Bad Bishops

by Chris Ritter

Jurisdictional delegations and denominational caucus groups are in the process of announcing their endorsees for the episcopacy, United Methodism’s highest office.  Elections will be held in each jurisdiction in July.  All groups, I am sure, have prayed and deliberated about the qualifications and characteristics to be found in a good bishop.  I recently did some research into the history of Methodism’s “bad bishops.”  This is a re-post of some of those findings.

Let me first say that I hold the office in very high esteem.  This respect includes Methodism’s peculiar form of itinerant episcopacy but centers mainly on the very first leaders to bear the title.   Early spiritual giants like Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome received the torch of faith from the apostles and carried it valiantly forward through waves of fiery persecution.  Being a bishop in the primitive church often meant living under the looming shadow of a death sentence.  I also revere figures like Francis Asbury that belong to the exclusive order of “missionary bishops” epitomized by St. Patrick.

The office of monarchical bishop seems to have emerged very early in church history as a means of protecting right doctrine and practice.  Today’s United 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 unified rating system. I imagine it is often difficult for bishops to tell whether they are doing a good job or not.  They do, however, submit to regular evaluations by jurisdictional committees of episcopacy under headings like transformational leadership, authentic discipleship, and administrative effectiveness.

But how do you score episcopal “badness”?  Nominations for this dubious distinction would perhaps be classified under headings like theology, social witness, personal morality, and administrative effectiveness.  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 Dave Nuckols of Reconciling Ministries 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 through 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 held some degree of sympathy for his cause.  He chided them for being a voice of moderation in a season when prophetic leadership was warranted.  He was trying to get these fence-sitting Methodist bishops to call for change instead of peace.  In his autobiography, Bishop Harmon called King’s most famous epistle 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 voraciously opposed the 1939 reunification, denying even the legitimacy of the northern church. His son became perhaps the leading pro-segregation attorney in Virginia.

Late 19th Century bishops Levi Scott and T.A. Morris were early endorsers of eugenics, the Darwin-inspired concept that genetically superior people should breed more while others be encouraged to reproduce less. Bishop Francis McConnell, president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, served on the Committee on the Cooperation with the Clergymen for the American Eugenics Society.  In 1936 he chaired their round table on Religion and Eugenics. Although support for the concept quickly dissolved following Hitler’s demonstration of the social philosophy, General Conference did not officially repent of Methodist support for eugenics until 2008.

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 congregation withheld apportionments during the controversies that erupted in response to Sprague’s theological claims.  My friend met with the bishop and remembers him being respectful and appreciative of Christians who, like him, knew where they stood.  Sprague was arrested for “aggravated disorderly conduct” outside General Conference 2000 during a protest against church teachings on homosexuality.  Judicial complaints regarding Bishop Sprague’s theology were dismissed and he retired in 2004.

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 and was president of our Council of Bishops in 1984.  His sickness with AIDS in the late 1980’s fueled rumors that the bishop was living a double life.  Although he persistently refuted these speculations by claiming he contracted HIV during pastoral visitation with the sick, reports of his rampant promiscuity (including with pastors under his authority) came to light after his death.  The bishop 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 in 2012 during an unprecedented move by the South Central Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy.  The issues seem to have been more about the effectiveness of his plan to restructure his conference than theology or lifestyle.  Some pastors were angered by the “Clergy Triad Process” that was implemented in the conference under his leadership**.  Alleging criticisms against him were racially motivated, 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 removing a bishop is extremely difficult under our present system.

Resignations by bishops are quite rare.  This fact brought attention to James Dorff stepping down as the episcopal leader of the Rio Texas Conference on December 4 of last year.   He admitted violating his marriage and ordination vows and took the further step of completely surrendering his clergy credentials.  Bishop Hae Jong Kim resigned his status as a retired bishop in response to a 2005 undisclosed administrative complaint but retained his clergy credentials and later became the pastor of a small membership UM church.  Arthur James Armstrong was the youngest-ever United Methodist bishop in the United States at the time of his election in 1968 at age 43.  As President of the National Council of Churches he was called “the most influential religious leader in America” by U.S. News and World Report in 1982. The next year he resigned after acknowledging infidelity to his wife.   Not all resignations were due to immorality.  Bishop Edward Paup took the unprecedented step of resigning the episcopacy to take a job as the president of the General Board of Global Ministries.  He kept this new post only a year before he was tragically stricken with cancer.

Two African bishops, Bishop Jose Quipungo of East Angola and Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Episcopal Area, have both recently had their salaries reduced by the General Council on Finance and Administration for not conforming to the auditing standards of our denomination.  Bishop Wandabula’s entire conference was de-funded in 2012 due to financial irregularities and GCFA took the extraordinary step of calling for his resignation.

Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert of the Western Jurisdiction made many United Methodists’ list of bad bishops when he traveled to Alabama to officiate at the same-sex wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in October 2013.   Not only were his actions a blatant violation of the Book of Discipline he had sworn to uphold, he performed the ceremony against the specific request of the resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett.  Talbert faced no consequences for his action in a “just resolution” agreement reached between him, Wallace-Padgett, and the president of the Council of Bishops.  (Note: Talbert officiated at a second same-sex wedding held in a United Methodist Church in North Carolina.  These nuptials were timed to occur two weeks before the start of General Conference 2016.)

The original bad bishop of Methodism was James Osgood Andrew.  Soon after his election to the episcopacy in 1832, 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 free from servitude. She eventually married and raised a family. Another slave, a young boy, was inherited by Andrew’s 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, then married a widow who owned over a dozen slaves. Though the couple transferred official ownership of the slaves to a trustee, their labors continued in the family’s service. The revelation that one of their bishops held slaves sent the 1844 General Conference into moral alarm. After much heated debate, the conference voted that Andrew should not exercise his office as long as his slave-holding persisted.  This dragged delegates into the longest general conference in history and a plan of separation was eventually agreed upon.  The Methodist Episcopal 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.  I began ministry under the golden-throated pulpiteer, Woodie White. 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, laid hands on 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 during his final episcopal appointment before retirement.  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 very divided and should perhaps pray about that.  (The Bishops of the African Central Conferences, however, are able to speak meaningfully with one voice.)  Our U.S. bishops seem incapable of holding each other 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.

With all the pressures, power, problems, and promise of the office, I hope you will join me in praying for those who will be elected in July.

Is there a category of “bad bishop” I have not considered?  Who are the best bishops in The United Methodist Church presently  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

**Judicial Council Decision 1251 includes the following concurring opinion that describes the Clergy Triad Process:

Parties in this case provided in the record a document that described the design and procedures of the “Clergy Triad Process” as it is used in the Texas Annual Conference. The document clearly outlines the steps that are followed in a Triad, identifies the roles of the participants, discusses goals, and describes the anticipated outcomes from the convening of a Triad. However, the document also demonstrates the risks that are inherent in establishing and using a Triad. First, there is a substantial imbalance of power in the design of the Triad Process. The Bishop and the Cabinet determine when a Triad is to be convened, leading to the impression that a clergy person is summoned to a meeting. In a typical Triad, two district superintendents and the conference staff executive who holds a position as Director of Clergy Excellence are in the room with the clergy person, who apparently is notified that a Triad is being called. Only the Cabinet and the Bishop can initiate a Triad, and the clergy person is simply expected and directed to attend. Because of advance preparation by the two district superintendents and the conference executive, three persons in the room have the clergy person more than outnumbered. They also have the clergy person at a distinct disadvantage based on the quantity of information the three of them have assembled before the event begins. A clergy person who is directed to meet with a Triad is not permitted to have a friend or silent observer in the room. While this power differential may not be designed to create a “punitive” environment, it seems unlikely to create a pastoral one. Second, the issues that might “necessitate a Triad” range from local church “conflict” to “misconduct.” The risk here, as Decision 1251 is clear to show, is the potential “to intrude on the disciplinary provisions” which ensure fair process in administrative and judicial matters. It is not clear how or where the Triad honors the boundaries that the Discipline is careful to define around the methods for managing complaints, for example. Should some reference be made in the Triad to a form of clergy misconduct, there may be no clarity about whether the clergy person is to respond or how fair process is to be ensured. Third, the design of the Triad risks creating confusion about the way an appointment, including consultation about an appointment, is handled. The Discipline includes the description of the “Cabinet” in ¶ 424 as one of the expressions of superintendency, naming district superintendents as the explicit constituents of the “cabinet” along with the Bishop, and allowing others to meet with the “cabinet” when program matters warrant (¶ 424.6). One can presume from the description of the “Clergy Triad Process” that a primary consideration in having a Triad is the clergy person’s effectiveness in a pastoral appointment. Indeed, conflict in the local church is explicitly cited as one reason for a Triad to meet. But, by design, the Triad includes and is led by a conference executive who is neither a superintendent nor the Bishop and, therefore, is not a member of the Cabinet. The clergy person may then be drawn into confusion about the way that “consultation” (¶ 426) is occurring in the matter of making appointments and also with whom. Moreover, as the Discipline says, “Consultation is not merely notification.” Yet, in a Triad, outcomes are—as the text of the Texas Annual Conference document says—“more often than not, ‘non-negotiable.’ ” It is not easy to discern whether there is a distinction between a “non-negotiable” position (which the Clergy Triad Process has expressly taken) and a “notification” position (which the Discipline clearly prohibits). I concur with my Judicial Council colleagues in Decision 1251, but I have interest in the part of this Decision that offers a cautionary word about the Clergy Triad Process. As the text of the Decision says, “all constitutional and legislative provisions of the Discipline” must be honored with our procedures. William B. Lawrence, Beth Capen, Katherine Austin Mahle, Angela Brown Timothy K. Bruster