The active bishops of the United Methodist Church from around the world have been privately meeting this week in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.
For the 2012-2016 quadrennium, the Council of Bishops has adopted a practice of having one of its twice-yearly meetings be a “full” meeting of all bishops, including the retired ones, while the other meeting is a closed-to-the-press meeting of only the active bishops. This week’s meeting was in the latter category.
Among the highlights was a turnover in Council leadership positions. Bishop Rosemary Wenner rotates off from being the President, but remains an officer of the Council by virtue of being the immediate past President. Bishop Warner Brown of the radicalized, apportionment-withholding California-Nevada Conference is now the new Council President, while Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area is now officially the President-Designate who will replace Brown in two years. The new Secretary is Cynthia Fierro Harvey of Louisiana, who replaces Bishop Robert Hayes of Oklahoma. These decisions were made at the fall Council of Bishops meeting, which also elected Bishop Gregory Palmer to deliver the Episcopal Address at the 2016 General Conference.
While closing the meeting to visitors, the Council has at least helpfully issued daily press releases sharing some of the meeting highlights. This has included small-group discussions, an “immersion experience” of learning about effective ministries in the local South Georgia Conference, and updates from bishops from Europe, the Philippines, and Sub-Saharan Africa about how vital United Methodist congregations are being developed in and beyond their respective continents.
Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Theological Seminary led daily sessions on each of the four Christian practices discussed in her book, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us—gratitude, making and keeping promises, living truthfully, and hospitality.
Some highlights from the release about her Monday session:
“Dr. Pohl says no community can endure without trust, and trust is based on fidelity. Fidelity, faithfulness and covenant-keeping are all central to God’s character. Covenants and promises involve expectations for both parties, but God continues to be faithful even when we are not.”
“Keeping and making promises, fidelity and commitment are central to our relationship with God, but also to our relationships with one another. Our relationships are held together by our promises to one another. When we fail to keep our promises, people feel disappointed or even betrayed. Betrayal is devastating to our trust.”
This had obvious implications for the elephants in the room.
For decades, U.S. United Methodist bishops have been ordaining people who had no intention of keeping their ordination vows to teach and uphold our denomination’s biblical doctrinal standards. Some of these people have since become bishops themselves.
Our bishops’ fall meeting began with the clouds hanging over them of calls from an anarchic minority of clergy—supported, aided, and abetted by some bishops—to violate their vows to follow our binding policies affirming biblical standards for sexual self-control.
Given the any-means-necessary tactics of a covenant-breaking minority, and the way in which some denominational leaders have gone out of their way to pander exclusively to this narrow, church-killing faction, it is little wonder that it was reported at the last meeting that a survey found only 22 percent of United Methodist pastors and 36 percent of laypeople in leadership thought that the UMC was headed in the right direction. The same survey found that only 14 percent of lay leaders and eight percent of pastors believed that UMC denominational agencies understand the needs of our local churches!
In any case, last fall’s tense meeting ended with the Council collectively deciding to call for formal complaints to be filed against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for disregarding the public protests of other bishops and invading a newly elected bishop’s culturally conservative territory to perform a publicity-stunt same-sex union service.
Since then, the complaints have indeed been filed against Talbert, but the unraveling of any basis for United Methodist unity has continued. Several renegade bishops (most notably Martin McLee of New York and Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Area) have effectively chosen to not prosecute clergy in their regions who flamboyantly violate the UMC’s biblical policies for sexual self-control. This amounts to a loud, attention-hogging minority of bishops, who lead unsurprisingly fast-shrinking conferences, claiming a right to lead their respective regions in unilaterally declaring independence from whatever parts of our denomination’s doctrine, our communally agreed-upon moral policies, or their own vows to God and the church these men unilaterally decide to disregard.
It is worth recalling that at the close of last fall’s Council of Bishops meeting, Bishop Wenner, then the Council’s President, was asked directly about liberal calls for bishops to simply cease holding trials for clergy who choose to violate these standards. She replied by saying, among other things, that it was not the bishops’ proper role to prevent the possibility of the accountability processes in the UMC Discipline being used. She said then that she “would see it as undermining the Discipline” and claiming “an authority that’s not there” if a bishop would act “to stop a trial from happening.”
Many had wondered how, or if, our active bishops would address these challenges. The most information the official press releases provided came in the final release sent right after the meeting closed yesterday:
“In further conversations about the adaptive challenges facing The United Methodist Church, the residential bishops noted that Christ calls them to be in union with him, with one another, and with the Church. They recognized that they are called to lead according to the example of Jesus Christ during a challenging time within the church. Disagreements about human sexuality threaten to divide the church; and while there will be differing understandings, the bishops are called to be bishops of the whole church and to lead the church through such challenges. The residential bishops had conversations about how they could carry out the Book of Discipline and lead during this time. The conversation involved listening and forthright discussion in a covenant of grace-filled hospitality and truth-telling. No decisions or agreements were reached during these conversations.”