Bishop Bruce Ough speaks, as from left, Bishops Kenneth H. Carter, Marcus Matthews, Christian Alsted, Michael Watson, Bishop Warner Brown and Cynthia Fierro Harvey listen during the May 2015 meeting in Berlin. Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Ough, was elected next president of the Council of Bishops. ~UMNS photo/Kay Panovec
BERLIN — United Methodist bishops must speak out against racism and address the anger that has sparked riots in Baltimore and other U.S. cities, the Council of Bishops president said in an emotional address.
“It is not enough for us to remain silent. We’re dealing with principalities and powers, I believe,” Bishop Warner Brown Jr. told bishops on May 1. The bishops are meeting this week in Germany’s capital.
Brown, who also leads the denomination’s San Francisco area, spoke to a group that included 65 active and 26 retired bishops from around the globe. Brown also released a letter to all United Methodists asking them to join the council “in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies.”
“Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us,” Brown wrote.
After Brown’s address, Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer called for bishops to develop a pastoral letter on racism and asked Brown to appoint a task force to complete this before the bishops adjourn May 7.
His motion received booming, unanimous assent.
“God knows we are called to brighten the corners where we are,” Palmer said. “The ‘but’ I would offer is that we have yet to clear our throats and raise our collective voice with a statement calling on The United Methodist Church to become an anti-racist institution.”
He quoted a famous spiritual, urging his colleagues, “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass.”
This is personal
Brown, a Baltimore native and former police chaplain in Oakland, California, said he grieves when he sees what is happening in his hometown. Parts of the city, including Brown’s childhood neighborhood, have erupted in looting and violence after the unarmed Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody.
The six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray’s arrest now face criminal charges and Gray’s death has been ruled a homicide.
“I grieve when I look at what happened in Baltimore. Misguided anger has shifted the focus from justice,” Brown said. “People with nothing to lose have looted and damaged businesses that were key to that community.”
Churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the United Methodist Committee on Relief are responding with kits for health and hygiene needs following the destruction of a pharmacy and the temporary closing of drugstores and groceries. UMCOR is also providing a grant to help churches be a resource for dialogue, peace, and healing.
As a pastor and police chaplain, Brown said he has known many law enforcement officers of integrity whose work “is so vital to human society.” But he also urged his fellow bishops to recognize the anger so many feel after the deaths of multiple unarmed African-Americans and other young men of color at the hands of police and others.
Racism in church
The church itself is not untouched by racism, Brown said.
In 1968 — a year that saw riots in many U.S. cities following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a newly desegregated and newly merged United Methodist Church promised to build “a new kind of church” where all people would be welcomed. But that promise remains unfulfilled, he said.
“Today there are still churches that don’t want a pastor appointed because of his or her race,” he said. “There are still churches that aren’t open to being a fully inclusive community. There are some churches that still might send a visitor to that (African Methodist Episcopal) church down the road.”
To go forward, the bishop suggested that part of the work “is to find a way we can live into the social holiness that must go hand-in-hand with the spiritual holiness — a life lived as a disciple of Jesus.”
He said that United Methodists need “conversation partners,” especially sister denominations in the Pan-Methodist movement including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. All three of those historically African-American denominations formed in response to racial prejudice and disrespect found in earlier strains of U.S. Methodism.
He noted United Methodists rely on ecumenical partnerships in responding to natural disasters like the devastating earthquake in Nepal, as well as addressing the terrorism of Boko Haram and ISIS. Ecumenical partnerships can help address the ravages of racism as well.
“We need to overcome our fearfulness of being viewed harshly,” he said, “and have genuine conversation that can let us break through, that we can be a part of the movement of hope, healing and justice in our land.”
Washington Area Bishop Marcus Matthews, who leads United Methodists in Baltimore, has spoken out about the current crisis in Baltimore and said a letter from the full council “is long overdue.”
“What I hear from United Methodist clergy and laity is: ‘What do you as bishops collectively think of this issue?’” Matthews said. “The AME has spoken out on this issue of racism as a group. Other groups have too, but we have not as United Methodists.”
New officers elected
In other action during their spring meeting, the Council of Bishops elected new officers who will assume their leadership roles in 2016.
President – Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area
President designate – Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., Florida Episcopal Area
Secretary – Bishop Cynthia Harvey, Louisiana Episcopal Area (re-elected for two years)
Connectional Table chairperson – Bishop Christian Alsted, Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area
Executive secretary – Bishop Marcus Matthews, Washington Episcopal Area
Ecumenical officer – Bishop B. Michael Watson, North Georgia Episcopal area
The ecumenical officer, executive secretary and chair of the Connectional Table each serve four-year terms. The president, president-designate and secretary serve two-year terms, which begin on the third day of the General Conference.