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Episcopal Leadership?

by Ira Gallaway


 During recent weeks and months, two United Methodist bishops have been prominent in their opposition to the war on Iraq. Bishop Joseph Sprague along with General Secretary Jim Winkler of the General Board of Church and Society, were recently arrested in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, when they crossed a police barricade and refused to disperse following orders of police. They were demonstrating against the war as a part of so-called religious "peace" organizations. Also, Bishop Melvin Talbert has been especially prominent in opposing the war of liberation in Iraq and recently was featured in a TV advertisement attacking the war and the Bush administration in particular.

It certainly should be acknowledged that dedicated Christians can very well have different views about the war in Iraq. In fact, our Social Principles recognizes this divergence of opinion when it states:

        "Some of us believe that war, and other acts of violence, are
        never acceptable to Christians. We also acknowledge that most
        Christians regretfully realize that, when peaceful alternatives
        have failed, the force of arms may be preferable to unchecked
        aggression, tyranny and genocide."

One wonders what special expertise, knowledge or leadership as a bishop qualifies either Bishop Sprague or Bishop Talbert to speak and act with such vehemence against the President of the United States or the war on Iraq?

When Melvin Talbert was elected a bishop in 1980, the Western Jurisdiction where he was assigned had 559,560 members. As of December 31, 2001, one year after he retired, the Western Jurisdiction had 426,926 members. During the last 21 years, the Western Jurisdiction has declined by a total of 132, 634 members of a loss of over 23%. Bishop Talbert has been a part of the episcopal leadership of the Western Jurisdiction while this disastrous decline has occurred. In addition, during the twelve years of Bishop Talbert’s episcopal leadership of the California-Nevada Conference, twenty-five fine young evangelical pastors were harassed out of Conference membership because of Bishop Talbert’s bias against evangelical pastors and his strong pro-homosexual leadership of the Conference.

During the six years that Bishop Joseph Sprague has been the leader of the Northern Illinois Conference, it also has been in decline. When Bishop Sprague was assigned to the Northern Illinois Conference, the membership of the Conference was 130,225. On December 31, 2002, the Conference membership stood at 120,231 or a net loss of 9,994. During that time, Bishop Sprague wrote a book in which he disavowed the virgin birth of Christ, the pre-existence of Christ with God the Father, and the bodily resurrection. He also ridiculed the doctrine of the atonement, the authority of scripture, and other central truths of orthodox Christian faith. While stating publicly that he affirmed the official doctrines of The United Methodist Church, in his writings he essentially disavowed his affirmation. He has also pursued a strong pro-homosexual agenda, and was arrested at the 2000 General Conference in an act of civil disobedience in support of the pro-homosexual agenda.

In 1980, the North Georgia Conference had 244,049 members. As of December 31, 2000, the membership of the North Georgia Conference had increased to 308,490 members in a net growth of 64,441 members. The increase in the North Georgia Conference over the last twenty years was nearly 70% of the entire membership of the California-Nevada Conference.

It would seem that the vastly different membership statistics reflected above should be instructive to the Church – where you have radical theological and pro-homosexual leadership, you have a Church in decline. Where you have orthodox evangelical leadership that is supportive of the authority of Scripture and committed to the Great Commission, you have a Church which is vibrant and alive.

But then, that may be why Bishop Talbert and Bishop Sprague are such authorities on war and peace, and the direction in which the Country should go! Apparently, in their opinion, they have more important things to do than building up the Church and defending ‘the faith once committed to the saints’. All of which raises the question – what represents authentic episcopal leadership? Delegates to the 2004 Jurisdictional Conference must deal with this question as they prepare to elect episcopal leadership for the future.

All United Methodists, and others as well, should know that neither of these Bishops, Sprague or Talbert, speak for The United Methodist Church. They do not even speak for the Council of Bishops, though appearances might indicate otherwise. ONLY The General Conference of The United Methodist Church speaks for United Methodists across the world.

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