In response to rumors reported by The Washington Post and on social media about the bishops having a plan to split the church, Bishop Bruce Ough, the new president of the Council of Bishops, asked permission to speak to the General Conference at 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, May, 17, to make a statement on behalf of the Council. (Read the full text of the bishop’s statement).
Bishop Ough, who serves the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area, said “As shepherds of the entire flock, the Council of Bishops is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church. … We are not advancing or advocating any plan for separation or reorganizing the denomination. We clearly understand and respect the constitutional prerogative of this body to propose and act on legislation. As your presiders, we are committed to enabling this body, by the grace of God, to perform your legislative function.”
Bishop Ough took questions at a press conference following the announcement during which he said that he believed the rumors of a plan to split dominated because they are the most “dramatic” of the various scenarios out there.
Bishop Ough acknowledged the brokenness and pain that has been evident in the daily protests outside the convention center and on the floor.
“I stand before you today, on behalf of my episcopal colleagues, to tell you I have a broken heart – that collectively we have a broken heart. Our hearts break over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety and disunity we observe and experience in our beloved United Methodist Church,” he said. “This brokenness is centered on matters of human sexuality, the interpretation of scripture, the inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, all fueled by the despair over the decline of the church in North America.”
During the mid-morning press conference, Bishop Ough said that for about six weeks before General Conference, the officers of the COB had been meeting with “various leaders that represent the full spectrum of concerns in our Methodist Church, particularly in the matter of human sexuality” for the purpose of opening a dialog.
Bishop Ough said that a “full range of ideas was on the table” during those discussions, but that it is not up to the COB to build the plan.
“(The Council of Bishops) is in an interesting position in that everybody wants us to lead – providing we’re leading in their direction,” Bishop Ough said. “At the same time, our authority to lead in some direction is limited by our polity.”
Despite that, a motion from the floor later in the day called on the Council of Bishops to offer some “leadership” and guidance by proposing a way forward for the Church. That motion was referred to the Council of Bishops, who were scheduled to meet Tuesday evening.
On Tuesday evening, New England lay delegate Rene Wilbur, reacting to Bishop Ough’s initial statement, said:
“At that particular point in time, I believe Bishop Ough, speaking for the Council of Bishops, was trying to be as judicious as he could possibly be. I have great hope that the meetings that the bishops are holding since then are going to be more fruitful in terms of something more definitive, but it’s a very, very difficult question; ... the bishops, they’re as conflicted as the whole rest of the church is, I’m sure.”
“It’s a sad situation, in the sense that we are spending so much time discussing unity and disunity when there’s so many other pressing problems in the
world,” Wilbur said, “and that’s what I find most distressing, I think.”
Bishop Ough explained why he and his colleagues are committed to keeping the church united using the analogy of a divorce:
“Any time there’s a division, it’s typically the children that suffer,” he said. “We know full well that one of the difficulties with any kind of separation, is what happens to all those things that God has blessed us to be the champions of – not just the four areas of focus – all that we do to sustain hundreds and hundreds of health clinics around the world, universities and colleges – mission work anywhere. What happens to all that? That’s what gets left on the sidelines. The Council of Bishops is very clear that one of the reasons we’re so committed to the unity of the church is because there is so much of God’s kingdom work at stake that could suffer.”