By Dr. Riley B. Case
On May 7, 1985, the Commissioning Service for the first missionaries of the new Mission Society for United Methodists was set for Highland Park Church, Dallas. The president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop James Thomas, had made arrangements for three bishops to participate in the service. The Mission Society had been organized as an evangelical supplemental mission agency to work with overseas bishops and churches in ways that the Board of Global Ministries was either unable or unwilling to do.
At the last moment, Bishop Thomas apologetically reneged on his commitment. Strong voices in the Council of Bishops had prevailed against Thomas, arguing that the new Mission Society was divisive, not officially sanctioned, and was taking the church in a direction they were opposed to. In the months and years to come, the bishops worked actively against the Mission Society, refusing to grant special appointment to elders wanting to relate to the Society, refusing to facilitate itinerating of Society missionaries, and discouraging overseas bishops from use of the Mission Society.
The Mission Society story serves as a good introduction to a curious event that took place at Mount Vernon United Methodist church in Baltimore on October 19 in which two persons were “ordained” by a group called “Church within a Church.” While there is nothing especially unusual about a denomination or independent group ordaining, in this case there is much unusual because “Church within a Church” is basically a United Methodist group calling itself a “Church” and conducting “ordinations” apart from standing with annual conference.
This is, of course, about homosexuality. Both persons “ordained,” one who claims to be a legally married lesbian, were denied ordination by conference Boards of Ordained Ministry. “Church within a Church” is so convinced that the refusal of the Church to ordain practicing homosexuals is wrong that it is using the “ordinations” to make a public statement in violation of church doctrine and polity. In addition, the location of the ordinations, Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, was chosen because it has links with Bishop Frances Asbury. The “ordinations” were meant to connect the group’s activities with the ordinations conducted by Asbury at the first Christmas Conference of 1784 in which John Wesley authorized an “extraordinary” ordination in America because the Bishop of London refused to ordain clergy for the Methodists. The 2008 “ordination” service was intended to represent a second Christmas Conference.
All this is made more serious because two United Methodist bishops, Jesse DeWitt and Susan Morrison, participated in the renegade “ordinations.” Three other bishops, Judith Craig, Leontine Kelly, and Yvette Flunders (UCC) sent affirming letters of welcome to the event.
Naturally, the event was highly publicized with both the secular and the religious media invited and present. Religious News Service, United Methodist Reporter (two major stories), and at least two major metropolitan dailies were among those who wrote up the event.
For their part, the other bishops speaking officially made a statement pointing out that the persons “ordained” had no standing in the church and were not qualified for United Methodist appointment. But this is obvious and as a reaction is hardly even a slap on the wrist. Calling oneself a “church” and “ordaining” with the presence of bishops is in direct defiance of church law and is a serious challenge to the discipline and order of the church. Ours is a church, remember, which has refused ordination to a number of persons for the sin of rebaptism.
Representatives of the bishops evidently met twice with this “church.” Whatever misgivings the bishops may have had did not keep some of their number from participation and encouragement of this act of defiance. Rather, bishops made statements about holy conferencing and being in conversation with all groups in the church. Bishop Linda Lee, commenting on the “ordinations,” said, “I do not believe (this) is an indication of schism; I believe it is an indication of dissatisfaction.”
The bishops portray their biases. The bishops are in conversation with groups highly critical of the church’s stand on homosexuality. Indeed, bishops are themselves members of such groups. These are groups, which threaten civil disobedience if not allowed to demonstrate on the floor of the General Conference (in violation of the spirit of the rules of the General Conference). Their representative at General Conference, Bishop Melvin Talbert, is given permission to harangue the conference about the “wrong” action taken on the issue of homosexuality.
At the same time, the bishops have denounced evangelical groups such as the Mission Society, UMAction, Good News, and The Confessing Movement. One can imagine the outcry if, for example, Good News suddenly announced it was going into the ordination business and would be starting new churches.
Despite the fact that individual bishops were supportive of the Mission Society, it took fifteen years before any bishop was willing to give special appointment to elders associated with the Mission Society. This was after tens of thousands of persons were won to Jesus Christ, the church was built up in partnership with overseas churches, and millions of dollars was raised for United Methodist work.
The bishops have been particularly critical of UMAction (part of the Institute of Religion and Democracy). The General Board of Church and Society has spent much unnecessary time denouncing UMAction. Bishop Clifton Ives in one presentation went so far as to label UMAction the “enemy.” On an earlier occasion, when some General Board of Church and Society Board Members thought that conversations might be a better way to work with UMAction, and passed a motion to that effect, the General Secretary at that time, Thom White Wolf Fasset, simply had the action excised from the minutes and the chair of the board, Bishop Charles Wesley Jordan never followed through. Before the 2008 General Conference, Bishops Kenneth Carder and Beverly Shamana allowed themselves to be filmed in a video sent to all delegates denouncing IRD.
The bishops speak a great deal about unity but they exhibit a double standard when it comes to groups they support and those they oppose, and between those they choose to have conversations with and those they do not. That does not bode well for the future of the church.