Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 14, 1999
At their spring 1999 meeting, the United Methodist Council of Bishops unanimously endorsed several political statements. But they seemed to admit their inability to reach consensus on theological and sexuality issues that are creating anxiety within the United Methodist Church.
The bishops endorsed statements against U.S. military activity in Yugoslavia and Puerto Rico, mostly criticized the Connectional Process Team (CPT) proposal for reorganizing the denomination into a "Global Conference," listened to South African anti-apartheid champion Desmond Tutu, discussed their divisions over homosexuality, and reaffirmed their "Initiative on Children and Poverty."
With little discussion, the bishops voted to deplore the U.S. and NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. And the bishops enthusiastically received a report from Bishop Marshall Meadors of Mississippi, who traveled to Yugoslavia with Jesse Jackson in a successful bid to gain release of three imprisoned American soldiers.
The bishops, in their statement, said they "weep" for the suffering victims of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but declared the U.S.-led bombings had only contributed to the misery. Their resolution called for an immediate end to U.S. military action and a negotiated settlement under United Nations guidelines. It also urged the U.S. and NATO to offer a "Marshall Plan" for the people of the Balkans region.
Bishops Meadors observed that the Jackson-led delegation included Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. "When the world is in crisis, people of God are called to act together," he explained.
U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger had met with Jacksons delegation and urged it not to go to Yugoslavia, but Meadors said the Scriptures command us to "visit the prisoners and be ministers of reconciliation." Although he admitted that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has "perpetrated evil," Meadors said President Clinton should still call Milosevic to offer thanks for the release of the U.S. prisoners.
Meadors expressed disappointment over the controversy surrounding the Jackson delegation. "Im dismayed that anyone would criticize Jesse Jackson for praying with Milosevic," he remarked as he blamed the press for "distorting the truth" about their trip.
The U.S. bombings have strengthened Milosevics government, Meadors noted, while also turning Yugoslav public opinion against the U.S. "I felt more anger and hatred than I had ever felt," Meadors said of his encounters with Yugoslav citizens.
Meadors also noted that two of the three American prisoners were Hispanic and that a continued U.S. war against Yugoslavia would be fought primarily by "people of color."
In another politically oriented resolution, the bishops unanimously called for an end to U.S. military activity on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where the U.S. Navy has a weapons training ground. In April, two U.S. Marine jets from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy accidentally bombed an observation post, killing one civilian contractor and injuring four other personnel. The Puerto Rican Independence Party has latched onto the incident to advocate Puerto Ricos separation from the United States.
The bishops will send a delegation to Vieques to express their "solidarity" with its people and have asked the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to lobby the U.S. Congress for closure of U.S. Navy facilities on Vieques. With great emotion, Bishop Charlene Kammerer of Charlotte said she supported the resolution, although her son serves on a U.S. Navy destroyer that was at Vieques during the accidental bombing.
During their meeting the bishops also continued their dialogue over theology and sexuality, which they began at their autumn 1998 gathering. Statements from several bishops illustrated their division over these issues. Retired Bishop John Wesley Hardt said the Council "may have to accept our limitations" and not expect consensus on issues such as homosexuality. He recalled that 30 years ago he had expected an exploding world population to create a popular consensus favoring abortion rights, which has not happened. Homosexuality was perhaps a similarly divisive issue on which agreement would not be possible, he concluded.
Retired Bishop Edsel Ammons remarked he had not "heard a lot about the authority of the Scriptures in our conversations." He said, "We are hopefully a biblical people grounded in a firm grasp of His Holy Word." And he observed the church was unable to deal with controversy because it was unwilling to "suffer" and was preoccupied instead with growth, influence and power.
Bishop Lawrence McClaskey of South Carolina suggested that perhaps, as with slavery 150 years ago, agreement within the church would not be possible on some issues. "How do we achieve unity without unanimity?" he asked. Bishop Alfred Norris of Albuquerque posed another question: "How can we be visionary as bishops when we seem to be dysfunctional as a Council of Bishops?"
Bishop Emilio DeCarvalho of Angola affirmed that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the churchs final authority. "Most Christians cannot read the Scriptures, so where is the authority [there]?" he wondered. Bishop Joe Pennel of Virginia suggested that "theological reasons will move the church forward, not politics or sociology." Bishop Lindsey Davis of Atlanta recommended "kindly confrontation" within a Council of Bishops that is as "conflicted" as the church on some issues.
The Council unanimously reaffirmed its commitment to its "Initiative on Children and Poverty." But retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel urged that the program be more politically focused and "go after" the "systemic" and economic causes of poverty. "Poverty among children will not be solved by mentoring," he observed. "We need to be centered on ministries of justice."
Bishop Ken Carder of Nashville, who has been a leader of the Initiative, acknowledged that the "growing edge is to focus on justice and community. Weve only scratched the surface."
The Rev. Minerva Carcano of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas presented The Connectional Process Teams (CPT) report to the bishops, most of whom responded with little enthusiasm. Bishop Davis urged the reports withdrawal from consideration, saying it would shift United Methodism from a connectional system to one centered on independent congregations.
Bishop Richard Looney complained that it would give overrepresentation to small jurisdictions within a new "Global Conference" while diminishing representation from the larger ones, such as the Southeast Jurisdiction.
Bishop Fritz Mutti said the churchs basic unit was the annual conference, not the local church, as the CPT implied. Bishop Dan Solomon of Louisiana responded, "Im more interested in transforming the cosmos than the United Methodist church." He said local churches were renewed by Disciple Bible Study and Walk to Emmaus, not annual conference programs. Solomon suggested a joint focus on both annual conference and the local church.
Bishop Pennel said he often received correspondence about the churchs general agencies, but he had to respond that these agencies are accountable to the General Conference, not the bishops. He wondered if the CPT would allow bishops to hold the Board of Global Ministries or the seminaries "accountable" to the church, or would the bishops influence remain only in their annual conferences.
Bishop Carder complained that the CPT was "not explicit enough" about who God is, particularly His bias on behalf of "widows, orphans and sojourners." But Carcano responded, "There is not agreement about the God we serve or the nature of our mission. Youre seeing reflections of the United Methodist Church in this report."
The bishops heard from colleagues who attended the World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly last December. Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia praised the WCCs initiative to pressure Western banks and governments to cancel all debt by Third World governments. Bishop Melvin Talbert of Sacramento expressed regret about Orthodox churches that were unwilling to accept gender quotas in their WCC delegations.
Bruce Robbins, who heads the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity, told the bishops that he had become "pretty weary" of COCU (Churches of Christ Uniting), an effort to foster union among seven mainline denominations. But he said concerns within COCU about racism and "white privilege" had revived enthusiasm for COCU. "Its perhaps the most important thing COCU has ever done," Robbins said.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who now teaches at United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, spoke to the Council about his fight against apartheid and racism. He also briefly urged the full inclusion of "gays and lesbians," since Jesus broke down all partitions.
United Methodist Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez echoed a similar theme in his sermon to the council, inveighing against "walls of separation" based on race, religion, class or sexual preference. He hailed these differences as part of a "tapestry" that is "beautiful."
Retired Bishop Richard Wilke told his colleagues that, "We once thought we could build the Kingdom of God," but we now know that the "virus" of sin dwells in every human heart. "Im tired of people who say the Bible is the ultimate authority. Jesus is the final authority Our only hope is the Lord Jesus Christ."
Of course, all the bishops profess their allegiance to Jesus Christ and their love for the church. Their sincerity cannot be doubted. But ongoing disagreement over the authority of Scripture will ensure continued division among the bishops and within United Methodism. After all, how can the church understand the identity and mission of its Lord apart from firm reliance upon Scripture?
No amount of collegiality or agreement over controversial political and social issues is likely to compensate for the deep and perhaps insoluble theological differences that divide the bishops and the church.