In our early morning Western Pennsylvania delegation meeting today, Vicki Stahlman led us in a time of prayer and reflection. Vicki spoke to us about the servant leadership of Jesus and invited us to remember the servant leaders whose leadership has blessed us over the course of our lives. I immediately thought about my dad, who died in 2011, whose birthday is today, whose presence I dearly miss, and whose spirit of servanthood nurtured me in a thousand different ways.
Just before morning worship in plenary, we recognized and welcomed several ecumenical guests (guests from other Christian denominations) who have graciously been present with us for part of our conference. The presence of these leaders from other faith traditions is a tangible reminder to us that United Methodism is but one part of the body of Christ.
In our morning worship, Bishop Ivan Abrahams (General Secretary of the World Methodist Council) preached a multi-layered and richly prophetic sermon about the subversive and countercultural nature of God’s kingdom: “God’s kingdom stood opposed to all the other kingdoms,” Bishop Abrahams declared, “including the kingdom of Caesar. The early church dared to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that his Lordship demands the loyalty and full subordination of all those who will allow that Lordship to hold authority over their lives.” The Bishop then challenged us to be perpetually mindful of the difference between the Jesus of Caesar/Constantine and the Jesus of Palestine: “We need to be wary of empire, because it seeks a loyalty than only belongs to Jesus of Palestine—not Jesus of Caesar or Jesus of Constantine. To follow the Jesus of Constantine is to be seduced by the political power of the day and comfortably settled in the status quo…To follow the Jesus of Palestine is to become a counterculture to the world that seeks to own us.”
I was profoundly moved by this morning’s celebration of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, the 200-year history of which brightly illuminates God’s ability to overcome the sin of racism with a creative and redemptive grace that leads to new possibilities and new expressions of the kingdom. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is now 3,000,000 members strong with 7,000 congregations in 40 countries. As Bishop Gregory Palmer phrased it in this morning’s celebration, “We are blessed because of who you are, our sister church, and we recognize and celebrate that we are part of the Methodist family with you.”
We did important legislative work today at General Conference. Among other actions, we addressed legislation that called for a limited tenure for our bishops. (The petition received majority support from the delegates, but not the necessary two-thirds majority required for constitutional change.) We also approved legislation that makes it possible for ordained Deacons to be authorized by their bishops to preside at the celebration of the sacraments in their places of ministry during times of sacramental urgency and need.
At the heart of today’s proceedings was a brief statement by Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, related to the divisions in the church over human sexuality and Biblical authority. Bishop Ough, with a tone of quiet resolve, acknowledged the “collective broken heart” in our denomination. He further acknowledged that the situation is made even more complicated because the bishops themselves “are not united on these issues.” Bishop Ough’s statement concluded with a call for unity and a declaration that the bishops “are NOT advancing or advocating any plan for separation or reorganizing the denomination.”
For many of us, myself included, the Bishop’s statement felt like the well-intentioned offering of an over-the-counter salve to a patient with a sucking chest wound—a frustrating missed opportunity to cast new vision and breathe new life into a church that cannot currently see the way forward. I love our bishops, and I am grateful for their faithful ministry in our midst. This morning’s episcopal statement, however, left me feeling as though the Council of Bishops had backed away from a crucial opportunity to lead with creativity and boldness. (In our bishops’ defense, however, how fair is it for delegates to expect them to lead with boldness while at the same time entertaining legislation that limits their tenure? It’s tantamount to saying “Lead…but only for a little while, and only in a way that makes us cheerfully comfortable.” Such legislation reflects a lack of confidence in our bishops that is hardly conducive to the generation of visionary episcopal leadership.)
Interestingly, later in the day, a General Conference delegate, not content with Bishop Ough’s statement, rose to request more intentional and proactive leadership from our bishops, including the articulation of a clear vision for how a divided church might be able to move forward. Said the delegate, “A call for unity without a clear path toward it will never get us there.” His sentiments were affirmed by the majority of the delegates.
It was quite a significant moment, and I wish all of you could have been there: The General Conference, pleading with the church’s bishops to cast a vision that might help us to find our way through our brokenness. We shall see what comes of this in the days ahead. A plan for amicable separation? A plan for restructuring that permits both conservatives and liberal/progressives to find their place in the denomination in a way that prevents them from compromising their convictions? A special called session of the General Conference in the next couple of years to clarify and interpret the plan? Some other option? Time will tell. The only thing that’s clear at this point is that status quo is no longer sustainable.
A final word about the day, and it is a sincerely positive word: I was really proud of Bishop Thomas Bickerton, our episcopal leader in Western Pennsylvania, who presided at one of our legislative sessions this morning. The leadership that Bishop Bickerton offered today was gracious, comprehensively attentive, and wonderfully competent. General Conference delegates in a fractured church are an exceedingly tough crowd, and Bishop Bickerton led and loved us with great care. His ministry today was a highlight for which I was abundantly grateful, and Western Pennsylvania’s United Methodists would have been greatly pleased with the manner in which their Bishop presided.