The following is the latest commentary from Dr. Riley Case concerning the statement from the retired bishops of the UMC. It’s a good read.

By Dr. Riley Case

Well, the word is out. Thirty-six retired UM bishops have released a statement, “A Statement of Counsel to the Church” (link to United Methodist News Service for the full text with the names of the bishops) saying it is time to change the church’s stand in regard to homosexuality. It appears that on the issue of homosexuality the bishops are determined to stir the pot. The topic, as well as the bishops’ statement itself, will consume a great deal of the church’s time and energy and resources between now and General Conference 2012.

Some preliminary comments about the retired bishops’ statement.

1. We should probably welcome the bishops’ “coming out.” We in the church appear to have our own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in regard to the personal moral and doctrinal stances of our leaders. Many of our church leaders have been equivocating for a long time regarding matters of their personal belief. Leaders say they will uphold what the church affirms but “upholding” is not the same as believing. When I have asked several of the bishops (and other leaders) what they personally believe in regard to the church’s Articles of Religion and other standards, I have been told that such questions are inappropriate (“don’t ask so we won’t have to tell”). We have for years played games at our Jurisdictional Conferences when we have asked Episcopal candidates about their own personal beliefs. Now, at least 33 bishops have put it on the table. At least in regard to the practice of homosexuality (and by extension, the doctrinal standards), they do not, and probably never have, believed what the church has taught. And these are, supposedly, our leaders. They are charged to guard the faith to which they themselves are not committed. This is not a healthy situation.

2. We see progressive ideology at work. Progressive ideology holds that the Bible and church tradition are no longer determinative for our present day. Modern science, secular presuppositions, personal preference-whatever-take precedence. A key to the bishops’ statement is the assertion: “the current disciplinary position of The United Methodist Church, a part of our historical development (italics added) need not, and should not, be embraced as the faithful position for the future.” This is because revelation in progressive ideology is ongoing, truth is ever changing (“developing historically”) and if we can get the votes at General Conference the Bible and church tradition can be superseded. “Experience” is the standard by which all is tested in progressive ideology. Bishop Don Ott and Bishop Sharon Rader indicated that they initiated this statement because of “their experience as church leaders.” The “experience” of the bishops is that they know of practicing homosexuals who have the calling and the gifts for ministry but whose ordination would be denied because of church standards. Therefore, the church should change its standards to accommodate these people. This is not a healthy situation.

3. Is this a declaration of war? In a church already racked with controversy many had hoped that attention might be directed, especially at the next General Conference, to matters other than homosexuality. Could we not avoid what has characterized past General Conferences whenever the church’s stand on homosexuality has been discussed: demonstrations on the floor of the conference, civil disobedience and arrests by civil authorities, hurtful language, smashing of chalices, covering the altar in black, and haranguing of the delegates when the vote doesn’t go the desired way? Recent General Conferences have been showcases not for the church’s unity in purpose and mission but as an unmasking of a church in disarray. Some have asked in recent months whether we might have a moratorium in 2012 on debate over homosexuality. It appears with this retired bishops’ statement that there will be no moratorium. The retired bishops have “made known their names” and wish to encourage “other church and Episcopal leaders to do the same.” This sounds a lot like an invitation to a shoot-out. How many names can we generate? In this the retired bishops may be getting more than what they bargained for. There will be push-back. This is not a healthy situation.

4. It is uncertain what it is the bishops hope to accomplish with the statement. It appears that the retired bishops believe society’s cultural momentum is on the side of full acceptance of homosexual practice (and by extension homosexual marriage), and that the moral weight of 33 retired ministers can tip the balance and carry the General Conference vote in favor of homosexual practice.

If so the retired bishops are out of touch. I confess that when I served my six-year stint as a district superintendent the office gave me an inflated sense of my own importance. Others, particularly pastors, laughed at my jokes and were impressed by my wisdom. The day I was no longer a superintendent all of that ceased. I remember telling an amusing story one day. Not only did no one else think it was amusing; no one else seemed to be paying attention. I was back to being an ordinary person and my opinions carried no special weight. If so for a district superintendent how much more for a bishop? Retired bishops (or any bishops for that matter) might see themselves as generals in a crusade, with multitudes of troops at their command. They overestimate their sense of importance. The day when the church gets stirred up over bishops’ proclamations (especially retired bishops) is past. The church recently voted on whether to ratify constitutional amendments on inclusivity and on the world-wide nature of the church. These amendments were strongly supported by the General Conference and by the bishops, but when ordinary annual conference delegates voted, amendments that needed 2/3 vote could not even command a 50% majority. One bishop spoke about being blind-sided. Better to talk about a disconnect between the church and its leaders. This is not a healthy situation.

5. Do the retired bishops understand how this looks? The bishops are not speaking on behalf of the church to a lost and dying world, or to a society which has lost its moral grounding. The retired bishops instead are speaking on behalf of a secular culture against the church’s own people and against the faith those people have professed. This is not a healthy situation.

6. Have we not learned from Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, U.C.C.s and Presbyterians? The retired bishops argue that we are losing members and quality ministers because of the church’s present position on homosexuality (and by implication, on marriage). The numbers we might be losing from our present stance would pale to the numbers we would lose if we abandoned our present position. From 2005-2009 the ELCA Lutherans declined 7%, the Episcopalians 9%, the Presbyterians (USA) 9%, and the United Church of Christ 12%. Will United Methodists be next? This is not a healthy situation.

7. The retired bishops’ statement ignores, disregards and abandons our overseas brothers and sisters, particularly those in Africa. Despite the fact that one African bishop and one European bishop signed the statement, the statement itself reeks of US-centrism. No global church here. No sensitivity here to the effect this might have in Africa. The statement oozes with implications of US colonialism, imperialism, parochialism, and unilateralism. If changing our stance on homosexuality sexual morality would wreck havoc in American churches, the effect in the African churches would be many times greater. And, the effect in lands where Muslim presence is strong would be devastating. This is not a healthy situation.

8. The word on the street is that the Council of Bishops is so divided it cannot offer the kind of moral vision the church so desperately needs. The word on the street is also that the retired bishops are a hindrance rather than a help in the work of the council. The retired bishops’ statement on homosexuality would lend credence to this kind of talk. This is not a healthy situation.

Stay tuned. There is surely more to come.

(If you would like to reference back copies of these Happenings articles go to rileycase.com. The articles are listed by title.)

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