Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Latest Developments in UMC Episcopal Accountability

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

This blog recently addressed issues around episcopal accountability that are pending for General Conference. It has also previously reported on financial accusations against East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula. Those accusations have become part of a long, on-going struggle between Wandabula, other African bishops, various general agencies, American annual conferences, and elders in the annual conferences Wandabula oversees.

The latest development in this story relates to three Ugandan United Methodists who claim Wandabula has legally persecuted them for bringing to light financial misdeeds. Wandabula, on the other hand, has accused the three of blackmail. The three (Rev. John Kiviiri, Joseph Kanyike, and Joshua Buule) are now calling on General Conference to adopt new legislation on episcopal accountability to deal with cases such as Wandabula's, as reported in this recent UMNS story.

As this blog has previously argued, the Wandabula case represents a surprising point of convergence between American United Methodists' concerns about episcopal accountability related to gay marriage and gay ordination and Africans' concerns about accountability related to finances. (African bishops have made it clear that they firmly oppose gay marriage, so there are no concerns about holding African bishops accountable to the Discipline in this regard.)

United Methodists from different parts of the world might agree that accountability is a good thing (for bishops and perhaps for others as well) without agreeing what accountability means. Different understandings or different applications of accountability are not necessarily problematic, but they can produce problems or unintended consequences in application if multiple parties agree to principles with different understandings of what they mean. This is a classic problem in public policy.

There are several solutions to such a problem: Consult a range of people when devising policies. Communicate and listen to ensure all parties are on the same page (this is harder across languages and cultures). Be specific in policies. Don't devise broad procedures to solve particular issues. There are always temptations to ignore these guidelines in a democratic system such as the UMC's General Conference because it's easier to get majority buy-in to vague or broadly-worded policies. Such strategies, though, are myopic and likely to lead to long-term implementation problems.

Ultimately, it's important for America United Methodists to remember that episcopal accountability can have more than one meaning. It's important to think beyond just the debate over homosexuality and consider broader implications of any new episcopal policies adopted.

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