Last week, I wrote a piece looking at the paradoxical way in which United Methodist polity both sets up bishops as the de facto respondents on behalf of the denomination to pressing political and social issues while at the same time asserting that bishops are not officially speaking for the church in so doing. This week, I'd like to connect those observations to some current proposals in the denomination regarding United Methodist bishops.
The first of these is a proposed "covenant of accountability" that the Council of Bishops will consider adopting for themselves when they meet in May just before General Conference. While the issue of episcopal accountability has been precipitated by divisions over homosexuality, as this UMNS story notes, the questions of accountability can also be interpreted more broadly to include issues such as congregational vitality and the denominational decline we are seeing in many social locations.
The second proposal is a variety of legislative items that would implement term limits for United Methodist bishops in the United States. Part of the motive behind the legislation is that policies on episcopal term limits vary between the US and Central Conferences (though the legislation would still leave variety among the Central Conferences). As this UMNS story makes clear, though, the major motivation behind introducing such term limits is accountability for bishops.
These two proposals to increase episcopal accountability (to each other and to conferences) thus reflect another tension within United Methodist polity. On the one hand, we need bishops to exert leadership in the time between the occasional meetings of the Council of Bishops and between the even less frequent meetings of General Conference. As any business or church trend news article will tell you, the world is changing at an ever faster pace, which makes this sort of episcopal leadership in the interim periods even more important. On the other hand, the denomination is also seeking to make bishops more accountable to these occasionally-meeting bodies.
Hence, the UMC is asking for both more action and more accountability by its bishops. This isn't necessarily a contradiction, just a tension. Nor does this tension necessarily make the covenant of accountability or episcopal term limits a bad idea. I'm not trying to comment on the worth of those proposals. What I am suggesting is that the denomination would benefit from some deep theological and organizational reflection on the rights, responsibilities, and roles of bishops and how those relate to the rights, responsibilities, and roles of other loci of power in the denomination.