November 11, 2013

Tensions Swirl as United Methodist Bishops Globally Gather

This week, the active and retired United Methodist bishops from all over the world are gathering this week in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina for their first full, public meeting of the 2012-2016 quadrennium.

Tensions within the Council and denomination are especially high, as this comes in the midst of a major spiritual siege being waged against the denomination. The so-called “biblical [dis]obedience” movement is a nationwide campaign of renegade United Methodist pastors blessing same-sex unions in open defiance of the United Methodist covenant for clergy conduct, and betraying their own ordination vows. Just on Saturday, over 30 United Methodist ministers joined 9 clergy “from other faith traditions” to jointly officiate at a publicity-stunt same-sex union service at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia (where church law prohibits such ceremonies from taking place).

More prominently, long-retired bishop Melvin Talbert, a cantankerously outspoken fixture of the denomination’s fading liberal old guard, recently invaded a younger, active bishop’s territory to become the first United Methodist bishop to officiate at a same-sex union ceremony.

What sort of leadership will our bishops collectively provide in the face of these threats? Will they show us clear commitment to faithfulness to clear biblical, historic Christian teaching and to working to make our denomination a place where our leaders can be trusted to keep their word to God and other United Methodists? Or will the church-killing radicals, their sympathizers, and those who lack the courage to stand up to their destructive behavior prevail?

These are the sorts of questions swirling around this week’s momentous gathering, from which a response to Mr. Talbert, of one sort or another, is expected.

I am on site, and will be providing further reporting in the days ahead.

For live updates, please follow my Twitter feed.

The first day has already been rather interesting.

Unfortunately for reporters like me, huge portions of this week’s meeting are closed to the press.  Much of the closed sessions will involve more frank discussions about the Talbert situation.

Disruptive Protesters?

Talbert, as a retired bishop, is here.

So is Amy DeLong, who is notorious for, among other things, her refusing to end her protest of illegally occupying the floor of the 2012 General Conference to let business resume until representatives of the Council of Bishops submitted to her ultimatums, and her bullying threats to similarly shut down the General Conference later if it even considered a committee-endorsed petition supported by pro-life United Methodists.

DeLong went online today claiming that she and her fellow LGBT liberation activist, Julie Todd, were somehow “targeted” by armed Lake Junaluska police while they stood alone in the hallway outside of the room in which the bishops were meeting in executive session. This was quickly amplified by the 2012 General Conference social media coordinator for the liberal UMC caucus coalition (the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Ministries Network), who claimed that our bishops ordered the two activists to be removed when they were “just standing there with all the other civilians.”

However, I did some fact-checking with relevant officials and learned that what actually happened was that there was no “targeting” of any specific individuals, but rather that everyone other than bishops was asked to leave not only the meeting room but also the hallway right outside, since the non-soundproof doors would have made eavesdropping easy.

In any case, Ms. DeLong should satisfy more of her thirst for attention tomorrow, as she has announced that she is organizing another protest to disturb the bishops’ morning meeting.

President’s Address

The current Council of Bishops President, Rosemary Wenner of Germany, used her President’s Address this morning to vaguely talk about the “actions and reactions and inactions of the past few weeks,” which have clearly demonstrated that the bishops themselves “are not of one mind.” She shared that she had been in personal conversation with both Bishops Wallace-Padgett and Talbert. She lamented how “[w]e don’t dare trust each other as bishops” and that the body has become more consumed in internal conflict that outward mission. The German bishop also sadly “admitted our failure to lead in covenant.”

In what has become a familiar theme at official UMC gatherings over the last year and a half, Bishop Wenner noted deep pain from the last General Conference, sharing that those present have yet to recover. She specifically said while she was in favor of major structural changes to our denominational hierarchy, “we were not able to get our people on board” and “did harm to one another.” She even made an apology “for those who were hurt by action at the last General Conference, some of them which came from Council [of Bishops],” but left it unclear what or who exactly she was referencing.

Apparently tipping her hand to her own liberalism on the sexual morality controversies, Bishop Wenner asserted that what was needed was “to move toward compromise” and find a “third way” for the denomination. These loaded phrases are typically used to describe incremental proposals to sexually liberalize the church, as a temporary stepping stone to a more thorough liberalization down the road.

The Council President further urged the Council to “not hide our diversity of mind,” since this was “not bad” and they “could not be able to lead the church” without it. She also echoed the language of bishops who are sexually liberal but value integrity and connection to more conservative United Methodists, speaking of how “we” lived in a tension of being “bound to our own conscience and our own convictions” but also “bound in covenant to each other” as expressed in the Book of Discipline.

She strongly urged her fellow bishops to come together amidst their diversity and move forward with a strong “team spirit,” but fell short of articulating a clear, substantial, compelling foundation for lasting unity.

Are All United Methodists Christian?

Much of the public portion of today was devoted to discussion of ecclesiology (doctrine on the nature of the church).

Bishop Patrick Streiff of Switzerland observed that ecclesiology “has long been a neglected part of doctrine for Protestants.”

The bishops were seated at round tables for informal discussions of their understandings of ecclesiology.

At one point, Dr. Sarah Lancaster, a theology professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio was invited to give an address. She noted that while John Wesley did not have to develop an ecclesiology (as a lifelong Anglican), leaders of the United Methodist Church cannot avoid this task.

But what stood out the most about the theologian’s speech was its strong level of evangelical themes. She pointed out that Wesley’s innovations in church practice were done “in order to serve the goal of salvation,” reminding our bishops that we are not being faithful to our Wesleyan heritage if we stray from that goal. Injecting a surprising amount of frankness into the Council meeting, Dr. Lancaster also noted that Wesley did not say that “everyone who thinks they are a Christian” is actually a part of the true church, in which “nominal Christians … have no place,” “no matter how much they may think they do.” She said that “we know many of our members would not qualify” as true Christians according to Wesley, and even quipped that several of the bishops themselves were likely uncomfortably squirming at her words. The theology professor also admitted that she herself was not fully comfortable with this, and cited Albert Outler’s critique of John Wesley’s ecclesiology as “an unstable blend of Anabaptist and Anglican ecclesiologies.”

Electing New Leaders and Hearing Testimonies

It was also announced that on Thursday there will be elections to find new people for three Council of Bishops officer positions: President, President-Designate, and Secretary.

Previous rules required Council leadership follow a rigid rotation between the different regions of the church. This ensured that, over time, the tiny, theologically radicalized Western Jurisdiction was over-represented and larger, more biblically faithful regions (like Sub-Saharan Africa and the Southeastern United States) were under-represented. Now those rigid geographic-rotation rules have been scrapped for a vaguer policy encouraging that future leadership choices be sensitive to diversity, broadly understood.

At dinner tonight, we heard the faith testimonies of two of the newly elected (in 2012) bishops.  Bishop Gary Mueller of Arkansas used his story to stress the central importance of disciple-making and of Jesus Christ.  Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of North Alabama (whose territory was so rudely invaded by Talbert) showed a refreshing amount of humility for someone in her position, stressing that she was just “an ordinary person with an extraordinary God.”

Again, for the quickest updates for the rest of the week, you may follow my Twitter feed.

18 Responses to Tensions Swirl as United Methodist Bishops Globally Gather

  1. Donnie says:

    I predict Talbert will get away with his crime. Maybe a (not so) strongly worded missive will be spoken against him, but nothing of any real substance will happen.

  2. Mary Lou Taylor says:

    I am sorry to read your extremely skewed and unkind update. It seems that one with your level of pomposity and misdirected self-assurance has lost the ability to engage in civil discourse, or to empathize with the pain of others. This feels very un-Christian to me.

    • Palamas says:

      Ad hominem attacks on those with whom you disagree, without bothering to engage with the substance of the article, might also be accurately described as un-Christian.

    • Greg Paley says:

      “This seems very un-Christian to me.”
      I’ve been saying that for years about the Religious Left. Happily, the only One with the authority to judge what is Christian or not is God Almighty. Since he gave us the Bible as a guide to life in this world, we’ll have to assume that he revealed his divine will to us very clearly. Judged by the Bible, the lefties in the UM church have a lot to answer for at the Last Judgment. True Christians will and must continue to criticize the influence of the LGBT movement in the church. It is totally un-Christian and should not be tolerated. The gays have plenty of other denominations to join, these are more than happy to bless homosexual perversion.

  3. Mike says:

    If the Bishops will not live up to their covenant, and will not call to account one of their own who is clearly breaking that covenant, how do we trust them on anything? I am hopeful there will be firm leadership, but I am not optimistic.

  4. Marilyn says:

    The appointment or election of a bishop should not be a lifetime thing. They should be allowed to retire gracefully the same as anyone else. Then they can not live to be an embarrassment to faithful Methodists. Some, of course manage to become an embarrassment before that time.

    • John Lomperis says:

      Other good points, Marilyn!

    • John S says:

      If a Bishop is a lifetime appointment depends upon our ecclesiology. Given the high view of elders and the power given them over our churches a lifetime appointment makes sense. Is the current reluctance to keep lifetime appointments due to a change is our ecclesiology or disappointment with the current crop of bishops and elders? Until that question is answered we cannot come up with a solution.

    • Rob Gulledge says:

      In principle, a life tenure for Bishops is fine. In practice we get the bishops we deserve in that they are elected by a Conference composed of duly elected representatives. Don’t change the tenure rather, elect bishops who will make good use of their life tenure in advancing the Kingdom of God. Prayer and not political posturing is the answer to selecting holy men and women to the episcopacy.

  5. Marilyn says:

    Wesley struggled with the idea of appointing a bishop in the first place. He must have known what the results could be. I doubt, however, that he ever could have envisioned this.

  6. gary says:

    I will be surprised if the council of bishops does anything other than a small wrist slap on this. The cob is a house divided.

  7. Mike says:

    The UMC will go the way of the dinosaur due to the unwillingness of the Church Council to uphold church discipline.

  8. Mary says:

    Was Jesus “unchristian” when he overturned tables and called the Pharisees “vipers”?
    It’s okay to call sin “sin” and rebellion “rebelllion”.
    May sinners be called to repentance and wolves
    be driven away from the sheep. These are days for holiness and upholding God’s Holy Word in the UMC.

  9. Richard Maloney says:

    So, if you don’t condemn people for being gay, people like Lomperis and Lancaster will say you’re not a Christian, or at best a CINO (Christian in Name Only).

    You want to really kill Methodism dead? Use Tea Party-style politics, and start CINO hunting until congregations shrink to five or six old dudes in an empty room they can’t pay for. Conservative Christians can argue over who gets the Methodists’ big, empty churches, and millennials will continue pursuing nondenominational and personal forms of Christianity.

    • Donnie says:

      Actually, the UMC is dying in the US thanks to those who want to pervert the Bible. It is growing in Africa where they have clung to Christian orthodoxy and the Bible.

      Most future UMC churches, if the denomination is still around, will most likely be African churches on fire for God instead of empty “social justice” rhetoric.

  10. Greg Paley says:

    It all comes down to the seminaries, which are (true to their name) the seed-bed of belief and ethics. All the UM bishops graduated from either the UM seminaries (which range from left to WAY left) or the nondenominational left-wing seminaries (U of Chicago, Union, Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt). With most of the UM clergy being indoctrinated in leftism, naturally the bishops are going to be unapologetic left-wingers. if they have any religion, it is Political Correctness, not Christianity.

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