Church, Ethics, Human Sexuality, Racism

Suffering Servants Silent Leadership: The UMC Council of Bishops Still Refuses to Speak on the Subject of Racism

No Comments 05 April 2015

No CommentThe United Methodist Council of Bishops consists of all active and retired bishops of the denomination. The work of the council is “to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships.” (The Book of Discipline ¶427.2). As a group, the council speaks to the denomination by statements that address matters it deems important to the life of the church and the society in which we live. Over the last decade it has issued at least seven statements, half related to human sexuality. During this same decade, the General Conference, the top legislative/decision making body of the denomination, followed its 2000 Act of Repentance related to the historical and institutional racism of the denomination by several additional acts of repentance and focused studies throughout its annual conferences.

The church was right to repentant of its ugly history of racism. This included the 1772 incident in St. George’s Methodist Church when a white trustee interrupted Richard Allen and Absalom Jones while they were down on their knees praying in the main sanctuary. The trustee told them that they were prohibited from praying in that area and instructed them to go to the segregated Negro section of the church (a newly constructed balcony area). Rather than participate in the foolishness of racism within the church, Allen and Jones walked out never to return. Allen became the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and Absalom Jones, the founding pastor of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (Philadelphia). The very existence of the AME church is a constant reminder of the history of racism from which the UMC must never be allowed to forget.

When our nation was in the throes of disagreement about whether to end slavery, the Methodist church leaders debated over the relationship of members who refused to manumit their slaves. Bishop James Osgood Andrew’s ownership of slaves was among the disagreements that led to the split of the church in 1844 creating The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Division was no solution; the conversation regarding slave ownership continued through the years. During General Conference 1860 Methodist Episcopal Church, the church debated whether the Book of Discipline ought prohibit holding, buying and selling slaves. Southern state laws prohibited slave owners from emancipating their slaves. “Do the majority intend to say that the Church should place herself in a position to do what the laws will not permit to be done?” Justifying the ownership of slaves, some church leaders argued, “Nine-tenths of the slaves held come to them by inheritance or marriage…the law compels no man to buy or sell but it does compel men to hold.” No sufficient ground was made and so when the northern and southern Methodist churches reunited in 1939 they did so by agreeing to establish a racially segregated jurisdiction called the Central Jurisdiction. Black members of the Methodist Church remained loyal to the church despite its betrayal. When the 1968 merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren eliminated the Central Jurisdiction, it resolved legal segregation but could not end institutional racism.

In 2000 the church amended its constitution to address racial injustice saying, “The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large.” ¶5 The Constitution, The UMC Book of Discipline 2012

Given its shameful history of racism, its acts of repentance and its constitutional goals of eliminating racism one would think that the United Methodist Council of Bishops would have issued a statement to address racism especially doing so over the last eight months of unrest in our nation. Gil Caldwell and myself wrote an open letter to the council, which was published September 4, 2014. We did not ask the council to take a stand one way or the other regarding the guilt or innocence officer Darren Wilson. In light of the increasing evidence of racism against Black citizens by the Ferguson municipal court and police department we asked: “Rather than be seen as having never shed its denominational support of racism, we call now upon the Council of Bishops, a predominantly white leadership, to address this urgent crisis impacting the lives of Black people living in Ferguson. We urge you to take a bold stand against racism including the militarized armament and surveillance being used against Black people.”

Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Cameron Tillman, VonDerritt Myers, Jr., Martese Johnson, Floyd Dent, the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, a noose found hanging on campus of United Methodist related Duke University and now the murder of Walter Scott. The Council remains silent. The only mention of the Council on the subject of race in recent news is contained within the terms of the just resolution for a complaint made against one of the church’s most senior Black bishops, Melvin Talbert (retired) for officiating a same-sex marriage: “Encourage the Council of Bishops to actively pursue sustained theological conversation especially around human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide church.”

The Council of Bishops has not confronted the rampant racism of this 21st century. One could wonder is this because Blacks represent less than 7% of its total membership? We hear you clearly when it comes to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. Racism…not so much.

While Black bodies bleed on the streets, while black bodies suffer under mass incarceration, while Black police officers suffer the impact of racism on Black communities and within police leadership ranks, and while Black people continue to suffer systemic racism, while the nation and our churches remain divided over this perennial issue you have chosen to remain silent.



Citations: NY Times 5/25/1860 “Methodist General Conference…”


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