A conversation with Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr.
Among the meeting highlights of the Council of Bishops' meeting in November 2014 will be the traditional ceremonial “passing of the gavel” from former Council president Bishop Rosemarie Wenner to Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco Episcopal Area. Bishop Brown assumed the presidency of the Council in May, but the full Council last met in November, so the formal recognition will occur at the beginning of this meeting followed by the presidential address. United Methodist Communications sat down with Bishop Brown and asked him to share his thoughts.
As president of the Council, what issues do you see as a high priority?
Being in the position of leading the Council means helping us be effective as a leadership organization. Our job is to be the spiritual and temporal leaders for the church. The challenge for us is to come together on the matters we agree are most important and lead together in a cooperative, collaborative way. In other words, we must speak as pastors to the church and to keep the Wesleyan spirit alive.
I believe that we’re a church that has a heart for the poor, a heart for justice, and a deep commitment to a sincere spirituality that is grounded in scripture and in a faith that we live out intentionally. Those are things that we reflect … understanding the world as our parish and a commitment to the Wesleyan way of spirituality is key.
How do we bring hope to a hurting world amidst so much tragedy?
Hope occurs in the places where we meet people—where people live and work. In thousands of communities through local churches and campus ministries and chaplaincies and prison ministries and other ways, we are engaged in being the church and engaging people in the work of meeting Jesus. That is how we come to understand how God is at work in peoples’ lives. Those are the places where disciples are made and sanctified and transformation happens. I believe that work is happening in places across this globe because of United Methodist people trying to be faithful to our calling as a church.
As I talk to people from different continents—both United Methodists and our many partners—people are excited about what can happen when we work as a connectional church and share our resources, our talent, and come together to make a difference. That gets the attention of people who don’t think of God in the way we do and causes some to say, “Well, maybe there is something about this Jesus that they’re connected with.” And it has the power to hold us together.
Why is unity important to the future of the church?
Jesus calls us to be in unity. I believe that unity has the power to hold us together. And I believe that is where the majority of people in our church are. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications says overwhelmingly people don’t want to split. People may be tired of quarreling, but they don’t want to see us break up because we are stronger together than we would be split in any kind of way. Most of us want to stay together. Most of us want to stay on this journey. Most of us see the power and possibility that we have as a people.
And I believe that encouraging unity goes beyond our church doors. We are people who are grounded in a spirituality that understands the God of love seeks love from us above all—love that is not just love towards God, but love towards neighbor.
How can the denomination stay unified amid controversy?
There has been public disagreement in the church since year one of our existence. I don’t think we can expect people to be in agreement all the time. Even among the Council of Bishops, we will disagree on some things. Because we’re sincere about our commitment to faith, we’re passionate about what we believe. Sometimes we understand the scriptures we read differently or have different theological understandings; but we all attempt to do what we believe God wants of us.
We will agree on some things and disagree on other things. It’s important to recognize that it’s not about us; it’s about how we seek to be faithful and recognize other people doing that, too. There are many controversial issues where as a church we’ve taken strong positions—things like how we deal with immigration; how we view the poor; how we feel about the death penalty, birth control and other issues.
The church has taken positions that many people may disagree with, and we continue to have discussions because we are very diverse. If it’s done in a way that is civil and respectful of the fact that both opinions are coming from a place of faith rather than attempting to demonize others that don’t agree with you, it creates the possibility for everyone growing to a deeper understanding and living faithfully in a community together.
How do we live in community if we can’t all agree?
Leading a church with a diversity of perspective begins by letting folks know we hear them, and that we are listening both to those voices that are in the majority and those that are in the minority so that all know they’re heard. And we look to find the places where we can agree to work together and find common ground.
Our primary mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And that means disciple-making needs to be our first priority. Transforming the world is what we do when we are engaged in helping people respond to disaster or when we take on the challenge of trying to affect global health or when we reach out to the poor in ways that give people hope and possibility when they previously had little. That’s the core of our work -- and that must be first.
How do we become a more global church?
One of the things that’s key is genuinely valuing the contribution that the different segments of our church bring and contribute. In the past, our church was often thought of as primarily a U.S. church, and most of the decisions were made by people in the U.S. But we are moving to a place where we are genuinely seeking to find ways to broaden our wisdom and take the needs of all into consideration. One dimension of that is recognizing that in a worldwide church, there are many different world views and we come from very different experiences.
What does the future hold for The United Methodist Church?
I think that our church is doing a great many exciting things. Just in recent weeks, 42 young adult mission fellows were consecrated at the Global Young People’s Gathering for service around the world. We are engaging in healing ministries of various kinds, whether it’s Ebola in Africa or concern for young children coming unaccompanied across the U.S. border as they try to escape from the terrorism and gang violence at home. Volunteers are rallying to respond to disasters, large and small, and United Methodist missionaries are working for peace and justice in the midst of Palestine even as this war is raging. The list goes on. These kind of things are often never talked about or are taken for granted, but they are just examples of many ways that our church is making a constructive difference in the world.
Viewers can watch the speech online while it is happening at umc.org/cobaddress, where it will also be archived for later viewing.