(How sad it is that the state of the UMC is such that any satire must be clearly labeled as such. This is satire. It is more tragic satire than comic. It is akin to the irony of, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” However, I can imagine any number of U.S. bishops who could deliver this message as written and with a straight face. So, I reiterate: This is satire. Bishop Achrestos offered us assurance and calm following the 2019 General Conference. While the bishop is fictional, all events, quotes, and actions he describes are actual. One may take issue with their characterization or their significance but not the reality.}
Genesis 1:1-2: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Greetings to the kindred in spirit in South Carolina. I regret that I cannot be among you in person but be assured that we are sending you good thoughts from those of us on our annual Carnival Cruise Lines Holy Land Tour.
It is a privilege to be in the company of others who have addressed the Conference clergy this year. At the invitation of Bishop Holston your clergy have been edified with Elaine Heath, Duke Divinity School’s former dean, who did an excellent job encouraging the departure of traditionalist faculty such as devout Catholic Paul Griffiths. Dean Heath set a much-needed new tone at Duke Divinity which all but removed the vestiges of those hateful ideas that plagued Christianity in its early centuries. It is unfortunate that her own constituency, impatient with pace of reforms, urged her departure from that post before she completed the transformation of Duke.
It is also Bishop Holston’s wisdom that brought you Dr Gil Rendle for the Bishop’s School of Ministry. Dr Rendle is renowned in UMC leadership for his guidance through times of change that have brought us to where we are today. He developed a model for doing the serious business of running the church which maintains religious language without being unnecessarily hindered by the religious baggage of doctrine and creeds. This admirable trait in his teaching has made him a sought-after leadership speaker among groups s diverse as Unitarian Universalists and secular organizations. The many small churches in the UMC owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Rendle for his work on how they can die with dignity. His work, The Legacy Conversation: Helping A Congregation Die with Dignity, will be a valuable resource in South Carolina over the next few years.
Recognizing the company in which I stand, I humbly add what insights I may to the excellent guidance you have already received under the guidance of Bishop Holston and the clergy he leads.
Bishop Holston and I hold in common the primary principles of Unity and Mission for the future of the United Methodist Church. South Carolina is far ahead of many other Conferences in these priorities.
In recognition of their important role in leading the church in South Carolina to where you are today, I want to thank your clergy members. The Rev Martin Luther King reminds us in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that the church is to be a thermostat and not a thermometer. The South Carolina clergy have done well. Whether you are a supporter of Reconciling Ministries or the Wesleyan Covenant Association you have kept your conversations pretty much among yourselves, behind closed doors, in closed Facebook groups, and in whispers. I have travelled extensively among your churches and can tell you that most people in the pews do not even know you exist. Thereby, you have avoided the hot words and cold relationships that many places are experiencing. You have kept the climate of the South Carolina church a perfectly comfortable lukewarm. This environment is essential for the vision of unity which the Council of Bishops offers for the future of the United Methodist Church.
Next, I hope the people of South Carolina appreciate the visionary and bold action Bishop Holston took toward unity in the first weeks of his tenure. Back in 2012, when other Conferences were preoccupied with needless theological debates over guarding the faith, the nature of God, Biblical authority, and the relevance of patristic commentaries; Bishop Holston remained unwaveringly focused on unity. In those early days he issued a directive that every church must supply a copy of their deed with the Trust Clause underlined or circled. Previous episcopates had trusted in the honesty of the clergy, but Bishop Holston would take no such gamble on so weighty a matter. He understood, even then, that what holds us together is neither doctrine, creed, mission, nor common faith but the contractual obligation that can be enforced in civil court. No doubt this has restrained many of those who would turn the church upside down with their dogmatic insistence upon the bodily resurrection of Christ or inflame others with exaggerated cries of justice for supposedly marginalized peoples in the church. Bishop Holston has rightly pointed out in his recent pastoral letters that these issues must not polarize us. Your Bishop deserves both the credit for his prophetic actions and an appreciation for the great effort he has expended on your behalf.
Also, let me express profound appreciation for the lay delegates to this Conference. Year after year it has been your thankless mission to return to your church and keep the people focused on the important matters. Once again, this year you can reassure your parishioners that as long as there is enough sweet tea at the covered dish social and your grandchildren have a place in the Christmas play then all is right with the church. Continue to communicate that if we are to keep things this way then it is important to send checks to the Conference Treasurer on time. Your conference leadership is grateful for your service and the Council of Bishops takes note of the good report you receive from the General Council on Finance and Administration.
If any of you are troubled by recent rumblings of discontent within the United Methodist, let me assure you that your bishops have a vision and a plan that will guarantee the unity of the church. It comes from the Scripture we heard at the beginning of my remarks. I know it is not customary to address the Scripture reading in the body of one’s sermon. Our seminaries largely abandoned that antiquated homiletic device many years ago, but in deference to some of the Old School who are still with us, let us briefly explore that passage.
We tend to think of God’s original creation as it is described in the Garden of Eden. We do not pay enough attention to the fact that God originally created a world that was “a formless void.” In the beginning there is no separation caused by light and dark. There is no division caused by land and water. There are no limits of a confining shape. That is our bold vision of a United Methodist Church in the image of the world as God originally created it.
Gone are the limits set by artificial clergy accountability standards. No more separation caused by contradictory Christology. No more self-righteous division over biblical authority. Every local church is free to be uniquely different in belief and practice from every other United Methodist church in the world. Each of God’s beloved children will be free to move through the wonderful chaos of the church with access to the direct revelation of God’s spirit moving about us. This is the bold new vision of church in our context that God is calling us to. I believe it is what John Wesley had in mind when he said, “If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more, give me your hand.”
But more than the Biblical testimony and more than the Wesleyan witness, we have a more recent and much greater affirmation of our way forward. This vision was confirmed a few weeks ago when I spoke with Bishop Olivetto. The bishop and cabinet had just finished a Soul Card reading session. (Many Christians are not familiar with Soul Cards yet, but God has been using them to send messages to United Methodist bishops and other clergy for about twenty-five years. It is providential that God opened this channel at precisely the time that the United Methodist Church entered a context to which Scripture does not adequately speak.) Bishop Olivetto tells us she has received a message from God through the cards that affirms our vision. God has said through the cards, “There is something waiting to be born…. You, my beloveds, have been chosen for this sacred task…. You, my beloveds, will bring forth my life, my love into the world once more.”
God has affirmed the Council of Bishops unity plan. It is now for you, the lay and clergy delegates to this Annual Conference, to elect delegates to General Conference that will vote for God’s plan for the United Methodist Church.
We have confidence that the clergy delegation will provide their vote. They have been formed in a process that will be celebrated at this Annual Conference as this year’s candidates will come to the altar and kneel before Bishop Holston. United Methodist clergy used to do a lot of kneeling…in Holy Communion, Baptism, Weddings…but we removed that practice thirty years ago from every order of worship except one. At ordination the clergy will kneel. Thus, they learn that United Methodist clergy are to kneel before a bishop but never before God. We expect them to remember this lesson from their ordination and apply it as they vote.
The lay delegates are at disadvantage. You do not know most of the people you are voting for or whether they are committed to the bishops’ plan. Do not let this trouble you. While it would be helpful for you to send a proper delegation, the bishops are prepared to protect the church from errors in delegate voting.
While it is true that–as Bishop Holston so frequently reminds us–only the General Conference can speak for the whole church, your bishops have the authority to keep the General Conference from speaking. Bishops decide who can make a motion. We found it necessary to exercise that authority at the 2019 General Conference. Bishop Palmer skillfully used his time as chair to lead the assembly in hymns, invite guest speakers on the platform, and to only call on friendly speakers to make motions. During his time chairing the conference not one hurtful amendment could be voted on by the delegates. When Bishop Harvey took the chair, she was similarly effective until the end of day when she inadvisable allowed an amendment to the floor. She quickly recovered and directed the remaining hour to protests and demonstrations.
So, you can trust that regardless of how you vote your bishops as the divinely appointed representatives of Christ’s Church on Earth will prevent any further hurtful actions of the General Conference and will oversee the implementation of God’s plan for the United Methodist Church.
After these long days and nights of Annual Conference are over and you return to your home church, you can do so with cries of “Peace! Peace!” and remain committed to unity above all. Stay focused on mission. Pour a glass of sweet tea. Get ready for the Christmas play. Open your hearts to the spirit moving over the chaos of the United Methodist Church, and trust the word of God revealed directly to Bishop Olivetto, “There is something waiting to be born.”
Be at peace. The church in South Carolina has secured its assets. You are making budget. There is no danger.
(Postscript: To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.