A time to lead

By Walter Fenton

episcopal-symbolWhere do our bishops stand on the crisis facing the church today?

Clergy and laity across the social and theological spectrums have shared their ideas for breaking the impasse that now threatens to divide the church. Prominent pastors, theologians and at least one seminary president have proposed thoughtful plans from the center, the right, and the left. Even the Connectional Table has proposed a plan. And people of goodwill, from differing perspectives, have attempted to craft compromises in an effort to gain the assent of a diverse body of General Conference delegates.

We have not, however, heard much of substance from our episcopal leaders on the crisis facing the church. Yes, the Council of Bishops (COB) did issue a statement near the end of their November 2014 meetings in Oklahoma City. They said, “Our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.” And they also reaffirmed their vows “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church” (emphasis added).

At other times the COB has candidly stated the obvious: it is as divided as the church it leads when it comes to the issues of the practice of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of openly gay clergy. Therefore, it simply cannot find the consensus necessary to propose a plan of its own for confronting the crisis. Fair enough, most United Methodists have long ceased expecting a unified COB to substantively address our impasse.

However, what has many United Methodists scratching their heads is the failure of individual bishops or coalitions of them to offer proposals of their own. Or to at least confront the aggressive strategy adopted by progressives after GC2012. Sure, it would be ideal if the COB could speak with one voice, but given the circumstances a lack of consensus should not stymy every effort to provide leadership.

When leadership is lacking, a vacuum is created and bad ideas go unchallenged. For example, the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference, with either the explicit or implicit support of its five bishops, approved a statement saying the UM Church’s teachings on the practice of homosexuality are all in error, and therefore United Methodists should operate as if they do not exist. Many other United Methodists were not surprised by this open defiance of the progressive WJ delegates. And unfortunately, they have also come to expect that Western Jurisdiction bishops – active and retired – will openly endorse the progressive agenda.

What did surprise and disappoint many United Methodists was the failure of a broad coalition of moderate to conservative bishops to issue a robust challenge to this public defiance. Apparently, not even a handful of them could be mustered to sign a joint declaration calling on their Western Jurisdiction colleagues to remain accountable, as they vowed they would be, to the will of General Conference and the long held teachings of the church. To our knowledge, only Indiana Area Bishop Michael Coyner openly criticized the WJ’s actions.

The failure of even a small coalition of bishops to come together to vigorously defend the will of General Conference and to call for the good order of the church has proved particularly regrettable. There is no way of knowing whether a spirited defense of the church’s teachings and a call for good order would have prevented the serial acts of defiance the church has witnessed since 2012, but since no attempt was apparently made, we’ll never know.

Instead, progressive clergy across the connection have answered the WJ’s clarion call to defy the will of General Conference and our Book of Discipline. They have proceeded to regularly violate their own vows and the church’s teachings. And in many cases, either explicitly or implicitly, their bishops have enabled their defiance. One of the most egregious examples of this was Bishop Grant Hagiya’s willingness to sign off on 24-hour suspensions for a district superintendent and two UM clergy. The DS had performed a same-sex wedding for two female pastors in Seattle, Washington.

So still, after repeated acts of defiance, no coalition of moderate to conservative bishops has felt compelled to stand up and say openly to their episcopal colleagues, “Enough is enough! You are threatening the unity of the church by failing to act with integrity regarding your vow, ‘to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.'”

Such a bold, public statement might not accomplish its intended aim, but many rank-and-file United Methodists, here and abroad, would heartily welcome the effort to rally a public defense of the church’s teachings. As it is, many United Methodists are left to wonder what conservative to moderate bishops think about the crisis confronting us. By and large, all they hear are tepid responses about a bishop’s vow to uphold the Discipline.

Consequently, our episcopal leaders should not be surprised if more United Methodists head for the exits following GC2016. Many conservatives can no longer support or remain in a church where its leaders fail to openly and warmly defend its teachings. They broadly understand our polity and so realize necessary changes will not come immediately. But what they do not understand are leaders who fail to robustly champion the church’s teachings and openly call for the good order of the church.

No one likes the mess we are in, and in truth, no one wants another failed General Conference where the debate over the practice of homosexuality consumes all the air at the gathering. However, many GC delegates refuse to be bullied and driven into accepting teachings and practices they cannot in good conscience endorse, especially by clergy and bishops who openly defy the will of General Conference.

The bishops may not like that it’s come to this, but leaders rarely get to pick their battles. Furthermore, their failure to vigorously and openly address matters earlier has brought us to this crisis. “Deep listening,” “bridge-building,” and trying to find “the radical center” are all well and good, but sometimes leaders need to lead.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.     

Comments

  1. Our Bishops are apostate. Our agencies are apostate. Our seminaries are apostate. There are definitely remaining pockets of orthodoxy, but they are the minority and hold little sway against the onslaught of apostasy.

    There are still many orthodox clergy and laity, but the bureaucracy itself has abandoned orthodoxy, denying the doctrines of the faith in exchange for “new understandings” based on personal redefinitions of every single term in the Christian vocabulary (sin, resurrection, God, heaven, atonement, repentance, etc.). We are two camps with absolutely nothing in common except a common polity.

    Expecting an apostate organization to hold itself accountable and enforce discipline based on orthodox Christian beliefs is lunacy. Let’s not fool ourselves: The major problem is rank unbelief. Those who claim to “believe” Christian doctrine only by redefining the natural meaning of every single term are, in reality, simply unbelievers. They can play all the semantic games they want, and even claim doctrinal kinship with other apostate theologians, yet they are still unbelievers. Expecting unbelievers to care about the things of God is unreasonable.

    The Bible is crystal clear about what we should and must do about apostasy within the church. Do we have the faith and courage to do what we know must be done?

  2. Jane L. Bonner says

    Christlike leadership requires commitment to the Body of ‘Christ. I regret to say that the Bishops who should be sacrificially and honestly defending the Flock have instead been neglecting the spiritual health of their sheep for the pursuit of institutional preservation. People speak of the “guaranteed appointment” and the usual need for structural hierarchy. Do they realize that many of the laity, even in the continental Unites States, do not even have pensions or vacations? Those on boards, agencies and committees who have by political maneuvering gained control of the agenda show little concern for the love of Christ held by the lay members in the pews. Agencies’ dedication is sometimes for their goal of social engineering rather than to the ages old traditions of the Church revealed in its biblical doctrines. When will a group of “faithful” Bishops speak apart from the college and give us hope for a better day and for something entitled the “Discipline” to be obeyed, not twisted, mocked, or ignored completely?

  3. Licensed Local Pastor says

    The bureaucracy that is the Council of Bishop’s proves the statement that once a bureaucracy is created it’s sole purpose is to perpetuate it’s own survival at all costs. Instead of leaders who are committed to “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World.” we have politicians and people who take away from the authority of scripture in order to be more appealing to the world in general. The Bishop’s lack of resolve shows their lack of commitment to standing firm for what they said they would uphold. The Council of Bishop’s has become an exclusive club that exists only to serve it’s own membership and nothing else.

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