Bishop challenges the West

We United Methodists who are orthodox in our beliefs have often bemoaned that the episcopal voices we most frequently hear are the ones that least represent the teachings of the church. And we have wondered why so few bishops are willing to promote or even defend the church’s position on controversial theological and social issues.

A rather remarkable event occurred this past month. A bishop spoke out against the wrong-headed, schismatic actions of the Western Jurisdiction (WJ). Bishop Mike Coyner of Indiana publicly critiqued a statement adopted by the Western Jurisdiction which declared that the official UM position regarding the practice of homosexuality is in error. The same WJ statement also urged clergy and congregations to disregard the part of the Book of Discipline that affirms sexual relations only within heterosexual marriage and declares the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.

In particular, Bishop Coyner countered the Western Jurisdiction’s statement for:

1. its “neo-colonialism” that arrogantly dismisses the beliefs and insights of a global church;

2. its claim to represent Dr. King’s legacy of civil disobedience when it makes no mention of bearing the consequences for disobedient actions; and

3. the self-righteous nature of its statement that offers no way forward for a divided church – not even ideas about how to continue a conversation regarding our disagreements.

In critiquing the Western Jurisdiction’s action, Bishop Coyner strives to balance his criticism of what he believes to be a harmful statement with his commitment to honoring brothers and sisters in Christ with whom he differs. Some may think he went too far in one direction or the other. But what all orthodox United Methodists should be shouting from the rooftops is, “Thank you. Finally, a bishop is speaking out publicly, thoughtfully, and in a way that undercuts the progressives’ constant refrain that theirs is the moral high ground.” If other bishops had spoken so clearly and publicly in the past, we might not be in the place we are now.

When Good News has been critical of the Western Jurisdiction, the question has come: “Why bother? The Western Jurisdiction is declining so quickly and making itself so irrelevant to the rest of the church that the best response is to ignore its pretentious self-importance.”

I understand that point of view. The membership of the entire WJ has dwindled to the point that it now possesses 20,000 fewer members than a single Annual Conference – North Georgia. In fact, its membership represents less than five percent of United Methodists in the United States. And the UM Church is declining nowhere as rapidly as it is in the West.

So, why bother? Because the church is a body and that means as long as there is a United Methodist Church we are the people of God together. And when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. And when one part of the body is in error, it should concern us all.

And there is another reason – and that is the reactions of the bishops representing the Western Jurisdiction. Though predictable, the public responses of Bishops Minerva Carcaño and Robert Hoshibata are instructive.

Bishop Carcaño, now over the California-Pacific Annual Conference, faulted Bishop Coyner’s use of the word “neo-colonialism.” Bishop Carcaño stated that the actions of the Western Jurisdiction did not merit such a description and that the use of such a term only added “to the barriers that we continue to erect among ourselves that do not allow us to have the conversation we need to have …”

You will recall that Bishop Carcaño wrote after this spring’s General Conference that she wondered when our African brothers and sisters would “grow up” and do their own thinking about the issue of sexuality. Funny how she now worries about the use of language and its ability to stop a conversation, but we are still waiting for her apology for demeaning an entire continent of believers as intellectual juveniles.

In her response, Bishop Carcaño made the same unhelpful charge that is a standard canard of progressives. She charged: “We have spoken and lived in contradictory ways; we have said that persons of homosexual orientation are of sacred worth but not worthy of fully being a part of the church.”

Does Bishop Carcaño not know the official UM position, or is she purposefully choosing to misrepresent it? The United Methodist Church does not discriminate against anyone because of his or her sexual orientation. Those with a homosexual orientation can be received as a member and even be a pastor of a UM congregation. No one is kept from being a full member of the church because of same sex attraction. Our position focuses, as it should, on behavior. And we rightly have behavioral expectations of our members in general, and of our ordained clergy, in particular.

What does not help a conversation is the misrepresentation of the other side, regardless of whether it is done purposefully to score points or through a carelessness that represents a cavalier attitude toward a matter that should be treated with great care.

Bishop Hoshibata of the Desert-Southwest Conference is also defiant in his defense of the statement, arguing that “what we taught centuries ago and called it the Gospel of Jesus Christ has changed with the world and with culture.” One could understand if the Bishop had said, “what we taught years ago has changed as we have better understood the Scriptures.” We could agree if he had said, “In the past the church has been too influenced by its culture, and sadly, its teaching has sometimes reflected its cultural environment more than the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But that’s not what he said. His response did not indicate that what should change our thinking is a better understanding of biblical revelation, but a need to keep in step with the world. Perhaps Bishop Hoshibata did not state what he actually believes correctly.  But he certainly leaves himself open to the question: “Do you believe that the Gospel is meant to change the world, or do you believe that the world should change the Gospel we proclaim?” That’s not an attempt to score points on what may have been a poorly stated response by the Bishop. It is a real concern. We have witnessed progressives continually refashion the teachings of Scripture to be palatable to a secular, relativistic, and hyper-sexualized culture. And if they believe they have the freedom to do so and if they feel that they must do so to remain relevant to a lost and decadent western culture, they need to tell the rest of us very plainly that such is the case. And we will need to state just as clearly that if that’s the journey they are on, we will not be able to travel there with them.

It is difficult to understand how a productive conversation can be held when one side believes that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God, authoritative in all they teach, and some on the other side believe that the church should look to a fallen culture to learn the mind of God and what the Holy Spirit is doing.

Why respond to the Western Jurisdiction’s statement and to Bishops Carcaño and Hoshibata? Not primarily because we differ about the practice of homosexuality, but because we differ about the authority and the continuing relevance of the Bible.

Bishop Coyner’s thoughtful, well-intentioned remarks have begun a conversation. And we are grateful for that. The question is how, with two sides that view the Scriptures so differently, can we have a conversation that is productive and healing. One of our Jurisdictions would do the rest of the church a service by passing a statement created to bring us together rather than push us further apart.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

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