If you are a part of the United Methodist world, then you are likely at least somewhat familiar with the reality that we face. A special General Conference has been called with the goal of determining the way forward for the church. You also likely know that there is a great deal of mistrust in general, and from many of us, myself included, toward the Bishops, in how things have been handled. Many believe that the fix is in, some feel unrepresented in the final recommendation, whatever that really is since we still don’t know, and I think that most people are just confused. By the end of this post, those feelings will all likely remain, but there is amazing news. The Council of Bishops is not of one mind on matters of human sexuality, and they have admitted as much. This is no surprise. What the Council had done however, is always closed ranks and circled the wagons. What disagreement there is within it has always stayed there. They, as a general rule, do not speak out against, or question each other. No one circles the wagons like the Council of Bishops (bonus points if you recognize this as being borrowed from Chris Berman of ESPN notoriety). So, let’s set the stage for the news.
The Commission on the Way Forward gave it’s report to the Council of Bishops, the Bishops recommended the local option (I refuse to use their somewhat fancier name), and the other two options will be included in their report in some fashion, but depending on who you listen to, it may be as legislation, it may be as information, it may be as something completely different. Who can tell. It is much of the confusion in truth. Different Bishops gave different reports on what was going to happen. Confusion still reigns supreme unfortunately. The Council of Bishops has also put forward a question to the Judicial Council of the UMC. The question was actually a good one, namely what would be allowed to be presented at the called General Conference. It is important to know what can, and can not, be presented. Still, many of us thought that the Council of Bishops would use this as an opportunity to silence any dissenting voices in an attempt to force their plan through. We were not surprised when the council sent a brief suggesting this very thing. By now, you must be thinking what in the heck is the good part of this, and I am happy to tell you that it is Bishop Scott J. Jones. Bishop Jones filed a brief with the Judicial Council as well, as is his right and privilege, but was clear that he spoke for himself. It’s a good read, but not really the news. The news is that he also filed a reply brief to the Council of Bishops brief. That is the story, and that is where the good news actually is.
From Bishop Jones reply brief: “First, the Council of Bishops has at no time discussed a recommended answer to the question posed to the Judicial Council nor taken a position authorizing any one or all of its officers to represent it in any particular way. When Bishop Ough says “he Council believes the answer to this question is no” and “he Council respectfully submits that a plain reading of if 14 and 507 .5 and Decision 227 suggest that the question should be answered in the negative” he is misrepresenting the Council which has never taken that position and never discussed how the question should be answered. Bishop Ough is free to argue such a view as an individual bishop,and there may be other bishops or even officers of the Council who agree with him. But to submit this argument as an action of the Council of Bishops is a misrepresentation and an error of fact.” Take a moment and let that sink in if you will. A Bishop just said that the Council did not do what was claimed in the brief. This does not happen. Remember, no one circles the wagons like the Council of Bishops. Dissent is always internal, not external. They try to speak with one voice, which is likely why all their statements are so contrary and full of what seems like double speak. This has been our experience in America at the very least. Bishop Ough, on behalf of the entire council of bishops, presented what Bishop Jones politely calls a “misrepresentation and an error of fact”. I’m not trying to put words in Bishop Jones mouth, but that sounds a lot like “told a lie” to me. Further more, as Jones asserts, if there was not conversation about this, Bishop Ough made an attempt to, without authorization, and unilaterally, decide the councils position. The only logical reason that I can think of for him to do this is the fear that many of us had, to push his preferred plan through. This is a terrible abuse of power, and Bishop Jones is right to point it out. Also from Bishop Jones reply brief: “Second, the time of the Council of Bishop‘s filing of the petition has been
misrepresented. Bishop Ough states “ecause the petition of the COB will not be filed until on or immediately before the deadline of July 8, persons, other than the COB, filing petitions by that deadline must guess the content of the report and petition.” The Council’s action did not state that the petition would be filed “on or immediately before the deadline of July 8.” The Council stated in its May 4 press release “full details of the plans and accompanying legislative proposals will be released as soon as final editing of the entire report is completed and translated into the official languages of the General Conference. It is estimated this will be no later than July 8.” The press release matches what has been verbally told to the Council of Bishops on several occasions, that the only obstacles to publication of the report were editorial matters and translation into the official languages of the General Conference. Bishop Ough appears to indicate that a decision to submit the report has already been taken by the Council.The officers may in fact have decided to delay submission to the last possible moment, but if so they have done so for reasons other those disclosed to the Council. Again, this misrepresentation constitutes an error of fact. The Council of Bishops as a body has not authorized the filing of a brief on this docket item and any assertion to the contrary is a misrepresentation.” Again, we have a Bishop show a great deal of courage and speaking out against the Council, or at least Bishop Ough and his unilateral action on behalf of the Council. This is unprecedented for the most part. This does not happen. Finally, it seems that there might be an American Bishop who not be silenced and will speak the truth. Finally it seems as if there is an American Bishop that will lead. Finally we get a look behind the curtain to see that Oz is not so great and powerful as we might think. In a statement to the United Methodist News Service, Bishop Jones said, “In my years as a bishop I have served on more than 20 decision-making groups, This is the only one where members began disagreeing within 48 hours of adjournment on what they decided.” (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-action-leads-to-questions) Again, you might ask what is so good about this, and my answer is that there is a Bishop being honest. No fancy language, no clarifying statement to make everyone feel at ease, just honesty. The entire article by the news service is worth a read.
The Council of Bishops seems to have contextualized everything so much, that there is no actual objective truth, just the subjective truth that individual Bishops decide upon. It went so far as a sitting Bishop, without authorization or consent, file a brief with the Judicial Council in an attempt to influence them (this is the purpose of briefs after all). The house of cards that has been built might just be tumbling down, and that is a good thing. If there is a way forward, it is going to be led by, and because of, people like Bishop Jones who will not be so concerned with speaking truth to power, just speaking truth, and not be so worried about contextualizing something that everything is lost. There will likely be a price to pay by Bishop Jones. He broke the unwritten first rule of the council of bishops, that no one in the council talks about the council. He has taken courageous steps to speak the truth and to not allow “misrepresentations and errors of fact” go unchallenged. He has been honest and told us that the Bishops, as a whole, don’t seem to know what they agreed to. The silence from Bishop Ough and current president Bishop Carter is deafening. Bishop Jones is, right now, hope that truth will be spoken. Those truths might not be pleasant, or what we all want to hear, but it is truth, and where there is truth, there is hope. Thank you Bishop Jones for that.