Dear Bishop Willimon,
This morning the net was abuzz with commentary about your UMR article on “Church by Committee.” Frankly there was little in the article that surprised me for I’ve known you long enough to know of your disdain for the system that we are both part of. I have heard you speak pretty disparagingly about our shared denomination both “within the family,” and depressingly enough to me, with folks outside the United Methodist fold, offering them permission to dis’ our communion without a great deal of justification for why you choose to remain a part of the people called United Methodist. There was nothing in your commentary that I haven’t heard before.
You are a Bishop in our church, and I respect the position that you hold as a church leader. While I have known you since before you were elected to that office, I trust the discernment of the Southeast Jurisdiction representatives who believed that you possessed the gifts to hold the office of Bishop, and I respect your opinions (even agreeing with some of them).
And yet, with all due respect, as I read through your post, I found so many points of disagreement that I’m not sure really where to begin.
Actually, I DO know where to begin — with your conclusion that the discernment of the Body of Christ as reflected in the General Conference is inadequate, and that we should simply allow the Bishop’s to work things out.
And you wonder why there is a trust issue in the UMC?
You are right — the General Conference didn’t fully trust the Council of Bishops, and that’s because the church as a whole isn’t fully sure that the Council of Bishops can be trusted. Don’t put the burden of this solely at the feet of the 1000 delegates of General Conference, for they simply represented a much larger mistrust of a Council that they aren’t really sure can be trusted.
You offer some great examples of why that is the case. Take your commentary on the Call to Action process initiated by the Council of Bishops. You suggest that the GC2012 disregarded four years of work “…guided by some of the church’s best management minds…” And yet, when those of us in the hinterlands reviewed the work, we found a plan that was guided in part by a systemic survivor, and which contained conclusions that were not completely supported by the research. Apparently our best church management minds weren’t so great after all, for they failed to invite participation from any of our experts in church polity to see if what they were proposing would likely pass constitutional muster (it didn’t) and they clearly failed to recognize the changing nature of our church in their failure to invite participation from leaders outside the U.S. If the Bishops want to take credit for the CTA/IOT plan (which it sounds like you want to do) you fell short in many ways in trying to get something that the General Conference could embrace and adopt.
But the lack of trust has been present for far longer than that. The fact is that clergy and congregations don’t fully trust the bishops because we’ve experienced bishops at their worst. We’ve seen appointments made for political reasons rather than missional ones. We’ve seen pastors removed for speaking prophetically because folks with money convinced the bishop to remove him rather than the bishop standing up for the gospel. We’ve seen bishops engaged again and again in shutting down creative and exciting ministries that have great kingdom potential, but fall outside of the norms of what a church is supposed to look like under our current system. Congregations have experienced bishops failing to take the time to understand their issues and making appointments that are doomed to fail from the beginning, and clergy have experienced episcopal leaders seem to have little compassion for the struggles they face in serving “clergy killer” congregations.
Most of all we have seen a Council of Bishops who have spent their careers as the consummate systemic insiders. For all of the rhetoric of creative leadership, many (if not most of you) have spent years serving on the very committees and boards that have failed to embrace change. The current boards and agencies, which have been largely groups that rubber stamped staff initiatives and General Secretary priorities, have not been held accountable even though it is Council of Bishop members who are, by and large, the presidents of those governing boards. The bishop, more often than not, are a body who are invested in the same political process that got them elected in the first place, a network of relationships that seems unable to truly embrace change.
And we’re supposed to trust you now?
Trust, as I understand it, rarely comes through authority imposed from above, but rather through the experience of one over time. Yes, we respect the office and place ourselves under your authority . . . but trust can only be given when it’s earned, and in far too many cases the expectation of blind obedience to power has ruled the day at the expense of building trust.
The Turmoil in Tampa was not the problem, although it was certainly a reflection of the problem. Our problems are far deeper, seen in the failure to truly talk about Christ’s call to be engaged in forming disciples and focusing again (as we’ve done since the very beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church) on how we structure ourselves. We fail to have a common understanding of the task before us, and in the decline that comes from that failure, the fingers start pointing in all directions as we search for someone to blame. In the blame game, trust is eroded even further, and we ALL miss out on the opportunity God gives us.
Yes, we have a broken system, and it is in our best interest to unpack that brokenness to discern if there is any means of fixing it. But as important will be our efforts to attempt to rebuild trust — between lay and clergy, conservative and liberal, U.S. and Central Conferences, and between the Council of Bishops and pretty much everyone else. Without addressing the issue of trust, our ability to function as a communion is indeed doomed to fail.
I pray that as you soon watch from afar in the ultimate insider/outsider role as a retired bishop, you might work to discern a means by which the breach of trust can be fixed. That would be, in my honest opinion, the greatest legacy you could leave the United Methodist Church.
Thanks again for your commentary. May God bless you in your new endeavor.
29 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Bishop William Willimon”
Thanks Jay. I agree with you on the points. I would go further to say that the best of American Corporate structure is not what we need to BE the church. SO many of the things I have heard about programs designed to save churches are just that corporate strategy. SUch as my brother pastor who was told he had to be available second for the counsultants showed up and if some one died oh well that took place. So what is ministry about consultants or being Christ for those in need?
Jay, thank you for a reasoned response to Bishop Willimon. I have been dismayed with the “my way or the highway” attitude that he has exhibited since the CTA/IOT plan for restructuring was unveiled and his contempt for anyone who even questioned what it proposed. I join you in your prayer that he might work in his new role to discern a way forward in healing the deep mistrust that plagues us.
MayBe John Wesley was prophetic in his not wanting Bishops in the first place.
I would say that perhaps if you were leading a vital congregation to reach new genreations of converts – you might be worth listening too. Unfortunately, and I’ve known you for a long time Jay, you really aren’t doing much in ministry to bolster my confidence that you have a clue what you are talkinga bout. You have managed to become some sort of methodist blog star, but if anyone looked into your actual fruitfullness in ministry – they would be unimpressed. So as a result I will take the prophetic vision of a man who has done much to rectify the situtation that has resulted from a prolonged battle between the limpid theological liberalism you profess, and the strident theological fundamentalism of others rather than listen to a representative of mediocre ministry.
That was inappropriate and offensive, clearly meant to do harm. Whoever you are, your personal evaluation of Jay’s local ministry belongs elsewhere. If you have a grievance with Jay, take it up with him one on one.
Steve, thanks for the support, but Carlton is accurate at several levels.
I am not a superstar pastor like Adam, Mike, Jorge, Rudy, and Kirby Jon (some of whom I call friends). In the three appointments in which I’ve served, I ministered in a medium sized (350 in worship) program oriented congregation as an associate, in a smallish (170 in worship) traditional congregation in a transitional neighborhood, and now (2 years in) in a traditional village church that has been in decline for many years. At no point have I walked in and radically changed these churches so that they are now busting at the seams with new members. I have, at best, helped the last two congregations to stem the tide of decline and at least get them to maintain a particular size, but I’m not in line to win the Harry Denman award in my annual conference any time soon. There are folks who are way more gifted, more courageous, and more willing to move quickly whereas I have focused my ministry on longer term cultural change — something that takes time and doesn’t have many short term gains. I may be wrong in this approach, or I may indeed be (as Carlton suggests) a mediocre pastor. I trust the discernment of my peers and those in authority over me that there is validity in my approach to ministry, but I can understand those who suggest that I haven’t done anything special and thus I am not worthy of being heard.
And yet, I don’t think I’ve ever tried to present myself as some sort of gift to the UMC. I have been around the United Methodist Church for a bunch of years — both in parish ministry, but before that as a denominational employee. That history has led to many friendships with all sorts of people throughout the church, and influences my feelings about this adopted communion which I love. I write this blog to share those feelings, and there have been some who identify with what I write. I never set out to be a “blog star.” I am just trying to be faithful to God’s call in my life.
Finally, I may indeed profess “limpid theological liberalism” (which is an interesting phrase for me since “limpid” means “clear, transparent, lucid, free from obscurity, and calm) but I’m not sure I’m as theologically liberal as I’m being made out to be. I am trying to be faithful to the biblical witness as I understand it. If that is limpid theological liberalism, then so be it.
As a person “in the pew” there were red flags as well with Bishop Willamon’s post, first being that we are not a business, we are a church. Silly me, I thought to be a bishop was to be a shepherd. Instead of clubbing the sheep, perhaps a better way could be found, starting with united MESSAGES from our denominational leaders. In my mind, GC2012 was simply a reflection of the loss of identity and vision within our denomination. We say we have open minds, open hearts and open doors, but clearly demonstrate that is not true. We say we are re-thinking church. Seriously? Madison Avenue gave us the slogans that resonate with today’s populaion, but we have not fulfillled their promise. As a result, I am left wondering who the UMC really is…and whether there is a place for me in this system.
Open Etc. was from “Madison Avenue” too.
Re: “Clubbing the Sheep”
I’d encourage you to read my post titled “In Defense of Will Willimon (and the UMC)” http://www.johnleek.com/2012/05/in-defense-of-william-willimon-and-umc_21.html
Dear Beth and all readers:
Please review for your amazement and disgust these two linked articles regarding the GC 2012’s award to a clergyman currently under investigation as a sexual predator, due to his admitted violations against the UMC Book of Discipline’s sexual ethics policies and the cover-up by his NW District DS, Willimon and the N AL Conference’s attorney.
Currently, law enforcement are investigating possible criminal acts of extortion committed against the whistleblower/ former female worship leader, who was an employee for 12 years in the NW District of Alabama.
All of this is coming to light, within the context of multiple print and television coverage regarding the Penn-State style cover up of a pedophile’s abuse against boys, for 40 years in the NW District of Alabama.
Just to grind more gravel in this particular victim’s face– she is a high-functioning autistic adult, who was dependent on her income to support her disabled husband and three autistic children. They are only days away from homelessness now, as she can no longer obtain work within the denomination, after filing her formal complaint, per recommendations from the UMC appointed and funded, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
In Isaiah 58:6-9, the Lord states His opinion of acceptable and just behavior by shepherds and sheep alike– how we treat our widows and orphans, the oppressed, the poor.
A letter sent by the complainant to the new incoming Bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, EIGHT DAYS AGO, has gone unanswered.
The former employee/complainant makes a valid case for her belief that she was likely blacklisted within the UMC for filing her complaint and for protesting the “extortionary” tactics used to force suppression and withdrawal of formal complaint regarding her boss and pastor’s sexual misconduct,perpertrated against an adult child in another city. Her complaint, barely survived 72 hours on Willimon’s desk.
That letter to incoming Bishop Padgett, is now published and can be viewed at http://estherspurpose.blogspot.com/.
She waited eight days for a response before releasing the letter publicly.
I am without words to convey how corrupt and compromised our UMC leadership must be, if just one of the investigatory and cover-up reports are found to be true.
If these are mere representations of the culpability and collusion of leaders to cover themselves and protect their positions of power and improper use of such, then there should be cries of “repent and be saved” to such persons.
This is a clear-cut warning to all laity and members of the Body of Christ, at large, of the dangers of leadership in the absence of appropriate accountability.
God help us. Have mercy on us.
I denote a paradox in our current view of bishops….
On the one hand, individually, we don’t seem to trust them. Almost everybody I know has some critique of their *own* bishop, and a desire to limit their own bishop’s authority.
On the other hand, collectively, we seem to think they have some kind of superhero power that might yet save us all.
No wonder they move back and forth between being bitter and overconfident.
Overall, I think we’re still deeply ambivalent about bishops and it shows.
Just a dissenting voice on this point. Having a disagreement with your bishop is not the same thing as not trusting him or her. I trust my bishop. I believe he is doing what he feels God is leading him to do in my conference.
That does not mean I agree with every action or decision.
Of course, we want to limit the authority of the people who have power over us. Obedience is hard.
The problems with trust in our chuch have little to do with a trust deficit that is unique to Methodism. This is symptomatic of the larger culture; none of us trust our leadership, we rarely give the benefit of the doubt, and we would rather complain about those in power than do anything to actually change the situation. Our bishops have so little power it is sad. We elect folks who are supposed to be great leaders, and we let them do little. In the words of CS Lewis, “we castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I realize that this post is written in response to Willimon and so you want to point out the lack of trust in the Bishops and have given examples of why people are justified in not trusting them. The lack of trust is a two way street and I although some of the mistrust is warranted, there is also much unwarranted mistrust that causes clergy to be overly critical of even the positive things a bishop does. Also, yes bishops should have the backbone to stand up for the prophetic pastors and move pastors despite the backlash they may receive from the mega churches (I am currently in North Texas and have seen many churches tell the bishop who he will be appointing to what church) but we must also be willing and able to be critical and hold accountable those pastors and their congregations.
Has a major denomination ever turned around? Not that I’m aware. Is it possible for the UMC to turn around? Time will tell. Is it likely? Most seem doubtful.
Trust as Jay points out is key. Can trust be restored in time? Probably not. Should we give up hope? NO!
What then shall we do?
Reclaim the mission and set most everything else aside. Imho.
What does it take to restore trust? Umc and big business do not mix. We have strayed far from the original purpose. The individual is lost. Many are watching us. Far from the beginnings of wesley’s approach.
“What does it take to restore trust? ”
Doubtful that it can happen.
The denomination is to far apart on “important” and nonessential issues. Many have long left or have an incomplete understanding of our theological father’s teachings, that are apart of our doctrines.
IThe IOT/CT plan never received a hearing. In the General Administration Committee, the plan carefully researched and developed by the Connectional Table, the Interim Operations Team, and the Council of Bishops was never even debated. As soon as the committee moved toward action, proponents of Plan B immediately rose to offer their plan as a substitute motion and the only debate was around substitution and the substance of the IOT/CT plan was never dealt with in committee. All the time, money, and research invested in the plan was wasted with one strategic maneuver by a politically savvy faction within the church. Two observations on this fact: 1) Isn’t Plan B more famously known as an abortion pill? It seems as if the proponents of Plan B were more intent on aborting meaningful change that, in their opinion, would give bishops more power than they were on presenting a meaningful plan of their own to renew the church’s focus on strengthening local church disciple-making, and 2) We are quick to decry anything that resembles a business model for the church while we fail to decry the dysfunctional political power-plays to dominate how our church is shaped and led. However the church is divided, both sides share the blame for this.
Some of the trust issues related to the IOT/CT plan could have been explored and addressed if only the General Conference had been given the chance. Unfortunately, politics prevailed and the church was never given the opportunity to respond to the vision and the leadership the Council of Bishops was trying to provide. Shame on us!
Whether you agree or disagree with Bishop Willimon’s assessment of General Conference, I hope we will all pull together to find meaningful reform for our church that honors our primary task of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Knowing Will Willimon as I do, at the heart of his vision for the church is a desire for more people to experience the transforming power of God’s love and grace so we can change the world. If we can’t change ourselves, what hope do we have for changing the world?
Dale- with all due respect, it is unfair to claim that the IOT/CT plan was not considered. First of all, it was highly promoted by many of the bishops and connectional table members in the months leading up to the conference. The CT was given prime opportunity to present their plan to the floor as part of their committee report which included a large political effort to put support behind it. The General Administration committee had a disproportionate number of individuals (approximately 10 of the 80 members were key authors or supporters of the plan). The committee spent nearly a day discussing general principals of what the members would like to see happen. The discussion involved presentations by the CT/IOT team, Plan B and MFSA. The key administrative points of each were debated. After a day’s general discussion, a straw poll was taken which made it was clear that there was not a majority who were prepared to support the CT/IOT’s plan. The next morning, based on the general consensus of all that we needed to move forward, when the legislation was formally introduced, it was substituted for with plan B. It is simply a mischaracterization of the process to indicate that some how the plan was not vetted or considered.
Jared– thanks for your reply. I was beginning to wonder if anyone read what I wrote because I thought for certain it would create a little debate. Everything you say is correct; however, just as two people who observe an automobile accident who are standing on opposite street corners see different things, I still see things differently than you do.
The straw poll was on a single theoretical point and not on a specific plan. In some respects, that straw poll was out-of-order but as someone seated in the observers section of the General Administration Committee, I could say nothing.
I agree that the CT/IOT plan had been presented in informational settings both prior to General Conference and at General Conference; however, it was never debated as a motion on the floor of either the General Administration Committee or the Plenary. As soon as the CT/IOT plan was presented there was an immediate move to substitute so the debate was on substitution.
When a petition is properly before a committee, I’m not sure why the committee would “spend nearly a day discussing principals [principles] of what the members would like to see happen” when the petition before the committee could have been perfected to suit the principles and desires of the body. It was the intention of some that the CT/IOT plan would never be debated as a motion on the floor.
Plan B, from the start, was a clear attempt to totally reject the CT/IOT proposal. Was the CT/IOT plan 100% wrong that it needed to be scrapped? The out-of-order straw poll highlighted the one thing that was wrong with it in the majority’s eyes; however, Plan B sponsors couldn’t let that one thing remain and the only way they could guarantee it went away was to do away entirely with the CT/IOT plan.
What was the vision of Plan B? What principles were behind its development? How was it an improvement over what we had in place prior to General Conference (and, to a large extent, what we still have in place)?
The presenters of the MFSA plan were the most clear about what they were after– proportional representation from across the global church– which made their plan attractive to the greatest majority but also made it the most unsustainable of all the plans.
I’m not sure I understand your point as to how 10 people on the committee who may have had some hand in writing the CT/IOT plan or who were supportive of it constituted a disproportionate number on the committee. 12.5% is no where close to disproportionate. Plan B seemed to have a lot of people on the committee working for it from the beginning. At least one or two of the persons who developed Plan B were also on the Connectional Table. Are they included in the 10? If so, only 10% of the committee had a supportive hand in the CT/IOT plan. I think an argument for the CT/IOT supporters to have had a disproportionate number on the committee could only be made if there had been a sufficient number of them to block the substitution of the CT/IOT plan. Help me see the error in my reasoning.
So, I still contend that the CT/IOT plan was never debated before the committee as a legislative item. One principle of the CT/IOT plan was “discussed” when the committee should have already been working on legislation and then that one principle was exploited in an out-of-order straw poll, but the petition, once it was officially received for debate by the presiding officer, was never given a chance for perfection. The first response was a move for substitution. As long as Plan B sponsors and MFSA sponsors could hold their constituencies together enough to stand against the CT/IOT plan, they had the disproportionate number and so it didn’t have a chance. At the end of the day, the only success of that alliance was the defeat of the CT/IOT plan with nothing of any substance or sustainable vision to take its place.
Did it look that much different to you from your street corner?
Thanks for the dialogue– Dale Cohen
Dale- This is in response to your comments below, but it wouldn’t allow me to put the comment in the proper flow.
I understand your perspective regarding the straw poll being out of order. I also agree, for the most part, that the issue of the role and function of the Connectional Table (Committee on Strategy and Oversight or Coordinating Table depending on the plan) was the main point debated in the day of discussion. However, I think that main part was the most critical component of the CT/IOT plan. It was also the key area of disagreement, imho, amongst the 3 plans. As an observer (full disclosure- I was coordinating with the MFSA coalition), it appeared to me that there was never a majority vote for the CT/IOT vision of centralized oversight. As Adam Hamilton spoke in the session, this idea that one board be given oversight was the absolute key component of the plan.
Thus, I believe that the one component they debated effectively was a debate of the CT/IOT vision. Once it was clear that the core of the plan was not acceptable to the body, I don’t believe their would have been utility in perfecting it. From the MFSA perspective, Plan B was closer to our vision and we felt this was the better document to perfect.
I’d point out that the process for considering the plans- presentations of all 3, a day spent discussing principals, the straw vote- was developed based on negotiations between the three principle plan supporters. Thus, IOT/CT agreed that was the best way to debate and discuss the issue of restructuring. If my memory serves correct, it was actually a IOT/CT author who called for the straw poll at the end of the day because they wanted to know if they had enough votes. Perhaps it was a poor strategic decision. I, however, don’t think it was the process that derailed the CT/IOT plan. They simply never had the votes, under any procedures) to pass something like it.
In terms of the committee reporting back with no plan, I believe that is more of a result of confusion regarding the new rules adopted at this General Conference. Because of the ticking 9:30 deadline, the committee was unable to have a reasonable discussion or examination of the perfected document that emerged out of subcommittee. Had the deadline not been a factor, and had there not been an incorrect parliamentary ruling, I’m convinced the perfected plan would have been passed and gone to the plenary floor. CT/IOT would have issued some version of Plan UMC as a minority report and then it would have been debated on the floor.
As to the issue of the voting, I perhaps was unclear. My intention was to say that the authors of the CT/IOT report had the largest percentage of the vote possible in the committee. As they moved to the floor, their vote would be diluted by all the other delegates. Thus, if they could not gain majority support in a committee where they had a larger relative percentage than they would on the floor, I think the legislation was doomed from the start.
I’m sorry that your experience of bishops has been so negative. I think the best way for you to counter the inadequacy of us bishops, and your mistrust of us, is to do the best you can in your own congregation to make disciples for Jesus Christ. I hesitated giving so much credence to General Conference and whateverr happened or did not happen there. The Holy Spirit, from what I’ve experienced, seems to work best in the local congregation. You seem to spend a great deal of time worrying about the general church and Lord knows the general church needs attention but I hear you have some real challenges at your present congregation, challenges that no bishop, even a bishop better than I, can fix. I hope that you will wisely focus there and to all you can to lead a vital congregation. One of my big problems with the CTA is that it could tempt us to think that the real issues are in the general church. Whatever you do tomorrow (and I’m speaking for about the 300 time in one of my churches tomorrow) is where the real action is at!
Concerning Carlton’s comment, I would remind you that Bishop Willimon was not able to “turn around” the North Alabama Conference’s long membership decline with his hard working, dashboards, cracking down on ministerial effectiveness, and other forms of dramatic change as well as this kind of disparaging rhetoric. So if you are looking at “results” to decide who is worth listening to, consider that.
I don’t say that to dismiss Willimon … I know him and like him. I was offended that you would dismiss Jay’s wisdom because of “results” you see in his ministry, which is no better than dismissing Bishop Willimon because his experiments did not “work” in actually affecting numbers.
I love our denomination and I’m proud to be a United Methodist clergy but Jay has a point and I agree that there is now a feeling of mistrust even in the highest leadership of our church. I pray for our Bishops and all the pastors of our denomination that we can truly be together in turning our church around. There shouldn’t be insiders and outsiders anymore because we are all one body. I think, the challenge is not to just simply change our system but the willingness to sacrifice. How many pastors, district superintendents, bishops are willing to be appointed to places where salary is not guaranteed?
The following is offered to show that our poor bishops are in a very strange place and was written about my experience in the diocese of Manchester UK:
Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” tells the story of my wife Elaine’s ancestor St. Thomas Moor, executed after a sham trial for opposing Henry VIII. A group of us were taken to see the film version in my penultimate year at school. I’ve never forgotten the trial scene during which Thomas More notices that the man who has sealed his death has succumbed to the third temptation of Christ, as evidenced in the chain of office for Wales he is wearing round his neck as reward for his perjury.
More says to him, “Richard it does not profit a man to lose his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”
When my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers started a discussion as to who were the likely lads (in the absence of likely lasses for the time being) to replace Rowan Williams when he retires as Archbishop of Canterbury, it seemed to me that whoever ended up with the role was in a most unenviable position. As one sister pointed out, it seemed a little like jostling for position as to who would sit on the right or left hand of the throne of heaven, not to mention the throne of England.
Having known a number of bishops over my life, plus one or two archbishops, I’ve always found them to be good people living with an extraordinary tension. It is hard enough to don the mitre and grasp the crux without giving up something of your own innate values – but to accept the mantle of the ABC figurehead of the Anglican Communion seemed akin to spiritual suicide.
It struck me what an unenviable role bishops take on when I approached my diocesan bishop expressing concern about remarks made by a parish priest that were a threat to community well-being.
Like his Roman counterparts who had swept child abuse under the carpet, instead of dealing with the issue by talking with the man, he chose instead, despite my having previously been one of his interfaith advisors, to question me about my post graduate training with the Interfaith Foundation – a path set out for me by another Anglican bishop. Like Sir Ian Blair during the early stages of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, here was another institutional leader hugging the redoubt of denial while declining the insight of Delphi.
Once my initial shock had abated, I wondered if this was simply his way of taking the easy option: turning on the volunteer whistle blower to avoid confronting a man with employment rights. But was there more to his weakness?
As often happens when I’m trying to understand bewildering issues, some of the insight arose in the form of dreams.
In the first such dream, I found myself at Jesus trial standing immediately behind my Lord. My heart sorrowed as I looked at his lacerated back. Then, as if he wished me to see beyond him, Jesus swayed sideways enabling me to see the back of another man who stood in front of him wearing a toga. This second man was in the process of washing his hands. As he turned to accept a towel from a servant, I saw the face of my bishop and my heart, as it seemed the Christ had intended, went out to him.
At Jesus trial, Pontius Pilate was trying to do the right thing. Had it been possible he would certainly have released Jesus, but caught between the pressures of local religious leaders and Rome, whose representative he was, Pilate found himself unable to do what his conscience and his wife’s dreams were telling him was right.
As the meaning of that dream slowly surfaced in my conscious mind, I realised what a terrible place my bishop was in. Like Pilate, he was a man in authority who wanted to do good but, caught between the religious fundamentalism of the right wing of the church he represented – who at that time were showering me with death threats – and the state with which that church had become historically entangled, found himself unable to do the right thing.
Astonishingly this man, who having accepted the pinnacle of a worldly hierarchy had himself fallen at the third temptation of Christ, made me the same offer Cardinal Wolsey made Thomas More:
“Renounce your connections with the Interfaith Foundation and cling solely to the Anglican canons and I shall rescue your position in the Gorton churches”.
He knew how much I’d worked over the years to build cohesion across my Gorton community; how much the people of the local churches lived within my heart. Wrapped in “come back into the fold terminology” he was asking me to deny the God of all things and that Christ had embraced Calvary for every soul, whether they attended Church, Mosque, Synagogue, Gurudwara, Temple or none of these.
In essence, the poor man had no choice at that point in time than to ask me to sell my soul to enable him to retire with integrity as a bishop. History will show that his intentions were good; that he had in fact delayed his retirement to see through the debate on women bishops. In fact, he was right at the centre of the struggle for the very soul of the church in which he was a leader at a time when that church itself was appealing to secular authorities to exempt it from in-coming legislation so that it could journey into the future still burdened by traditional prejudices some of its members cherished so much they were not prepared to bring them before the light of the gospel or allow themselves to be stirred by the promptings of Holy Mother spirit. The nature of worldly institutions does not sidestep ecclesiastical ones.
As we journeyed through Lent 2011, I wrestled and anguished over the problem that this good bishop’s dilemma now presented me with. But I was not alone in human terms and I was certainly not alone in spiritual terms either.
Another dream brought deeper insight. In this second dream a procession of bishops were moving through a burning city. Coming to a large square, they paused and began to remove stringed instruments from beneath their garments. As the city around them collapsed in ruins, they played a most beautiful and haunting lament.
Waking in a sweat of satori, I realised that the dream represented the dying state of the institutional church with all its false concepts of exclusion and favour that divided souls against each other and sought to split the One. In its place, a new spiritual spring waited to sweep the cobwebs clinging to the carefully constructed illusion aside to reveal that the emperor was naked, the wizard simply an old man behind a screen with a megaphone and that the good news was not for a closed club, but for everyone. The church utilises but is not buildings; it is simply those souls who recognise that we belong to and have responsibilities towards each other under the God of our limited understanding.
On Good Friday, as I led a congregation through the passion, it became clear what I needed to do. That evening, despite fear and uncertainty, I resigned my license to the diocesan bishop. I hope it released his tension where I was concerned. It would be a while before I fully realised how liberating that decision would prove to be for my own ministry.
Now a member of the Progressive Christian Alliance and enquiring with the Society of Independent Christian Ministers, invitations to preach, lead worship, give inspirational talks and otherwise minister arrive weekly from URC, Anglican, Catholic, Unitarian and other churches – as well as from mosques, synagogues, Gurudwara’s, temple’s, schools and community organisations.
As we approached Easter a year on from my resignation, I found myself spending Good Friday and Easter Saturday in the company of Catholic theologian Matthew Fox, who was also put in the position of choosing between his church and Jesus. After a stormy year, the letters supporting and affirming my ministry far outweigh the hate messages from fundamentalists.
It is said that at the end of all our wanderings we arrive back at the place from which we started and know it for the first time. As I think back to the Lifeshare years and the Strangeways riots, my role in which led to a predecessor of our good bishop, Stanley Booth-Clibborn, suggesting I undertake ordination training, I see that circular journey afresh.
My eyes still gaze into those of a bishop or a prostitute and see Christ in both, but I am now far more acutely aware of which is most in need of grace.
© Rev. David Gray March 2012.