One of the books I’m reading is Will Willimon’s latest, Bishop. Ok, since it came out a couple of months ago it’s probably not his latest any more, but it’s close. I find that Willimon’s snarky style provokes so many thoughts that I have to limit my dosage. I’ve read a fair number of his works over the years, subscribed to his podcast, and heard him live. I think he’s a force for good in the UMC. If for nothing else, he stokes the fires of possibly productive argument.
In his Introduction he says, “Insouciance about bishops is probably a sign of right priorities.” Taken in context, Willimon’s claim is ambiguous. He says this in response to Russell Richey’s statement that, “United Methodists generally exhibit little interest in the actual office of bishop.” Given this context, one might expect Willimon to speak of “insouciance about the episcopacy,” making clear reference to the office rather than “about bishops,” a possible reference to those who occupy that office.
I’ve noticed that United Methodists who have a role in the church hierarchy tend to speak up quickly for episcopacy. While we may not have as clear a theory of episcopacy as other episcopal denominations, we take the office to be a necessary marker of our connectionalism, and a bulwark against the dreaded congregationalism.
But about particular bishops diverse opinion abounds. As long as we live in a connectional system where bishops have power over pastors, those pastors may show reticence in expressing their insouciance toward their bishops too loudly. Not too much reticence, however, and surely not as much insouciance as workers in other professions might show their bosses.
After all, in the UMC bishops are still elders. They’re not a separate order of ministry. We don’t take there to be any sort of ontological difference between them and the rest of us elders. If our bishops are not of a completely different sort than we are, then perhaps insouciance is justified. I’d say, however, that our insouciance, if it is at its best, will be rooted not in our focus on bishops, but on our insouciance toward ourselves. We refuse to take bishops entirely seriously because we refuse to take ourselves entirely seriously.
That’s one of the things I like about Willimon. As a theologian, preacher, prophet, and bishop, he is utterly serious. He wants people to come to faith in Jesus. He wants the church to be a place of powerful and prevailing ministry. In spite of this seriousness, he doesn’t take himself entirely seriously. I think that’s a key reason for his effectiveness. Maybe it can be a part of our effectiveness also.