by Bob Phillips
In November, Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth was elected to the office of bishop by the Western Jurisdiction. I was one of the first to sign a complaint against the bishops of that jurisdiction for violating the covenant and connectional integrity of the church by disobeying clear policy in the Book of Discipline that specifically prohibits bishops from consecrating a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” to that office. I offer reasons on why I signed, what I expect and what I hope arises from this action of filing a complaint.
I signed to affirm my support for the integrity of our Wesleyan connection. I was a delegate in 2016 in Portland when I realized (with many others) a train-wreck was in the making regarding sexuality issues. I supported ‘holding in abeyance’ any further actions or reactions in the issue until the bishops could provide guidance through “A Way Forward.” The understanding was that all parties would drop their weapons (open disobedience, filing charges, angry language) and pause in place to give the bishops time and space to work. Although the “Call to Action” denomination-wide process had determined in 2010 that trust deficits were one of our biggest problems, I joined many other delegates (liberal-moderate-conservative) to hit the pause button in a spirit of hopeful trust.
A short time later, Karen Oliveto, a long-time partnered lesbian, was elected to the office of bishop by the Western Jurisdiction. It was an act of betrayal of the trust that was vital to the way forward and felt like a closed-fist sucker punch at those traditionalists who risked a spirit of trust to the Way Forward process. The irony was that the delegates who elected Oliveto insisted she was the best of the candidates for bishop, female/lesbian pastor of renowned Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. They did not know of the dramatic worship decline, or a pastorate in which the Trustees, Staff-Parish, Finance, Church Council, Charge Conferences were eliminated, of worship services that had replaced Christian baptism with a ritual ‘in the name of the people,’ or eliminating Holy Communion from Sunday worship because of its exclusionary Christian language (all of which information came from a letter to the conference from Bishop Carcano 2 years later when Glide’s disaffiliation became the inevitable fruit of such attitudes). Glide subsequently left the denomination with terms far more generous than are being offered the few remaining traditional churches in that conference, another strike at the dynamic of trust.
General Conference 2019, at which I was a delegate as part of a theologically diverse and inclusive spread of IGRC delegates, declared by clear margins the unity of vision as to the nature of Christian marriage, consistent with the teaching of the historic and universal practice of the Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant expressions of the faith. I personally disliked added punitive language for those disobeying the covenant but understood why it was added. The bishops of the Western Jurisdiction defied the clear direction of the Judicial Council that Oliveto was not a legitimate candidate for the office, with the clear understanding that she be removed. Accountability lay beaten by the side of the Wesleyan Road, next to trust. Thus, the added standards were an effort to close the loop on accountability for disobedience.
Immediately following GC2019 disobedience was reaffirmed and reinforced. Numerous conferences now openly affirm conducting same-sex weddings in United Methodist churches, and numerous bishops appoint clergy who violate standards set by GC2019. Political organizing of delegates for GC2020 to exclude any clergy delegates who agreed with church teaching on the nature of marriage was widespread, legitimate, legal, but morally tragic and another wound against collective trust. Many traditionalists (not all), as a matter of principle, refused any effort to “run the table” for delegates, and wound up run out of the delegation with scant or no voice in the face of aggressive organizing by progressive lobbyists. The Council of Bishops has maintained silence over defiance by colleagues, which equals tacit consent to such acts.
Thus, I signed the complaint in the face of fresh, saucy contempt for the work and will of the General Conference and the connection we share. I signed it as a protest of conscience against the selective obedience and selective enforcement of our common covenant. I find it especially ironic that Rev. Bridgeforth had been living with his boyfriend for a long while and only legally married him a month prior to elections. “Celibacy in singleness” is another metric of holy living that appears to have shifted to the category of ‘Optional’ for clergy.
I expect no positive response. The initial news report from denominational sources is clear to point out how un-cool it was to file the complaint in public and invite other signers, as though the ones protesting disobedience against the teaching of the Church are the real ‘troublers of Israel.’ The Council of Bishops is receiving the complaint and I expect a combination of scolding toward those who filed it and a shrug that they have no real authority to act. I would love to be surprised. I expect Cedrick, like Karen, to continue occupying the office as their conferences, like all the US conferences, continues a vigorous descent in which the only two metrics of growth are clergy healthcare costs and the median age of members. Again, I would love to be surprised.
I hope this action provides a reality check to make clear the direction of the legacy denomination. Realizing that the sexuality debate is small potatoes among the many challenges facing the church, the symbolic power of this issue points toward the future. Numerous clergy and laity are passionate that church teaching is cruel, unjust, and wrong regarding the nature of Christian marriage and that behaviors historically never viewed as God’s intention are in fact God’s intention. I have good friends and some family who share those views and are appalled that anyone would file a complaint against a very nice and gracious man who loves Jesus. Those holding traditional views fall under the judgement of one JC2022 delegate who declared that the teaching reaffirmed by GC2019 (Christian marriage is only to be understood as the union of one man and one woman), reflects “hate, bigotry and exclusion.” Others kindly add terms like “ignorance” to explain why anyone (at last count, roughly 95% of global Christianity) would hold traditional views. I have heard numerous pastors from an evangelical background talk of their ‘evolution’ on the subject, gently confident that the non-evolving theological Neanderthals are on a glide path to eventual extinction regarding numerous views, including but not limited to the biblical definition of Christian marriage. The hope is that this process will make clear to center/left and center/right Wesleyan Christians (and I have no problem seeing all as sincere followers of Jesus) that the future lies in a Protocol vision of grace through separation, a Methodist mitosis rather than an angry schism. May the hope move toward fulfillment through this act.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.