Exclusive Interview with Bishop Timothy Whitaker

on December 5, 2007

During the semiannual meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops in early November 2007, Bishop Timothy Whitaker sat down with UMAction’s John Lomperis for an interview.  Bishop Whitaker has led the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church since 2001.
Lomperis:    Thank you for joining me today.  To what do you attribute our denomination’s decline in the United States?


United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Photo Courtesy UMNS)

Whitaker:    John, I think that there are two factors that contribute a lot to it.  One is demographics.  We were a church that had congregations in small towns and rural areas, but the population shifted.  But I don’t think we planned for that population shift and as a result we got behind the curve of growth of the population.  I think now with the new emphasis in the Council of Bishops on “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” and particularly the Vision Pathway that has a goal of starting over 600 new churches, will be the beginning of a correction of that problem that we’ve had.

The other big issue is: I think we struggle with our identity.  We came to think of ourselves as a mainline Protestant church, but what does that mean?  That means that we are trying to define ourselves as having a place in society or in the culture.  But what I think we need to do is understand our selves as an embodiment of the Wesleyan tradition.  That’s really our calling.

So I do see signs of hope that we are awakening to what our true nature is.  And I think maybe the fact that we live in a society in which all of the churches are being disestablished really causes us to think about our identity in fresh ways.  And so if society says “I’m not really interested in you,” it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to try to define yourself in your place or status in society.  You have to start thinking about really who you are and that means thinking about your identity theologically.

I’m sure there are many others factors in this complex situation.  Other people could address issues pertaining to the effectiveness of clergy, the failure of congregations to relate to their communities and many other very important factors.  But I think our failure to continue to start new churches as the population shifts and our struggle with our identity have been two of the main problems we’ve had.

L:    Well, you seem to have basically answered my next question, which was going to be: “What do you think it will take to make our denomination grow in the United States again?”  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

W:    I think that this is a critical time in the history of The United Methodist Church.  I think that some people believe that we’re just going to continue to decline until we get down to a minimum number of members in the churches.  I think other people maybe have the hope that we’re going to have some miraculous transformation overnight.  I doubt that we’re going to have a miraculous transformation overnight, because institutions don’t change that quickly.  I certainly hope that we don’t decline, although that’s always a possibility if we are apathetic.  But I think that The United Methodist Church does have the potential to undergo, over a long time, a major transformation.  You know, we’re going to lose a lot of churches, but if we start a lot of new churches, we may discover in decades to come that the story of our church was one of very serious decline and then a period of definite but gradual transformation and it’s a vital communion again.  But I don’t think that’s going to happen unless we’re clear about our identity as the embodiment of the Wesleyan tradition, and it’s not going to happen at all unless we all get on the ball and fulfill our responsibilities to the best of our ability.

L:    Another timely question for [an issue that] will be considered at the General Conference is: What principles should guide our church’s response to the issue of transgenderism, particularly as it relates to ordination standards? 

W:    I don’t have any personal experience with the whole issue of people changing their gender.  Certainly it seems to be a very complicated matter psychologically as well as physiologically in terms of the surgery that is involved.  So I guess I don’t really have an opinion about people going through that kind of radical change in their lives.  I think we’d want to really examine anyone who’s had such a radical change in identity to see whether or not that kind of change is really appropriate in a public office for ministry, in leadership.  Whether that should be handled in a codified manner or a case-by-case manner I think has to be sorted out.

I know we had a case recently in which there was a transgendered [minister] serving in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, but the bishop made a ruling that there was nothing in the Discipline against it.  And it seemed to me that the Judicial Council made an appropriate ruling, given the fact that there’s nothing in the Discipline that addresses it.

I’m more cautious about that, because I’m just concerned about the ability of someone to serve effectively in the office of ministry after undergoing any kind of major identity change.  But I don’t know enough about it, really, to say exactly whether or not the church ought to have a blanket position on this thing.  It could be that there are a lot of difficult personal issues that people go through that would allow me to understand [that].  But then that’s kind of separate from my understanding of that, and whether or not somebody who’s undergone such a thing should function in the office of pastor.  So I think that it will be addressed by delegates at the General Conference, and I will be learning along with other people about how we ought to respond to the concern.

I think because the term [transgendered] has been thrown in with the agenda to change the church’s position on homosexuality …  that almost taints the issue.  And maybe people with serious personal issues ought to be looked a little differently….  [These issues] could be medical, psychological.

L:    How would you personally hope that our church might finally move beyond the perennial challenges to our church’s historic and democratically confirmed position on the issue of homosexuality, and the ensuing drain on time and energy that’s associated with that debate?

W:    You know, I think that’s a question that everybody wishes they had the right answer to, and I don’t claim to have any more wisdom than anybody else about how we can deal with the question.  I think that our church needs to have more of a positive, constructive vision and agenda.  Because if you don’t have that, then in the vacuum, your preoccupation is filled with important, controversial issues.  I think to some extent that that’s what happened to a great extent at the last General Conference.  Now I’m hoping that [at] this General Conference, the Council of Bishops will bring more of a positive, constructive vision for the church, and maybe that will give us some perspective.  We’re going to have people that disagree on this issue on both sides.  People understandably feel very emotional about it on both sides.  But hopefully we won’t let those differences become destructive and we will unite around larger issues of faith and of mission in the world.

L:    You are on the Advisory Board of our denomination’s pro-life caucus.  I do not want to misinterpret you, but your remarks in 2005 [at the Lifewatch worship service] seemed to indicate that you are not supportive of our denomination’s essentially blank-check endorsement of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  What do you think would need to happen for our church’s witness on abortion and our denominational culture with regards to the issue to change in order to be more consistent with your position?

W:    I think the issue is whether the position and the practice of The United Methodist Church are consistent with what has been the historic Christian teaching on abortion.  Our statement in the Social Principles is a good one, but in my judgment is too accommodating to the values in our culture.  I don’t know how the church can move forward and embrace more of a concern for the most vulnerable human creatures there are, which are the unborn.  It’s frustrating to me because there’s not much discussion of the issue.  I think people are afraid to discuss it because there have been such polarized political positions taken on it.  And it’s almost like people are so afraid of the political disagreement that they’re not liberated to look at the issue afresh from a theological and ethical perspective.

I do have great concerns about our church being involved with a group that I think does not share an authentic Christian perspective about the life of the unborn, and therefore I think it’s a mistake.

L:    To affiliate with RCRC?

W:    Yes.  I think it’s a mistake for us to have agencies of the church that are involved there, because I think it really compromises the Christian witness of protecting those who have been conceived and are in the womb.  I would hope that people would have more of an open mind and be willing to revisit an issue that maybe they’ve put on the shelf for a long time. How that’s going to happen, I don’t know.

L:    Why do you think that this issue does not seem to attract nearly as much attention or discussion as the issue of homosexuality in our denomination?

W:    That’s a very good question, and I think about this a lot, because what we’re talking about here is life and death.  The issues of sexuality are very, very important, and I understand the passions around those, but it’s not really equivalent to the issue of abortion, where we’re talking about the lives of human beings.  I think that the very question implies that there is some sort of lack of perspective in the church that we can engage so much of our time and energy debating homosexuality but we seem to be almost unwilling to talk about the issue of abortion.  Now in my view, it’s not just a matter of the church opposing abortion.  We need also to extend a hand to those who are in very difficult situations.  I empathize with young women who didn’t expect to become pregnant, who feel like their future prosperity and development is at stake.  And they need the help of the churches and the help of the whole community, and so I think that the churches and the government ought to provide some sort of support system for those that are in that situation.  That’s a much healthier approach for us to take than just to be kind of blaisè about legalized abortion.

L:    The Episcopal Greetings to the 2004 Book of Discipline describes the volume as “the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” amidst all of our diversity and disagreements.  But we at UMAction, and also a number of others, have documented a numerous cases where the clear letter and spirit of the Discipline being simply set aside when people do not personally agree with certain provisions.  How do you believe our denomination can move to a point where our Discipline is more consistently respected and upheld?
W:    John, I think that we’re all trying to become more mindful of the fact that we live in covenant with one another and that there are responsibilities that come from being a part of a covenantal community.  Of course the major responsibility we have is to adhere to the canon law of The United Methodist Church because it is what is in the Book of Discipline.  People have the right to be critical of it, sometimes, and I think that that’s not unhealthy as long as it’s done in the right way and in the right spirit.  But we’re all bound by the common decisions we make in the context of our covenant.

I think as we try to live together in the community there’s probably always going to be occasions where people of great passion are going to transgress the boundaries.  And I think that the question then is how the community responds and whether it seeks to make clear that those transgressions are not acceptable within the life of the covenant.  We can’t control everybody and that’s not the object.  We’re not supposed to be controlling each other; we’re supposed to be living together in covenant.  So I think that the answer is for us to appeal to the fact that we’ve made a commitment to live in covenant with Christ and with one another, in accordance with the Discipline of the church.  I don’t know any other solution to that.

L:    You’re aware that UMAction’s work, in addition to working on the similar kinds of theological concerns that Good News and the Confessing Movement address, is also concerned with certain political actions or pronouncements of official church bodies when we believe that such actions or statements lack a clear scriptural mandate.  So the two-part question would be: are there any political issues that you might agree amount to differing prudential judgments on the best means to achieve commonly sought ends?  And if so, should the church refrain from taking a position on any such issues and instead encourage individual members to come to their own conclusions while respecting their brothers and sisters in the next pew who might disagree with their opinion?

W: That’s a thoughtful question, and I’ve discussed it with you and Mark in the past.  I believe I have a different perspective than the official perspective of IRD.  My understanding of the Institute of Religion and Democracy is that it’s very wary of church bodies taking positions on issues that have a political dimension, and feels like churches ought to defer that to individual members.  I certainly think that church bodies need to address major issues from the perspective of faith.  I think the church does have a responsibility to practice what Robert Webber and Rodney Clapp in The People of the Truth describe as “depth politics.”  Which means that the church speaks to the fundamental values that underlie the way we order our life together … shape our culture, and enact our laws.  It’s the church’s role then to speak to political issues from the perspective of the values that come from our faith.  And that’s depth politics.

You know, I think that the church does want to try to avoid getting too deeply involved in issues of political compromise and strategy.  [But] where do you draw that line?  Because sometimes where the line is is not always clear.  I know that I have said more about strategy in my critique of U.S. involvement in the Iraq War than I really would like to, but the only reason I touched on that was because it seemed to be impossible to speak to the contemporary concern, to make some statements that might make some sense, without dealing with strategy.  But it is clear that those of us who are officials of the church are not experts in issues of strategy—that is, legislative strategy or military strategy.  And so we have to respect the people who do have that expertise.

But I do think it’s clear that the church definitely should not just defer those issues to individual members.  And that’s because I think the church is not just a collection of individuals.  You couldn’t just describe the church as being a religion.  I think that’s a problematic category, because I think the church is a polis or a city, and a distinctive community in the world that adheres to the lordship of Jesus Christ.  Because it is that kind of polis submitted to Christ, it does have a responsibility as a body to address concerns that affect the way we order society and shape our culture, and sometimes even matters that have legislative content.

L:    What recommendations, if any, would you offer to UMAction and like-minded caucus groups about how we promote our particular perspective within the church?

W:    I would counsel all the concerned caucuses and organizations to take the high road.  Let’s avoid exploiting controversial situations, let’s avoid, certainly, identifying individual people for personal criticism.  But let everybody address the issues from their perspective.  And I think that none of us should be afraid of that.  I think we’re all going to benefit from a thoughtful, open, debate about the issues.  And so that would be my strong council.  Because I think we all have a responsibility as Christians, and also as members of society to operate that way.

You know, let me give you an example.  It was very controversial when Lake Junaluska was open to the “Hearts on Fire” conference.  I took a lot of criticism because I didn’t oppose having the conference here.  I didn’t agree with the agenda of the conference, but I didn’t oppose United Methodists coming together to express their perspective.  I felt it would have been better than to make a big issue about the fact that a group was going to meet here at Lake Junaluska, that these groups should have simply given witness to their perspective on the issues, and I think that that’s a little different than making a big deal out of the fact that folks came just to voice their opinion.  That would be the concern that I have about the way that IRD operates or that Good News functions.  And I don’t think it really helps the causes that they represent to use some of the methods that they use at times.

L:    You mean in terms of what you just talked about?

W:    Yes.  I think it was not helpful for Good News to get into an argument about having the “Hearts on Fire” at Lake Junaluska.  I think it would have been better if they would have said that, “We have no objections to people voicing their opinions, and we are confident in the traditional Christian teaching about human sexuality.  What our concern [is] is that the church pay attention to these issues and then identify what those are, like, the authority of scripture, the witness of the trans-cultural Christian tradition, the importance of the church having serious theological debate to illumine the mind of the church and not succumb to political methods to try to influence the church.  I think that would have been much better for Good News to take that approach than to get kind of overly concerned about a particular group of people coming together to express their opinion at Lake Junaluska.

L:    What significant changes, if any, would you like to see in the way in which the self-identified “progressive” United Methodist caucus groups promote their perspective within our church?

W:    My main concern with a lot of the voices of progressive Christianity is the quality of the theological discourse that comes from them.  They seem to presuppose that certain assumptions embedded in modern Western societies and cultures represent reality, and they don’t recognize how ethno-centric those assumptions can be.  And then they think that the purpose of theology is to express in religious form the presuppositions of the culture.  There doesn’t seem to be a seriousness of theological purpose in their discourse.  And I think that that makes it difficult for others to take their thinking as seriously as they would like.

Also, I think that you have the same issue of method on the side of some progressives that you have on the side of some groups that support traditional Christian doctrine and discipline.  It seems that there’s a desire to use political manipulation as a way of influencing the life of the church rather than working as a part of a covenantal communion and to be in dialogue with one another in a common search for the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

L:   Thank you, Bishop.

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