Are Bishops Thermometers or Thermostats in the #UMC?


Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail about the choice that leaders have as they lead their churches or denominations:

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.

In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment…

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963

MLK’s last line is the haunting one: condemnation of silent or vocal sanctions of things as they are.

Bishops are essentially the executive branch of the United Methodist Church. They are charged with putting into practice the doctrines and polity that is set by the legislative branch (General Conference) and with adapting practices based on  judicial rulings (the Judicial Council). And yet like the executives in many nations and companies, they can either lead in ways that reflect their culture’s current state, or they can lead in ways that make their cultures more just. That’s the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat.

Broken Episcopal Thermostats

Sadly, all too many United Methodist bishops are thermometers of their cultures rather than thermostats who change the culture around them when it comes to the full inclusion of LGBT clergy and acceptance of same-gender marriage.

In Alabama, we previously compared a letter by an Alabama bishop to the letter of white southern clergy who wanted MLK to “slow down” and “wait” because…covenant.

As United Methodists we uphold that process as much as we uphold the current result of that process, our 2012 Book of Discipline. Any disregard for that order puts the integrity of our covenant together in jeopardy.

Such a statement reflects a support of the status quo and for our actions to be reflective of that reading of a thermometer.

More egregiously, in the Great Plains, the Bishop there says in a letter to the church area:

“Someone asked me “Bishop, what if 100 of us do same-gender unions?” My answer is this: “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.”

Such a statement reflects being a thermometer of the culture of trial and judgment, rather than being a thermostat that changes the culture towards radical reconciliation. Why so quick to suspend and rush to trial? There are many legal ways Bishops can avoid perpetuating the culture of judgment. As well, the statement rejects the Discipline language in ¶361.c that says that such a suspension is optional, not mandatory. Promising to suspend and try unilaterally without consideration for context or situation, as the Discipline requires, reflects being a thermometer to the culture of trial, fear, and suppression.

Finally, in Oklahoma in January, the Bishop there says in a statement to the press regarding the striking down of Oklahoma’s secular law against same-gender marriage:

“The Church finds itself in a precarious position. We are taught Scriptures that God created a man for a woman and we are bound to uphold and to share what the Scripture says to us,” Hayes said. “Society is ever-changing, ever-evolving but there are basic laws by God that do not change — they do not change with the wind.”

Such a statement reflects being a thermometer of the dominant voices within our congregations. While I believe the good Bishop is sincere in his belief that opposing same-gender marriage is being a thermostat to a perceived permissive culture, such a statement is also firmly in line with the opposition’s rhetoric to women preachers in the 1920s.

However, commendations are in order: in more private remarks made by the Bishop to the clergy in Oklahoma, the Bishop said that we should “lead with grace” and overcome that culture of judgment and fear. The less fear and judgment in our churches, the better! This is the Pope Francis approach to contentious issues: changing the way we express our faith convictions without necessarily changing the content.  Only time will tell if this approach is a thermostat or just a different way of telling the temperature.

Thermostats that Work

Thankfully, not all thermostats are broken in the United Methodist Church.

It was announced yesterday by MINDNY that the trial involving Dr. Thomas Ogletree has been resolved: the Bishop of New York has dismissed all the charges, and furthermore, will not be prosecuting any pastors who marry same-gender couples:

Church trials produce no winners…Church trials result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. The burdensome cost of trials combine to negate any benefit in the ongoing debate on matters relating to human sexuality…I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.

Likewise, one bishop in the West has pledged to not automatically suspend clergy accused of performing same-gender marriages during the complaint process. Such a statement is more in line with the Discipline than the Great Plains bishop’s interpretation above, while also being a thermostat to this culture of judgment and fear.

Finally, Bishop Carcaño in California has offered ecclesial asylum to clergy like Frank Schaefer whose credentials were removed at Christmastime (again–why do we schedule bad events at inappropriate times?). And her rationale for such an action includes this historical tidbit:

At our annual conference session earlier this year we celebrated the visionary leadership of Bishop Gerald Kennedy who in 1963 invited to come to the West 8 Methodist pastors from Mississippi who had been condemned and ostracized by Methodists and others for standing against racial discrimination.

Side note: among the eight was also Rev. Maxie Dunnam, who sadly has forgotten what it was like to be excluded as he has been one of the loudest voices against LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church. Thankfully, like the 1960s bishop before her, Bishop Carcaño’s thermostat is changing the culture and offering a safe place for ministry for all.

In closing, whether we are thermometers or thermostats, all are haunted by these prescient words of MLK Jr in the same letter:

[T]he judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Your Turn

Your turn:

  • Are our bishops called to be thermostats, or are they just “set” by General Conference and have no agency or role to change culture?
  • What reaction do you have to the Bishop of New England committing to ceasing prosecutions of pastors who officiate same-gender marriages?

Thanks for your comments!

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  1. Jason Radmacher says

    A correction first: Bishop McLee is in the New York Annual Conference.
    I think the resolution announced yesterday shows that the BoD gives the bishops space to lead, to be thermostats as it were. The complaint process gives bishops incredible powers to influence/shape the discussion, from appointing the jury pool, the prosecutor, the presiding bishop, etc. To hear many bishops speak (100 complaints = 100 trials), one would think their hands were tied. I’m optimistic about the upcoming forum, too, since it will lack the winner/loser dynamic of our votes at AC and could potentially allow people to be honest about their experiences without the fear of charges being filed.

  2. A Lee Franklin says

    I guess the thing that keeps coming up in my mind is that we (Yes! THE UNITED Methodist Church) is a global church. I keep hearing about the culture in the good ol’ US of A, but what about our brothers and sisters around the world who proudly represent their conferences and congregations at General Conference. Just because the culture of the USA would move to full inclusion of the GLBQT element, we have got to remember that the US is only a small part of the worldwide denomination. You don’t like what Scott Jones said? You don’t like what Bob Hayes said? Fine! But, as an Episcopal leader, they are bound (by the Discipline) to enforce the rules and doctrines of The UMC (in its full and global setting) and not just the whim of the culture in north America. It matters not whether I (personally) want full inclusion of our gay brothers and sisters — as a United Methodist, in full connection, and therefore in covenant with my clergy colleagues around the world — I am obliged to recognize that I took a vow to teach and maintain the doctrines of The UMC. Should those doctrines and rules change, then I’ll have to teach and maintain the new rulings. But until then, the cultural forces in the USA are not the teachings around the world.

    • Zzyzx says

      This line of arguing seems to assume that full GSM inclusion is merely a cultural issue, rather than a worldwide justice issue. And simply because I’m pledged to be in connection with someone does not equate to gagging myself when those whom I’m in connection with are acting unjustly. I’m not in the USA and I cannot support exclusion of GSM folks.

  3. says

    What is or is not countercultural is a hugely contextual question. It is countercultural in the Southeast to be pro-LGBT, but not in the Pac NW. Of course the gospel is countercultural, but it is counter ANY culture, not just the culture I happen to be in or happen to prefer.

    I think we in the UMC are too selective about when we do and do not want bishops to have and/or act with authority. See, for instance, the reaction to having a set-apart bishop, or the reaction to the restructuring efforts that would allow actual direction in our denomination. Others have suggested not having bishops for life, because many elements in the church – left and right – actively despise the episcopal office.

    We like episcopal authority when it acts the way we wish. We find the episcopal office counter-gospel (aka “thermometer”) when it goes against our wishes. We can’t have it both ways, though.

    The historical function of the episcopacy is to guard and facilitate the transmission of the faith, the build up the church and see that it holds to its historic and doctrinal identity. Expecting bishops to act more like 1960’s flower children than ecclesiastical leaders is neither realistic nor preferable. Even that most hierarchical of churches, our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, do not allow bishops to go radically against church teaching. The Pope, though infallible when speaking ex cathedra, cannot even promulgate something that alters a historic position overnight.

  4. Jeni Markham Clewell says

    If we contemplate what we know about Jesus (yes, clergy do this occasionally) then we must never blindly accept conventional wisdom. We must question everything and hold it up in perspective to what would be said or done or planned through the lens of pure, unconditional love of God and neighbor. As I read it, that is the greatest, most vital commandment. Love God, love neighbor. Jesus, reduce us to love.

  5. Tony Moreau says

    Whether I agree or disagree with any of the actions or words of any of the Bishops doesn’t really matter. What I am ultimately concerned with is whether all of our Bishops Love God with their entirety, love all people, and are willing and attempting to live and the teach the way of Jesus Christ. Are our Bishops being led by the Holy Spirit?
    Thermometers only offer a reading which then must be interpreted. A thermostat is set by outside influence. Whether it is set right is also subject to interpretation.
    The only appropriate gauge of our Christian walk is Christ. Are we being Christlike? Our earliest church leaders disagreed, but in the end we follow them because they loved God, loved people and sought to live and teach the way of Christ even though it cost them their lives.
    I wants Bishops who are willing to storm the gates of hell! I really could care less what side of this issue they come down on as long as they got there on ther knees, praying, fasting, reading scripture, listening to the voice of God!

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