Wednesday, March 9, 2022

What now? Episcopal elections

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the first in a series examining issues in The United Methodist Church following the further postponement of General Conference to 2024. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Much remains unknown in the wake of last week’s announcement that General Conference would again be postponed until 2024. Among the outstanding questions is whether new episcopal leadership will be elected for the church before General Conference meets in 2024. After previous postponements, the church’s bishops said that they would not hold new episcopal elections before what was, at that time, a planned General Conference in 2022.

Now that General Conference has been further delayed, it remains to be seen whether the bishops will revisit the decision to wait until after the next General Conference to hold elections. Some in the church believe that the denomination’s Book of Discipline does not allow for episcopal elections except following a General Conference, though others disagree.

Progressive United Methodists in the United States have been focused on electing new bishops for the US jurisdictions. 11 US United Methodist bishops have retired or taken on other assignments, leaving gaps that Progressives would like to fill with progressive episcopal candidates.

When to hold episcopal elections is, however, a global issue. Bishops in every central conference except Germany have indicated their intention to retire. In contrast to the United States, though, these bishops have all continued to serve extended terms because of the delay in General Conference.

Unlike in the United States, there is a much smaller pool of retired bishops that could be called back into service to temporarily replace newly retiring bishops, and connectional structures and the large load placed on bishops in the central conferences make it more complicated for bishops to serve nearby vacant episcopal areas in addition to their own, as has happened in the United States.

United Methodists around the world are discussing whether it is fair or prudent to ask bishops to continue to serve for yet another two years. Here is a review by area:

The Philippines
Filipino bishops are elected or re-elected every four years as a regular practice. Thus, the current delay would raise polity issues even if no bishops were planning to retire. The extension of the bishops’ terms after the first delay of General Conference generated significant debate within the Philippines Central Conference.

However, the Philippines may actually see a complete turnover of its bishops. Bishop Francisco is scheduled to retire according to age restrictions on episcopal service. (Filipino bishops cannot be re-elected after they turn 66.) Bishop Juan has also indicated his intention to retire. Bishop Torio has not announced his intention publicly, though he has been on medical leave in the past year.

Thus, the Philippines Central Conference Coordinating Committee had already discussed the possibility of holding episcopal elections in 2022, regardless of whether General Conference would meet or not. The announced delay of General Conference until 2024 will almost certainly lead to further discussion about whether to go forward with episcopal elections in the Philippines.

Two European bishops had announced their intention to retire in 2020: Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference and Bishop Christian Alsted of the Northern Europe and Baltic Episcopal Area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference. Neither bishop is at the required retirement age for clergy.

After the second delay of General Conference was announced, Bishop Streiff shared that it took “a few days of discussion and prayer” for he and his wife to agree to his further extending his episcopal service. In a meeting last fall, the Executive Committee of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference noted that, “Should there be another postponement, this could also extend Bishop Patrick Streiff's term of service once again.” They also reported that “the Working Group [on] Episcopacy has been given the task of working with the bishop to examine options for relieving him of his duties and, if necessary, to initiate them.” While it is unclear what those options may entail, convening a special session of the central conference to elect a successor could be among them.

The Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference Council had previously discussed whether to call a special session of the Central Conference for the sake of holding episcopal elections. At a meeting last spring, the Council unanimously decided not to proceed with a special session and instead to wait to hold episcopal elections until after the next session of General Conference (at the time expected for 2022). This further delay may prompt the Central Conference Council to revisit that decision.

Bishops in all three African central conferences have announced their intention to retire. Bishop Boni of the Cote d’Ivoire Episcopal Area in the West Africa Central Conference, Bishop Unda of the East Congo Episcopal Area in the Congo Central Conference, and Bishop Quipungo of the East Angola Episcopal Area and Bishop Nhiwatiwa of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area in the Africa Central Conference have all indicated their intentions to retire. Some of these episcopal leaders are at or approaching the mandatory retirement age for United Methodist clergy.

Moreover, Bishop Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area in the West Africa Central Conference died tragically in 2020, creating a vacancy in that episcopal seat which is temporarily being filled by retired Bishop Warner Brown of the United States.

The African central conferences face several complicating factors in the decision about whether to elect bishops before the General Conference meets in 2024.

The first complication is that due to the cost and difficulty involved in the logistics of intra-Africa travel and the need for translation in the West Africa and Africa Central Conferences, holding central conference meetings in Africa is more challenging. Such central conferences usually occur with some level of financial and logistical support from the global church. It would be more difficult for an African central conference to act unilaterally.

The second complication is the plan to add five episcopal areas in Africa and redraw the boundaries of the central conferences. If this plan is passed at the General Conference now scheduled for 2024, it will significantly change the politics of episcopal elections in Africa.

Compounding these possible changes in 2024 is the announced intention of several African bishops to join the Global Methodist Church upon its formation. There are significant questions about how disaffiliation can play out in Africa (as a future post will examine), but such disaffiliations could further alter the composition of central conferences.

Thus, some African leaders may feel it is better to wait until 2024 to hold episcopal elections, while others may want to press forward with elections under the current, known set up.

In this context, it is noteworthy that United Methodists in Sierra Leone proceeded with the process of nominating an episcopal candidate to replace the deceased Bishop Yambasu. The annual conference took this act even after learning about the further delay of General Conference until 2024, an indication that they would like to proceed with episcopal elections before then.

A Global View
The specific circumstances around whether or not to hold episcopal elections vary across the United States, Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. However, there is a significant incentive for the Council of Bishops to decide upon a common approach across all jurisdictions and central conferences. Whether or not the Book of Discipline allows for such elections is a murky question. A joint decision that applies to all areas of the church will carry more weight than if each region makes its own plans.

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