Politics are part of the church as much as they are part of the culture today, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton told members of the 2016 Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference in his State of the Church address. “So are agendas, structures, and secularism. But. . . We Are More!” he declared.
Describing celebrations and listing positive decisions made at the denomination’s General Conference in Portland, Oregon in April, the Bishop noted that “there was a different mood in Portland, one that was hard to read and even harder to react to with adequate leadership and responses.”
It was the result of what he called “the undeniable elephant in the room” – the debate over human sexuality.
“The line in the sand seems to have been drawn very deeply. The rhetoric from the extreme viewpoints has, at times, dominated the conversation,” said the Bishop. “Yet, the rhetoric from the extremes has, in some measure, ignored the mass in the middle, the voices of the church that have longed for peace in the midst of discord, hope in the midst of despair, and unity above all.
“They are the ones who have questioned, “What are we Fighting For?” -- given all the amazing work that is being done through the mobilization of 12 million Methodists who, in and through the work of the Holy Spirit, can accomplish exceedingly, abundantly more than anyone can ever dream of or imagine,” he said.
Those on the extremes are calling for a split in the denomination, he pointed out.
“If there are any of you in this room who are working toward a separation rather than unity, in the name of our God I call you to stop that behavior immediately and work with me and others to preserve our greatest witness – an outward expression of an inward and deeply spiritual grace that honors our diversity, loves all of God’s created children equally, and longs for unity at all costs in the body of Christ!” he exclaimed.
“Our role is to lead the church in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance rather than our own.”
“We must preach, teach, and live as a demonstration of the unity that is only possible through Jesus Christ our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst!”
“At the heart of our issue as a church is a matter of spirituality and the need for each of us to fall on our knees in surrender to a God who created us all, different as we are, and who longs for Eden, a place of joy and serenity where only God is worshipped and adored, not the systems and structures and agendas that so easily dominate the fabric of who we have become,” he said.
“Our greatest public witness is not a demonstration that we all agree. Our greatest public witness is a demonstration that we love one another in the midst of our disagreements. We are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another.”
For the first time in history, the General Conference did something that broke down the separation of power in our church. The delegates asked the bishops to no longer be the “potted plants” who do not have voice or vote. The delegates called on the Bishops to lead them in finding a way forward “that could represent the re-ordering of our life together as a 21st century church.”
As a result, the Council of Bishops will form a commission to work with them to study issues related to human sexuality in the denomination’s Book of Discipline. The Commission will be formed after 15 new bishops are elected this summer and are able to be a part of the discernment process.
“The Council of Bishops is committed to the unity of the United Methodist Church and will seek to strengthen it in our leadership,” said Bishop Bickerton.
The Council will “initiate conversations about how the church can best live in grace with one another, especially in relation to complaints against one another.
“We will uphold the Discipline of our church while these conversations take place. It must be noted that all provisions of the Book of Discipline remain unchanged and will remain in place until such time as the General Conference changes them,” he said.
Bishop Bickerton called on members of the Annual Conference to:
Stop polarizing and start preaching.
Stop making excuses and start dreaming.
Stop accusing and start confessing.
Stop hurting and start healing.
Stop Satan and start Jesus.
“In this fast paced ever moving world of the 21st century we are looking for new answers to new problems, when in fact it comes down to offering people an invitation into the heart of God,” he said. “The answers are quite simple: preach, teach, love, pray, and renew.
“As we search for answers to our big problems, the solutions are not in the places where we have placed our emphasis. The solutions are found right here (in the heart).
“The answers are within our grasp because they dwell deep within each of us, created and planted by our God and brought to light and fruition when we open ourselves once again to the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”
“Every issue is a spiritual issue,” Bishop Bickerton said. “These challenging times will be more so if you and I do not take that seriously and assume spiritual leadership.”
See full text of State of the Church address.