United Methodist bishops in global perspective

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Key points:

  • The lack of regional decision-making authority in the U.S. United Methodist conferences caused the recent dilemma over not being able to hold episcopal elections.
  • While bishops in the U.S. serve until a mandatory retirement age, United Methodist central conferences vary in the length of terms their bishops serve.
  • Liberia was the first conference to elect a bishop assigned specifically to a geographical area.

“Our World, Our Parish” is a series of commentaries for UM News. UM News is the official news agency of The United Methodist Church. Graphic by UM News. 
Dr. David W. Scott. Photo © Hector Amador. 
Dr. David W. Scott.
Photo © Hector Amador.

Commentaries

UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

Last month, United Methodists announced plans to hold episcopal elections in both the United States and in the Philippines. But those watching carefully may have noticed some significant differences in the two announcements.

Convening jurisdictional conferences to elect bishops in the United States required a ruling of the Judicial Council and an act of the entire Council of Bishops, and it led to a further Judicial Council ruling. The decision to convene the Philippines Central Conference to elect bishops was made by the Philippines College of Bishops without the involvement of the Judicial Council or the entire Council of Bishops.

Why the difference?

Furthermore, the United States and the Philippines are not the only areas of the world where bishops are slated to retire or past previously announced retirement dates. Why haven’t episcopal elections been called yet in Africa or in Europe?

The answer to these questions is rooted in the origins of the episcopacy in the central conferences and connects to broader issues in global polity in The United Methodist Church.

The history of missionary bishops

Early in the various traditions that now comprise The United Methodist Church, all bishops were “general superintendents” of the church, elected by the General Conference. No bishop had sole responsibility for a specific annual conference or group of annual conferences. Instead, all bishops itinerated among the annual conferences according to a mutually agreed upon schedule.

Liberia, the first area of Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) mission work outside North America, tested this system. Mission work in Liberia started in 1833 and by 1836, Liberia became a “missionary conference,” a new polity creation. The mission continued growing well, with a mix of white missionaries, Black missionaries and unordained local Black preachers leading the conference. Still, episcopal supervision for the mission became a major issue at the General Conference of 1852.

In response, Bishop Levi Scott was dispatched on a fact-finding trip to investigate how the denomination could best support the continued growth of the church in Liberia. It was the first time an American Methodist bishop had exercised episcopal supervision outside the territory of the United States. Among other activities, Bishop Scott ordained several indigenous preachers in Liberia.

One visit by a bishop did not settle the question of episcopal supervision, though, and in 1856, with the encouragement of both Bishop Scott and the Liberia Annual Conference, the Methodist Episcopal General Conference voted to allow the Liberia Annual Conference to elect a bishop whose jurisdiction would be “expressly limited to Africa.”

This decision was a significant departure from previous Methodist polity both in limiting the geographical scope of episcopal powers and in allowing a body other than General Conference to elect a bishop. It required amending the Third Restrictive Rule of the Methodist Episcopal Church Discipline. Some commentators in the church charged that it created a second class of bishops. Others believed it was necessary to provide episcopal supervision in a context that was far from and far different from the United States.

The plan was ratified by the annual conferences, and Liberia proceeded to elect Francis Burns, an African American missionary, as its missionary bishop in 1858 — the first Black Methodist bishop.

As Northern Methodists began to form other mission conferences elsewhere outside the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, they were incorporated into the pattern of itinerant superintendency in the United States. In 1864, the bishops and General Conference of the MEC agreed that a bishop from the United States would regularly travel to preside at sessions of mission conferences held outside the United States, a prospect that became much easier with the advent of steam travel.

The issue of episcopal supervision for missions outside the United States was hotly debated at Methodist Episcopal General Conferences in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1884, the General Conference itself — rather than the Liberia Annual Conference — elected William Taylor as a missionary bishop for Africa. Four years later, it elected James Thoburn missionary bishop for India and Malaysia. The move toward missionary bishops gained steam, and additional missionary bishops were elected by General Conferences through 1916.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, by contrast, would assign one or more of their bishops elected as general superintendents to reside overseas and supervise missionary work. That bishop might then later be re-assigned to supervise a portion of the church in the United States.

Different systems of episcopacy

In the 1920s, the MEC began phasing out the practice of missionary bishops. In 1928, it created an alternative: central conference bishops, elected by the central conferences and limited in episcopal powers to those central conferences. In essence, this was a return to the early form of missionary bishops created for Liberia. It recognized the desire for local autonomy in selecting leadership.

This new system required further amendment of the Third Restrictive Rule. However, the Committee on Judiciary (the predecessor of the Judicial Council) ruled that, with the new amendments, it was constitutional for General Conference to create a system of central conference bishops and further constitutional for central conferences to place additional requirements or limits on their bishops, including term limits, which did not exist for other Methodist Episcopal bishops.

This system of central conference bishops adopted by the MEC fit well with the ethos of episcopal regionalization that characterized the formation of The Methodist Church in 1939.

Due to regional and racial prejudices, the United States was carved into five geographic and one racial jurisdiction, which were given the authority to elect bishops who would then superintend within the boundaries of the jurisdiction that elected them. The MEC model of central conference bishops was continued in The Methodist Church. It was easy to see central conference bishops as analogous to jurisdictional bishops as leaders elected by and serving within a region of the church.

But this seeming analogy covers important distinctions between bishops elected by the jurisdictions and those elected by the central conferences, both historically and today. It took decades until central conference bishops were able to preside at General Conference and to participate regularly in the Council of Bishops. Early on, they were seen as a separate and, in most ways, secondary group of episcopal leaders.

Still today, differences exist between central conferences and jurisdictions when it comes to the timing and process of episcopal elections and the terms of episcopal service.

According to the church’s constitution (¶26), the Council of Bishops as a whole must set the date for jurisdictional conferences to meet and elect bishops. Central conferences can each determine their own date for meeting (¶30). The constitution further stipulates that episcopal elections happen “at such time and place as may be fixed by the General Conference for those elected by the jurisdictions and by each central conference for those elected by such central conference” (¶46).

This explains why the whole Council of Bishops needed to be involved in the call for jurisdictional elections this year, but not elections in the Philippines, and why some central conferences have called episcopal elections this year while others have not.

Once elected, the process for assigning bishops varies across the central conferences and jurisdictions.

The jurisdictions, the Philippines Central Conference and the Congo Central Conference all have multiple bishops who could be assigned anywhere in the region. The Germany Central Conference and Central and Southern Europe Central Conference have a single bishop who serves the entire central conference.

Most complicated are the Africa Central Conference, West Africa Central Conference, and Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conferences, in which bishops are elected by the central conference, but elected from an episcopal area to serve in that episcopal area. There is no rotation of bishops. Thus, many delegates in these central conferences vote on episcopal candidates whom they know will not directly lead them.

There are also variations in the length of terms bishops serve. In the United States and Congo, bishops serve for life. In the Philippines, bishops serve four-year terms and may be reelected for multiple terms. In Europe and the rest of Africa, bishops are elected to an initial term of four or eight years and then reelected, either to serve an additional term or for life. In the Philippines and Europe, it is possible for an elder to serve as bishop for a while and then go back to serving as an elder, no longer being a bishop.

Contemporary implications

These differences in episcopal election, assignment and terms of service among central conferences and between the central conferences and the jurisdictions have implications for both ecclesiology and practical polity.

Theologically speaking, one might ask, for instance, whether a term-limited episcopacy conveys the same ecclesiological understanding of episcopacy as a life-term episcopacy. Such questions are especially relevant in ecumenical conversations. However, since many ecumenical conversations occur on the national level, they often proceed with limited consideration for the variations of episcopacy across The United Methodist Church internationally. One book-length report on U.S. Lutheran-United Methodist dialogue about episcopacy, for instance, made no mention of central conference bishops.

In terms of the practice of polity, the present struggles over episcopal elections show the advantages of contextualization and the dangers of United States presumptions of normativity in polity.

Initially, the central conferences and their bishops had a sort of second-class status in the denomination because they were treated as exceptions to the standard, which was set in the United States. But in the long term, the value of local leadership and local decision-making embodied in the tradition of central conference bishops has proven a boon in the present pandemic conditions. The central conferences have more flexibility because they can make their own decisions about the timing and circumstances of their episcopal elections. In the Philippines and Europe, this local flexibility and local decision-making is frequently employed for other purposes, too.

The United States, however, has long been treated as the norm in United Methodist polity. That means that provisions about jurisdictional episcopal elections, along with many other matters, have been tied directly to the church’s central institutions, including the General Conference and the Council of Bishops. Because the U.S. context was seen as normative, these central institutions could deal with U.S. concerns directly rather than delegating them to a subsidiary authority, as with the central conferences.

The problem in this setup for U.S. United Methodism, though, is that when the central institutions of the church don’t or can’t function — for instance, when General Conference is unable to meet because of a global pandemic — there is no subsidiary authority to make decisions that can be more flexible and respond to unforeseen circumstances.

U.S. United Methodism is hampered by the lack of recognition of its own status as a distinct context requiring regional decision-making on at least some matters.

Currently, this polity weakness is manifesting itself in episcopal elections. That particular problem seems to have been solved for the moment, thanks in large part to the Judicial Council’s willingness to grant flexibility in the context of the pandemic. But the same problem of the lack of a subsidiary authority to make decisions for the U.S. context is likely to lead to further problems down the road.

Scott is the director of mission theology in the Office of the General Secretary at United Methodist Global Ministries.

News contact: Joey Butler or Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday (weekly) Digests.

 


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