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
Thanks for following up Chris! The original hyperbole definitely struck me hard, so I’m relieved to have been perceived as respectful and friendly (that’s always my aim, but sometimes I miss). Your latest post is interesting, quite well balanced and reflective.
My take on “worst bishops” fall into four categories: (1) those who acted as “owners” of other people, (2) those who held back whole classes of people (free blacks in Jim Crow and then & later women…) well past the time they (and most of America) knew better, (3) those who pressed for schism (various historical moments), and (4) those who who had opportunity and vision to work for unity against local prejudice but unfortunately lacked the courage. What I mean in #4 is bishops missing opportunity to lead their disaffected supporters to remain in the denomination even as history’s progress cut against their prior traditions.
Thanks for looking into the Bishops addressed by Martin Luther King Jr’s letter. I wasn’t very aware of their details or motivation. It may well be their transgression was more in my category #4 rather than #2. The point of my prior comment was not about them personally and their lack of courage. Rather my point is that Bishop Talbert is now being the kind of bishop MLK wished those others had been. That’s why, to me, he is a hero.
I appreciated your thoughtful take on Bishop Andrew from 1844. Not to excuse his behavior at all, I will confess to (a) finding greater fault with subsequent ME South people-owning bishops and slavery apologist bishops and (b) sensing that Andrew was somewhat used by secular slavery advocates. I had read somewhere that he was willing to give up his episcopacy rather than press the controversy, but others twisted his arm to stay and fight to the brink. The judgement of history rightly falls on him for slaveholding and for schism, but there were other forces at play too. Telling that some of those “pushers for schism” took a meeting with John C Calhoun after the disaster of 1844 in scary prefiguring of confederate secession.
As we consider our current era, and the growing acceptance of same sex marriage in civil society and in Methodist pews, I wonder who will be the heroes among active bishops? How might they creatively wield moral teaching/influence and administrative discretion to find a creative path around today’s impass? And I wonder who will later be judged by history as the “bad bishops of 2016-2020” in categories #2 (looking at you conservatives), #3 (hopefully NO active bishops), or #4 (looking at you progressives/centrists)?
You asked about today’s best bishops. I have great respect for Bishop Sally Dyck and Bishop Bruce Ough for their successive tours in my home conference Minnesota. Notwithstanding Minnesota’s liberal reputation in presidential politics, we are a “purple state” and there is quite an ideological contrast between or metro and rural churches. Dyck and Ough have maintained an balance of philosophies across their DS appointments that serves us well in faith, mission and unity. The leadership we need to remain one denomination isn’t solely leaders pushing for change but also for bishops skilled in reconciliation.
Lastly, I appreciate your “giving props” to Bishop Asbury. Speaking as a lay-leader very concerned to grow the Body of Christ, I feel like Asbury doesn’t get sufficient credit these days. Recommend John Wiggers book http://www.amazon.com/American-Saint-Francis-Asbury-Methodists/dp/0199948240
Bishop Dyck has had some written statements highly dismissive of and aggressive towards UM conservatives. As effective as she may be in some respects, she certainly isn’t a bridge builder. http://bishopdyck.org/2014/06/04/schism-gay-free-or-gay-friendly/
That said, I appreciate the friendly banter between Chris and Dave, and Chris I really appreciate the work you’ve done here. Much of these “bad bishop” stories were new to me. I confess I often forget about Sprague; when I talk to older clergy, though, about “bad bishops” his name comes up frequently.
Thanks for taking a look at the post, Drew. We are on the same page. Dave and I disagree but I appreciate the way he conducts himself and for his heart for the church.
Thanks Drew. Let me just say Bishop Dyck’s actions in MN speak louder than those words you’ve cherry-picked. For example, I’ve heard conservatives complain of bishops stacking cabinets ideologically (and liberals say same in reverse). Dyck and Ough both had their opportunities to do so, but both declined in the interest of balance and unity. She is greatly respected by Minnesota UMCers of all stripes as a bridgebuilder. And don’t get me started on her outstanding leadership here for Imaine No Malaria.
I will concede that the post you linked made me cringe when I first read it. It was off tone-wise, and for that reason alone, not her best moment. (BTW, I have said the same in your defense with regard to your recent “bull****” post). Remember that timing was in the heat of Good News et al’s first semi-public plotting for separation and falsely calling it “amicable.” In that regard, the Via Media Methodist blog made that particular point (the oxymoron) more gracefully.
But she was spot on analytically that our church needs to change. In rereading it, I noticed her point that — then — 44% of Americans live in states with legal same sex marriage. We are now up to 72% and likely — most predict — could reach 100% by year end. And that’s not all federal judges as the courts have reflected very well the decisive changes in public opinion. As church we need to ground ourselves first on God’s Word, and many of us SSM-affirming UMCers (lay, clergy, bishops) have done so on this topic. We’re not alone, as I keep promoting 2014’s evangelical-written affirming books by Brownson, Gushee and Vines! I pray all our leaders will work for “small-r” reconciliation by kindling connectional unity build upon our shared values without any longer pretending to coerce convictional uniforming on this topic.
I question your opinion of the 1844 split in the church. It was a disaster for the South, not the North. Slavery was the issue and the South was on the wrong side of morality and history.
And being on the wrong side of morality and history has consequences for those who would split the church over issues in our own time.
The UMC has been on the wrong side of God’s love in the past.
Over slavery and the “ownership of humans”
Over our African American sisters and brothers being relegated to the “Central Jurisdiction” until the 1960.
The refusal to ordain women….They used the “women must keep silent in churches.” For women to speak our or take leadership roles in the churchc was a “sin.” Then they said that this was “Biblical”to call it sinful.
Now, it is our LBGTQA sisters and brothers are “sinning if they act on their attractions.” So, yes, this, too, shall change, as in all things change is inevitable!