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Bishop Larry Goodpaster passes the gavel of leadership to his successor, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Photo credit: United Methodist News Service / Kathleen Barry.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster passes the gavel of leadership to his successor, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Photo credit: United Methodist News Service / Kathleen Barry.

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

Bishop Larry Goodpaster recently had to decide how to respond to a situation the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, which he oversees.

The leadership of one of his congregations announced that to express their support for redefining marriage to encompass same-sex unions, they are now closing their sanctuary to marriages of any sort.

According to the church’s website, the new policy will still allow marriages to be performed in other parts of the church property. Meanwhile, the pastors are to refrain from signing marriage licenses for anyone in any state, such as North Carolina, which has failed to have marriage redefinition legislatively enacted or judicially imposed. The church’s website suggests that the fact that “[t]he national opinion and political culture is rapidly changing” in the United States should be one reason for the the church to overturn 2,000 years of consistent global Christian teaching, while, with characteristic theological sloppiness, the church describes marriage as “a holy sacrament” (in direct contradiction of the UMC’s doctrinal standards, which clearly state the classic Protestant position that marriage is not a sacrament).

Bishop Goodpaster chose to release a statement essentially defending the congregation.  The full text of the bishop’s statement is here:

After several months of prayerful study and conversation with members and constituents, the leaders of the Green Street United Methodist Church made a decision regarding the use of their facilities and weddings. They are not the first church in our denomination to make such a statement, and in doing so, they have not in any way violated the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. They have chosen to practice what is written in the Book of Discipline by seeking ‘to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons’ (Paragraph 161.F, page 111, The Book of Discipline).”

In other words, the bishop chose to exercise his teaching office by claiming that the congregation’s sin-affirming policy is consistent with the Book of Discipline, while he refuses to defend, state if he is committed to upholding, or event mention the UMC’s clear biblical position against homosexual practice.

Green Street UMC quickly returned the favor, declaring “Thank you, Bishop Goodpaster!” on its Facebook page and understandably summarizing the bishop’s statement as follows: “Bishop Goodpaster applauds statement by Green Street UMC for marriage equality.”

Larry Goodpaster is a man to whom God has given some rather unique opportunities for leadership within the United Methodist denomination.  He was elected in 2000 to become a United Methodist bishop.  He was chosen to serve on the board of directors of the UMC’s notoriously controversial General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), where as a bishop he could have been a powerful force for reform if he so desired.  And he recently served as the president of our global denomination’s Council of Bishops.

I have heard indirectly that Bishop Goodpaster is theologically orthodox, although I would welcome more direct evidence of this.  He has apparently had no problem using his prominence to endorse statements promoting a variety of left-of-center political causes, and even endorsing a statement warning of “devastating consequences” from a pro-traditional-marriage amendment to the North Carolina state constitution (although even the state ACLU rejected some of these alarmist claims).  To countless opportunities he has been given to defend Christian and United Methodist teaching that contrast with “politically correct” secular liberal values, including the church’s official position in supporting “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” he has offered a whole lot of silence.

Perhaps the most striking sin of commission in Bishop Goodpaster’s statement (aside from his omissions) is his rather questionably portraying Green Street UMC’s recent move as being neither dramatic nor in conflict with church law.  In fact, since before Goodpaster became a bishop, relevant church law has been clear that congregations are NOT allowed to formally affiliate with an unofficial caucus group, as Green Street UMC has done with the sexually liberal Reconciling Ministries Network.  Furthermore, a key part of the Goodpaster-defended statement announces the congregation’s envelope-pushing (at the very least) commitment to “offer to all couples regardless of orientation a Service of Relationship Blessing” in the church sanctuary, which they speciously argue manages to stay within the letter of the law while repudiating its spirit.

The current Council of Bishop’s president, Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, also publicly claimed

that the congregation is not afoul of church law. Bishop Wenner’s statements and actions strongly imply she is a sexual liberal.  She agreed to interrupt the regularly scheduled proceedings of the last General Conferencewith a sanctimonious pro-homosexuality declaration (masked as a prayer) whose content was apparently prescribed by shrill protest leader Amy DeLong. Under seven years of Bishop Wenner’s leadership, the already tiny, liberal annual conferences she oversees have continued their slide towards extinction, with the South Germany Annual Conference (the only one for which consistent data is readily available) plummeting in professing membership by over 10 percent. That this is the profile of the individual chosen to be the Council of Bishops’ top leader and most visible spokesperson speaks volumes about the state of the Council’s functionality. 

But sadly, these bishops are hardly unique among their colleagues.  In the U.S., United Methodist bishops routinely follow their example of selectively citing the parts of the parts of UMC Book of Discipline exhorting kindness to self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people (with which we all agree) while simply ignoring or openly opposing our biblical positions opposing homosexual practice. I am only aware of only one who has committed to actually enforcing the church law forbidding congregational caucus affiliations, a part of church law which evangelicals obey while liberal congregations ignore. Other bishops have not demonstrated concern with such (in)action of theirs effectively rewarding and encouraging misbehavior while punishing those who play by the rules. While our bishops have been entrusted with offering leadership for our denomination’s general agencies, they have largely shown themselves perfectly willing to let these offering-plate funded institutions, especially the GBCS, operate as divisive caucus groups who openly reject Christian fellowship with large segments of the denomination and to whom, in some cases, our bishops grant impunity in making a mockery of the denominational covenant of the Book of Discipline. Many U.S. United Methodist bishops are in the habit of making statements on all sorts of political issues that amount to yawningly predictable endorsements of whatever the secular political left’s cause of the day may happen to be. While this is sometimes oddly defended as the bishops being “prophetic,” most U.S. bishops’ lack of demonstrated courage and conviction in defending biblical values being abandoned in the church as well as society, their effective freedom from meaningful accountability, and the fact that their six-figure salaries, according the www.globalrichlist.com, place them among the top half of one percent of richest people in the world (and that’s before their housing and other benefits), paint a rather strong contrast with the biblical prophets.

Now I do not begrudge our bishops for taking a salary (although the salary level does raise credibility issues for those who issue political calls for the government to force on society a sort of economic redistribution which they do not model within the church). But it should not be too much to ask them to do the jobs they are paid to do of consistently upholding church law, teaching orthodox Wesleyan theology, courageously defending Christian and Wesleyan values under attack, seeking “to be the shepherd of the whole flock” (Para. 403.1e of the Book of Discipline) – rather than just of United Methodists who are supporters of MoveOn.org – and acting with transparency and integrity.

To be clear, there are flickers of light within the Council of Bishops.  But something is fundamentally amiss when it becomes a pleasant surprise to observe a bishop here or there doing what all of them were supposed to be doing all along.

Jesus taught that to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).  Tragically, all too often in the United Methodist Church, the least Christian leadership is seen from those to whom the most has been given.