There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC. As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth). But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church. Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ. Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.
2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
- The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
- The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
- The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice
Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.
The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.
If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church. Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into
that role those roles ineffective.
I am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.
Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.
I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term. And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.
All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?