What Methodist Bishops Can Learn from the Pope

In the world of the church, it doesn’t get much higher than this. But then it’s not just the office but it’s clearly the man himself who commands both the respect and attention of millions around the globe, including much of the media, making him a virtual rock star of religion.

Watching him interact with both the powerful and the powerless in Washington on Wednesday, and listening to him talk, however, I could not help but have a little papal envy that the leaders of our own church so seldom seem to speak with such clarity and conviction.

It’s not just that Pope Francis is a prophetic figure willing to embrace unpopular positions if he feels led to do so. For to be truthful, we have a few of those among our episcopal leaders as well. But it is that when Francis speaks, he does so out of the core doctrines and beliefs of his church, articulating them so cogently that both his critics and his cheerleaders cannot help but get what he is saying. Similarly, if he carries an agenda at all, it is clearly not a political or even personal one, but a message that is deeply embedded in his church’s understanding of the faith.

The pontiff can thus speak passionately about the sanctity of life, but also about the stewardship of the earth. He can lift up the cause of both the sojourner and the soldier in our societies, and do so without any fear that he will come across as leaning either too far to the left or right. For again, if anyone cares to actually check it out, they will discover that what he says is nothing more–or less– than what Catholic doctrine believes that the gospel teaches.

And that is sadly enough what our own bishops so seldom seem to do. For enmeshed in the administration of the connection, they often forget that one of the principle jobs of any episcopos is to not just to manage the church but to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” Jude 1.3, particularly when it may be under attack by the culture.

In the case of United Methodism, thus, what I would love to see is a bishop stand up and publicly defend our official teaching that “the beginning and end of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence,” and that while “we equally respect the sacredness of life and the well-being of the mother of an unborn child,” that “our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion,” particularly those carried out simply as a means of after the fact birth control, or as a political affirmation of women’s rights.

I’d likewise love to hear a bishop remind us that “all economic systems are under the judgment of God, no less than other facets of the created order” and that “every person has the right to a job at a living wage.” Then they might argue that since the separation of church and state “should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life” that the church should not simply roll over and play dead when it comes to standing up for what it believes, no matter how the political winds are blowing.

And, of course, what would really amaze me is for a bishop–any bishop–to do something I have yet to hear in four decades of being a Methodist pastor, which is not simply to announce that they will enforce the current disciplinary positions on sexuality issues, for example–or conversely, that they intend to ignore them–but to actually and accurately defend those positions and tell the members of their church why they believe that ours is indeed a biblical ethic grounded in the gospel, even if parts of our current statement could stand to lose some of the more abrasive language.

In short, putting partisan politics aside, I’d love for our bishops to exercise the same kind of moral authority grounded in the church’s official teachings that I have seen this week in Pope Francis who was, by the way, elected to his office at the seasoned age of seventy-six, or some four years older than the mandatory retirement limit for our bishops and clergy.

Or is that simply asking too much of the men and women whom we believe have been summoned by the Spirit to serve as our spiritual leaders?

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20 Responses to What Methodist Bishops Can Learn from the Pope

  1. Becky Monto says:

    How I wish you could be in our pulpit! Could I share this, please!

  2. bhager28 says:

    Well said my friend. Our message becomes diluted when we allow contemporary culture to drive our agenda.

  3. Kathe says:

    Well put. You would make a wonderful Biship!

  4. Brandye says:

    So very eloquently put. Sharing with faithful friends. What if all evangelical leadership stepped out and took a stand?

  5. Part of the answer lies in the difference in polity. The Pope has no need to concern himself with the possibility of a changing doctrine. He is himself in charge of that process. Others can argue, but there is no political process for them to make a change outside of his discernment to do so. This allows the Pope to stand firmly entrenched in the doctrine he believes should be unchanged. Our bishops can speak to the doctrine we have with full voice, only to find that in the years to come it could change in very meaningful ways.

    A similar issue for our bishops is that they do not necessarily endorse the doctrine of the church currently. That falls upon the shoulders of those who elect them, and therein lies another part of this struggle. Those voting for the bishops are not fully engaged in the doctrine of the church and came into the order with the hope of seeing some of these doctrines changed. That also falls upon the shoulders of those who elect them.

    The bottom line of this argument is that the democratization of the UMC does not allow for our episcopal leaders to act with the same conviction or even humility of the Pope. And that says something as well, does it not?

  6. Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) says:

    To expand slightly on Mike’s excellent points…

    Roman Catholic teaching has and embodies literally centuries of reflective discussion of the issues on which it takes clear positions. And even where teaching on specific issues (such as abortion on demand) is necessarily less voluminous in terms of time, since this was simply not an issue on which the church had any need to speak until the 20th century, it is authoritatively grounded on centuries of Roman Catholic reflection on the nature of human life and our call to respect and protect it at all ages and stages.

    We have no claim to anything like that as United Methodists. Within our US Methodist heritage, our Book of Discipline used to be called the Book of Doctrine and Discipline, but the doctrinal piece of that, even then, was little more than the Articles of Religion and the General Rules (to which we now also add the Confession of Faith these days). Though we have made these three documents essentially unchangeable through the Restrictive Rules, what we haven’t done is generate a concomitant authoritative set of interpretations of these pieces over time. We have viewed the Articles and Confession as a sort of “baseline” or maybe “plumbline,” using them as mere boundary conditions rather than foundations for other doctrinal elaboration– and that is if we have in fact done much to teach or lead our people to reflect on them at all. And where we have done that, the question has more often been “what do you think/feel about what that says” rather than “Here is how we understand the core of our faith. How shall we live our lives and think and pray together accordingly?”

    Add to this the fact that we have effectively prevented our bishops from being teachers or even pastors in the life of our church by the sheer number of congregations assigned to their oversight and the sheer volume of administrative tasks we have also placed upon them.

    Realistically, if we hope or expect our bishops to speak or act as this pope has done (and, frankly, as many before him have and likely many after him will), we will need to ask and then dare to answer some serious questions about our ecclesiology, our polity, and just how actively we really expect and will make actual room for our stated doctrinal standards to function among us.

    I say all of this not to say we should seek to become like Rome in these ways. Instead, I note these things to indicate why it is unrealistic to expect our bishops to function as the pope can and does in his ecclesial context.

    • Kyle Gould says:

      Taylor, every time I see you respond or hold something up for discussion, I’m always amazed. Thank you for your timely insights and the gentle demeanor with which you offer them.

    • Taylor–you make some excellent observations and I appreciate the distinctions you draw between our polity and that of the Catholic Church. Part of our difficulties as a denomination do indeed stem from the fact that our doctrinal standards have been largely fossilized in a misguided attempt to protect them. Unfortunately that has also made them largely irrelevant to the ongoing life of most Methodists who–if they even know of their existence–regard them as simply quaint historic documents and not guideposts for the kind of constant theological reflection that our faith requires.

      You are also correct that our bishops are faced with a mountain of administrivia. But my point is simply that in spite of those obligations, bishops–even our version of them–have a greater responsibility to speak to the soul of the church, particularly when the culture is bombarding our congregants with all kinds of competing messages. Our Social Principles are not the same as doctrine, but they do represent the collective discernment of the church with respect to critical issues. Since we are often wont to say that only the General Conference can speak for the church, what I would ask simply is that our bishops use their bully pulpits to help the church do that, promoting not their own agendas or viewpoints but those of the collective body. I don’t expect our bishops to function in exactly the same way that the pope does. But it would be nice if they at least made an effort to “contend for the faith” every once in a while, if not on social issues, then on at least on doctrinal ones.

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion!

  7. David Green says:

    Dear Chap,

    As always, you write so clearly and concisely with beauty and clarity. When it comes to the office of Bishop, we have made it too political and too much emphasis is placed on holding certain positions that may be popular secularly but possibly not biblically! Keep up the good work of sharing your thoughts.

    In Christ,

    David

  8. Ted Holland says:

    I say dump this man out on his ear. He has no idea what his congregation needs.

    • Mr. Holland– I am posting your response as you have assured me that your reference is to me and not to the pope. You certainly aren’t the first person to suggest dumping me out on my ear, though you are unusually prescient since I don’t recall that we have ever met! Chappell Temple

    • Brandye Scotton says:

      Mr. Holland,

      It’s a shame you feel this way. I have known Chap for several years and I assure you that he prays and works very hard to meet the needs of his congregation.

  9. Larry Harman says:

    It certainly will be interesting to see if any of our Bishops do in fact so step out. Thanks for your timely comments, Chap….

  10. Gary says:

    I am a United Methodist Local Pastor, and I agree with you.

  11. Pastor Stewart Orell says:

    I too would like to see our bishops speak. Too many bishops may not be of one mind however. I just finished a polity class, where the teacher keep saying ” there you go, bringing up the bible” It’s about polity. He is a very good teacher by the way. That sounds rough, but he got me to understand what the class was about. I believe the UMC hasn’t done well in explaining it’s polity, to it’s members. I now understand my bishops position as defined by the UMC. It is not necessarily the biblical position the members see it as. I believe the truth when spoken can refute any false teaching. I thank you for your article. Lets us pray for our Bishops as those who look out for our souls.

    • Becky Monto says:

      I always thought our church was about the bible. Guess I’ve been wrong all these years…that makes me so sad.

      • Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) says:

        Becky,

        You needn’t be sad. I would submit to you our church is deeply grounded in the Bible.

        But the Bible gives precious little guidance about what bishops do and how they do it.

        So churches of every sort that have maintained the role of bishop (the role of oversight) in their polity in some way, as our has, have provided a lot more specifics within their own polity documents.

        For Roman Catholics that is canon law. For Episcopalians, it is their Constitution and Canons. For Presbyterians (who exercise oversight through presbyteries and synods rather than through specific persons identified as bishops) it is their Book of Order.

        For United Methodists, it is the Book of Discipline.

        In our Book of Discipline, the work of the bishop is necessarily primarily administrative, and secondarily (at best) pastoral or doctrinal.

        General Conference can certainly vote to modify the role of the bishop, to place less emphasis on administration and more on pastoral or doctrinal roles. My strong hunch is that to do this successfully would require we significantly increase the number of bishops so as to reduce the number of congregations and other systems they each oversee. Ted Campbell suggested prior to the 2008 General Conference that we consider making every DS a bishop, and our current bishops something more on the lines of archbishops with an almost exclusively administrative role. In point of fact, that would be much more in keeping with the way that Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans tend to organize, and in each case, the bishop (or in some dioceses, at least one of the several bishops on staff) is in every congregation under their care at least once every year.

  12. William H. Pearsall, Sr. says:

    I , too, am a local part-time pastor who has great difficulty in explaining the positions of our church leaders over the controversial issue of pastoral accountability that arises in regard to homosexuality and abortion to our members once they find out those positions!
    My prayer is that every bishop, retired or active, every head of our agencies, every D,S, every pastor, and every church member will read this article, reflect on it, and keep it, rather than delete it.

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