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.
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.
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.