A Retired Bishop Weighs In

William H. Willimon, is a retired UMC Bishop, and current teacher at Duke Divinity. He. as many, has decided to weigh in on the matters facing the UMC. You can read his comments  here. I will focus on a few of the low points in the hope of demonstrating why it is that going into 2020 we, as United Methodists, need to figure out how we can separate in the least harmful way possible and quit pretending that we can exist together in denominational ministry. At this point, I am convinced that we really don’t even like each other, let’s stop pretending and get on with the work of the kingdom.

At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.

One of two things is true here. Either a retired Bishop genuinely was praying the God smites those who actually share the theological stance of the church he used to serve, or he thinks that both prayer, and calling upon God to smite people, is a joke to be shared widely. Neither is terribly appropriate for a Bishop, and both show that we are in a very bad place. Not knowing the Bishop, I hope he was joking, but given the state of our Bishops, I am not certain he was not expressing their feelings.

The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord, months earlier nearly everybody had announced how they would vote on the questions before us.

Obviously Jesus could not be involved because what he wanted is not what happened. You can not spend an entire day calling upon the Holy Spirit and then complain that the divine did not show up because you did not get your way. We trust that somehow the Holy Spirit moved in the General Conference, despite the ugliness, or you do not. If you trust that The Spirit moved, then you must lay down your hubris and abide by the decisions made. If you do not trust that the Spirit moved, then why the name of all that is holy are we still doing this?

Now it is the UMC’s turn to experience the agony previously endured by the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, though I fear that our interlocked, connectional polity will make our pain worse. We bishops believed in unity but couldn’t figure out how to lead it. As we called for generosity and openness from the podium, Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals.

It is interesting how he phrases many things here. First, the pain we are experiencing is only because of disobedience. Disobedience brings with it pain. Again, if you do not believe that the Holy Spirit is in the doctrine of the church, it’s time to go. If you believe that The Spirit is, then you best follow to the best of your ability. If you do not want a connection as polity, you likely should not have been a Methodist in the first place. It is nice to see him admit that the Bishops were lost on how to lead. Some of us have been saying this for decades. Then of course we get to the real zinger, traditionalists are bad! Those nasty people making deals. Progressives would never do such a thing! They would never have briefings and give voting guides! They never try to influence others on the floor! They certainly don’t have bishops making video after video about the merits of their favored plan. All of the caucus groups do the same thing, so if it is wrong, condemn it all. If you think for a second that the caucus groups do things differently, then you are willfully ignorant, and likely should not have been named a Bishop in the first place. The Bishop here, and likely most of us, have become guilty of being the monster that we are decrying. We find ways to justify the behavior of our tribe, while condemning the behavior of other tribes, when the truth is that we are all doing the same things.

The misnamed Traditional Plan—little in the 200-year tradition of American Methodism justifies such punitive, exclusionary measures—

Since he was specific to American Methodism, I will comment mainly on that, but will point out that both Saint Paul and Saint John called for not only exclusion of those who were not believing in the proper manner, but also expulsion of them. We can quibble over what should be grounds for expulsion of exclusion, but you can not say it does not exist. Allow me to quote sections of the Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church in America 1798.

Quest. 3. How shall we prevent improper persons from insinuating themselves into the society?

Answ. 1. Give tickets to none until they are recommended by a leader, with whom they have met at least six months on trial.

The tickets here refer to the ability to receive the Eucharist. Yes, exclusion from the Eucharist. No ticket, no juice and crackers for you. Pretty exclusionary.

Quest. 5. What shall we do with those members of society,
who wilfully and repeatedly neglect to meet their class?

Answ. 1. Let the elder, deacon, or one of the preachers, visit them, whenever it is practicable, and explain to them the consequence if they continue to neglect, viz. Exclusion.

2. If they do not amend, let him who has the charge of the circuit exclude them in the society; shewing that they are laid aside for a breach of our rules of discipline and not for immoral conduct.

Did you catch that? Expulsion for a breach of the rules of discipline even if it is not ‘immoral conduct’.

Other things that called for expulsion, or withholding the ticket, in the Discipline of this time was being married to an unbeliever (unequally yoked), buying or selling a slave, the buying, selling, or giving of spiritous liquors, superfluous dress, disorderly conduct, immoral behavior, and more. These are the early documents of our history, and yes, there is a very long and strong history of expelling people from the society and/or withholding the Eucharist from those who did not measure up to the standard. This is just for the members. Pastors were held to a higher standard. I am not advocating for the re-institution of all of this, I am simply stating the fact that there is indeed a very long history in American Methodism of excluding and expelling those who were not living in line with the doctrines and discipline of the church. By the way, these are not even the band meetings that were for Christian accountability. They had even more stringent requirements. If we are going to talk about the history of American Methodism, we need to talk about the reality of it, not some idealized glossed over version we create to try and support an inaccurate point.

As for those in the global church who participated in this smackdown of North American Methodist mission and evangelism, they may soon regret the loss of financial support from a considerably weakened North American Methodism.

This is just ugly. Really ugly. You think so little of your brothers and sisters that you would degrade their belief suggesting that they will regret it because of money? You should be rending your high priced suit and repenting in dust and ashes for such a sickening and self righteous thought. The church in America may be a church of gold, but it is not so everywhere. Repent from the ugly ethnocentric basis of these words, and beg your brothers and sisters to forgive you.

Polls showed that the majority of North American United Methodists supported the One Church Plan. Many African and Asian delegates, who come from vital churches full of Holy Spirit-induced innovation, joined the conservatives in dictating to the North American United Methodists the boundaries of our mission and the scope of congregational formation.

Funny how being a worldwide church was just fine when the American voice was the only one and now that other parts of the globe have found their voice it is suddenly a problem. Ethnocentrism is ugly, and it was on full display in, and after, the General Conference.

All pneumatology is local, gift of God from the bottom up.

Except for every ecumenical council ever. Listen, we are not congregationalists, or Baptists. If you want to go that route, it’s ok, you are free to, but Methodism, and it’s Anglican roots, are not and should not be, Congregationalist or Baptist. This is the logic of a young child amounting to screaming “it’s not fair” and stomping your feet. You can’t have your way, so we will change the entire church governing structure.

At the end of this, I am now convinced that nothing has been learned by this. I am right, and you are wrong, is the thought for the day. There is not only not trust in the Bishops, there is not trust in each other. It is not a question of if there is going to be a separation, it is a question of if we are willing to admit that there already is. Will we admit this and live in two houses so that we can move forward in life and ministry, or will we simply move to two bedrooms for the sake of appearance while continuing to fight and hurt each other? Why in the name of all that is holy would you want to be in a denomination with me, whom you called upon God to smite anyway?

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6 Replies to “A Retired Bishop Weighs In”

  1. I agree with you analysis 100%. What I didn’t like about the One Church Plan is that it sent the vote back to the individual churches, causing yet, more division. Everybody is in or everyone is out…no individual church voting.

  2. Scott, I admire your chutzpah in taking on a high octane ecclesiastical celeb like Will Willimon. He’s notorious for his tongue-in-cheek digs at all sides, a kind of jaded stand-up comedy where you get the jokes if you’re an insider. I used to think what he was saying was profound; then I discovered he never commits. He treats church as a potluck, a shabby, worldly parody of the Kingdom. Famously, he appeared at a Confessing conference in Indianapolis, doing his routine. When he finished he was confronted (and exposed) by Billy Abraham. The moment must have been embarrassing for Willimon because his clowning was exposed for what it really was: equivocation.

    1. Gary Bebop, I think you hit the nail on the head. Satire and humor are always good ways to avoid taking a position. What he has written in this case, including the organization he wrote it for, pretty much confirms what most informed people think about him.

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