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28 Complainants Respond To Dismissal Of Sprague Heresy Charges—UM News Refuses Publication

From: Brad Knepp bcknepp@superpa.net
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2003 2:24 PM
To: ucmpage@ucmpage.org
Subject: Official Response of 28 Sprague Complainants

Attached, you will find the official response of the 28 Sprague complainants. The UM Reporter is to have an article, but the UMNS has declined to do a piece on it thus far. Newscope mentioned it.



By the Signers of the Complaint

March 6, 2003

As signers of the complaint filed December 30, 2002, against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, we are responding to the February 17, 2003, decision by the Supervisory Response Team to dismiss our complaint.

Response to Bishop Sprague’s Statement

We welcome Bishop Sprague’s assertion that he affirms the primacy of Scripture and the historic doctrines of our church. We share his desire to make the Christian Gospel accessible to "spiritually-searching and critically-thinking people." We affirm his stated goal "that individual believers and the whole church will repent, believe the Gospel, and lead transformed personal and institutional lives worthy of Jesus the Christ." We want to make it clear that we have never in our complaint questioned Bishop Sprague’s standing as a Christian; we believe that is a matter between him and God, and not for our judgment. We have never questioned that Bishop Sprague sincerely believes everything he has said and written.

In light of Bishop Sprague’s statement, however, we must continue to question whether his doctrinal teachings are consistent with the doctrinal standards that Bishop Sprague affirms. He describes the historic doctrinal statements several times as "benchmarks," which implies that they form a standard by which our doctrinal formulations are to be measured. This agrees with the statement Bishop Sprague quotes from Paragraph 104 of The Book of Discipline, that "our doctrinal perspective" is to be subject to "testing, renewal, elaboration, and application." (Page 75) However, it appears to us that Bishop Sprague in his lecture and book is not attempting to test and renew his doctrinal perspective according to the doctrinal standards. Rather, he seems to be testing and renewing the doctrinal standards according to his own doctrinal perspective. His benchmark, then, is not the doctrinal standards, but Bishop Sprague’s own doctrinal perspective.

We are not "unaware of the issues raised" by his statements. Rather, our awareness of these significant issues leads us to a deep concern that, in his zeal to make the Gospel accessible to some, Bishop Sprague may be abandoning the Gospel itself. We look forward to engaging Bishop Sprague further on these issues in the context of the dialogue on theological and doctrinal issues recommended by the Supervisory Response Team.

Response to the Supervisory Response Team Decision

We welcome the Supervisory Response Team’s recommendation for a "third party facilitated dialogue on the theological and doctrinal issues presented in this case" and that "this dialogue be open to the public." We also welcome the Team’s proposal that the Council of Bishops provide leadership to the Church in serious theological reflection. We hope that these measures will help our people to understand and embrace the significance of doctrine and theology in the life of the Church. We also hope that such dialogue and reflection will enable us to "talk to each other across theological lines" and move toward a common understanding of the faith we proclaim that is in line with our historic doctrines and beliefs. The original purpose of the early annual conferences was to build doctrinal unity and identity in the Methodist movement, and today we suffer sorely the consequences of abandoning such "conferencing."

We regret, however, that the tone of the decision was quite hostile to those of us bringing the complaint. We do not believe our complaint got an objective hearing. Instead of being an objective arbiter of dispute or agent for reconciliation, the Supervisory Response Team chose to band together in defense of the person and institution of the episcopacy. It appears to us that, as far as the Supervisory Response Team was concerned, the complaint itself was on trial, not the theological formulations of Bishop Sprague.

The Supervisory Response Team missed the opportunity to exercise its Discipline-mandated role, taking instead the role of the committee on investigation, but without the processes in place to ensure a substantive and impartial investigation. The Supervisory Response Team fails to offer any specific grounds for dismissing the complaint, substituting instead an assessment of "the denomination’s current ethos." They affirm several times "the seriousness of the complaints," but they fail to take our complaint seriously by grappling with the issues it raises. Instead, they accept at face value Bishop Sprague’s affirmation of our doctrinal standards and his own assertion that his theology fits within them. That is precisely the issue before us, yet the Supervisory Response Team has declined to pursue any thoughtful or substantive investigation of these matters.

We object to the implied misrepresentation of our position and the veiled defamation of our motives contained in the written decision. These include the following:

  • We are not attempting to "drive" our Church "toward becoming a doctrinal or creedal Church, rather than a Church rooted primarily in Wesley’s ‘heart religion.’" (Rationale question #1) We see no contradiction between the two, and we hope that our Church will have both a genuine experience of God’s mercy and grace through Jesus Christ and well-founded doctrinal expressions of our faith.
  • We certainly do not object to the "scholarly examination and interpretation" of our foundational doctrines. (Rationale question #2) We only ask that the interpretation and application of our foundational doctrines be consistent with the permanent doctrinal standards bequeathed to us by our forbearers in the faith (which we all agreed to upon entering the United Methodist community).
  • We find it unbelievable that our complaint might be considered an abuse of the complaint process. (Rationale question #4) We believe our complaint laid out clear grounds for thinking that Bishop Sprague’s doctrinal formulations are inconsistent with our doctrinal standards. The Supervisory Response Team did not acknowledge any understanding of how we could have come to that conclusion (even if they thought we were mistaken).
  • We lament the thinking of leaders of the church who see us as "groups and individuals that relentlessly and increasingly pressure Church leaders and agencies to reflect their positions." (Rationale question #5) We see our complaint as the constructive use of rights and responsibilities given to us as members of The United Methodist Church. We are asking our leaders to reflect, not our positions, but the stated positions of The United Methodist Church established in our doctrinal standards.
  • We are saddened to have the issue of "spiritual maturity" raised in connection with this complaint. (Rationale questions #6 and 7) Evangelicals and theological traditionalists have demonstrated their spiritual maturity over years of participation in vital and cooperative ministry within our denomination. They participated responsibly and fruitfully in the dialogue sessions sponsored by the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns prior to the 2000 General Conference. We are not dealing with issues of spiritual maturity here, but with how we can in good faith address the theological differences within our denomination.
  • Finally, we find it reprehensible that the decision would ask us to "desist from exploiting this and other serious matters facing our Church to gain financial support or incite division in the Body of Christ." (p. 3) We did not enter this complaint process to gain financial support for a cause or incite division in the Body of Christ. On the contrary, we are paying the expenses of this complaint out of our own pockets. The signers as a group are not seeking to raise money for any cause. We seek not to divide the Body of Christ, but to unify it around the stated doctrinal identity of our denomination. With great reluctance, we have used the only process open to us to seek accountability in our Church in the area of doctrine. We entered the process honestly and in good faith, for the purpose of strengthening the Church’s mission and ministry. It was not we who precipitated this crisis by publishing a book dissenting from the established doctrine of the Church. We are only responding in an attempt to be faithful to our calling as United Methodist laity and clergy.
  • Response to the Issues of Confidentiality

    The third recommendation made by the Supervisory Response Team was that "the group of complainants offer a public apology for disregarding the spirit of confidentiality intended in the supervisory response process." Furthermore, the decision states, "it is regrettable and unconscionable that Bishop Sprague first learned of the December 30th complaint through the press." (Page 1)

    For the record, we sent Bishop Sprague a copy of the entire complaint at the same time that we sent it to Bishop Ough for the College of Bishops, on December 30, 2002. We received a return receipt indicating that Bishop Ough had received the complaint on January 2, 2003. We released our statement to United Methodist News Service and The United Methodist Reporter on January 7, 2003. We reasonably believed that by that time, Bishop Sprague’s office would have received the copy of the complaint. We made an intentional, good faith effort to notify Bishop Sprague of the complaint as a courtesy to him, so that he would not hear about it from the press. We are frustrated that that did not occur.

    Our decision to publicly announce our complaint was prompted by three considerations:

    1. Publicizing the fact of a complaint being filed is not prohibited in The Book of Discipline. Paragraph 413.3 states, "The supervisory response should be carried out in a confidential and timely manner, with attention to communication to all parties regarding the complaint and the process." The supervisory response naturally begins after a complaint has been filed, and the Discipline says nothing about confidentiality of the complaint itself. It is understandable that the supervisory response process, which "is pastoral and administrative and shall be directed toward a just resolution," (ibid) should be done in a confidential manner, and the signers have cooperated in the confidentiality of the supervisory response.
    2. The issues raised in the complaint were matters of public record (as the decision itself acknowledges). Bishop Sprague’s Iliff lecture had been made available on the Internet. His book had been published in November and was being distributed in the Northern Illinois Conference. Bishop Whitaker had already engaged Bishop Sprague’s theology in a public document, and The United Methodist Reporter had printed side-by-side columns featuring Bishops Sprague and Whitaker discussing their different theologies. Our press release said nothing that had not already been said publicly. It did not jeopardize Bishop Sprague’s privacy, nor did it prevent his position from getting a fair hearing. What our press release did do was broaden the awareness within the Church about the serious issues under discussion, and about our belief that portions of Bishop Sprague’s theology are inconsistent with our United Methodist doctrinal standards. We believe such broad awareness is essential for our Church to recapture its theological vitality.
    3. The nature of the issues of our complaint is different from complaints that deal with personnel issues or personal disputes. We were raising issues of concern to the whole Church. We believe the public awareness engendered by our press release ensured that our concerns were addressed in a timely manner.

    Based on our understanding of the Discipline-mandated complaint process and the need for the Church to be aware of the actions that were being taken to address widespread and deeply held concerns, we respectfully decline to apologize for publicly disclosing our complaint.

    As we face openly the issues that divide us in The United Methodist Church, we hope that by God’s grace, we will be able to move toward a common understanding of the message we proclaim and the mission and ministry Christ has entrusted to us. We regret that circumstances have forced us to use an adversarial process to get these issues on the table. Now that they are here, we join the Supervisory Response Team in urging us all to "enter into a season of listening deeply to the Holy Spirit and one another" and to "reclaim our mission of ‘spreading scriptural holiness over the lands.’"

    Respectfully submitted,

    Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht

    For the Signers of the Complaint


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