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One example of bad decision making amongst the leaders of the Connexional Team was the 'What sort of Bishops?' debacle. This took place a few years ago when a different group of people led the team, although the same types of mistakes continue to be made.
The Faith and Order committee produced a report, 'What sort of Bishops?', which was approved by Conference for circulation to the churches, circuits and districts for comment. I saw the paper only after Conference has made its decision. Part of the Connexional Team's internal culture, is to keep knowledgeable people out of decision making. I could have told them what would happen when this paper was circulated. Sadly, it was already too late. So, what was wrong with it? I don't have a copy of the paper in front of me and so what follows is from memory. It is possible I'm confusing several papers but this is the best I can remember:
- The paper claimed Conference had agreed there was no theological bar to bishops. It was a simple step to decide what sort of bishops. Consequently it failed to make a case for bishops and assumed everyone would jump to it and agree to one or another of the proposals in the paper.
- As a consequence no reasons were offered as to why we needed not only bishops but the historic episcope. This means hands have to be laid on the new Bishops by existing Bishops. No reasons were given for this. Many Methodists assumed this would amount to admission that our ministers and sacraments are invalid.
- It was not explained there are many types of bishops and Methodist bishops don't have to be the same as Anglican bishops. It didn't even explain the historic episcope could be passed on by, for example, European Lutherans, we don't have to receive it from the Church of England.
- The options were risible and this I think was the main reason why the paper was rejected. At the time, most people believed superintendents should be ministers. This was not treated as a viable option but several options included making the joint secretaries bishops. I believe these proposals sunk it. They were never popular as a group. But the real problem was it was based on a misunderstanding of their role.
The response to the paper was overwhelmingly negative. The language used in the replies was in some instances offensive to both our partners in the Church of England and those in leadership in the Methodist Church. Methodist Council agreed that no decision should be made based on the paper. In effect they kicked the issue into the long grass, where it has remained for several years.
The issue of Methodist Bishops has not been put to the churches or Conference since then. It must be about 5 years ago.
I tell this story because I think the issue could have been handled better. In writing my next post, which will be a proposal for Methodist Bishops, I must confess I am something of a poacher turned gamekeeper. When the Anglican Methodist Covenant was approved during 2003, my church voted against. We were a strongly ecumenical congregation and we opposed it for one of the reasons above. We believed it invalidated Methodist ministry and sacraments. We could see no reason to have Bishops because we could see no problem to which it was a solution. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
During my time with the team, I got to know the Church of England and reluctantly came to see Bishops as a means to interchangeability of ministry. I came to see unity as a valid reason to have Bishops, outweighing my other concerns, slightly.
But now, in the light of my concerns about personal episcope in the Methodist Church, I wonder whether we need to look again at the proposal for Methodist Bishops? It is possible, a movement to reform the leadership of the church, would provide a valid reason to adopt Bishops, not just to enable a closer relationship with the Church of England, but also to provide our church with the leadership structures it needs. I'll go into more detail in my next post.