Bishop Kenneth H. Carter has held multiple roles during a time of great stress in The United Methodist Church.
The Florida Conference bishop was one of three moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward, the 32-member panel charged with finding ways through the denomination’s deep divide on homosexuality.
Since May 2018, he has been president of the Council of Bishops. In that role, he saw the special General Conference adopt, by a 438-384 vote, the Traditional Plan that reinforces policies against “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-sex weddings. A majority of bishops had backed the One Church Plan, another plan to emerge from the commission’s work that would have left questions of ordination up to conferences and weddings up to individual clergy and congregations.
He’ll pass the president’s gavel to Louisiana Conference Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.
In a conversation with UM News, he reflected on his time on the commission, on reaction to the special General Conference 2019 and on expectations for General Conference 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
UM News: What do you think the Commission on a Way Forward now means to the church?
Bishop Carter: As I look back, the contribution of the commission was how to do conciliar work with a global body around LGBTQ identity and practice and the unity of the church. (It) included some of the most progressive people in our 12 million-member denomination; some of the most traditional conservative persons who live in countries where this is against the law, where they had great courage just to speak about it; persons in the U.S. church who were simply thinking about how is this going to affect the local church. And I think they did good work. In the end, I think it provides a foundation for further work.
UM News: Knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would have done differently with the Commission on a Way Forward?
Carter: You know, one of the questions we had to answer in the composition was could persons be on the Commission on a Way Forward who were either board members or employed by renewal or advocacy groups. We finally decided that we would include those persons. So, you could be a staff person of Reconciling Ministries or Good News or a board member of Confessing Movement, for example. And so that was intended to try to incorporate those conversations into the work of this body. In the end I think people did revert back to their other constituencies.
UM News: What do you make of the responses to the special General Conference both in the U.S. and the central conferences?
Carter: I preached in three successive churches the next three weeks in Florida — Ft. Myers, Clearwater, Jupiter. And I found increasingly that many people felt like they needed to create a counternarrative, to say, but that’s not who I am, or that’s not who our church is in the U.S.
Now many people were in favor of the outcome. Many traditionalists were. I found that they needed a great deal of, at times, pastoral care. They just felt like they were the object of this response, this emotionally intensive response.
And then many LGBTQ persons and some who talked to me were wondering: Do I have a future in the church? Can I go through the candidacy process for ministry?
UM News: I’ve heard from a number of Africans who feel like they’re being blamed for what happened. But of course, Africans are about a third of the voters. What are you hearing?
Carter: So some of the African leaders have talked to me about a couple of things. One, just that their experience is that the U.S. church at times exports its divisions into the African context. The second thing they sometimes say is that they are more than one-issue people. The connection is important in Africa because, for many African leaders and people, mission is not ideological. It’s life and death.
It’s whether you have water or a hospital or access to education for a girl or child. And so that conversation is maturing. I would say the strength of the African relationship to the United States (and I wrote about this in the summer) is the incredible missional partnerships that exist between annual conferences of the U.S. and Africa, and they’re mutual.
UM News: What is the role of bishops as we prepare for General Conference 2020?
Carter: I continually say the role of a bishop is to try to do the things that are in our consecration vows — try to unify the church, try to teach the faith, support the mission. I have come to believe that unifying the church is not seeking unity at someone’s expense. In other words, unity cannot be unity at the expense of conscience. That could be very progressive people (and) very conservative people. And so there’s a differentiation there.
The unity I seek is really a unity that preserves the many good things we do around basic ministry of the church, basic missions to the most vulnerable, basic opportunities. …
But (bishops) don’t take the place of delegates. The delegates actually do the voting.
UM News: In May, the Council of Bishops affirmed the Connectional Table’s proposal of a U.S. regional conference to deal with U.S.-only matters. Can you tell me about that conversation?
Carter: This really came as a gift from bishops in the central conferences to us, who said, “We have the gift of being able to adapt the Book of Discipline into our culture. And we believe that it’s only fair that the U.S. is able to do the same thing.”
As you know, we would not want to call ourselves a central conference because of the history of Central Jurisdiction, the segregation in the U.S. according to race. But the idea is that as a U.S. regional conference we can focus more on our context. …
So, you’re right. We did endorse that and we see that as one way, one pathway, toward a more vital church future.
UM News: Bishops in Africa and the Philippines have issued statements opposing plans to dissolve the denomination. Do you think there is legislation that the church in Africa, the Philippines and the U.S. can support?
Carter: To me, a blind spot in some of the plans is the assumption that we can be divided into three parts, that we are a three-part church of traditionalists, centrists and progressives. …
But what if our church is actually more based on the annual conference? What if the annual conference is the basic unit of the church, which the Book of Discipline says it is? What if the annual conference is the way the U.S. and Africa, the U.S. and the Philippines, the U.S. and Europe relates to Africa? …
Annual conferences often have a way to work this out.
UM News: This summer, most U.S. annual conferences elected a new slate of General Conference delegates. What lessons do you take away from this summer’s annual conference season?
Carter: I think there was a generational shift in leadership. I saw that in many annual conferences, that there was a desire for younger persons to be at the table and to give voice to the church they love.
I have often felt that a lot of the heat in our church was generated by (and I’ll say myself) people my age and older. …
A person in their 60s and 70s and 80s can’t say, “I’m tired of living in this house; I want to sell it and divide it up and we’ll live in two houses.”
What I hear younger people saying, laity and clergy, is: “This is our house. This is the house I grew up in and I want it to be the kind of house we can live in, so don’t burn it down.”