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Bishop Sprague Is Not Lord, Jesus is Lord

NEWS FROM THE FRONT
Dateline: June 18th, 2000
Rev. Kent L. Svendsen
Northern Illinois Conference
United Methodist Church
Now going to over 25 states and several countries overseas

FORCED TO TAKE A STAND

I am writing to everyone in regards to the possible re-appointment of Bishop C. Joseph Sprague to the Northern Illinois Conference for another term. It is my opinion that his ability to continue serving in the Northern Illinois Conference has been greatly damaged by his actions both recent and in the past. While he may believe himself to be a “prophetic voice” working for the “cause of justice for all people", what he has in reality accomplished is to alienate and offend many in such a way that his competence as an Episcopal leader is now questionable. Rather than being a “sign of the unity of the faith”, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague has become a symbol of polarization and division within our conference and across the denomination.

While I fully support Bishop Sprague’s right to “expressions of dissent from an informed Christian conscience”, I also believe that by accepting the position of bishop that right must be subservient to his role as the bishop and servant leader to all United Methodists under his charge. In this regard, he has completely alienated himself from some of the very individuals with which he has made covenant. His passion and commitment for what he believes is commendable, but it is obvious that he has not been the bishop to all the people.

The United Methodist Church prides itself on inclusiveness and its willingness to give voice to differing opinions. However, the bishop has shown no attempt to control radical liberal elements within the conference who are being given a disproportionate amount of official conference news media coverage and a free hand to openly attack and ridicule those with whom they disagree. The bishop has also used his editorial on the front page of our conference United Methodist Reporter to continually attack and undermine the official stands of the Book of Discipline while at the same time spending much less time on other very important issues facing our denomination.

But what I find most offensive and which has caused a serious breach between Bishop Sprague and the “theological evangelicals” of our conference can be found in his recent writings. While sitting in a jail cell, after being arrested at the General Conference in Cleveland, he wrote and then distributed an episcopal letter. This letter was not only sent to all clergy within the conference, but it was also reprinted on the front cover of the Northern Illinois edition of the United Methodist Reporter. While it is certainly his right to disagree with the decisions of the General Conference, it is also both divisive and offensive that he then proclaims that his views have the stamp of approval of God. Within the letter he has the audacity to speak for “Jesus, Martin Luther King, John Wesley, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, and Sojourner Truth” in stating that they would have all been standing by his side that day against the decisions of the General Conference. "I have no question where Jesus or Martin Luther King or John Wesley or Dorothy Day or Caesar Chavez or Sojourner Truth or other saints would have been on May 10 and 11. I went where Jesus could be found, and I have seen the Risen Christ in the faces of jailed protesters..." Additionally, if claiming the authority of Jesus Christ was not enough, he also claimed the authority of the Holy Spirit in “moving” and “nudging” him into the actions he took. "...the Holy Spirit moved us and here I am in the Cleveland jail for the second day in a row." What makes this most offensive is the fact that there are also many clergy and laity within our conference who have agonized over these same issues and believe just as strongly in their hearts that the Holy Spirit has spoken to them and affirmed the validity of the official stand of The Book of Discipline. To state that one "believes" something is one thing, because it leaves room for the possibility that one can be wrong in that it allow for the possibility of human error. But Bishop C. Joseph Sprague didn't say he believed these things, he stated them as fact.

The recent actions and public comments of Bishop Sprague have not gone unnoticed by the public. What many have heard and will remember is not the actions of General Conference, but the public pronouncements and actions of the bishop. Many of those people will believe that because the bishop says it, then it must be the official stand of the denomination. I have found myself both embarrassed and humiliated as I have had to explain to people that our bishop does not speak for the denomination when it comes to some of the major issues confronting the church today. In this regard, I believe that Bishop Sprague is causing damage to our conference, some of which cannot be repaired. Since General Conference, I have been informed of a number of faithful United Methodists leaving the denomination mainly because of Bishop Sprague’s actions. It also makes it very difficult for me to explain our doctrine and practices to new disciples when the highest figure of authority within the conference is denying some of those very doctrines and practices.

At our last annual conference the bishop held an after session gathering to discuss his actions at General Conference. Here is to the best recollection I have of the statement I made to him: "Bishop Sprague I have to admit to you that I have been avoiding you all day and that's not like me. I don't avoid anyone. But I didn't know what I would say to you. (In all honestly, I knew that if confronted by him he would offer his hand in friendship and I knew that I could not take it.) I can live with the fact that we are very different from each other. However, when you spoke for (and I listed all the individuals mentioned above) along with the Holy Spirit in claiming they approved of your actions it created a big problem. For you see, I also have listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit and I believe the Spirit has spoken to me quite differently about the matter. This has created a great breach which I don't know how to bridge." And I still don't know how to bridge that gap nor am I certain that such a thing is possible unless the bishop is willing to reconsider his use of words. For those words are very important in this matter. The early Christians refused to give honor to the national authority they were forced to live under because as Caesar he claimed to be God and be the voice of God. So in following their brave example I proclaim that "Sprague is not Lord, Jesus is Lord".

Rev. Kent L. Svendsen
Elder
Northern Illinois Conference

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