The United Methodist Church has been overwhelmed by an ever-worsening anarchy of bishops refusing to do their jobs of upholding the denomination’s supposedly governing rulebook, the Book of Discipline. Sometimes, we hear claims about how, “well, there is this—admittedly small and dwindling—number of remaining active United Methodist bishops who are doing their part to uphold the Discipline.” However, upon closer examination, such claims are only partly true, at best.
Even among active United Methodist bishops who claim that “they are upholding the Discipline,” and who have indeed prevented their conferences from having gay weddings or non-celibate gay clergy, there are three major areas where such United Methodist bishops still fail to uphold the Discipline. These are: (1) defending our doctrine, (2) holding fellow other bishops accountable, and (3) allowing local churches to publicly promote themselves as “reconciling congregations” affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.
The UMC of today has few to no clear, effective, consistent doctrinal boundaries. Yes, the denomination’s on-paper Doctrinal Standards give lip service to affirming the authority of Scripture and the sinless perfection of Jesus Christ. But the documented fact of the matter is that officials at the highest levels of denominational leadership have enjoyed free rein to openly teach against the core orthodoxy of the UMC Doctrinal Standards.
Every active United Methodist bishop in America oversees an area in which a culture of theological anarchy has become well established. Clergy can and do publicly discourage belief in core doctrines of the UMC Doctrinal Standards, without any response from their bishops.
This theological anarchy represents a major dereliction of the duty of United Methodist bishops to uphold the Discipline. Per Discipline Paragraph 403.1, central to the job description of a bishop is to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the church.” On paper, “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church” is a “chargeable offense” for any minister (¶2702.1.e).
But over decades, it has become normalized for United Methodist bishops to neglect upholding the Discipline on doctrine. When was the last time you ever heard of any United Methodist bishop having the courage or conviction to directly challenge any of his or her ministers—even if this challenge was “softer” than filing a formal complaint—for teaching against official UMC doctrine on the authority of Scripture or the miraculous birth or resurrection of Jesus Christ?
With the United Methodist Church’s supposed value of connectionalism, any false teaching in any part of the denomination, particularly by as prominent an authority as a bishop, can mislead or otherwise harm others across and beyond the denomination.
Two decades ago, when Chicago United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague infamously repudiated such basic Christian doctrines as the accuracy of John’s gospel and the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, at least two United Methodist bishops publicly challenged their colleague’s heresies and defended historic Christian doctrine.
But as previously noted, much has changed since then. More recently, when Karen Oliveto used the office of bishop to teach against the full, sinless perfection of Jesus Christ or Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, shortly before she became bishop, declared that in the UMC, “it is not important that we agree on who Christ is,” we saw no active bishop now remaining in the UMC show the courage or conviction to offer a direct orthodox counterpoint to these widely noted teachings.
Before 2018, bishops had limited tools for holding accountable other bishops outside of their own jurisdiction or central conference, beyond the (important) “soft” accountability of respectful public challenges.
But the 2016 General Conference established a major change in church law, by adding provisions for non-geographic accountability for bishops. These new provisions give the Council of Bishops (whose voting members include all active bishops around the world) the right to take over administration of a complaint against a bishop at any time. They also give the global Council of Bishops (aka the COB) the obligation to do so for any complaints unresolved after 180 days.
Since this reform required the difficult process of a constitutional amendment, it did not become effective until May 7, 2018. But that was over five years ago. And when this legislation secured initial approval in May 2016, the COB had two years to prepare for its likely ratification.
Over the last seven years, what have United Methodist bishops actually done to uphold this part of the Discipline?
Bishop Ken Carter (then of Florida) was COB president when these new accountability provisions became officially established. As previously reported, under his leadership, when a heresy complaint was filed against Oliveto, not only did the COB simply fail to take the actions the Discipline required of them after 180 days, but there was apparently no broader process established for the COB implementing these new accountability provisions.
Such inaction apparently continued as Bishop Cynthia Harvey took over as COB president.
Then late last year, under the presidency of Thomas Bickerton, the COB at least requested a ruling from the UMC’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, over some detailed questions related to implementing these new provisions for bishops’ accountability, over six years after they were approved by the 2016 General Conference! Perhaps some were hoping that the Judicial Council would somehow invalidate some of all of these reforms. Just this last May, only after the Judicial Council declined to do this, the COB finally announced a task force for developing a plan to implement these accountability changes—changes first approved in 2016!
From 2018 onwards, we have seen more and more United Methodist bishops betray the Discipline on sexuality and other matters, precisely at the same time that we have provided any bishops interested in “leading with integrity” with unprecedented new tools for accountable.
But in this same time period, United Methodist bishops have collectively disregarded how the Discipline gives them new rights and obligations for accountability.
And since January 2020, the Traditional Plan adopted by the 2019 General Conference significantly changed church law (see Paragraphs 304.3, 304.5, and 415.6) to require bishops to block the commissioning or ordination of openly partnered gay deacon or elder candidates (“even if the individual has been recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry and approved by the clergy session of the annual conference”), to prevent the clergy session from even voting on such candidates, and from consecrating as a new bishop any openly partnered gay individual (“even if they have been duly elected by the jurisdictional or central conference”).
Yet after these reforms, the anarchy has only gotten worse. Across the country, even in the previously conservative-leaning Southeast, bishops have been openly defying these new enhanced ordination-standards rules, with these bishops facing no accountability themselves. Furthermore, last November, multiple United Methodist bishops openly broke the Discipline by consecrating another openly partnered gay activist to become a new bishop. A complaint was filed against these disobedient bishops, by hundreds of concerned United Methodists from around the world. But more than 240 days later, we have not seen any evidence of the rest of United Methodist bishops honoring their right and responsibility to hold these bishops accountable.
All of this empowers the most extreme covenant-breaking bishops to increasingly establish difficult-to-reverse new facts on the ground.
In recent years, a small number of orthodox bishops recognized that the UMC’s divisions and anarchy were unsustainable and worked faithfully to find relatively amicable and fair ways for United Methodists to part ways.
At the other extreme, it is easy to highlight the failures of those who have been elected as officers of the COB by their fellow bishops.
But what about the rest of the bishops?
Especially, what about those bishops who are firmly committed to always remaining United Methodist, but who also claim that they can be trusted to uphold the Discipline and that they are relatively theologically orthodox? When have any of these bishops ever publicly encouraged fellow bishops to implement the Discipline’s new accountability provisions? Between 2016 and 2022, did any of them even privately press for the COB to prepare for its new obligations for greater episcopal accountability? Do they really think that they have no obligation to explain themselves on such matters to the lowly little people of the UMC, beyond essentially telling us, “Just shut up and trust me”?
Such failures of discipline at the highest levels of United Methodist leadership did not happen overnight.
United Methodist bishops’ widespread failures to uphold the Discipline have been building for many years.
One key way is how almost every active United Methodist bishop in America has allowed congregations to disregard the Discipline by publicly identifying themselves as “reconciling congregations,” formally affiliated with the LGBTQIA+ liberationist Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
In October 1998, the UMC ’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, issued Decision #847, ruling that in the UMC, “An Annual Conference may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement (such as, but not limited to, a ‘Confessing Conference,’ ‘Reconciling Conference,’ or ‘Transforming Conference’).”
Then in October 1999, the Judicial Council issued Decision #871, ruling that “the same logic in Decision 847 is applicable to local churches,” now subjecting each local congregation and “any of its organizational units” to the prohibition on “identify[ing] or label[ing] itself as an unofficial body or movement.”
Over the past 14 years, this part of church law could have potentially been reversed by subsequent action of either the Judicial Council or General Conference. But that never happened. On the contrary, in 2011, the Judicial Council issued Memorandum #1200, which re-affirmed both Decisions #847 and #871.
The now-defunct Confessing Movement complied with Decision #871. So did the Transforming Congregations caucus. But RMN, in its crusade to undermine the UMC’s historic, official doctrinal and moral standards, did not. And in their non-compliance, these disobedient liberal congregations found allies in even most relatively conservative bishops.
Of all of the bishops who remain in the UMC, I have only heard of three ever lifting a finger to prevent congregations violating this part of our church law. Only one of these is still active: Bishop Jonathan Holston of South Carolina (where this church law is still not consistently followed).
In carefully checking RMN’s list of local churches identifying and labeling themselves as RMN-affiliated “reconciling congregations,” I see that of the dozens of United Methodist episcopal areas in America, only two—bishop David Graves’s Birmingham-based Alabama-West Florida Conference and Bishop Leonard Fairley’s Louisville Episcopal Area (encompassing most of Kentucky)—now lack any entire congregations (as opposed to Sunday school classes or looser networks) affiliated with RMN. Before giving too much credit to these two bishops, note how Graves also currently oversees the South Georgia Conference (where RMN affiliations are apparently allowed), and when Fairley oversaw the (eastern) North Carolina Conference in 2021 and 2022, that conference had plenty of RMN-affiliated congregations.
For over two decades, the LGBTQIA+ liberationist “reconciling” movement has enjoyed near-universal support of American United Methodist bishops, even those known as conservatives, in violating this part of church law.
Yes, many liberal United Methodist bishops are willing to disregard the Discipline for the sake of their support of this “reconciling” cause.
But why would moderate and even theologically conservative bishops also knowingly refuse to enforce this part of church law? I have yet to see a good explanation, other than a simple lack of courage to do the right thing in the face of political pressure. But the job of bishops is to consistently guard the faith and uphold the discipline of the church—even if other bishops are not and even if some activists may say mean things about them.
As the United Methodist divorce has accelerated, many lay people have felt a rude awakening, wondering why the denomination’s problems were ever allowed to get as bad as they have. Why has the “reconciling” movement—with its any-means-necessary tactics of disrupting denominational meetings and encouraging clergy to betray their own promises to uphold the covenant of the UMC Discipline—been able to grow so strong, to the point of paralyzing the entire denomination? Why is there such doctrinal anarchy, from the pulpits of local churches to the highest levels of denominational leadership? How has the breakdown of church leaders having the integrity to follow their own rules progressed to the point that it is becoming increasingly impossible to uphold some standards of the Discipline, in all but a shrinking minority portion of America?
For all of these, a large part of the answer is: because of the choices of active United Methodist bishops as a whole (not just a few “bad apples”) to enable and/or participate in this breakdown of discipline. And this complicitly includes even bishops who have been known as theologically conservative and who supposedly uphold the Discipline.