By Rob Renfroe
Thirty-six retired United Methodist bishops have now signed on to a public statement calling for the denomination to drop its belief that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Furthermore, they have called for the ordination and appointment of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.
Well, it doesn’t happen often but I don’t know how to respond the statement from the retired bishops. My problem has to do with where to begin.
Commenting on their hubris might be the proper starting point. Imagine the level of self-importance required for thirty-six denominational leaders who oversaw the loss of some three million members to imagine that persons in the pew have been eagerly awaiting their trumpet blast to turn the tables on 2,000 years of Christian sexual ethics. Most observers view the last generation of bishops as emblematic of the ineffective and failed leadership that led to the sad decline of the UM Church. In all honesty, people in the pews view this class of retired bishops more as problematic voices of a (hopefully) bygone era, not as a guide for a more effective future.
Furthermore, it is understandable that people in the pews are skeptical of “leaders” who suddenly discover a moral voice only after they face no personal or professional consequences in retirement. Moral authority is more legitimately valued when leaders take public stands while it is costly to do so. Latter day bravery is rarely considered a profile in courage. Though some had spoken out publicly on this issue, most had not.
Is it possible that those signing the statement fail to appreciate that the world has changed? As the people in the pews are keenly aware, we no longer live in a top-down world where those in high positions (or who once were) make pronouncements from on high and that the masses will get in line and follow? We live in a time where change and new ideas and movements bubble from the bottom up, not vice versa. If the defeat of the proposed amendments from the past General Conference taught us nothing else, all of us should have learned that change does not occur because we are told what’s good for us by those “above” us.
Ironically, this statement provides no Scriptural basis for changing United Methodism’s widely-debated position. Nor does it make any appeal to church tradition. It doesn’t even reference reason or experience. It offers no new insights, no appeal to our best thinking, no insightful exegetical work. It is solely an empty pronouncement. You would hope that those who have been entrusted with the highest office in the church would respect the minds and the theological integrity of those they are trying to change.
Expectations. As the president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Larry Goodpaster issued a statement to assure United Methodists that the council was “committed to living within the covenant defined by our Book of Discipline” and he also called for “thoughtful, prayerful dialogue about sensitive and challenging issues….We call this holy conferencing.”
Bishop Goodpaster’s assurance that the Council of Bishops is committed to living within the covenant defined by our Book of Discipline is comforting. However, what the people in the pews want to know is not that our Episcopal leaders will live with our present statement; we want to know that they believe in our position, will defend it and promote it for what it is—a balanced, biblical and gracious offer of sexual wholeness to a broken world.
Every single General Conference debates and discusses the issue. And every single General Conference arrives at the same conclusion. It is the consensus of the United Methodist Church, representing the outgrowth of prayer and holy conferencing.
It is perplexing that there has never been a concerted effort by any group of bishops to defend and promote our well-thought out and scriptural view on the most controversial issue before the church. The only organized episcopal voices we ever hear come from those bishops who would overturn the church’s position—bishops who themselves once would have agreed to live “within the covenant defined by our Book of Discipline.”
The United Methodist Church is crying out for spiritual leaders who will defend the church’s traditional beliefs. And if those who would change our positions do so in an organized way, it is time for our episcopal leaders who believe in the historic position of the Church and the current position of the United Methodist Church to do the same.
Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.