We are not yet through the COVID pandemic. People are still getting sick, and some are dying, but we seem to be doing much better. Vaccines for the omicron variant of the coronavirus are becoming available. We have learned that taking precautions allows us to participate in many of our regular routines. Some events that had been postponed or cancelled for the past two years are back.
In 2020, I was scheduled to lead a tour of United Methodists to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. The Passion Play takes place every 10 years, and has been so performed once every decade since the 1630s, with a couple of exceptions. In 2020 and 2021, the play was postponed. Finally in August we went. It was a marvelous experience, one which I continue to process and about which I plan to write more in upcoming blogs. Yet even in Germany, denominational tensions made their presence felt.
While in Europe, I received a text message from Rev. Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection in the Kansas City area. He received a phone message from a Michigan United Methodist who said she attended the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) presentation at the Michigan Annual Conference and that she was told there that Bishop Bard endorses a theology very different from the current theology of The United Methodist Church. She was convinced that this different theology is the future of the UMC. Rev. Hamilton asked me about this, and I shared the story, as it was not the first time I had confronted it.
One local church in Michigan made a presentation at the WCA gathering that took place during the Michigan Annual Conference. Church leaders were sharing their discernment process about whether or not to disaffiliate. During their process, they had invited me to meet with their discernment group and I was happy to do so. The end result of their work was a lengthy report to the congregation that included notes about who they had consulted and their views of the future theology of The United Methodist Church. I had not been asked about that “theology” in my conversations with the discernment committee. I was given an opportunity to review the report, which I did. Given that the conclusion was the church would likely leave the UMC, I did not offer a point-by-point criticism of the report’s characterization of this future UMC theology, though I had a number of objections. When I first heard that this “new theology” was being attributed to me, I contacted the church and was assured that no such statement about my personal theology was made at the WCA presentation. I further asked them to clarify that a review of a document does not entail agreement with its contents.
I know this story comes from the other conference where I am bishop, but I thought it important to share as the issues it illustrates are not conference-specific. Sharing this story allows me to be clear about the theology that I believe will guide the future United Methodist Church: Our theology will be anchored in our historic statements, The Articles of Religion, and the Confession of Faith, along with John Wesley’s sermons and Notes on the New Testament. I would invite your attention to the Doctrinal Standards section of “The Book of Discipline.” Included in our standards are statements about scripture that will remain our grounding. We believe that the scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation, that they reveal “the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” Further, scripture is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” Scripture is the inspired word of God.
Also included in our statements are affirmations of the trinitarian nature of God, traditionally phrased as God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Along with that affirmation is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity.
I share these in particular because there is currently a lot of chatter online and in various publications that questions whether the future United Methodist Church will be anchored in these historic statements, and that includes chatter attributing to me views that I do not hold. The statements I have shared about the inspiration of scripture and that it contains all that is necessary for our salvation, and about the Triune God, are my own affirmations.
Let me also call attention to another part of our doctrinal material in “The Book of Discipline”—“Our theological task.” “Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives…The theological task, though related to the Church’s doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’”
As United Methodists, we are anchored in our doctrinal heritage, and offered room to think creatively about that heritage. Sometimes such creative thinking extends to the limits of what we will finally find acceptable. Some theologians will make statements that we think go too far. What I see happening at times is that the most far-out statements are used to characterize what “the new theology” of United Methodism will be. I don’t think that helpful, fair, or accurate.
Perhaps our theological task is like jazz. You begin with a tune, and that tune anchors everything that the ensemble will be playing. Yet if you’ve ever listened to what John Coltrane does with the song “My Favorite Things,” there are times when the tune seems to get lost, only to re-emerge later on. Some theology will strike the wrong notes. It does not mean we’ve changed the tune. It only means we’ve discovered limits, beyond which the tune really cannot be called the same one. To affirm that scripture is inspired leaves lots of room for various theological descriptions of the process of inspiration. To say that God is Triune leaves plenty of room for people to work with what it means for one God to be three “persons.” It leaves room for exploration of how the human Jesus is also God incarnate.
Other bishops are also responding to questions of theology, and I invite you to listen to the responses by Bishop Julius Trimble of the Indiana Conference, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Conference, and Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York Episcopal Area, who spoke during the opening session of the most recent Council of Bishops meeting.
Finally, allow me to say a brief word about the recent Judicial Council decision regarding paragraph 2548.2 of “The Book of Discipline.” Some have written, asking for the Minnesota Conference to consider this as an alternative to paragraph 2553 for church disaffiliation. In decision 1449, the Judicial Council has ruled that “the process in ¶2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.” I know this is a disappointment to some of you. I had worked with a small group of bishops to explore the possibilities of using the paragraph prior to the request for a Judicial Council decision. This path is not an option, meaning the road ahead will remain bumpy.
Now, back to my recent trip to Europe: We made it to Oberammergau, Germany, and also visited a few other cities in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. We toured some absolutely beautiful churches, including the church where Bach was the organist. Along the way, we were reminded of some of the wars fought in Europe, many rooted in religious differences. I learned a new word: “defenestration,” which refers to the act of throwing someone out a window. It was something that happened as part of the religious wars in Europe. An act of defenestration, rooted in part in religious differences, was at the root of the Thirty Years War, one of the deadliest and most destructive wars in European history.
This is a difficult time in the life of The United Methodist Church. Even traveling to Europe did not provide a break from our denominational tensions. In the midst of it all, I will offer my best effort to be clear, direct, fair, and gracious, knowing that graciousness is often in the eye of the beholder. I will also take some comfort in the fact that at least we are not throwing people out of windows. I’m on this bumpy, joyful journey with you.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church