By Thomas Lambrecht —
With the recent election of thirteen new bishops, the active Council of Bishops will be made up of one-third new members on January 1, 2023. As such, they will play a powerful role in setting the direction of The United Methodist Church into the future. What do their election and the other actions of the jurisdictional conferences tell us about what that direction might be? This article is the first of two surveying that question.
According to news reports, this group of elected bishops represents several “firsts,” recognizing the expanding ethnic diversity of the Council of Bishops. David Wilson is the first Native American bishop in the UM Church. Carlo A. Rapanut is the first Filipino American bishop. Hector A. Burgos-Nuñez is the first Hispanic/Latino bishop in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. Delores “Dee” Williamston is the first Black woman bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth is the first openly gay Black male bishop. (Karen Oliveto was the first openly gay female bishop, elected in 2016.)
The diversity, however, did not extend to electing one single theological traditionalist or conservative bishop.
Expanding the “Big Tent” Leftward
The theological diversity of the newly elected bishops seems to run only in a more progressive direction. For example, all 13 bishops favor changing the language of the Book of Discipline’s definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They would endorse the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian pastors and support the ability of pastors to perform same-sex weddings.
In other words, the entire slate of new bishops made it clear that they reject the United Methodist consensus on marriage and sexuality for the past 40 years of Christian “conferencing” at General Conference – including the 2019 gathering in St. Louis that was supposed to resolve our dispute.
However, the most eye-opening theological expansion was the statement by Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, from the North Central Jurisdiction, who was the first of the 13 elected. In a mystifying answer to a question during her candidacy interviews, she stated, “It is not important that we agree on who Christ is. … God became flesh, but not particular flesh. There’s no particularity around that. God became incarnate in a culture, but not one culture. There is mystery and wideness and openness and diversity in who Christ is and who God is, so that every living human being has a way to touch God, to connect with God, to have a relationship with God in Christ.”
This picture brings to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which originated in India centuries before Christ. In the parable, seven blind men who have never seen an elephant touch different parts of the elephant’s body (leg, tail, side, tusk) and come away with very different understandings of what an elephant is like. It seems like Bigham-Tsai is saying that Jesus Christ is different things to different people, so that each person has a way of connecting with Jesus.
It is true that Jesus meets each of us where we are in a way that opens our ability to receive him as our Savior and Lord. That is the essence of prevenient grace. However, the radical pessimism about our ability to have a unified understanding of Jesus’ basic identity is unwarranted and contrary to an orthodox understanding of Christianity.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). Jesus blessed Peter for his understanding that had been revealed to him by the Father, thus affirming Peter’s statement. We ought to be able at least to have a common understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son.
Our United Methodist doctrinal standards go into much greater detail about who Jesus is.
The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men (Articles of Religion, Article II).
Is Bigham-Tsai really saying that it is not important for United Methodists to agree with our doctrinal standards’ shared understanding of who Jesus is?
Given Article II’s statements, it is difficult to understand how a United Methodist bishop could state that God was not incarnate in “particular flesh.” How can it be said that “God became incarnate in a culture, but not one culture?” God was born of a virgin Jewish mother in Bethlehem at a known historical time. He lived and died as a practicing, devout Jew. His message and his life were in continuity with the Jewish Old Testament and in fulfillment of it. All of this took place within one person in one particular culture.
Yes, Jesus has relevance to every person and every culture, but God’s presence was made manifest in the particularity of one person and one culture. Without that bedrock understanding, we have no historical basis for interpreting the “Christ event” or its application to our own lives and culture.
Bigham-Tsai’s statements illustrate very well what is meant by the “big tent” approach to United Methodism. It gives the impression that United Methodist leaders do not view the doctrinal standards as actual standards, but suggestions or guidelines, to be disregarded whenever they do not “make sense” or are judged to be not helpful.
The Book of Discipline is very specific about the role of a bishop:
To lead and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of The United Methodist Church which confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and particularly to lead the Church in its mission of witness and service in the world. … To guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically.
By its very nature, this “big tent” excludes traditionalists who believe there are certain doctrinal propositions that are essential to Christianity. We believe the faith defined in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Without these doctrinal understandings, we do not have Christianity, but some other religion loosely based on Christianity.
Delegates at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference were aware of these doctrinal questions regarding Bigham-Tsai, yet elected her the first bishop in this year’s class. That can be viewed either as an indifference to doctrine or the adoption of a doctrine-less United Methodism. In any case, it speaks volumes about the theological direction of the future United Methodist Church.
To great fanfare, the Western Jurisdiction elected a gay man who recently married his male partner. This election carries on the precedent the same jurisdiction set by electing Karen Oliveto as bishop in 2016, who is married to another woman. Cedric Bridgeforth was elected even though the Judicial Council ruled that Oliveto’s consecration was contrary to church law and that her standing as a clergyperson must be brought up for judicial review (it never was).
Additionally, the Northeastern Jurisdiction came close to electing as bishop another gay man married to his male partner, Jay Williams. At one point, Williams was within 20 votes of having enough to be elected.
It appears that, for many delegates, the requirements of the Discipline are to be disregarded when they do not line up with one’s ideological commitments. One episcopal candidate made the comment that change comes from the bottom up, and that rules are often disregarded by the grass roots before they are changed formally by the legislative body.
The expanded disobedience is also seen in the fact that all five jurisdictions passed a resolution that affirms a moratorium on complaints surrounding sexual orientation, discourages pursuing complaints against clergy around their sexual activity or against pastors who officiate LGBTQIA+ weddings, and supports the election of bishops who uphold these aspirations.
Questions of law were asked in at least two of the jurisdictions hoping the Judicial Council will declare the resolution null and void because it encourages disobedience to the Discipline. No matter what the Judicial Council rules, the resolution indicates the overwhelming sentiment of U.S. delegates, as well as their disregard for what the General Conference has enacted in the Discipline. (The text of this resolution and two other important ones may be read at the Northeastern Jurisdiction Conference report, starting on page 25.)
In the next Perspective, we will project the implications the jurisdictional conferences have for the future of United Methodism and the role of traditionalists.