We are pleased to offer the following interview with Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference. Bishop Carter was consecrated a Bishop in 2012 after serving as a pastor and District Superintendant in the Western North Carolina Conference. He is also the author of several books, including his most recent publication, Pray for Me: The Power in Praying for Others. We at Via Media Methodists wish to Thanks Bishop Carter for his time and thorough reply to these timely questions, which touch not just on recent controversies in the UMC but also look at doctrine, supporting young clergy, and a hopeful vision for the people called United Methodist.
What is the greatest challenge facing a Bishop in the UMC today?
The greatest challenge is that we are, and have been for some time, a constricting system—many of our congregations cannot sustain full-time ordained leadership, and yet our Discipline and leadership systems assume this as the norm. This channels more and more resources toward the clergy, and away from the mission of the local church. I am not saying a disparaging word about clergy—this has been my life as well (!)—but as a system this presents significant challenges.
What is the role of the Council of Bishops in fostering unity in the church?
When a bishop is consecrated, he or she makes a promise to “maintain the unity” of the church. I know this to be true, because I can remember saying these words less than two years ago, in the midst of people who knew me well and cared deeply about the church’s mission. I sense that bishops can, over time, privilege other callings—advocacy, truth, missional needs—over unity. In the theological tradition, this can be framed as preaching Christ “in all his offices”: prophet, priest and king, or the roles of advocate, shepherding and order. In our current climate there is a need for order, as conversation increasingly escalates toward division and schism. And at present, the Council of Bishops is struggling with its call to unify the church.
How do you understand the clergy covenant, and what should be the consequences for breaching that covenant?
The Clergy Covenant is simply the gathered promises that men and women make before God and each other and on behalf of the church’s mission. Our process of discernment, leading to the act of covenant, is one that is deliberate, shared with laity, and prayerful, and it concludes with membership in the orders of deacon or elder. Any man or woman who enters into the covenant does so freely and as a response to God’s grace.
When the covenant is breached, harm is done, and this is both external and internal. The external harm done through an act of sexual misconduct, for example, is the effect the action has on the person and worth of the victim, and the resulting destruction of trust in God (as the clergy is a representative of God’s people) and the church as an institution. For this reason just resolution is crucial; the complainant must sense that justice is the greatest value, even as the justice is adjudicated with compassion.
Many congregations are deeply conflicted by breaches of covenant, even as many families are broken through violations of covenant. The internal consequences of breaking covenant are found primarily in our attempt to live a divided life: we say publicly that we affirm certain values, and yet our inner desires and passions motivate us in a different direction (Romans 7). A divided life is not conducive to the wholeness (integrity) that God desires for us.
Bishops are not above these questions of covenant. My sense is that we are working on a process of defining covenant. My own public witness is to the promises I made in my consecration as a bishop of the church. I believe such promises unify the church, and while our Discipline is imperfect, it is one that I have pledged to maintain. As I have stated publicly, if the Council of Bishops cannot reform itself, the church will undertake this reform in the future. Lastly, I sense a deep desire among the active (residential) bishops, who live with the consequences of covenant-making and covenant-breaking, to live in covenant not only with God but with each other. I am making no comment about retired bishops, whose lives and ministries I greatly affirm; I am simply making the connection between covenant and the exercise of active oversight as a resident bishop.
What, if anything, can be done to move the church away from the quagmire of the human sexuality debate?
We are not a one-issue church. Human sexuality is one facet of our lives, but not the only one. There is a distinction between identity and practice, between attraction and behavior. I have written about this question in a forthcoming book, Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church (Abingdon, 2014). We do need to reflect on human sexuality, but from the deep principles of grace and holiness. And we would do well (in the United States) not to the mimic the noisy gong and clanging cymbal of cultural commentary about human sexuality. I have been encouraged by the recent writing of Steve Harper in reclaiming the model of E. Stanley Jones’ roundtables for our time.
How are you encouraging, equipping, and supporting young clergy in Florida?
I try to visit in the seminaries most attended by our students at least once a year (particularly Asbury/Orlando, Candler, and Duke; I realize that I also need to visit Asbury in Wilmore). Our appointive cabinet makes the graduating seminarian appointments first; I learned how to do this from Bishop Goodpaster, and I think it benefits the church, both present and future. We are at work on an initiative to help reduce and eliminate clergy seminary debt; this is a joint effort involving a number of our leaders, and is chaired by Dan Johnson of Trinity UMC in Gainesville. I have formed a working group to explore the Fresh Expressions renewal movement in Great Britain and its relevance for our conference; two young clergy leaders (Vance Rains and Audrey Warren) are now the co-conveners. I also invited three younger clergywomen to participate in some non-partisan lobbying that the cabinet does each spring in Tallahassee on behalf of children in poverty in our state. I am seeking to discover ways to connect with younger clergy. I would add that the multiculturalism and presence of four large urban areas make Florida a particularly appealing context for many younger clergy. My wife Pam is deeply connected to young adults (clergy and laity) in Florida through missional initiatives such as our Covenant with Haiti and Stop Hunger Now.
While the rhetoric of decline and malaise in the mainline church in general is pervasive, I am convinced that there will actually be more opportunities and significant resources, in the present and future, for meaningful ministry over the next decades. We simply must align our resources in equipping younger clergy, and in a number of annual conferences, led by our more innovative bishops, this is happening.
I would rather be setting out on a life of ministry in 2013 than in 1983, when I began!
Can doctrine play a role in renewing the church?
If the UMC is to be renewed, or to pose the question another way, if there is “a future with hope”, it will flow from our doctrine. This was the source of the Wesleyan revival in 18th century England: Wesley’s calling to “offer Christ” and the deep and rich experience of grace that was inclusive (present in all people) and challenging (calling us to love God and our neighbor). The tension of grace and holiness really is at the heart of our potential renewal: how we see the image of God in one another, and how that image of God is restored over time, through a disciplined life (discipleship) within the church, and for the sake of the mission in the world.
What do you envision for the future of Methodism?
I envision the embrace of the “Call to Action”, which was adopted by the 2012 General Conference before the denominational implications inherent in the legislation disallowed it for judicial reasons. The flow of energy and resources is actually being redirected to the local church and this is in fact where disciples are being made and where our communities are most diverse.
I envision the loosening of our polity, allowing for contextual missional strategy in particular parts of the world. A monolithic Book of Discipline which includes 4700 “shalls” is simply not helping us to accomplish our mission. A flattened world shifts many of the significant decisions to the local level; this is related to the concept of the “permission-giving” church, the call to trust the laity, and the limitations of a colonial, U.S.-centric legal manual.
I envision a church that is unified in doctrine and in mission. As a bishop, my hope is that we can lead and unify the church through a time of great turmoil and division, for the sake of a shared future that makes connectional ministry possible while not detracting from the local priority of making disciples. I am comforted in the knowledge that Jesus himself prayed for the unity of the church (John 17) and that he himself is the head of the church (Ephesians 4).