When active United Methodist bishops gather in San Diego, May 5-8, that will be the second consecutive large gathering of bishops closed to the press and other visitors—a move that is prompting criticism within the UMC.
The Council of Bishops, including retirees, met in private in November at St. Simons Island, Ga.
In announcing that meeting would be closed, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, president of the Council of Bishops, described it as mainly a spiritual retreat. She said it would be focused on preparing the bishops, including those newly elected, for leading the church in the new quadrennium.
But at that meeting, the council did take action, changing its bylaws to allow for creating an accountability process among bishops.
The San Diego meeting is for bishops who are currently overseeing a residential area. The Council of Bishops decided last April, as a reform and economy measure, to hold one, not two, annual meetings of both “residential bishops” and retired bishops. The other meeting is to be a “forum” for residential bishops only.
Bishop Wenner said in an email interview that the Book of Discipline makes clear that the Council of Bishops consists of both residential and retired bishops, and that only the Council of Bishops can take actions and “speak to the church.”
“We are confident that the people in the UMC acknowledge and appreciate that we as residential bishops hold one another accountable in the adaptive challenge of increasing the vitality in the congregations in our areas,” Bishop Wenner said in answering a Reporter follow-up question about why the forum would be private. “And we trust that you and your colleagues will understand that learning sessions are not public.”
But the Rev. Thomas Frank, a history of religion professor at Wake Forest University and author of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church, called the COB vs. forum argument “a distinction without a difference.”
“It is not possible for all residential bishops meeting together, who individually and collectively bear responsibility for the ‘entire church,’ not to do business even if no formal actions are taken,” Dr. Frank said by email.
He added: “This is especially true if they are meeting together for mutual accountability to the four focus areas of the UMC and to the denomination’s stated mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. This agenda is plainly carrying out the oversight ‘business’ of the church and such a meeting must not be closed.”
Paragraph 722 of the 2012 Book of Discipline says that “in the spirit of openness and accountability, all meetings of councils, boards, agencies, commissions, and committees of the Church at all levels of the church, including subunit meetings and teleconferences, shall be open.”
The same paragraph grants exceptions, such as for personnel discussions. It also says:
“While it is expected that the General Conference, the Judicial Council, and the Council of Bishops will live by the spirit of this paragraph, each of these constitutional bodies is governed by its own rules of procedure.”
Lonnie Brooks, lay leader of the Alaska Conference, said that language in the Discipline clearly allows bishops to choose to close their meetings. He and Dr. Frank also agreed that there are times, such as for personnel discussions, when bishops are well-advised to go into executive session.
But he joined Dr. Frank in decrying closing meetings altogether.
“It is clearly the will of the Church, as that will is expressed by General Conference, the only body that speaks for the Church, that the Council of Bishops should abide by the spirit of openness in holding its meetings,” Mr. Brooks said.
Bishop Wenner stressed that the next COB meeting, set for November in Lake Junaluska, N.C., will be open. That will be one-and-a-half years since the last open bishops’ meeting.
In an interview with United Methodist News Service before last November’s meeting, Bishop Wenner said that while the meeting would be focused on “prayer, reflection and discernment,” the issue of bishops holding one another accountable was on the agenda.
After that meeting, Bishop Wenner released a letter about it, saying the bishops celebrated progress in the Four Areas of Focus and “returned again and again to our central adaptive challenge of increasing the number of vital United Methodist congregations around the globe that are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The letter did not mention the accountability issue for bishops.
But in a March 18 letter to the Rev. Ed Robb III, Bishop Wenner noted that bishops had added a section to their bylaws at the November meeting, empowering the COB’s executive committee to “provide for an accountability process” among bishops. She said the committee had established a “sub-team to draft an accountability process for implementation as soon as possible.”
Mr. Robb represents a group of clergy and laity who last July wrote the residential bishops, asking that they discipline retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for encouraging UM clergy to officiate at same-sex unions, which the Book of Discipline prohibits. Mr. Robb later wrote to Bishop Wenner, asking for an update.
He sent others in his group a copy of Bishop Wenner’s March 18 response. A member of Mr. Robb’s group shared the letter with the Reporter.
Bishop Wenner confirmed in an April 8 email to the Reporter that the COB had changed its bylaws. She said the accountability process is a work in progress, one focused on holding bishops responsible for fulfilling the mission of the church, whereas the Book of Discipline spells out legal action that can be taken against a bishop.
That the bishops would adopt an accountability process was cheering to Don House. Last summer, he led the South Central Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee in its effort to retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe involuntarily, based on the committee’s negative evaluation of his performance in leading the North Texas Conference.
The Judicial Council struck down the committee’s decision to retire Bishop Bledsoe, citing violations of fair process, and restored him to active service. He now oversees the Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences.
Mr. House said, “I am pleased to hear that the Council of Bishops is formally addressing the accountability issue. The Council may be able to do things that a jurisdictional episcopacy committee cannot.”
But Dr. Frank faulted the bishops for meeting in private to talk about accountability, “with no way for the church public to learn what they are thinking about ‘accountability’ to the UMC mission.”
Closing meetings, he said, “is one more step down the same treacherous path away from the UMC as a profoundly democratic institution and toward a model of the UMC as a business corporation.”