By Jessica Brodie
PORTLAND, Ore.—Amid rumors Tuesday morning of a possible denomination-wide split for The United Methodist Church, the president of the UMC Council of Bishops issued a statement calling for unity, dialogue and prayer. And South Carolina’s bishop and many delegates say they wholeheartedly support his stance.
At the start of business May 17, Bishop Bruce R. Ough took a moment of personal privilege to share a story of how, in 1973 when he was just 23 years old, he had to make the difficult decision to take his 20-year-old brother off life support after a surprise heart attack.
“My brother died of a diseased heart, but my heart was broken,” Ough told the body. “I know what it is to have a broken heart, what it feels like to have a broken heart. Many of you know what it is to have a broken heart.”
Much of that brokenness, Ough said, is centered on matters of human sexuality, the interpretation of Scripture and the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning brothers and sisters—and all fueled by despair over the decline of the UMC in North America.
“Our broken hearts, and a profound clarity that we, as your bishops, are charged with the spiritual and temporal oversight of the church, have driven us to our knees in prayer and into intense, holy conversations with ourselves and others as we have been considering how to maintain unity and bring healing to the church,” Ough said.
He called for authentic unity, the kind born of the Holy Spirit and one that is not afraid of the truth and is respectful of all.
“This may be the moment to let God’s unlimited imagination lead us to imagine a new way of being church,” Ough said. “Come, Holy Spirit, break through, set us free, revive and renew our United Methodist movement and connection. Mend our broken hearts. Call us back to be your flock together.”
South Carolina agrees
South Carolina’s bishop and several delegates said they stand with Ough in his call for unity.
Bishop Jonathan Holston issued his own followup statement reassuring South Carolina that the Council of Bishops is committed to the unity of the denomination.
“We acknowledge that just as in the local church, we do not all agree, and yet we commit to live together as one,” Holston said. “I invite you to pray fervently that God gives all delegates the strength to remain firm in their convictions and the compassion to listen to all in openness, respect and love. My prayer is that God will continue to guide us as we seek to do God’s will in all things.”
South Carolina delegation chair and episcopal nominee Dr. Tim McClendon said Ough’s speech was welcome.
“The rumors of our demise and fracture are just that—rumors,” McClendon told the Advocate. “It’s true there are differences and divisiveness in the Council of Bishops and the whole General Conference, but I think there’s more that holds us together than separate us.”
First-elected lay delegate Barbara Ware said Ough’s speech was very well thought-out, and the way Ough kept repeating the theme of unity over and over was a strong reminder of its importance.
“It was a good way to bring us back to the center and what we’re here for, like finding new ways to do ministry to people outside the walls of the church,” Ware said.
Delegate Jackie Jenkins said she was highly impressed with Ough’s words.
“Regardless of all the issues we’re dealing with, our ultimate concern is the unity of the whole church,” Jenkins said.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton said much the same when he opened the plenary session, just prior to Ough’s statement. He said that in times of struggle, he often finds himself reciting one of his favorite Scriptures, Ephesians 3:20, how God is able to accomplish exceedingly abundantly more than anyone could ever dream or imagine.
“Our biggest demonstration today is that we love each other in spite of our differences,” Bickerton said.
After Ough’s statement, Bickerton called on the body to join him in a time of prayer for the Holy Spirit to come upon the space.