Image by caterpiya via Flickr
I should say at the outset, I offer this as a debating point and any serious proposal would need much more work. I am only too aware of several weaknesses but Methodists need a conversation about the future of leadership in their church and it is possible some sort of Methodist Bishop might help.
After Council put the 'What Sort of Bishops' proposal on ice, they asked the Joint Implementation Commission to make a recommendation. They did this in their third report in 2008, Embracing the Covenant, and that too seems to have been put on ice. (The latest move was a summary of the responses to the 2008 report in appendix 2 of the 2011 report, Moving Forward in Covenant.) The JIC recommendation in the 2008 chapter Episkope and Episcopacy and our Churches in Covenant, was the President (and ex-Presidents) would be the Bishops. (I strongly recommend reading this chapter, which makes a cogent case for understanding the Methodist President to be a Bishop and the focus for personal episcope.) I will in my next post consider in detail how I would see this working and the ways in which the Methodist system would differ from the Anglican. In this post, I want to explore how I see it resolving the issues I identified in an earlier post as to do with personal episcope.
We would need to be clear the Bishops would have as one of their roles, the responsibility to be in touch with the Methodist people and represent their concerns, as identified by Conference. One task would be to ensure Methodist Conference genuinely makes decision based on the will of Methodists as a whole. This is a traditional role of Bishops, to be the people's champions against not only overbearing clergy but also politicians and others who seek to oppress the people.
Let me consider three crucial questions about the way decisions are made nationally in the Methodist Church, comparing how they are made now and how they might be made with Bishops in place.
Currently, the Connexional Team's leaders make most of the decisions. They prepare the main papers that go to Council and Conference and so in effect make both strategic and operational decisions. The big difference is they would focus primarily on operational decisions.
Who decides who decides?
Under the new system the Bishops (collaborating in various ways as outlined in the 2008 report) would decide on the strategic direction of the church. I'll look in more detail at how they would do this in my next post. They would appoint the team leadership, in partnership with others in the church. Traditionally in the Methodist Church, ordained and lay work together. There would continue to be a lay vice President of Conference and they with others from Methodist Council might work closely with the Bishops. Indeed a close working relationship between the Bishops on the one hand and Conference, Council and the Districts Chairs on the other, would be essential. The Connexional Team would then become the operational arm of this leadership group. This demotion the Connexional Team leadership would, I believe be seen by many as a major advantage to having Bishops.
Who decides who decides who decides?
The Bishops would be elected as the Presidents are now by Methodist Conference. Their accountability would be to Conference and Conference would be able to set the direction of the church by choosing between a number of candidates. I'll consider how this will work in more detail in my next post. The main point here is that the democratic structure of the church would be enhanced by this approach.