Friday, August 12, 2011

Nazarene Superintendency/Episcopacy Reconsidered, Part II: My Objections Reconsidered

As stated in my previous post ("Part I"), I have consistently been outspoken when it comes to clearly identifying the Nazarene general superintendents as bishops.  I also indicated that there are others in our midsts who have given the title bishop to our district superintendents, and that I have opposed this view for three major reasons (as will be discussed, below).

In that first post, I set out to show the basis and foundation of the Nazarene superintendency/episcopacy.  There, I made clear that the superintendency within Wesleyan/Methodist denominations (including the Church of the Nazarene) constitutes the episcopal element of their government structures.  -  I will not rehearse that, here.  (That's what the first post was for!)

In this, second part, I will be turning my attention to the view that district superintendents ought to be identified as bishops, and the three major reasons that I have opposed this position, holding that the designation of bishop belongs to general superintendents.

The three major reasons for my opposition to identifying district superintendents as bishops are:

     1.) Wesley's Intent
     2.) Ecumenical/Fraternal Relations Within American Methodism, and The Consistent Structure of American Methodism
     3.) The Authority to Ordain

Wesley's Intent

As shown in the previous post, Wesley "ordained" Thomas Coke to oversee the Methodists in America, and instructed him to ordain Francis Asbury for the same oversight.  The oversight that the two were to share was understood to be the general oversight of the people called Methodists in America.  They were to be general superintendents, not simply district superintendents.  While it turns out that Asbury truly became the bishop of American Methodists, the intent was that the two men would share this role . . . with Wesley, himself, still clearly exercising . . . (at least) parental authority.  (cf. Wesley's letter, which accompanied The Sunday Service.  It clearly shows Wesley's continued authority.  He, after all, appointed Coke and Asbury and gave instructions concerning The Sunday Service, etc.)

The issue here is that Wesley intended Coke and Asbury to be general superintendents.  Unlike the ordinal of the Church of England, Wesley did not make provisions for different levels of superintendents (the CoE's ordinal speaks of bishops and archbishops).  -  Admittedly, I have not done sufficient research into the history of the development of presiding elders/district superintendents, or the expansion of the general superintendency during Wesley's life.  However, it seems clear enough that Wesley's intent was that the episcopal role would be expressed in the general superintendency.

With that in mind, I have consistently identified the general superintendency with the episcopacy, and I have rejected the idea that district superintendents should be identified as bishops.

But, is this valid?

Upon further reflection and "reconsideration," it can be said that Wesley, whatever his intent, did not ordain Coke or instruct that Coke ordain Asbury as general superintendents.  The ordinal clearly shows that they were ordained simply as superintendents.  There was no designation of general or district; just superintendent.

They were, of course, understood to be general superintendents, as the Book of Discipline clearly indicates to this day.  However, the point is, it was Wesley's intent that the episcopal role be expressed in the superintendency, itself; the superintendency is what expresses episcopal oversight.  He could not have foreseen the day when the United Methodist Church would have expanded the episcopacy so vastly with so many bishops.  Nor could he have foreseen the day when the church would develop such a vast district superintendency to assist the bishops.  Thus, Wesley simply spoke of the superintendency.

Therefore, it is not really fair to impose upon our current, developed situation the original intent of Wesley, who is not here to express what he would do in our situation.  It is sufficient to say that, for Wesley, the episcopacy rested in the superintendency, pure and simple.  Since the superintendency now consists of the general superintendency, as well as the district superintendency, it is legitimate to view the district superintendency as an expansion of the episcopacy.  (In fact, even the UMC Discipline states that the district superintendency is an extension of the episcopacy.)

So, in my "reconsideration," I have concluded that the first of my three reasons for opposing the identification of district superintendents as bishops is not really valid. 

But what about the other two reasons?

Ecumenical/Fraternal Relations Within American Methodism, and The Consistent Structure of American Methodism

Here, I have argued that American Methodism, across the board, has identified general superintendents, not district superintendents, as bishops, and it would confuse matters in relationship with our Wesleyan/Methodist sisters and brothers if we began to do something so inconsistent as speaking of district superintendents as bishops.  -  (I have consistently been an active supporter for better relations within the Wesleyan/Methodist family.  By God's grace, I have played a significant role in the Church of the Nazarene joining the World Methodist Council, and I have actively sought the exploration of merger with The Wesleyan and Free Methodist churches, including the writing of General Assembly resolutions to that affect.  Plus, I'm a Nazarene pastoring a United Methodist Church!)  So, there is the ecumenical/fraternal relationship issue.

Related to that is the idea that identifying district superintendents as bishops would simply be inconsistent with how American Methodism has developed.

Again, I have not done the research on all of this, but . . .  -  At some point, early on, American Methodism developed the presiding elder as one who assisted the bishop in limited geographical areas.  Obviously, as the name implies, this person was an elder who "presided" over what were eventually identified as districts.  (Confessing, again, I don't know the details of this development in history).

Phineas Bresee, the principle founder of the Church of the Nazarene, served as a Methodist Episcopal presiding elder in both Iowa and California.

To this day, the African (American) Methodist denominations use the term presiding elder.  The UMC, however, along with the Free Methodists, Wesleyans and Nazarenes, use the terminology of superintendent.  All of the latter denominations (with the exception of the Free Methodists, I believe) now refer to them as district superintendents.  (I believe the Free Methodists just use the term superintendent, which, itself, is interesting in light of Wesley's ordinal.)  -  What is clear is that, even the denominations that use the term, bishop, do not identify district superintendents/presiding elders as bishops.  -  Therefore, to identify Nazarene district superintendents as bishops would be inconsistent with the rest of American Methodism.

But, is this a valid reason for opposing the identification of district superintendents with bishops?

It would, I think complicate some aspects of relationships.  However, the truth is, as consistent as the government structure has been among American Methodist denominations, there is still quite a lot of inconsistencies.  Let me list a few:  The use of the term bishop, or general superintendent.  The use of the term district superintendent, or presiding elder.  In the case of The Wesleyan Church, the use of the term minster instead of elder.  Deacons: some have them, some don't; for some they are transitional, for others permanent.  The appointment or call system.  General, jurisdictional, conference, and district levels; some have all, some have combined levels, some have eliminated certain levels.  Terms for bishops: some are for life, some for 4-year terms.  For some, the g.s. is elected at the General level, for others, at a different level.  Some denominations operate as a global denomination, others operate more like a federation from different world areas.

All of that is to say, while there is a good bit of consistency within the American Methodist structure, there are already considerable differences in the development of each denomination.

Then, there is the consideration of global Methodism.  In the "mother church" of British Methodism, there is no episcopacy (at least not in terms of a superintendency).  They maintain a conference that elects a president.  If one were to look at the Methodist Church in Nigeria, however, one would see a very developed structure that would remind one of Anglicanism with its dioceses and synods, bishops, archbishops and prelate, etc.  Global Methodism has clearly developed its structures in various ways.  In fact, it has been truly stated that the episcopacy is not essential to Methodist structure, but rather, if there is an essential nature to a Methodist structure it would be some form of the connectional system (which, of course, underlies American Methodists, as well).

It should also be stated that the means of oversight for general superintendents and district superintendents differ among the respective denominations.  -  I will not go into this too much, but, for example, United Methodist bishops are residential within their conference, while Nazarene general superintendents, though presiding at district assemblies, are not residential, but rather cover many districts throughout various world regions.  Further, it can be argued that a Nazarene district superintendent, in many ways, not only fulfills the role of the UM d.s., but also many of the roles of the UM bishop.

So, I am forced to conclude that, while identifying Nazarene district superintendents as bishops would be unique in America, it cannot be said that such uniqueness, alone, provides a valid reason for not doing so.  This is especially the case when it has been clearly demonstrated, even in the UMC Book of Discipline, that the district superintendency is an extension of the episcopacy.  In fact, chapter three of the UMC BoD, which covers bishops and district superintendents, is titled, "The Superintendency."

Well, upon further consideration, I have had to conclude that two of my arguments are really not sufficient to continue to deny that district superintendents are bishops.  So now I turn to my last major reason for opposing the identification of district superintendents as bishops.

The Authority to Ordain

Let me state a couple of matters up front.  I have no desire to discuss, at this point, Wesley's authority to ordain.  For the sake of this article, it is my position that orders derived from him are valid, and that Nazarene orders are valid, as well.  Anglican readers of this blog will disagree.  Roman Catholic readers with disagree with the validity of both of our orders.  -  This article is not about that.

Second, it is clear, from Wesley, and within Methodism, that the right to ordain, in terms of transmission of orders, comes from the order of elder, itself.  None of the American Methodists understand the episcopacy/superintendency to be a separate order.  (Some may wish to argue that it should be, but that is beyond the scope of this article.)  -  Wesley, in his letter to the American Methodists, said, "Lord King's account of the primitive church convinced me many years ago, that Bishops and Presbyters (Elders/Priests) are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain . . ."

That does not mean that, within the structure of our respective denominations, any elder can ordain at his/her whim.  Rather, it seems to be consistent among those Methodists that have a superintendency/episcopacy that the right to ordain lies with the general superintendent.  That is, by virtue of his/her representative office, the g.s. has the authority to ordain.  -  Now, I believe it is the case in all of the American Methodist denominations (though I am not certain of this) that other elders are involved in the laying on of hands.  -  [As an aside, I had the privilege to attend ordination services this summer for United Methodists, Nazarenes and Wesleyans.  The UM had representative elders join the bishop.  The Wesleyans had their (ordained) ordination board join the g.s.  And all of the Nazarene elders (and deacons!) present participated in laying on hands, with the g.s.]  -  However, it is the g.s./bishop, alone, who actually ordains.

Within the Church of the Nazarene, if the g.s. is unable to be at an ordination service he/she may designate another elder to ordain on his/her behalf, under the authority of the g.s.

Now, here is the issue.  I understand the authority to ordain to rest in the episcopacy (again, as an office, not necessarily as a separate order; I'm not arguing that, here).  And, I have no problem with the presiding general superintendent (the "senior superintendent," or, dare I say, "archbishop") having the right and authority to do the ordaining in a denomination, when present and presiding.  However, on those occasions when the g.s. is unable to be at the service of ordination, if we are to consider the d.s. to be a bishop, it would seem to me that she/he ought to be the one to ordain (rather than, simply an elder designated by the g.s.).
  -  [I would love to hear from some Anglicans who have bishops, archbishops, etc. about how the authority to ordain works in that kind of "ranking" (for lack of a better word.]
I do not mind a "ranking" of authority (e.g., the g.s. "out-ranks" the d.s., and, thus, is the one who ordains), but if the d.s. is a bishop, she/he ought to specifically be identified in that "rank" with authority to ordain.  -  [As another aside, I do not yet know what I think about how the regional director fits into all of this.  Frankly, I need to brush-up on exactly what that role is all about.  Truth be told, I don't think we shoud have ever developed regional directors.  Instead, I think we should have continued our pattern of expanding the number of general superintendents, but we now have what we have.  I do know that regional directors are not identified as superintendents, nor are they elected by an assembly like the d.s. and g.s.  -  But I will leave aside the regional director, for now.]

Since the d.s. is not given explicit authority to ordain in the absence of a g.s., I have difficulty viewing them as bishops . . . at that point.

Nazarene . . . Archbishops?!

Nevertheless, apart from the function of ordaining, I no longer see any reason to not identify district superintendents as bishops.  It is clear that they are a part of the superintendency/episcopacy/oversight of the church.  However, just as other episcopal structures include rankings, or levels, of episcopacy (e.g., bishops and archbishops), this conclusion would imply that the district superintendent would corospond to bishop, and the general superintendent would corospond to archbishop.  -  Now, if Nazarenes aren't willing to us the term bishop, they certainly aren't going to us the term archbishop!

Perhaps, as we look forward (especially in terms of what kinds of resolutions might be written for 2013!), it might be best not to try to put forward anything that uses the term bishop (and certainly not archbishop!).  -  After all, the last time I tried that (in a footnote, even!), it didn't make it past our district committee!  -  I would, however, like to see a new sentence placed at the opening of our section on the district superintendent, as well as the section on the general superintendent, that simply states that the episcopal element of our representative government is expressed in terms of the superintency (or something like that).  Such a statement (in both locations) would clearly state what many of us have been arguing all along.  It has support in other parts of the Manual.  It avoids the term, bishop (and certainly archbishop!), while retaining the terms, district and general superintendent.  Yet, it would make clear that our superintendency is our expression of the episcopacy.  (Still, frankly, I think it will take a lot of work to get this through district committees, not to mention G.A.)

The other thing that I think needs to happen is the changing of the paragraph that says that the g.s. can designate another elder to ordain under the authority of the g.s.  I think, if we are going to identify the d.s. as bishop, we have to get the d.s. specifically in that paragraph.  (With a corosponding paragraph under the duties of the d.s. that talks about ordaining in the absence of the g.s.)

So, here we are.  Upon "reconsideration," it seems that I have changed my views.  -  Should I have changed them?  Do my reasons for doing so make sense?  Ought the rest of American Methodism change their terminology, as well?  -  What do you think?


Gordon said...

Great blog! Was raised in COTN, went to two Nazarene colleges (graduated from SNU) and a happy Episcopalian for the past 14 years.

EF + said...

Finally, this is music to my ears.

Michael said...

Thanks for wrestling with this!

EF + said...

So let me be the devil's advocate for just a minute. What are the possible objections that could be given for the CotN to officially define the superintendency as the episcopacy? What objections have been raised in response to past resolutions to using the title bishop as a synonym for (general) superintendent?

A resolution I would like to see pass is to require the GA to publish all committee reports including the rational for action taken on resolutions, whether accepting, amending, or rejecting.

Todd A. Stepp said...


If you wrote such a resolution, it would likely get voted down, and they wouldn't tell you why! :0)

My guess is that the committees vote and different people vote certain ways for various reasons, so it would be unlikely that they could give the rationale on many of the resolution votes.

I think that the quote in the article from "Called Unto Holiness" expresses some of the reasons that people might not like the episcopal or bishop terminology.

I think there are many people who are congregationalist among us. On my district, our district secretary would be the first to tell you, he favors the congregational side of our representative government.

There are those who would see the use of bishop language (at least) as being an attempt to grab more power or the church giving them more power. (That is why I had some hope for one sentence in the d.s. and g.s. section that use the episcopal language, without saying bishop, based upon the other Manual statements.)

I think some would be against it based solely on the idea that the UMC has bishops and we don't want to be like those liberal UMCers.

I think that some would be against it because they are used to refering to the g.s. and "general," and they really don't get why that is inapropriate.

I do think that you are right, though. It is important to try to determine why people would be against a resolution, so that we can try to address those issues in the rationale part of the resolution.


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Honestly, I think cannot help but feel that we have far too many "layers" in the United Methodist Church: 1) Local Charge - 2) District - 3) Annual Conference - 4) Jurisdictional Conference - 5) General Conference.

I think it might make more sense to have no districts at all; but more and smaller Annual Conferences (with more bishops). The Jurisdictional Conference also seems rather unnecessary. I don't know how they elect bishops in the Central Conferences, but they don't have jurisdictions as far as I know.

This would leave us simply with deacons, presbyters, and bishops...

Todd A. Stepp said...


That's what I'm discovering first hand, while pastoring in the UMC.

Nazarenes have three primary levels of government: 1.) Local; 2.) District (which combines the UM distrit and conference); and 3.) General.

We do have zones (like UM clusters), but that is not a level of government. We also have regions, but there is no "regional assembly/conference," and no delegates, etc. It operates as an organized way to help promote evangelism and church growth (at least in the U.S.). In growing missions areas, it helps to organize the mission field.

So, I agree with you!