Mississippi UM Bishop Supports Heretic In Office, Says Accountability Is Secret, Alarmed Laity Should Just Study
QUESTION: What is your response to the concerns recently expressed about
Bishop Joseph Sprague's speech at Illiff School of Theology in which he
questioned belief in some understandings of traditional doctrines of the
church such as the Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus? Will the
Council of Bishops hold him accountable?
BISHOP CARDER'S RESPONSE: My first response is one of encouragement for the concern expressed about the doctrines of our faith. It is crucial that we as United Methodist Christians understand these core beliefs and live in accordance with them. Faithfully proclaiming, teaching, and living those doctrines is the responsibility of every United Methodist, including bishops, pastors, and laity.
In this spirit, the Mississippi Annual Conference session in 2001 passed a resolution urging every local church to study our basic doctrine and theology, using the resource, Who Are We? The Doctrine, Mission and Ministry of The United Methodist Church. It is a study of the doctrinal/theological statement in our Book of Discipline.
If concern over Bishop Sprague's lecture will spur us to dig deeply into our basic beliefs for the purpose of shaping our lives and congregations, then I am encouraged and applaud both Bishop Sprague and those who resist his interpretations. In the midst of honest and humble dialogue in search of God's truth, the Holy Spirit works to renew and strengthen faith and obedience.
As we consider Bishop Sprague's statements, we need to distinguish between doctrine and theological exploration and inquiry, a distinction made by the doctrinal/theological statement in the Discipline. Doctrine is what the church has agreed on. Theology is interpretation and exploration of doctrine. Faithful discipleship includes both doctrine (the foundation or moorings) and theology, which is the struggle to understand and interpret the doctrines in light of tradition, reason, and experience. Bishop Sprague, as I understand his lecture, was attempting to do theology in response to the doctrines of Incarnation in Jesus Christ and Resurrection.
We may differ with Bishop Sprague's theology while affirming the need to remain anchored in the basic doctrines. Disagreeing with Bishop Sprague's theology involves theological exploration by those who disagree. Bishop Tim Whitaker, a native of Mississippi and now bishop of Florida, has written an excellent theological response to Bishop Sprague's theological exploration. (Visit www.flumc.org to read Bishop Whitaker's response.)
Some have suggested that Bishop Sprague be charged with heresy or disseminating doctrines contrary to our doctrinal standards. Those doctrinal standards, according to the Book of Discipline, are the Articles of Religion, The Confession of Faith, and Wesley's Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament. The Discipline defines the process whereby complaints and charges are filed against pastors and bishops. Complaints and charges against bishops are processed at the jurisdictional level, not by the Council of Bishops.
As to the responsibility of the Council of Bishops, I fully agree that bishops have a responsibility to hold one another accountable, as all United Methodists are obligated by the gospel and our Wesleyan tradition to hold one another in love and to hold one another accountable for our discipleship. Bishops do hold one another accountable as we challenge one another personally and dialogue with one another in private conversations, plenary sessions, and in covenant groups within the Council. Much of that accountability is private and even confidential, as are many of our efforts to hold one another accountable in our families, congregations, and conferences.
In my opinion, bishops have a special responsibility to be very careful in their public statements in order to avoid confusing pastors and laity about our commitment to the basic doctrines, disciplines, and polity of our church. It needs to be clear that our theology reflects our commitment to the approved doctrines of the church. I, personally, want to be held accountable by my colleague bishops, pastors, and laity for my own interpretations of and commitment to our basic doctrine. In so doing, I grow in my understanding and discipleship.
My personal theological perspective on our doctrine is explicit in the book I have written for Discipleship Resources, entitled Living Our Beliefs: The United Methodist Way, and in the Leader's Guide to Who Are We? The Doctrine, Mission, and Ministry of The United Methodist Church. I welcome responses to my own interpretation as expressed in those and other documents.
It is important to remember that in our Wesleyan tradition, doctrine and theology are formational. That is, their validity is tested and proven by the lives they produce. Hatefully arguing over doctrine and using differences as occasions for political posturing, economic exploitation, personal aggrandizement and attacks, or as diversions from involvement in Christ's mission and ministry in the world - these are distortions and abuses of both faithful doctrine and sound theology.
Perhaps the concerns over Bishop Sprague's theological statements will result in renewed commitment to anchor our beliefs, practices, and mission in the doctrines that have shaped and sustained Christians for generations. While holding Bishop Sprague accountable, let us examine our lives, our ministries, and our congregations in the light of the implications of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Do we reflect in our living the doctrines we defend? -KLC
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