Monday, July 11, 2011

Bishops all in a row

With respect due the United Methodist council of bishops, the Call to Action report, and the perceived need for a "set-aside bishop", I am not convinced the UMC should strive to emulate the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, or the Disciples of Christ who are essentially in the same boat as American United Methodists in declining membership. Centralized leadership sounds appealing (and it seems to work for the Roman Catholics), but it will not work for the UMC until the General Conference and all United Methodists put the focus of the United Methodist Church back where it belongs: being spiritual servants of the Lord our God "in the world" (the real "main thing") and not political advisors with spiritual undertones "of the world".

The United Methodist Church as well as our fellow Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Christian Church disciples seem more intent on finding a place at the political banquet table than at the eschatological banquet table of the Bridegroom of the Church, and the unbelieving world is clearly not responding to this. Because political winds shift according to the fickle standards of humanity and the Church seems more interested in trying to keep up with pop culture, the "unchurched" (as perhaps also many of the faithful) may be paying more attention to the hierarchy than we give them credit for and are choosing to stay away from the Church, any church, which is being led desperately to "fit in" and be "popular". One cannot find integrity or credibility, let alone spiritual stability, in such an organization that will turn its back on its past and freely surrender its moral authority simply because the world might not like us. It is fair to ask why anyone in his or her right mind would even sign up for such chaos in the Church when the world offers it free of charge and still allows one to sleep in on Sunday morning!

I see the role of this proposed "set-aside bishop" as problematic from the outset if this bishop will not be granted some level of authority by and accountability to the General Conference, but I also see potential problems if this bishop's role is reduced to a political, rather than a theological, role as I suspect it will just as the General Conference has. If the role envisioned for this bishop is more interested in building consensus (what is most popular or political expedient) rather than upholding and defending the integrity of the Discipline of the Church and the will of the General Conference according to what is written, recognized, and embraced as "scriptural" authority (the Bible), we are only adding another layer to the political hierarchy to no discernable spiritual end.

How will a set-aside bishop keep the worldwide UMC honest and focused if bishops of an episcopal area cannot keep pastors within their charges honest and spiritually connected to the Holy Scripture, our true and unflinching Authority that is not subject to popular vote? The recent case in Wisconsin is an excellent case in point. That elder got a 20-day suspension for her flagrant disregard for church law, as attested by her personal guarantee that it will happen again if the opportunity presents itself. Yet another pastor in Virginia a few years back appropriately exercised the authority granted to him by the Discipline and, without the benefit of a trial, was removed from his pastorate and placed on involuntary leave by his bishop. It was not until the Judicial Council ruled in favor of what is written that this pastor was restored. Will a set-aside bishop be honest and forthright according to the Book of Discipline within the context of the Holy Scripture which gives the Discipline its authority in the first place, or will he or she be at breakfast in the White House?

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie had this to say of this proposed position: "Let's focus on the main thing here, the need and purpose of the set-aside bishop and then let the other pieces arrange themselves around that." I would think the role must first be clearly defined before we can begin to "focus on the main thing"; and "other pieces" will not simply "arrange themselves". It will be necessary to define the role and what is envisioned for that role before we can clarify and justify "the need and purpose" of a set-aside bishop. We must "arrange the pieces" ourselves.

I do not suggest such a position is not needed or cannot be useful, but the role and its intent must be clearly spelled out for the Kingdom; not the country nor even the world. The person occupying this position must not be allowed to strike out independently, and there must be standards of accountability and the legal means to uphold these standards. It is bad enough that individual, renegade pastors (as the many retired bishops recently did) get all the secular press to the point that the unbelieving world comes to believe these people and their personal opinions are a genuine reflection of the United Methodist Church. We do not need an "official" spokesperson adding fuel to that fire.

The unbelieving world does not need lessons in social politics nor are they quite prepared for orthodox, dogmatic religion. They need the Gospel. They need Christ, for it is this Lord alone who shows the way to the Holy God - not to the state legislatures or the US Congress. They need life, and "life in abundance", which comes only from embracing and believing the Gospel. The world needs to be called to "repentance", and right now the Roman Catholic pope is the only world-wide church leader with the courage to say so. Will we be so courageous? Will this "set-aside" bishop be unafraid to publicly speak the "R" word? Will this person be prepared and willing to be held to a standard that does not - and will not - change? Or will this person be only willing to go along in order to get along? Will this person even be fully aware of what "the main thing" really is, or will this person step into the position believing the position alone really was the “main thing” all along?

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