It’s been said that among the many oxymorons (such as military intelligence, friendly fire, plastic silverware, Microsoft Works) that one should be added to the list: United Methodist. It is quite evident that as a denomination, we are not united.
Could it be that the way we elect bishops is partially to blame? Is the way that we elect bishops truly representative of the whole Church, or do we elect regional leaders that fit the political and social demographic of an area? I think in reality we do the latter, and the problem with that is that we then become a denomination of regions, rather than a united denomination. If we were like the Southern Baptists, where every congregation is autonomous, that would make sense. But at least in theory, our Book of Discipline says that we are a covenant Church. Moreover, our baptismal theology states that our membership exists at three levels; (1) the Church Catholic, (2) the United Methodist Church, and (3) the local congregation or parish. That means – in theory – that a United Methodist in Alabama should feel somewhat at home at a United Methodist Church in Washington state (and vice versa). Moreover, children going through a confirmation class should be taught similarly and come away with the same “method” of Methodism. Again, at least in theory.
We know that practice tells a quite different story.
What would happen if we elected bishops at General Conference instead of at Jurisdictional Conferences? Before someone says “we’ve never done it that way before,” it actually WAS done that way for many years, and jurisdictions are a relatively new invention. The change that created jurisdictions was primarily born of racism… and we ought to be ashamed that we still have such barriers up in a truly United Methodist Church.
One of the first things I learned in a polity class in seminary was that when we elect a bishop, we elect someone to the general superintendency of the whole Church. But in reality, we really don’t. To quote Richey and Frank in their book Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition:
…[I]f bishops are elected in a region, and if their “residential and presidential supervision” is restricted to that region only, in what sense can the Church maintain the myth that bishops are general superintendents or bishops of the whole Church?… [T]heir primary responsibilities lie in the region in which they were elected. (p. 108)
It seems to me that one of the ways to restore unity in United Methodism would be to elect bishops at General Conference. Why? The same people who are shaping legislative and doctrinal policy, mandating missions, and discerning spiritual, liturgical, and sacramental actions in our denomination would be electing people that they believe would best shepherd the church in such a context. Richey and Frank believe that such a change would grant the Council of Bishops more episcopal oversight over the whole connection, as they would be a more representative of it as a whole.
It may be that the reason we don't want bishops to have too much oversight is because, regionally, we don't seem to fully trust them as a Council! We might trust "our" bishops ("our" meaning "from our jurisdiction"), but we are reticent to fully trust them collectively. The recent skirmish between the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council more resembles our U.S. government than a covenant Church.
Jurisdictional conferences tend to “elect their own kind,” and my own Southeastern Jurisdiction is as guilty as anyone in this regard. Such a concept may be in keeping with a United States caught up in the religion of individualism, but it seems antithetical to a United Methodist Church that is supposed to be bound in covenant.
Related blogs here and here.