Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bishops Being Bishops

This week I attended the M-11 Conference.  One of the workshops I attended was called "LOVE WINS.:LGBT How to Share Christ's Love with Your Gay Neighbor."  -  More about that a little later, but I mention it now, because the issue of the Church and homosexuality was one of the many issues that a number of people talked about at the conference.
In light of my recent posts about the United Methodist bishops (retired and active), it reminded me of how those holding the episcopal office in the Church of the Nazarene have responded to this issue.  -  What a contrast between the two sets of bishops.

First, let me say, parenthetically, I know my recent posts have not focused on the areas of liturgy/sacraments/worship.  That is usually the primary topic on my blog, along with news from within the Wesleyan/Methodist and the Anglican families.  I guess it is that "news from within the family" that has dominated lately, but there will be more posts on worship related topics in the future.

With that said, I stand in a unique position.  Not only do I have the opportunity to read what the two denominations (i.e., The UMC & the CotN) are saying, but I currently stand with "a foot in both worlds," as it were.  As many of you know, I am pastoring a United Methodist Church, but my membership and elder's orders are in the Church of the Nazarene. 

I think that each of the two denominations have something to teach the other, if we would listen to each other.  However, in this situation, I really think that the United Methodist bishops could take a lesson from the Nazarene general superintendents.

It is not that there are not individual UM bishops who are acting like bishops.  But there are plenty who are not; bishops who refuse to make clear their teaching of the faith of the church for their people, but rather hide behind statements like, "Whatever I may personally believe, I have committed to defend the Book of Discipline."  On the other hand, there are those who, while careful to make that latter clear, nevertheless make it equally clear that they hope to see the Discipline change on this matter.  Then there are those who merely call the church to pray for civil conferencing "on these difficult topics." 

Then there are the united voices of the 33+ retired bishops, as posted, below.

Where is the clear statement of the Council of Bishops, not just repeating, "This is what the Book of Discipline currently states," but rather actually doing the job of a bishop by teaching; expanding upon the statement of the Discipline, teaching why United Methodists believe what they believe and why it is important?

It is at this point (among others) that I think the Nazarene general superintendents have faithfully acted as bishops of the Church.  They have demonstrated their true episcopal role.  They have not merely hidden behind the Nazarene Manual (Book of Discipline) statement.  Nor have they side stepped the issue by calling us to merely discuss these difficult topics. (Not that prayerful discussions are unimportant, but to merely call for that alone is fail to faithfully discharge the episcopal role.)

The Nazarene BGS at the time of the
publication of the booklet.
 Instead, the Nazarene general superintendents have affirmed and clarified the Manual statement on Human Sexuality. They have posted a brief statement on sexuality on the denominational website.  More importantly, I think, a number of years ago they produced a 12 page booklet titled "Pastoral Perspectives from your General Superintendents: On Homosexuality," and the mailed it to Nazarene pastors.

In the opening address, the general superintendents say, "In the midst of a broad spectrum of responses that range from unconditional approval to loveless judgmentalism, how do our pastors and churches engage in this ministry?  This booklet is intended to assist in affirming the postion of our church and clarifying the understanding of Scripture regarding homosexuality and how you and your congregation can be a much-needed community of hope-filled truth and grace."

And, when the general superintendents received some questions about some of their statements, they went on to produce a paper called, "Further Clarification Concerning the Document 'A Pastoral Perspective on Homosexuality'" in order to address those questions.

My question is, where does the UM Council of Bishops "affirm the postion of the UMC and clarify the understanding of Scripture regarding homosexuality and how you and your congregation can be a much needed community of hope-filled truth and grace"?  (Which, by the way, is not a call for the bishops to simply "condem homosexuality."  Rather it is a call for them to express why the church has the position it does and how the church can be faithful to every aspect of their position, viz., by suggesting how the local church can be "a much-needed community of hope-filled truth and grace.")

Perhaps I have missed it.  Perhaps they have done that someplace.  I would be happy for someone to post a comment indicating that they have.  But, in light of the recent statement by the retired bishops and the report of the reaction of some of the active bishops, it does not appear that they have.

Perhaps when the bishops next meet in Council, they will do this very thing (though, given the range of reactions reported, it seems unlikely that they will make any statement beyond one similar to the very weak statements found earlier in this article).

The current Nazarene BGS
I would hope that the UM bishops would take a cue from their Nazarene counterparts, their fellow bishops in the Wesleyan/Methodist family.  In this regard, the Nazarene general superintendents were, indeed, bishops being bishops.

On a final note, not only do I want to give kudos to the Nazarene Board of General Superintendents, I also want to give kudos to Andy McGee, Letiah Fraser, Julie Hanson, and Sarah Weems who presented the workshop I mentioned, above:  "LOVE WINS.:LGBT How to Share Christ's Love with Your Gay Neighbor."  They demonstrated to us, and they demonstrate to those in their community every day, how the love of God can reach out through the Church (us!) to those in the LGBT community.  More information about them and their ministry can be found, here. 


Wesley 'Whitey Lawful' Mcgranor said...

Why seek to corrupt Christ--it is vain to do so. In mans vanity Christ is dwindled--not as in defeated, but such men have pulled their flesh over their eyes. Say: dear Lord i may be a subject of Satan or a perverse humanist seeking to dismatle the Protestant church further with the same.

James Gibson said...

I would like to see the term "LGBT community" dropped from the Christian vocabulary. It is a term created to single out a particular group of people who want to legitimize a myriad of deviant sexual practices. By adopting it as part of its own vernacular, the church is being complicit in legitimizing those practices.

As for bishops in the Methodist tradition, the biggest problem is a quirky ecclesiology which reverses the primary function of the episcopacy. Historically, the bishop has been the representative of the local church to the church universal through conciliar relationship with the other bishops. The Methodist system (which evolved over the years way beyond anything Wesley intended) turns this historical relationship on its head. The bishop is the representative of the general church to the local church. There is no accountability to speak of and the office is far more political than spiritual. So, if a bunch of retired bishops want to say something stupid and contrary to church doctrine, there is no recourse for church discipline, only a feeble rejoinder from active bishops who will, in turn, say something similarly stupid and heterodox once they retire.

Thomas said...

Very interesting observation: “Historically, the bishop has been the representative of the local church to the church universal through conciliar relationship with the other bishops. The Methodist system (which evolved over the years way beyond anything Wesley intended) turns this historical relationship on its head. The bishop is the representative of the general church to the local church.”

It would be fascinating to see this point discussed further...

It seems to me that the role of bishop in the Methodist Church is viewed as an administrative position rather than a divinely instituted charism for leadership. In the ancient church one can read statements such as the following from Ignatius of Antioch: “See that you follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father...” That is a bold statement. But in the Methodist tradition it seems that you might read instead: “See that the bishop follows the General Conference, even as Jesus Christ does the Father...”

I suppose that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but my point is that the bishop is not viewed by Methodists as being the true “leader” of the local church in the full capacity of the ancient church. Individually or in council, it is not the bishop whom the people obey; rather it is the General Conference with the bishop as its representative. The bishop has no authority of his own to demand obedience from the faithful. Rather he must apply the Book of Discipline like an administrator receiving commands from the main office. That seems to be a marked change from historical Christianity.

I wonder though, do the Nazarenes do things much differently with regard to ecclesiology? Is this really a problem of ‘organizational hierarchy’ (which I agree does conflict with historical Christianity), or is there some trend (perhaps cultural) going on in Methodism that somehow Nazarenes have avoided for the moment? By what mechanism is a church really protected from false teaching? No matter how the church is structured, can it be protected from human error?

James Gibson said...

A little more about the development of conciliar councils and the local autonomy of bishops can be found here.

Eric + said...

I certainly agree that the papers presented by the BoGS was a needed exercise of leadership (and though they deny it -- authority). I wish they would assert that leadership authority more often...

Thomas said...

I suppose as a Catholic myself I would not object to the description you gave on your blog as follows: “In the West, Roman Catholicism has carried the principle of catholicity to one extreme by investing final authority in the Holy See of Rome.”

I would argue that the role played by the Archbishop of Canterbury as “first among equals” at least to some degree mimics the role of the Bishop of Rome, except for one important difference - his authority is too weak to maintain real doctrinal unity over a splintering Anglican Church. The Catholic Church may have gone to an “extreme” in vesting authority in the pope, but perhaps it is a *necessary* extreme (divinely and scripturally mandated?) to protect the deposit of faith. After all, what sort of “catholicity” can be had if the “Eucharistic communities” are divided on doctrinal issues that strike at the heart of the Christian faith? How can we say that we share a common “catholic” faith, if we disagree about the object of that faith?

Certainly the early Church Fathers viewed the Eucharist as a *source* of catholic unity. I would not dispute that. But the Fathers also warned that those who hold heterodox views should not partake of the Eucharist. In other words, I think the ancient Church would say that the Eucharist is both a *source* of catholic unity, but also a *sign* of a catholic unity that must be worked toward, especially on matters of doctrine. Only those who professed a belief in the catholic faith (rightly defined) were allowed to partake in the Eucharist.

The present controversy within Methodism concerns homosexual marriage. Likewise in Anglicanism there has been debate over gay marriage and gay clergy. These controversies (among others) have caused deep division within these denominations. This division cannot be glossed over simply by appealing to a shared Eucharist. Sharing a Eucharist does nothing to resolve doctrinal dispute. I would argue that a shared Eucharist under these circumstances sets up a false unity and profanes the Sacred Liturgy. I believe that the ancient church would have rejected such a false Eucharistic unity.

It is all well and good that we share a common Eucharist, but the shared Eucharist must reflect a unity of faith that extends to matters of doctrine and dogma. The Eucharist is a two-way street. It is both “the SOURCE and the SUMMIT of our faith.” It is the SOURCE because it is in Eucharistic worship that we grow in our Christian unity; but it is also the SUMMIT because Eucharistic unity is the end towards which we strive each time we come together to worship. This type of unity requires preparation outside of the Eucharist feast. We do not reach the “summit” without first climbing over the “rocks” and “boulders” such as gay marriage, ordination, etc. that stand in the way of true catholic unity.

From what I have read on the matter, I think the Catholic Church finds much agreement in the Eastern Orthodox principle of unity centered on the Eucharist – but it must be a full understanding of what catholic unity entails. Certainly our “catholicity” is bound up with this Sacrament. But the subject of gay marriage is not solved by sharing a false Eucharist with those who reject catholic teaching. There must be some mechanism by which doctrinal and moral teaching is protected. You may call the papacy an extreme form of dealing with this problem, but I would say that other forms of ecclesiology (such as autonomous bishops) have fallen short.

If the Anglican Church is unable to defend the traditional teaching on sexuality, and the Methodist Church is beginning to waffle on this issue as well, then it seems that these two ecclesiastical organizations have some serious flaws. It seems that it is not enough to simply share a Eucharist or to have autonomous bishops. Something more is necessary to protect the faith from corruption.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I believe some of the active UM bishops, such as Bishop Whitacker in FL, have at times attempted to explain the reasoning for the UM position in keeping with the historic calling of the bishop. I don't suppose any one bishop (or indeed the council of bishops) should be expected to release a teaching statement EVERY single time anybody anywhere in the church made an unorthodox statement.

I would say, however, that the current situation may warrant such a move, since the objection to our teaching is made by retired bishops, but I doubt that the council will address this in any official statement.

As to the nature of episcopacy, some interesting points have been raised. It seems to me that UM bishops do indeed represent the will of the general conference to the local church, but they also represent the UM Church as a whole to the wider ecumenical church. They participate in ecumenical dialogues and conferences, etc. So it seems that in this work they are working more like the ancient model of representing the local church (or, we might say, the partial church) to the wider holy catholic Church.
Clearly this is not exactly the same as the ancient model, but we don't live in exactly the same world, and it may be in keeping with the point of the ancient model all the same.

Thomas said...

But isn't it true that the bishops of the United Methodist Church do not get to vote on matters at the General Conference? They must simply enact the decisions made there. Thus in effect the bishops have no power to directly determine official teachings. So in that regard they are unable to *lead* the church, but rather follow orders given by the Conference.

The ancient church had no such structure above the bishops. At the ancient Ecumenical Councils the bishops (and no one else) had the power to vote on doctrine, and thus exercised real authority. And beyond such a council the bishop had full authority to govern his particular church without a “General Conference” above him.

Todd Stepp said...


I just lost the entire first half of my comments!

I'm sorry, but I am not going to take the time to try to recreat all of it (though I think it would give some insight to the Nazarene episcopos, as well as argue against some of the statements made about the historical nature of bishops).

However, here is the last half of my comments, which I was able to save:

Further, I would argue that bishops were never entirely autonomous. They were bound by their brother bishops and the councils. If they did their own thing in such a way as to leave the faith, they could be declared heretics. The pope (or the council of bishops) could excommunicate them.

At this point, our ecclessiological differences do show up, for the Methodist tradition does provide a General Assembly/Conference in the place of determining the boundaries.

However, Nazarene General Superintendents do give leadership through "pastoral statments/teachings" and in preparation for resolutions (giving direction and vision) for the General Assembly. (They were also the source for our denominational "Core Values" and mission statement, I believe, which they are very faithful to keep in front of us.)

In such cases the G.A. can vote against their resolutions, but usually they do follow the g.s. guidance.

It is interesting, I think that, when the Naz. board of general superintendents (bgs) do issue statements/books/teachings, they refer to them as "pastoral" in nature. Such was the case in the booklet on sexuality, and in their newest book, "The Power of One: Reflections on Christlike Living" (available to all through our publishing house), they are identified as "those who have answered Christ's call to be pastors to the worldwide constituency of the Church of the Nazarene and beyond."

I would argue that for the vast majority of the history of the Church, bishops have not simply been representative of local churches to the larger Church. Even as we look about us, most bishops, while being "chief pastor" of churches in their diocese, do not really "pastor" those churches. They really have "superintendency" (oversight) of them in a way like a district/general superintendent.

There are certainly structural differences between Methodists and Anglicans/Roman Catholics. There are governmental differences between the Wesleyan/Methodist churches. However, I would disagree on the point that a major difference is the role of the bishop in connection to the local church and the general church.

I would agree that UM bishops, on the one hand have more authority than Nazarenes, but on the other hand far less. (e.g., apointment authority, on the one hand, and voice/vote at General Conference/Assembly.)