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Embracing the Covenant, the third report of the Joint Implementation Commission, published in 2008 includes a chapter, Episkope and Episcopacy and our Churches in Covenant, suggesting a way forward for the Covenant following the failure of the 'What Sort of Bishops' report. They write, 'as many Methodists frankly acknowledge (and as WSB points out), it is the personal expression of oversight that is comparatively weak, though certainly not absent, in British Methodism and is related to a lack of public visibility'. I have pondered this observation and offer my own interpretation here. It is worth reading the chapter for an overview of the ecumenical case for Methodist Bishops. My aim here is to show how Bishops along the lines suggested in this chapter might have other advantages for the Methodist Church.
Episcope is a Greek word and broadly it means oversight. So, the Bishop has oversight of his Diocese and similarly the Methodist Superintendent Minister has oversight of their circuit. This oversight covers pastoral care for ministers in the Diocese or circuit but it means more. The person with oversight has responsibility for what happens amongst the people under his or her oversight.
There are three types of oversight: personal, collegial and communal. Every church exercises all three in some form or other but usually one dominates. So, the Bishop has personal oversight. The clergy together in the Diocese exercise collegial oversight and the Diocesan synod exercises communal oversight. Similar approaches can be found in a circuit, although on a smaller scale and with different emphases.
It is not really satisfactory to compare the Church of England and the Methodist Church. They are different churches with different aims. For the purpose of this argument though, I think it might help to think of the British Methodist Connexion as if it is a large Diocese. There are differences and some may be important but I think my argument stacks up despite the weaknesses of the comparison.
Clearly, we have communal oversight of the Connexion through Conference. There are various versions of collegial oversight too. There is a ministerial session of Conference, which might be considered as collegial oversight although I think in practice the District Chairs together exercise this oversight most effectively. But the boundaries are blurred, as the Connexional Team and Methodist Council also set the general direction of church policy.
But perhaps the problems are clearest when we consider personal oversight. Who leads the Methodist Church? In the days of John Wesley it was obvious. Today it is not. Is it the President? The President would seem to be the obvious person to hold this position. But the appointment is for one year only and in practice the position is as a figurehead, with little opportunity to change anything other than set the general tone.
Another possibility is the General Secretary. The problem is this role is nearer in concept to that of an Archdeacon in the Diocese. The role relates closely to the Connexional Team and day to day, the GS runs the team with three other strategic leaders. These four have time on their side and consequently lots of power but I wonder if they have sufficient personal authority? This relates to how they are appointed, they are not seen as figureheads in the same way as the President and have significant operational responsibilities, which a Bishop would not normally have.
The upshot is the people who are in a position to be effective in terms of oversight are in need of oversight themselves. No-one has a clear responsibility to set the general direction of the Connexion, based we would hope on prayer and careful reflection, rather than day to day managerial responsibilities.
The problem is the strategic leaders are in a very difficult position. They have to field the expectations of personal oversight with those of managing a team. In the end I think it is inevitable they fail at both. This is not the fault of the individuals involved. Anyone in those positions would face the same pressures. Their predecessors, the joint secretaries group, saw through the infamous team focus exercise. Not one of them, when they applied for the strategic leader roles, was accepted and the Connexion appointed a completely new leadership. Yet after about 3 years, we have exactly the same problems with the current leaders as we did with the last.
The problem is not with the individuals themselves but with the culture of the Church and the Connexional Team. There is profound confusion about whether they are supposed to be managers or leaders. Consequently they fail at both. The best managers on the team are systematically excluded from decision making by a group of people who do not understand the basics of management. They have been selected for their standing in the church, when what is required is effective people.
But they are not able to provide the oversight that is required either. The result is a morass of dependence on dubious theology combined with unbelievable disregard for the welfare of the Methodist people, from members of the team down to local churches.
The closure of the Resourcing Mission Office, mentioned in my last post, is one example but there is a general inability to make use of the members of the team. Experts, Team members with years of experience, are systematically excluded from decision making. Consequently bad decisions are made and the core of experienced people is diminished as team members leave in frustration.
In my next post, I will return to the question of episcope and show how Methodist Bishops might help us address these problems.