Bishops called to 'scriptural imagination'

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. delivers his first address to his episcopal colleagues as Council of Bishops president. At a time of stress in the church, the bishops meet at United Methodist retreat center Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, Ga. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. delivers his first address to his episcopal colleagues as Council of Bishops president. At a time of stress in the church, the bishops meet at United Methodist retreat center Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, Ga. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

These days, United Methodist bishops have good reason to cry out to God.

Even as they work to address shrinking churches and profound needs around the globe, they are preparing for next year’s special General Conference where the future of the denomination is on the line. Some in the church are already preparing for a church divide.

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. opened his first address as Council of Bishops president with the words of Psalm 130: “Out of the deep have I called unto you, O Lord.”

Carter, who also leads the Florida Conference, likened the experience to being stuck in a dark, chaotic church basement.

“In the depths, in the chaos, in the overwhelming, we discover who we are,” he preached. “And, theologically, biblically, we discover who we are in relation to God. Perhaps we are in this place of discovery as a church.”

In this place of discovery, Carter urged his episcopal colleagues to trust God and use “scriptural imagination.”

He said that means seeing “the world through the lens given us by Scripture.”

The bishops are beginning a busy week where they will discuss plans for the special General Conference they called to find a way forward through the denomination’s longtime debate around ministry with LGBTQ individuals.

There is more on the agenda than internal church strife. The bishops also plan to talk about the denomination’s ecumenical work and its approach to racism, immigration and peacemaking.

Bishops gather in small groups to discuss what scriptural imagination means in this uncertain season in the church. From left are Bishops Sharma Lewis, Tracy Smith Malone (speaking), Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Minerva Carcaño. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.
Bishops gather in small groups to discuss what scriptural imagination means in this uncertain season in the church. From left are Bishops Sharma Lewis, Tracy Smith Malone (speaking), Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Minerva Carcaño. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

Carter acknowledged that it’s easy to feel like a failure during this challenging time.

“There seems to be some sort of cottage industry based on the idea that the church has failed, sort of a cottage industry that we as bishops have failed,” Carter said in his address. “I am no stranger to the internet.”

The writer of Psalm 130, he added, has something to say about human failure. “If you should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

The good news, Carter said, is God brings forgiveness. Scriptural imagination, he said, points to not only human sins but also God’s saving action.

“There is a firm foundation. It’s grace,” he said. “But grace is always God’s unfinished agenda in every one of us. I own that for myself.”

He also urged the bishops not to give up on finding a way forward to maintain unity in the bond of peace. Carter himself was a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward, whose report is going before the special General Conference

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After his address, Carter invited his fellow bishops to engage in small-group discussions about where they see God — and scriptural imagination — calling them.

Retired Bishop João Somane Machado of Mozambique said Carter offered an address worthy of reflection.

“Only with acceptance and with love can we achieve what God wants us to achieve,” Machado told United Methodist News Service. “We need to get away from this idea that you lose or you win.”

Bishops Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Western Pennsylvania Conference and Tracy Smith Malone of the East Ohio Conference were part of the same discussion group. Both were elected bishop in 2016, just as the denomination was entering this uncertain time.

“If we look at our circumstances, of course we are not going to have hope,” Moore-Koikoi said. “As a church, though, we are called to look at the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of Jesus Christ, and that is where we find our hope.”

Malone added that as a new bishop, she finds hope that the Council of Bishops is having these type of conversations.

“I think we’re having the conversations that we should be having about what Christ is calling us to be,” Malone said.

Carter concluded his address by pointing toward the most profound lesson Christians take from the Bible.

“There is good news,” he said. “Jesus goes to the cross for you and me. He is the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world, who cries to God on our behalf. It is, in the end, his church and not ours, his body and not ours.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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