Active United Methodist bishops from around the globe next week plan to hold their second large gathering in a row that is closed to the press and outside observers.
The meeting, set for May 5-9 in San Diego, will mark the first gathering of the Forum of Residential Bishops. Those are bishops who now actively lead an episcopal area. All 66 active bishops from the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe plan to attend.
Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, said the coming meeting will give bishops with residential responsibilities “a time to learn how to lead in a time of rapid changes in the world and in the church.”
Wenner and other bishops stress that the gathering has no authority to take actions on behalf of the full council. There is no need for news coverage, they argue, since no voting on church issues is planned.
“This is a learning and community-building opportunity,” said Raleigh (N.C.) Area Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. “I do not see why a learning and community-building opportunity would be open to the press. … It’s not plenaries. It’s not decision-making. It’s a different sort of gathering than we’ve had in the past.”
Still, some longtime church observers say the meeting should be open.
“To state that all the residential bishops meeting together at some other time is not really a (Council of Bishops) meeting but a forum, is to make a distinction without a difference,” the Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., told United Methodist News Service in an email.
He is the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church as well as the son of the late Bishop Eugene Frank.
“It is not possible for all residential bishops meeting together, who individually and collectively bear responsibility for the oversight of the ‘entire Church,’ not to do business even if no formal actions are taken.
“This is especially true if they are meeting together, for example, to engage in mutual accountability to the four focus areas of The United Methodist Church or to the denomination’s stated mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world — both of which have a programmatic impact on every congregation and every pastor in the connection. Such an agenda would plainly be carrying out the oversight ‘business’ of the church and such a meeting must not be closed.”
The Council of Bishops traditionally has met twice a year. But in April 2012, the council overwhelmingly voted to reduce its meeting schedule shortly before General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body — convened. Under the plan, the council’s spring meeting will be only for active bishops during 2013-16. The full council will meet in the fall.
The reorganization also reduced around two dozen committees and other groups that meet throughout the four-year period to nine “leadership teams” of active and retired bishops.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, mandates only that the Council of Bishops meet at least once a year. Under church law, retired bishops have a voice but no vote in council business.
The Council of Bishops, at its closed meeting last fall, changed its bylaws to reflect that new organization and added a specific mandate of the executive committee “to facilitate processes to hold one another accountable,” Wenner told UMNS.
She did not offer specifics about what form that accountability might take.
During the forum, the bishops plan to develop small accountability groups, and group members will follow up with each other afterwards related to their annual conference, jurisdictional and general leadership roles and responsibilities.
“The collective and individual leadership of the bishops has to be shaped by the call to live faithful discipleship in the 21st century and to lead the church to be a discipleship movement,” Wenner said. “Therefore we have to hold one another accountable how we live that call.”
The change in Council of Bishops meetings came after years of closed-session discussions by the bishops about the role of retired colleagues.
The United Methodist Church now has 46 active bishops and 79 retired bishops in the United States. In the central conferences of Africa, Europe and the Philippines, the denomination has 20 active and 19 retired bishops.
“I think it was a good idea for the (Council of Bishops) to take a proactive step to limit the participation of the retired bishops, though there was a better way it could have been done, in my judgment,” said Lonnie Brooks, lay leader of the Alaska United Methodist Conference.
“There is less than a firm foundation in church law for the (Council of Bishops) to bar some of its members from attendance at its meetings, and retired bishops continue to be members of the COB,” he said. “It is on even shakier ground to call what is clearly a meeting something other than a meeting.”
Open meetings in church law
Paragraph 722 in the Book of Discipline calls for church bodies to hold open meetings in “the spirit of openness and accountability.” It restricts closed sessions to only certain matters including real estate, personnel discussions, legal consultation and negotiations.
In 1999, the United Methodist Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court — ruled that the provision does not apply to the Council of Bishops.
Since then, General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body — has amended the open meetings rules. “While it is expected that the General Conference, the Judicial Council, and the Council of Bishops will live by the spirit of this paragraph, each of these constitutional bodies is governed by its own rules of procedure,” church law now says.
Brooks acknowledged that church law gives the Council of Bishops “authority to close its meetings for any reason whatsoever.”
However, he added that “it is clearly the will of the church, as that will is expressed by General Conference — the only body that speaks for the church — that the Council of Bishops should abide by the spirit of openness in holding its meetings.”
Brooks represented United Methodist Communications in bringing the 1999 challenge to the bishops’ closed meetings. United Methodist News Service is part of United Methodist Communications.
He said one reason the council seeks to close its meetings is that the bishops like to present a united front to the church.
The council, he said, “is mindful of the fact that it doesn’t speak FOR the Church but that it does speak powerfully TO the church. And there is some truth in the idea that the message the council speaks to the Church is made more persuasive and effective if it is done in one voice.”
However, he noted that on controversial issues, bishops can be as divided as other United Methodists.
“It would potentially further the broader conversation on those issues to know what the arguments are on various sides as those arguments are presented by the episcopal advocates,” Brooks said. “We can’t get that if the bishops, when they are having those conversations, don’t permit us to listen to what they’re saying to one another.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn. (615)742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.