Thursday, June 2, 2016

William Payne: Historical perspectives on the United Methodist bishopric

What is a United Methodist bishop? The idea continues to evolve in United Methodism. In early American Methodism, the use of the term “bishop” 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!”

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.[1] 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.

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. Obviously, United Methodism does not claim “apostolic succession” in the same way as Anglicanism or Catholicism since it takes a bishop to make a bishop. Methodism is apostolic in terms of its doctrines and practices.

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 came to a head in the ill-fated Council in 1791, was a primary reason for James O’Kelly’s defection in 1792, contributed to the huge numerical decline in southern Methodism in the 1790’s, and 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 southern 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 general overseers. 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 that 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.

[1] Coke thought that American Methodism would become a national Episcopal church and he would be its head bishop. When that did not work out, he tried to cut a deal with Bishop White of the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church to unite the MEC to it so he could become a "real" bishop.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very necessary overview, and conclusion. Given that the recent General Conference chose to vest in the Bishops a measure of agency in leadership previously unseen a clearer understanding of their role is necessary. This is also true as the United Methodist Church becomes more global. Different cultures will vest different degrees of power and expectation in the one who holds the title of Bishop. Clarity can only help in both ecumenical relations and in maintaining consistency in a global church. It is noteworthy that while the General Conference has become a kind of church council, it is one in which the Bishops' role is nothing like that of Catholic and Orthodox councils, which are essentially councils of bishops. Basically we have no well defined understanding of how the authority of the General Conference to determine matters of doctrine relates to the wider and longer Christian tradition, and in particular the ecumenical councils out of which emerged our creeds. Whether and how Bishops play a role is critical as key decisions are made going forward.