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Illustration by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Two groups from different theological perspectives are asking the Council of Bishops to speak out.

Groups to bishops: You must speak

By Heather Hahn
Sept. 5, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Updated: This story has been updated  to include the most recent numbers of people who signed the Methodist Crossroads statement. The story also includes a link to a statement on Ferguson by two African-American church leaders.

Two United Methodist groups — coming from different theological perspectives — are urging the Council of Bishops to take the lead and speak out on issues facing the church and wider world.

Those issues include the police shooting in Ferguson, the root causes of immigration, violence in Gaza and church divisions on human sexuality.

The Western Methodist Justice Movement and Good News each released a statement this week encouraging bishops’ action. Both are advocacy groups that are not official United Methodist bodies.

What the different statements show, say leaders of both groups, is the value United Methodists place in the guidance bishops can provide.

“In a very practical way, the bishops are the most visible manifestation of The United Methodist Church in the years between our quadrennial General Conferences,” said the Rev. Frank Wulf, the convener of the progressive Western Methodist Justice Movement and its coordinating team.

“This is one reason why major social movements find it so important for bishops to be present when they are making statements of concern to the nation or the world.”

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the conservative Good News group, echoed that statement.

“Regardless of one’s theological perspective, most United Methodists want our bishops to lead through their actions and their teaching,” he said. “Their voice should instruct and inspire us to be God’s faithful instruments of grace and truth in the world.”

The Western Methodist Justice Movement’s letter

In an open letter to the Council of Bishops released on Sept. 5, the Western Methodist Justice Movement asks the council to address three crises.

  • The shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and what the letter called the movement  to say “‘No more!’ to the criminalization of U.S. minority communities and to the militarization of U.S. police forces”
  • The recent surge of children from Central America crossing into the United States, which the letter says “has started to open our eyes to the violence, poverty and injustice that lead to the creation of unhealthy and unsustainable patterns of global migration”
  • The violence in Gaza and the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

The Council of Bishops will next meet Nov. 1-7 in Oklahoma City, but the Western Methodist Justice Movement is asking the body to speak out before then.

“The people for whom you have been elected to provide temporal and spiritual oversight need to hear from you,” the letter said. “They need to know that their bishops are engaged with the critical issues of justice and injustice, violence and peace, wealth and poverty that are roiling the U.S. and the world.”

So far, 84 United Methodists have endorsed the letter, which the group drafted during its Stepping Out in Faith retreat, Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in Zephyr Cove, Nevada.

The group formed after the 2012 meeting of the Western Jurisdiction in San Diego. During that conference, Greater Northwest Episcopal Area Bishop Grant Hagiya invited participants to advance the jurisdiction’s goals and commitments without waiting on the institutional church, Wulf said. The group is the result.

Two African-American United Methodist leaders also have called on the Council of Bishops to respond to what happened in Ferguson. "We urge you to take a bold stand against racism including the militarized armament and surveillance being used against Black people," wrote the Revs. Pamela Lightsey and Gilbert H. Caldwell on the site of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, another unofficial United Methodist group. "We await a pastoral letter from you that does not straddle the political fence nor prematurely call for healing in the absence of sincere acts of justice and reconciliation making."

Good News’ email

Good News describes itself as a conservative-evangelical movement that has been working for renewal and reform in The United Methodist Church for nearly 50 years.

In an email titled “UMC Bishops Must Hear from Laity and Pastors,” Good News on Sept. 3 urged people on its mailing list to advocate for the Methodist Crossroads statement. So far, at least 3,300 United Methodists have endorsed the statement, which says bishops must enforce and publicly support church law restrictions against same-sex marriage if the denomination is to hold together.

“Regarding the issue of human sexuality, I would love to see our bishops explain, defend and promote our United Methodist position that sex is to be reserved for heterosexual marriage,” Renfroe said.

Why bishops are important

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, tasks bishops to be leaders, teachers, exemplars and prophetic voices, among other roles.

The United Methodist Church’s constitution, part of the Book of Discipline, requires that the Council of Bishops plans “for the general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church.”

The Council of Bishops is also called to carry into effect the rules and responsibilities approved by General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. The council at present includes 66 active bishops and 93 retired bishops from around the world.

While individual bishops have spoken out on Ferguson or responded to immigration along the U.S. border, Wulf said, his group feels it is important to hear from the council as a whole.

“There are situations and issues that emerge from time to time that demand a timely prophetic, pastoral and healing word from the church,” he said. “But who is positioned to offer this word from the church? Only the Council of Bishops!”

He said the bishops’ statement on nuclear disarmament in the mid-1980s helped shift the national conversation on the building and stockpiling of such weapons. He sees a possibility for the bishops to influence the conversation again on the issues his group raised.

He did note that the Methodist Crossroads and Western Methodist Justice Movement statements are asking for two different things. One is asking the bishops to ensure prohibitions in the Book of Discipline are enforced, while Wulf noted his group’s statement is an “invitation to teach and speak.”

“It is telling, however, that both groups are going to the Council of Bishops,” Wulf said. “This testifies to our mutual understanding about who and what the bishops are and how they function as a council for the church as a whole.”

Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., of the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference, is the current president of the Council of Bishops. He responded to the statement by the Western Methodist Justice Movement.

He said the council has never functioned in a manner that allows members to respond weekly to the many situations that arise around the globe. 

“The council serves as a worldwide church representing 12 million United Methodists on four continents,” Brown said in a statement. “We are committed to our role of being prophetic voices for justice in a suffering and conflicted world, proclaiming the gospel, and alleviating human suffering.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.