by Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter
I was respectfully chided by my friend Dave Nuckols of the Reconciling Ministries Network for my recent comment that Bishop Melvin Talbert serves as the best example since 1844 of an unacceptable Methodist bishop. I confess that I might have been caught in a moment of hyperbole while making the otherwise valid point that those bishops who defy their vows should be removed (in the event that they lack the integrity to resign voluntarily). This exchange has me thinking about what makes for a bad bishop.
I hold the office in very high esteem. This respect grows not only from Methodism’s peculiar form of itinerant episcopacy but particularly from heroic personalities like Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome who received the torch of faith from the apostles and carried it valiantly forward through waves of violent persecutions. The office of monarchical bishop seems to have emerged very early in church history as a means of protecting right doctrine and practice. I also have high regard for bishops like Francis Asbury that belong to the exclusive order of “missionary bishops” epitomized by St. Patrick.
Today’s Methodist episcopacy is a political and spiritual office with all the promise and problems that mixture suggests. The job description is long and there is no clear rating system. I imagine it is often difficult for bishops to tell whether they are doing a good job or not. Nominations for worst bishop would have to be categorized by topic: Social witness, theology, personal morality, administrative effectiveness, and influence upon the health of the church. With nearly six hundred people to have held the historic office in the UMC and its predecessor bodies, it would be difficult for anyone to claim exhaustive knowledge of the best and the worst.
My friend invited me to consider our episcopal leaders of the Civil Rights Era like the two Methodist bishops who were among the addressees to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference had been among eight leading clergy to call for calm in Birmingham in an open letter:
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
King’s criticism of the bishops was not for being racist. He knew they had sympathy with his cause. The criticism was for being a voice of moderation in a season where prophetic leadership was needed. He was trying to get these fence-sitting Methodist bishops to call for change instead of peace. In his autobiography, Bishop Harmon referred to King’s letter as a “propaganda move”.
Jim Crow Era Southern bishops seem to have been a mixed bag of various shades of moderation and heel-dragging on issues of race. Methodist women’s groups accomplished more in stopping instances of lynching than their bishops*. Elected in 1910, Bishop Collins Denny was vocal in his insistence upon racial segregation and opposed the 1939 reunification, denying even the legitimacy of the northern church. His son became perhaps the leading pro-segregation attorney in Virginia.
If I was going to nominate someone for worst bishop in the category of theology, I would choose my own jurisdiction’s Bishop Joseph Sprague who gained notoriety for denying: That Christ was born of a virgin, that he born as the Son of God, that he died to atone for the sins of humankind, and that he was physically resurrected. I have a retired colleague whose Northern Illinois Conference congregation withheld apportionments during the theological controversies that erupted from Sprague’s episcopacy. He met with the bishop and remembers him being respectful and appreciative of Christians who knew where they stood. Sprague was arrested at General Conference 2000 during a vocal protest against church teachings on homosexuality. Judicial complaints regarding Bishop Sprague’s theology were dismissed and he retired in 2004. There are certainly many United Methodist bishops, past and present, who share Sprague’s basic theological framework.
In the personal morality category there is the curious case of Bishop Finis Alonzo Crutchfield. Credited with bringing Evangelist Oral Roberts (temporarily) into the United Methodist fold, Crutchfield was also a key negotiator of the 1968 merger that formed our denomination. His death by AIDS in the late 1980’s fueled rumors that the bishop was living a double life. Although he persistently denied these speculations, reports of his rampant promiscuity (including with pastors under his authority) became widely known after his death. He evidently frequented the gay bars and bathhouses of New Orleans and Houston dressed in Western garb, answering to the name “Jimbo”.
Bishop Earl Bledsoe was on someone’s list of administratively bad bishops when his early retirement was forced recently by the South Central Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy. The issues seem to have been more about the effectiveness of his plan to restructure the conference than theology or lifestyle. Alleging the criticisms were racially rooted, Bishop Bledsoe later rescinded his voluntary retirement and fought for his job. He was able to rally passionate support and eventually gained reinstatement by the Judicial Council on grounds of due process. The price tag for church legal fees reached nearly $100,000 and the case serves to underscore that holding a bishop accountable in any way is extremely difficult under our present system.
Two African bishops, Bishop Jose Quipungo of East Angola and Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Episcopal Area, have both had their salaries reduced by the General Council on Finance and Administration for not conforming to the auditing rules of our denomination. Bishop Wandabula’s entire conference was defunded in 2012 due to financial irregularities and GCFA took the unprecedented move of calling for his resignation.
The original bad bishop of the Methodist Church was James Osgood Andrew. Soon after his election to the episcopacy, Bishop Andrew inherited a young mulatto slave girl named Kitty from a friend in Augusta, Georgia. The will instructed Andrew to raise her until the age of nineteen and then secure passage for her to Liberia, Africa. If she was unwilling to go to Liberia (which she was) he was to liberate her as much as the law would allow. Emancipation was illegal in his state and Bishop Andrew provided a cottage in which the young woman could live and did not require service from her. She eventually married and raised a family. Another slave, a young boy, was inherited by Andrew’s late wife and became his property upon her death. He promised to send him to another state when he was old enough to care for himself. The bishop, however, remarried a widow who owned over a dozen slaves. Though he transferred official ownership of the slaves to a trustee, their labors continued in the service of his wife. The revelation that one of their bishops held slaves sent the 1844 General Conference into moral alarm. After much debate, the conference voted that Andrew should not exercise his office as long as his slave-holding persisted. This precipitated the longest general conference in history where a plan of separation was eventually agreed upon. The Methodist church broke in half, prefiguring the most disastrous episode in U.S. history.
I have been blessed to serve under capable and principled bishops during my ministry. The famous Bishop Woodie White signed my first license for ministry and Bishop David Lawson ordained me as “deacon”. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher set me apart as an elder and, during a mission trip to Costa Rica, prayed over me when I fell ill. I was healed. Bishop Gregory Palmer is a rock star among United Methodist bishops and my current leader, Bishop Jonathan Keaton, has been a strategic champion for creating a vital future for our conference. My work on the Jurisdictional Solution has put me in contact with exceptional bishops who are working hard at forging a positive way forward for our denomination.
These things having been said, the current problems of the United Methodist Church are evidence of a dysfunctional and divided episcopacy. Our Council of Bishops cannot produce a unified statement on our present crisis apart from vacuous acknowledgements that we are divided and should perhaps pray about that. The council is incapable of holding its own members accountable to the doctrine and discipline of our church. Jurisdictions have become enclaves in which instances of clergy disobedience are shielded from prosecution. The unity of the church seems threatened due to the inaction or obstruction of those charged with protecting it.
While bishops today are elected and held accountable in their jurisdictions, General Conference continues to hold the constitutional power to discontinue any bishop it deems unacceptable. My suggestion that Bishop Talbert be removed is in no way due to personal animosity. His bold stand comes from his deeply held principles, I am sure. I feel he belongs, however, to a different category of bishop yet to be created and suggest that he be conditionally removed pending the creation of a Progressive Jurisdiction in the UMC. This new body would have power to adapt the rules of our church regarding human sexuality while having customized representation in the general church. You can read about the full plan here.
Is there a category of “bad bishop” I have not considered? Who are the best bishops in The United Methodist Church presently (excluding your own, of course) and what makes them exceptional?
*See Methodists and the Crucible of Race: 1930-1975 by Peter C. Murray, 2004, University of Missouri Press, pg. 30