In a recent interview conducted by Ministry Matters’ Shane Raynor, United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter gave his opinion on many of the crucial problems facing the church, such as the growing polarization and regionalism, the debate over sexuality, and the prospect of schism. In particular, the Florida bishop gave his opinion that local churches should be given more “flexibility,” and called the Adam Hamilton proposal to allow local churches to dissent from the Book of Discipline “a step forward.”
Bishop Carter stated his belief that the United Methodist Church cannot maintain the status quo given the current polarization. “Much of our energy… seems to be going to the polarities of the far left and far right, if you want to use political categories, and that there does not seem to be a coherent energy that is moving us in a direction of what we profess to be our mission, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
“One of the strengths of American Methodism, United Methodism, is that we’ve always been adaptive,” Bishop Carter argued. He noted that while Lutherans, Congregationalists and Baptists tended to flourish in the Midwest, New England, and the South respectively, United Methodists have been able to spread across America. But what was once a strength became problematic with the rise in polarization. “In our current political climate, it’s difficult to stay together in a country that has red states and blue states and where everything has been so polarized… we can become more devoted to the region than to the whole.”
Bishop Carter argued that regionalism has contributed to many of the theological differences within the United Methodism. “It is not accidental that the Board of Church and Society is in Washington, D.C. and the Board of Global Ministries in New York,” the bishop said, contrasting them with the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville. He also noted that many of the United Methodist seminaries seemed to reflect the area around them. The way to overcome these regional differences, he said, was to be in real conversation with each other.
Drawing on his speech at Lifewatch earlier this year, Bishop Carter bemoaned the lack of a coherent United Methodist ethic of life. Because United Methodists lack a unified social teaching, incoherence “comes from our mirroring the different political parties and different political action groups…. We become very issue-oriented.” In particular, the bishop faulted those who were “so passionate about being hospitable to the unborn, [but] at the same time not recognize the need to be hospitable to our gay and lesbian brother and sisters. And vice versa.”
Raynor brought up the conversations within the UMC about schism, and asked the bishop if there were advantages to staying together. Bishop Carter claimed that there were, including what he called a “missional advantage… [T]here are a number of relationships that I fear would be lost missionally, the work we’ve done in Africa and African universities, I could name them all…”
He rejected the notion that a schism might lead to more effective mission work as a result of having settled the homosexuality debate. He quoted a leader from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who noted that even when they made a decision on sexuality, the denomination just started butting heads over Israel and Palestine instead. “I really believe the deeper issue is how we love each other, how we are in covenant, and do we really desire unity in the Body of Christ. Is sexuality only the presenting issue?”
In his final question, Raynor asked Bishop Carter about his opinion of the so-called “local option,” in which churches or conferences could decide for themselves whether or not to perform gay wedding ceremonies. “I hope we can give more freedom and flexibility to different regions of our church,” he bishop said. He once again claimed that there were “missional reasons” to empowering local churches. “When you’re a missionary on a mission field, we need to be flexible in our ministry, in our mission…”
Bishop Carter said that he had been reflecting on an essay that Tom Langford– his former professor at Duke Divinity– sent to the Council of Bishops in 1999. “He was making a point that we have learned before to have diversity of thought on matters like divorce, capital punishment, war. We’ve learned as a church to allow for diversity of thought. He was making a point… that it may be time to allow diversity of thought around this issue, on the lives of gay and lesbian persons.”
“Life and ministry is just very different in San Francisco than in Montgomery, Alabama or Monrovia, Liberia,” he said, “Yet we have one polity for the entire world.”
While acknowledging that Adam Hamilton’s “A Way Forward” wasn’t perfect, Bishop Carter said he had great respect for those who crafted it, some of whom are from the Florida Annual Conference. “I think the germ of truth in that document is that local churches sometimes have resources and strength and ways of living together that are healthier than the General Conference.” The bishop also said he respects those who have chosen to take part in the Good News amicable separation statement.
“My hope and prayer is that homosexuality is not a church-dividing issue,” Bishop Carter said, “It may be, it may not be. God’s Providence will be a part of all this. But I believe that conversation about the local option is a step forward.”
UPDATE: This article originally read that Bishop Carter had respect for “those who have chosen to not take part in the Good News amicable separation statement.” After publication, I was contacted by the bishop, who clarified that he intended to say that he respects those who did sign the Good News statement. The article has been edited accordingly.