United Methodist bishops from around the globe took the church’s concerns and presence to Capitol Hill Nov. 5.
It is believed to be the first time the full United Methodist Council of Bishops has gone to Capitol Hill to visit with lawmakers. Though equipped with talking points and a briefing book, they spent most of the afternoon listening, as elected officials updated them on issues and reminded them of their own power to effect change.
"You have stature, you have moral authority, and you can use it to so many good causes," said retired U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana. The bishops can energize resources and play a role in addressing "the most important problem in the world: how to get people to stop killing one another," he said.
The afternoon at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, followed by a dinner attended by diplomats and ecumenical leaders, highlighted the Council of Bishops’ Nov. 2-7 meeting. The visit to the seat of U.S. power underscored the theme of the semiannual meeting, "God’s World, Our Parish." Nearly112 active and retired bishops, representing 10 million United Methodists worldwide, attended the gathering.
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, leader of the church’s Illinois Area, gave the Senate’s opening prayer, sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Afterward, the United Methodist senator met with Christopher.
"We had a wonderful conversation," Christopher reported. "One of her first questions to me was, ‘What’s happening with (United Methodist-related) Africa University?’ "
Clinton told reporters she was pleased by the presence of the bishops on Capitol Hill. "In these very challenging times, our church has an important message for lawmakers about the human family and the challenges that we face, particularly as Americans," she said.
A succession of lawmakers broke away from busy sessions in Congress to speak to the bishops, spouses and guests. The elected officials came from across the political spectrum and included several United Methodists: Hamilton, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.
Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the changes in U.S. foreign policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, as well as his role in helping Russia dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.
Hamilton said the great question for U.S. foreign policy is: What does America do with its power?
"We cannot defeat terrorism by occupying an enemy’s capital," he said. To win that battle, American power must be accompanied by American generosity and partnership, he said. "I want to see the United States involved as a benign power in conflict resolution all over the world."
The United States also should be a benign economic power that supports open trade, he said. "Trade is the way in which most of these poor countries are going to make some improvement."
Sessions affirmed the United Methodist Church and the bishops in particular. "I want you to be a prophetic voice in the world, and I want us to be a prophetic voice in the world," he said. However, he said, church and politics should be separate.
Bishop Melvin Talbert, ecumenical officer for the council, told Sessions that President Bush has not responded to requests to meet with the bishops from his own church, though he has met with other religious leaders.
Sessions said he didn’t know about that. "You know, people are human beings. They may feel they’ve been hurt from things that are said." During the past three years, United Methodist leaders have criticized the administration’s policies on a range of issues, including military action in Iraq.
After meeting with the bishops, Sessions contacted the White House, and Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff and a United Methodist, responded by calling Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, council secretary, the next day. Card told her the president’s schedule didn’t permit him to visit with the bishops. Rader said the bishops were disappointed, and explained that they simply wanted to sit with Bush and pray for him.
"She asked Mr. Card to pass on to the president that the bishops are praying for him and for his brave leadership," said council spokesman Stephen Drachler. The council had sent several letters to the White House before the meeting, he noted, and Rader told Card the bishops would still like to have a delegation meet and pray with Bush at some point.
Following Sessions’ remarks Nov. 5, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the bishops that President Bush had refused to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus as well. "You’re in good company," the caucus chairperson said.
Cummings spoke passionately about the caucus’ four priority areas: health care, education, financial assistance for families, and judicial appointments.
While Americans worry about terrorism and Saddam Hussein, "our biggest threat to our national security is our failure to educate our children," he said.
"Our domestic priorities are completely out of whack," said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. The nation is giving large tax cuts to the wealthy, driving itself further into debt, then turning to people with pressing needs – such as job training, education, health care – and telling them funds aren’t available, he said. "We are not responding to the needs of the citizenry."
A few bishops, like Christopher, met individually with elected officials. Charlene Kammerer of the Charlotte (N.C.) Area and Marion Edwards of the Raleigh (N.C.) Area spent a moment with Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. Kammerer brought greetings from Dole’s home church, First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, N.C.; the senator attends another church but still has her membership at First Church. Edwards repeated an invitation for Dole to speak at the next North Carolina Annual Conference session.
The clergy leaders left Capitol Hill feeling good about their visit.
"I am deeply grateful … that in this country, there are people in political office and responsibility who are ready to talk with the church and who are open to conversation about God’s reign," said Bishop Ruediger Minor, leader of the Eurasia Area and president of the council. "Though we are not probably always agreeing on all the details … there is openness."
*Tanton is United Methodist News Service’s managing editor. News media can contact him at (615)742-5470 [email protected]