.'” Retired Bishop Sally Dyck Interim bishop for the San Francisco Episcopal Area
It was Talbert who coined the phrase “biblical obedience” when it came to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals within the life of the church. Often, scripture had been used to exclude individuals, but he saw it differently and would often speak out.
“In light of the actions taken by the General Conference, the time has come to act and to invite others to join what I’m calling an act of Biblical obedience,” Talbert said at the end of the 2012 General Conference. “You see, we, too, have the good book on our side – our Biblical marching orders.”
The coining of this term was followed by complaints and requests to the Council of Bishops for his censure.
Retired Bishop Bob Hoshibata said to know Bishop Talbert was to know someone who lived a life dedicated to social justice.
“As an active bishop and after he retired, his strong voice was deeply appreciated, and his courageous actions helped form who we are as a (Western) Jurisdiction, dedicated to love and justice for all in the name of our living God,” Retired Bishop Bob Hoshibata