The Bishops’ Call to Prayer

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has issued a brief statement calling the church to prayer in regard to our human sexuality debate. The statement reads:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

They’ve already taken a lot of criticism for this statement in social media. It has been called weak and an abdication of leadership. Many have wanted a stronger statement, one way or the other. They want the Council to say, “We’re going to take charge and enforce the Discipline!” or “We all want to change the statement in the Discipline on human sexuality!” And they want the Council to back up those words with actions.

The Council of Bishops, however, cannot and will not do either of these things. As their statement tells us, they simply do not agree with one another on matters of human sexuality. No unified statement is likely to be forthcoming. Additionally, the Discipline gives them no real authority to hold one another accountable across jurisdictions.

I suppose they could have called for further conversation, but at the present time, debate on these matters is not going to be particularly helpful. What more can be said that hasn’t already been said? Are we likely to bring forward new arguments? Are new insights likely to emerge? The people of the UMC do not simply disagree over homosexuality, but over a broad variety of issues. The differences go all the way to the bottom. They relate to the nature and function of scripture, the centrality of core orthodox doctrines, theological anthropology, the nature of sanctification, and the goal of the Christian life. As I’ve argued before, we’re not likely to have fruitful debate if we cannot agree on a shared set of presuppositions about the topic of our debate.

This assumes, of course, that we actually want to have reasoned, coherent, and respectful conversation around these matters. I used to labor under the impression that this was a widely held goal among those engaged in public discourse in our church. I’ve been disabused of this notion. More often than not we have adopted the logic and strategies of negative campaign ads so common in secular politics: attack the character of your opponents, and eventually you will win the day.

In our current context, debate won’t bring resolution of our differences. Voting at General Conference clearly won’t bring resolution, and neither will kicking this upstairs to the Council of Bishops. We are learning denominationally what so many people realize at crisis points in their lives: we cannot do this of our own power. We are not capable of restoring ourselves to faithfulness. Only God can do that. Prayer should not be a last-ditch effort, but it is sometimes the last thing we do anyway. Nevertheless, prayer is powerful. God is powerful. And God is alive and active in the work of renewing the church today. Calling for prayer, then, is the wisest thing that the Council of Bishops could possibly do in our current circumstances. It is an acknowledgement that this has never really been our church, and we have never really been in charge. We are simply God’s servants living out our callings in the midst of a particular branch of the Church universal.

So I’m going to join the bishops in praying for the UMC. I’m not going to pray for unity for its own sake or for the preservation of an institution. I’m going to pray that out of this struggle and chaos and pain, God will bring renewal and call into being a church that is focused clearly on God’s purposes. I’m going to pray that the people called Methodists will renew their commitment to making disciples of Jesus Christ and engaging in works of piety, justice, and mercy. Whether or not there will continue to be a denomination called The United Methodist Church, I have no idea. That’s not my primary concern. My concern is that people come to know new life in Jesus Christ. If we can’t be about this work, then we have no business calling ourselves a “church” anyway.

19 thoughts on “The Bishops’ Call to Prayer

  1. I would like to see the United Methodist Church resolve its issues, but after following your blog for some time, that seems less likely now than ever. The idea of a group of similarly-minded people working towards cohesion is worth fighting for, but it would seem that that is not the way most within the denomination approach it. And unfortunately the history of Christianity in general seems to be a history of separations as opposed to unity. While there have been times when unlike-minded thinkers found common ground, it seems that most often disputes are resolved by this group splintering from that one, and on and on again. It all seems very counter-productive to the ultimate goal, which you make clear in your last paragraph.

    • Thanks, Walt. I couldn’t agree more. The Protestant impulse is simply to divide when we disagree. There’s not much theological incentive to stay together. And yes, this can be very counter-productive to our goal of making disciples of Jesus. Sadly, we in the UMC have become more pragmatic and political than theological.

  2. I have been and will continue to pray for our bishops and for our church.

    Prayer is important, and it is good that the bishops call for prayer. But more can be done and should be done.

    The bishops are not of one mind because at least some of them don’t have there minds fixed on God and His word, while others who may aren’t vocal enough about it. The bishops give the appearance of bunkering down and protecting each other at all costs, instead of doing what is right.’

    What the bishops could do is unite in bowing to the authority of God and His word, and take up their authority and calling to faithfully preach and teach the Scriptures and lead us accordingly.

    If it is true that the bishops are not able to hold each other accountable according to the Discipline, then that is what needs to be changed in the BoD–not what it says about homosexual practices. The idea of having anyone in the church that is unaccountable is utterly unbiblical (Mt 18:15-18).

    What the bishops can do is quit trying to be politically correct and quit reinterpreting Scripture accordingly, and fulfill their ordination vows. Which is what all clergy need to do, and what lay members can do in relation to their membership vows.

    This is a critical time for our denomination. Like you, David, the survival of our denomination is not my primary concern. It’s too bad our bishops don’t seem to feel that way. Because at this rate we will survive only as what John Wesley feared: a dead sect, holding to a form of “godliness” but denying the power of God.

      • David, I agree, and thank God for the life that is there. But this unity at any price spirit that seems to dominate our bishops and so many in our church will choke the life out of if we continue on that course. Because some prices just are too great to pay. Unity at the expense of sound doctrine and following the word of God is not only too great a price to pay, it defies any Christian definition or concept of unity. Unity must be on the foundation of Christ and His word, or it is not Christian or church unity, though it may be some sort of institutional unity, as in “dead sect”.

  3. If they disagreed with the Discipline’s stance on homosexuality then why did they seek the office of bishop? I mean, it’s not like sexual ethics are a minor thing or something. This is why I have no sympathy for any of them. If you felt that God was calling you to that office, then did you pray through that decision and think about all of the details? Did you not think that you might find corruption among the bishops and have to take a stand – instead of just trying to be politically correct, maintaining the status quo, and saying a lot of vague and meaningless things?
    It sure doesn’t look like they prayed through their calling to be bishops and so I sort of doubt the genuineness of this call to prayer.

  4. David, thanks for your latest post. I read them faithfully. I am so disappointed in the stance the bishops are taking concerning the topic of sexuality in the Methodist Church. If the bishops can not uphold what the scripture says concerning what God states in His Word that marriage is, I see very little hope of resolving the matter of sexuality. I can not belong to a church that does not faithfully uphold scripture…my adult children feel the same way and they have already left the Methodist Church and joined churches that preach, without reservation, God’s truths. If the church does not take a stand, who is. We have capitulated to the culture around us.

    Blessings to you as you serve the Lord, Kitty Mann,

    THanks f

    Kitty Mann

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