In trying to understand the future of the episcopacy, I’ve been trying to understand how it works in the present, outside of the obvious roles of appointing clergy and presiding over sessions of the Annual Conference. In doing so, my bubble was burst as I read one of the most disturbing paragraphs in Richey and Frank’s book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition:
The Discipline provides no theological or ecclesiological rationale for episcopacy in the UMC; does not locate UM episcopacy in the spectrum of episcopal practices in various Christian traditions; and defines few specifically mandated responsibilities of bishops. While a number of bishops have published autobiographies of been the subject of biographical studies, few have attempted their own interpretations of any theological or historical basis for their role in the Church. - Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, pp. 145-146
The authors conclude that while vigorous defenses were presented in the 19th century, today’s Church is fairly silent – perhaps because we take the role for granted. I would posit another possibility that is less optimistic: most people in the pew (and many behind the pulpit) are indifferent about the matter. How many people in the pews can name their resident bishop?
I think it’s important to know our bishop; important enough that not only our resident bishop but also our district superintendent’s name are listed in our Sunday worship bulletins as leaders. Our bishops are our shepherds.
But why haven’t we said so? In checking out Richey and Frank’s claim above, they’re right about the Discipline’s lack of rationale. I suspect Methodism has coasted for hundreds of years on a traditional/historical understanding of the episcopacy, but the law of inertia has caught up with us. For lack of theological and ecclesiological direction, the UMC has “done its own thing” where bishops are concerned. More to the point, jurisdictions within United Methodism have done their own thing. Our denomination is fractured, and the fracture is taking its toll. The UMC in the U.S. went under 8 million members this year. However, the UMC outside of the U.S. is growing.
So what do we do?
1. Get rid of the episcopacy?, Not my vote, and it would be a feat of legislation and lobbying to enact it. However, the fact is that the Episcopal Fund is in dire straits. Only twenty-one conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionments in 2005. That’s only one-third of the whole Connection.
2. Redefine it? If folks don’t know who their own bishop is or what a bishop does, redefining the role would be a good start. We’re currently in a tenable situation; what theological and ecclesiological rationale can we give to support continuing the episcopacy, which is becoming an unfunded liability? The Episcopal Fund is 14% of the General Conference four-year budget, or $83.5 million. Can we afford something we can’t define?
3. Elect bishops globally instead of regionally? The Council of Bishops seems to lack cohesiveness; bishops represent the area they were elected out of, and not the global church. Before 1939, jurisdictional conferences didn’t even exist, born out of racism. Now, not only are we becoming regionally segregated, we are running the risk of being an “American-only” United Methodist Church. What does this say to our United Methodists abroad? But this too would be a feat of legislation and lobbying.
4. Enable bishops to lead. This is my vote. Our bishops have the power to appoint pastors and preside at conferences, but they have no voice or vote in either local or general church matters. They rule over matters of church law, but their decisions are always subject to automatic appeal by the Judicial Council. Do we really empower them with leadership, or do we shackle them instead?
Maybe one question in this overrides all else: Is the UMC a connectional church, or are we an association of local churches? That might answer how we approach the future of the episcopacy in United Methodism. In fact, that might answer how we approach United Methodism as a whole.
Related blogs here, here and here.