Today is the first full day of the week-long annual meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops in Oklahoma City.
The Council includes all active and retired United Methodist Bishops from around the world. But as noted earlier, our denomination’s present organization systematically ensures that, proportionate to membership, the U.S. Western Jurisdiction, along with Europe and the Philippines, is dramatically over-represented while Africa and the Southeastern United States are under-represented.
Intra-denominational tensions continue to hang over the Council, which have reached a boiling point over the “disobedience” movement of a relatively tiny but extremely vocal number of United Methodist clergy conducting same-sex union services in open defiance of the church’s biblical standards (which these clergy vowed to uphold). Much more problematic has been the way in which some active and retired bishops, whose prime job responsibilities includes being guardians of the church’s order and doctrine, have quietly and not-so-quietly encouraged and protected such renegade clergy.
Most prominent has been long-retired Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco, who after the last General Conference very loudly and repeatedly urged United Methodist clergy to go ahead and conduct same-sex union services, regardless of Scripture or their own ordination vows. Then he personally invaded a new, active bishop’s territory to conduct a same-sex union. (Supporters for some reason bizarrely call this movement “biblical obedience.”)
Formal complaints have been filed against Talbert within the radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction, on behalf of a strong majority of active bishops. But it has now been over a year since he did his publicity-stunt union service, while the snail’s-pace accountability process remains shrouded in confidentiality.
But Talbert has hardly been silent since then.
For example, just this fall he wrote and had a letter sent out using the official seal of United Methodist Bishops and his own proud defiance to raise money for the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an unofficial United Methodist caucus seeking church acceptance for homosexual practice, as well as other sexual sins like premarital cohabitation and multiple partners. Talbert is vice chair of RMN’s board of directors.
The letter was sent in envelopes in which the return address had the seal of United Methodist bishops, followed by Talbert’s name, then RMN’s name, and then the latter’s Chicago address.
The letter, which can be read in full here, uses the UMC bishop seal as letterhead while succinctly touting a very secularized gospel: seeking a church in which people “welcomed and affirmed” in their sins, the church’s doctrine and ethics are defined by pandering to alleged demands of the religious market (with the values of secular Western culture today being automatically accepted as superior to those of other cultures), and no talk of personal sin, self-denial, or supernatural transformation.
Talbert’s letter urges donations to help him and RMN “challenge the remaining vestiges of fear and discrimination.” Such determination to oppose “the remaining vestiges” of orthodoxy sounds an ominous note for evangelical minorities in United Methodist regions dominated by RMN allies, especially given Talbert’s own track record of marginalizing and repressing evangelicals as an active bishop.
(On a side note, it is always odd for this young adult to see liberal United Methodist seniors like Talbert, who is old enough to be my grandfather, argue for their agenda by claiming to know how to reach young people.)
It also seems odd that the Council of Bishops would be okay with the official seal of their office being reduced to a shallow fundraising gimmick for a strident caucus group and being used as a prop to apparently dismiss the opposition of Talbert’s colleague bishops as “fear and discrimination.”
Talbert even likens his campaign to Jesus Christ laying down his life for his friends. As if Christ’s unparalleled suffering and sacrifice for redemption and freedom from sin had anything in common with Talbert’s undergoing no real sacrifice (unless becoming a hero in the eyes of his fervent fan base counts) to encourage indulgence in sin.
The new Council of Bishops President is now Warner Brown, who presides over the same California-Nevada Conference Talbert once led. In his inaugural speech in this role, Bishop Brown struck an interesting balance between strong hints of his liberalism and mild affirmation of upholding the disciplinary covenant that binds United Methodism together. He responded to the murmurs of a possible denominational split, noting that most United Methodists do not want one.
While acknowledging that bishops were charged with upholding the Discipline, he added that “we are also called to be prophetic through the tradition of social holiness,” echoing buzz words many liberal United Methodists have rather dramatically (and unreflectively) redefined to endorse activism like Talbert’s. In Bishop Brown’s lamenting the UMC having “done harm to people Jesus loves,” regretting failures of “reconciliation,” and lumping “sexual orientation” together with race as areas where we have failed to be hospitable, the close parallels with the talking points of our denomination’s pro-homosexuality “reconciling” movement were hard to miss.
But he also declared that bishops are accountable to the Council of Bishops, not for colleagues second-guessing each other over their shoulders, but for keeping each other accountable to the church’s mission statement of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Before the 2012 General Conference, the Council of Bishops approved a motion to develop a process to develop mechanisms for active and retired bishops to keep each other accountable. That process is still being developed. Today, Bishop Brown urged building trust by long-term engagement and assuring people from different perspectives in as ideologically diverse a church as ours that they are heard.
Bishop Brown closed by asking the gathered bishops, “are you willing to re-affirm the vows you made when you were consecrated as a bishop?” These vows prominently include upholding our disciplinary standards. Without any exception that I observed, the bishops stood in assent.
Of course, such conformity-rushing appeals that leave no room for discussion or socially non-awkward dissent tend to not yield the most honest picture of where people truly stand.
I certainly celebrate this happening. But the fact of the matter is that many grassroots United Methodists – with whom the covenant-breaking bishops have broken trust – will not place much value in this silent, hurried re-affirmation of vows unless and until they see our bishops demonstrate the sincerity of this recommitment by taking direct, concrete, and forceful steps to stop the covenant breaking of their colleague bishops who have shown their own word to mean very little.
In other developments:
- Our bishops heard from the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson of Candler School of Theology, who urged re-adoption of early Methodism’s classes and band meetings.
- There was continued reference to talk about the UMC being a global church. Yet one wonders how long such talk can continue while avoiding direct confrontation of the way in which our current denominational structure very overtly and systematically privileges the over-represented, radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction for the price of marginalizing African United Methodist leaders.
- Among the observers here are several activists from Love Prevails, a self-described “radical sexual liberationist” group spearheaded by Amy DeLong. During this morning’s communion service, DeLong sought attention by holding a sign pointing to herself and declaring. “I am a plumbline in your midst.” She was apparently invoking Amos 7:7-9 to rather non-humbly claim that she personally was an absolute standard of righteousness against which others’ actions should be measured. At another point, one of the Love Prevails ladies held a sign declaring: “THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS HAS NO MORAL AUTHORITY, NO INTEGRITY, NO CREDIBILIY.” Members of this group appear to be endowed with the mutant power of being able to trust that none of their actions, no matter how rude or outrageous, can possibly offend liberal United Methodist bishops to the point of saying “enough is enough.”
- After lunch, our bishops went into closed “executive session” for the rest of the day. Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service reports that these closed sessions were devoted to discussions related to human sexuality.
I will be on-site for the rest of the week. For the most up-to-the-minute reporting on developments, please see my Twitter feed, in which I will be live-tweeting updates: @JohnLomperis