Thursday, May 19, 2016

Recommended readings: Bishops at GC2016

While the story of the UMC's General Conference 2016 is being told as a story about debates over sexuality (which it is), looked at another way, this General Conference has been all about bishops and their role in leading the church, as the following recommended readings indicate.

The bishops have been at the center of the drama of the debate over sexuality. After rumors surfaced of a possible denominational schism, they issued a call for unity Tuesday morning, though they recognized that they were not of one mind themselves. The conference responded by calling on the Council of Bishops to present a plan for moving forward in light of intractable disagreements over sexuality. The bishops answered by recommending the formation of a study committee, tabling all sexuality-related legislation for this General Conference, and possibly calling a special General Conference to discuss the committee's recommendations. After contentious debate, General Conference narrowly approved the bishops' plan.

While this drama has taken up most of the attention, it has not been the only episcopal development at this General Conference. Also related primarily to the issue of sexuality, but occurring before the events described above, the Council of Bishops affirmed "A Covenant of Accountability."

This General Conference has seen debate over episcopal term limits as well, which were ultimately voted down.

Moreover, General Conference approved five new bishops for Africa, all starting in 2020, deciding against an amendment to add two immediately.

Bishops have also been trying to lead the conference and the denomination in prayer.

While much has been and will be written in the coming days about what this week's decisions mean for the denomination's stance on sexuality, the denomination would also do well to reflect on what this conference's events mean for our ecclesiology of the episcopacy, and how our historical ecclesiological understandings of the episcopacy can help us think through how to continue to faithfully work together to build the future of The United Methodist Church.


  1. Part 1 What is a United Methodist bishop? The idea continues to evolve in United Methodism. In early American Methodism, the use of the term caused great distress. Thomas Coke told the Christmas Conference that he and Asbury were de facto bishops because they functioned like bishops in their ministry. Wesley strongly argued against this innovation. He called them general superintendents. Even though Wesley argued that he was a “Scriptural Episcopus,” he never called himself a bishop. In fact, he rejected the term for himself and Methodism. Wesley writes, “How dare you suffer yourself to called bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me Bishop! For my sake, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake put a full end to this!” Obviously, United Methodism does not claim “apostolic succession” in the same way as Anglicanism since it takes a bishop to make a bishop. Methodism is apostolic in terms of its doctrines and practices.
    How did we get bishops? Simply stated, Coke wanted to become a bishop. Under the influence of Coke, the American conference voted to form itself into an "episcopal" church. In common parlance, the term "episcopal" implies "bishop." According to the Minutes, “Therefore, at this conference we formed ourselves into an Independent Church: and following the counsel of Mr. John Wesley, who recommended the Episcopal mode of government, we thought it best to become an Episcopal church, making the episcopal office elective, and the elected superintendent or bishop, amenable to the body of ministers and preachers.”
    However, the above quote came as a result of a later redaction because the 1785 Discipline does not use the term bishop. In the founding documents that Wesley sent to America, he purposely substituted "superintendent" for the office of bishop and elder for the office of priest. The Christmas Conference followed Wesley's guidance at this point. Wesley’s letter calls Coke and Asbury joint superintendents over our brethren in North America. Coke arrogated the title bishop and Asbury consented to its use.

  2. Part 2 While revising the 1787 Discipline, Coke and Asbury changed the word “superintendent” to bishop in Section IV “On the Constituting of Bishops and their Duty.” According to Jesse Lee’s history, Asbury and Coke did not have approval to change the Discipline or to call themselves bishops. In fact, in terms of the Anglican and Roman Catholic use of the world, they were not bishops.
    The issue of the identity and power of the episcopacy was most strongly argued in the South and southern frontier. The conversation paralleled a national debate that argued about the role of government and the power of rulers. It was the primary cause for James O'Kelly's defection in 1792, and it contributed to the huge decline in southern Methodism in the 1790s. It became a cutting question that caused schisms and determined many future disputes.
    Was the general superintendent a constitutional monarch or a president who ruled with the consent of the people? Asbury fought for a strong episcopacy. He believed that he walked in the stead of Wesley and needed episcopal authority to carry out the mission of the church. Asbury had a national vision for the MEC. The young church needed a strong leader to guide it and deploy its resources in an effective way so that it could evangelize the nation. In an attempt to do that, he personified the highest ideals of a Methodist circuit rider.
    Those who argued against Asbury reflected an emphasis on personal choice and a localized vision for the church in which the authority was vested in the conference with lay representatives. They believed that the conference walked in the stead of Wesley. Issues related to the stationing of the preachers, the ownership of chapels, shared decision-making power in a general conference, and elected presiding elders were heralded by these people. After fighting a revolutionary war with a monarch who abused his powers, many American Methodists were cautious about yielding to an ecclesial autocratic. Their attitudes represented the republican mindset.
    The issue continued to be debated by church reformers. With the exception of the African American churches, break away Methodist churches all rejected the term bishop. In fact, even in United Methodism, a bishop is an elder consecrated to a special ministry. Elder is the primary category. Bishops function as general superintendents. They are not ordained bishops. When they retire or cease to function in that capacity, they cease to be functional bishops. As such, retired bishops should revert back to an annual conference and cease to have the power and authority of a bishop. In fact, this is the way it is in Africa and in many of the autonomous conferences in Latin America.
    Where should we go from here? The UMC needs to authorize a commission to study the episcopacy in United Methodism. What is it and what should it do? Recommendations should be forwarded to the General Conference.