A notable skepticism of authorities’ credibility takes hold when reality intrudes on the institution’s “official line”. We see this credibility gap besieging many of our political leaders overall, but it might also help explain the recent broadside from the President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Thomas Bickerton. He asserts, “In the hallways of our church we have allowed ourselves to be bullied by a narrative that has become a daily barrage of coercion, abuse, and ridicule that has evaporated a significant amount of spirit within us.” Without question, Bishop Bickerton contends, we must change the current trajectory of our denominational narrative.
This sounds serious… and it is. I suggest, however, that the annoyance and frustration expressed by Bishop Bickerton, as well as by a number of other denominational leaders, is the result of reality intruding on the “official line.” It is deeply harmful when bishops, who are expected to be keepers of the flame at the heart of the church’s mission, undermine the mission that has held us together and, when necessary, reformed us since 1784.
So, what’s going on here?
What’s a “narrative” and why do leaders work so hard to control it?
A “narrative”, simply, is a story, a tale, about the history, people, priorities, and expected future of an institution, organization, group, or nation.
“Narratives are a form of power that can mobilize and connect, as well as divide and isolate. Social, public, or dominant narratives help to legitimize existing power relationships, prop them up or make them seem natural.” Narrative Power and Collective Action: An Oxfam resource.
Our United Methodist Bishops have attempted to assure church members that the future is bright, and they should just ignore those other voices raising questions and concerns. Those dissenting voices are spreading misinformation and disinformation, we are told. The bishops apparently are convinced that if they, the bishops, communicate “what is going on”, their voice will be given more credence than others describing current events within the unraveling United Methodist Church because, well, after all, they are the bishops.
But the outbreak of dis-affiliations has undermined the credibility of the “official narrative”. While the bishops can allege misinformation and disinformation by the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Global Methodist Church, when it comes right down to it, a significant number of United Methodists have concluded that the ongoing waves of congregational dis-affiliations are not just rumors. These dis-affiliations, as well as the concerns prompting them, create an underlying sense in many congregations and among many pastors, that things are not well. Even more alarming, it seems that things may not be able to be set right anytime in the foreseeable future. It is beginning to look like the denominational unraveling has no foreseeable end.
Apparently, Bishop Bickerton knows this. His public statements since last spring indicate a growing concern that an “alternate narrative” is undermining the preferred narrative of the bishops and administrative leaders of the United Methodist Church.
Trying to Hang on to the Official Narrative
Let me be clear: I do not know Bishop Bickerton. I haven’t discussed any of this with him personally. Since he is the President of the Council of Bishops of the UMC, however, his addresses are distributed through the church media as something of an “official voice” of our episcopal and administrative leaders. Since last spring (2022), I have noticed a change of tone.
April 29, 2022: Let’s Re-Launch the United Methodist Church!
Bishop Bickerton’s Inaugural Address as President of the Council of Bishops.
“…on Sunday, May 1, the Global Methodist Church will “launch.” Why don’t we do the same thing? Let’s launch too!
“I believe that God has opened a door for us, an open door that will reveal what God has in mind for the next expression of the United Methodist Church. It will look different, and feel different and will require new disciplines, open spirits, willing hearts, and curious minds. I believe that God is opening a door for us. The question is: will we have the courage to walk through that open door?”
“It will require much from us. It will require it right now. There will never be a time when the conditions are perfect, or the time is right. Now is the time.” Bishop Bickerton’s Inaugural Presidential Address to the Council of Bishops
May 2022: The General Conference has been dysfunctional for 50 years, so we (the Bishops) will give ourselves the self-appointed permission to lead into the future.
Last May (2022), after the third postponement of the General Conference of 2020, the collapse of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation that would have legislated an amicable departure for congregations desiring to leave the UMC, and the launch of the Global Methodist Church, Bishop Bickerton was interviewed by Rev. Mollie Vetter of Westwood UMC in Los Angeles.
A few excerpts of the interview illustrate the attempt to “control the narrative” of what was/is going on in the United Methodist Church:
“Lovett Weems wrote an article I don’t know, 2 or 3 weeks ago, about the postponement of General Conference being a good thing, and I subscribe to what Lovett was talking about, because I really believe that part of our paralysis is that we’re dependent upon a meeting that has been dysfunctional for 50 years.”
“The question is, if God has opened the door for us to see the next expression of Methodism— The question is, do we have the courage to walk through the door?”
“We’ve been given, in some sense, some—maybe it’s self-appointed permission—but permission to move ahead.”
“I’m choosing as a leader to say: let’s reset ourselves right now. Let’s answer the questions before they’re ever asked. Let’s get nimble, let’s get fresh. Let’s get excited again about what it means to be church, and not wait for the circumstances to get right to do so.”
(Excerpts from a transcript of the podcast/YouTube video of an interview by Rev. Mollie Vetter of Westwood UMC in Los Angeles with Bishop Bickerton, May 2022) Here’s the whole interview, available as a podcast, YouTube video, and a transcript: So…What’s Going on in the United Methodist Church? An Interview with the new President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Tom Bickerton
March 3, 2023
“We’re being bullied by an abusive, coercive, ridiculing narrative. It’s up to us each of us to resist that narrative… It only takes a spark to get a fire going, so it’s up to us to share the story of the UMC.” Bishop Bickerton Mid-Term State of the Church Address March 2 2023
I find the Bishop’s transition, from “We’re going to launch, too!” last April to “Hey, they’re picking on us!” (my colloquial summary) this month, indicative. When reality intrudes on the “official narrative”, it is hard to regain control. The unraveling of the United Methodist Church has a trajectory all its own.
It seems to me that there have been two incompatible UMC narratives in conflict with one another since the beginning of the denomination in 1968.
Here’s one narrative:
The conservatives/traditionalists have played by the rules and have written the rules of the Book of Discipline through legislative action at every General Conference, gained a majority of General Conference delegates due to ongoing effectiveness in evangelism and disciple-making, particularly in Africa, and, for 50 years, have succeeded in supporting legislation that has re-affirmed the traditional understandings of Christian ethics related to marriage, sexuality, and ordination.
Here’s another narrative:
The progressives, administrative bureaucracy, and episcopal leaders, having failed at gaining a majority of General Conference delegates to support their preferred legislative initiatives, have given up on General Conference altogether, have determined to dissent, disrupt, and disobey the Discipline of the UMC pertaining to marriage, sexuality, and qualifications for ordination and pastoral appointment in order to fashion, by administrative/episcopal action, a denomination of their preference. All of those elected to the office of bishop throughout the US last November pledged to disobey the Book of Discipline which at the same time they were vowing to uphold.
But here is the “intruding reality” that is perhaps most bothersome to Bishop Bickerton, his episcopal colleagues, and UM administrative bureaucracy: The laity in many local churches want to know, “Who stole our church?”
The “next expression of Methodism”
The “competing narratives” might create an organizational headache for our episcopal and administrative leaders. For most of us, however, the most tragic loss is that our episcopal and administrative leaders seem to have discarded the narrative of the Christian gospel, the awesome sweep of God’s relentless redemptive initiative through Jesus Christ, the opportunity for transformation through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the ongoing mission to share the gospel, make fully devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and develop life-giving communities of faith, hope, and love among all of the world’s peoples.
When the keepers of the flame undermine the primary mission of the church, God will not let that dereliction of duty be the last word.
Bishop Bickerton was perceptive in recognizing the importance of the moment when he said in his inaugural address last April:
“I believe that God has opened a door for us, an open door that will reveal what God has in mind for the next expression of the United Methodist Church. The question is, if God has opened the door for us to see the next expression of Methodism— The question is, do we have the courage to walk through the door?”
I suggest the language be adjusted slightly. “I believe God has opened a door for us, an open door that will reveal what God has in mind for the next expression of … Methodism. It seems to be, for the most part, the Global Methodist Church.”
And indeed, whether through formal disaffiliation or simply finding the exit, many people are finding the courage to walk through the door into a new future.
If you want to know more about the Global Methodist Church, including the new digital portals for congregations and pastors seeking to make the shift to the GMC, go to: