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Complaints dismissed against Bishop Joseph Sprague

2/18/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of Bishop C. Joseph Sprague is available. The full supervisory team's response and a statement by Bishop Sprague follow this story.

A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*

United Methodist Bishop Bruce B. Ough, president of the church's North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, has announced that complaints filed against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago have been dismissed.

A four-person supervisory response team met in January and February to review the complaints and respond to them.

A group of 28 United Methodist clergy and laypeople filed the complaint against Sprague on Dec. 30, calling for his removal based on comments that he made about Christ's divinity at a speech at Iliff Theological Seminary and in his book Affirmations of a Dissenter. A pastor in the Mississippi Conference had filed a similar complaint in September.

The supervisory response process is required by church law to be confidential. However, the supervisory team said Feb. 17 that it decided to make the response public to the church because of three factors.

"First and foremost was the decision by the group of complainants to publicly disclose their complaint," the response states. "It is regrettable and unconscionable that Bishop Sprague first learned of the Dec. 30 complaint through the press.

"Second, the theological and doctrinal issues raised in the complaint are already a matter of considerable public debate within the United Methodist Church.

"Third, the supervisory response team desires to speak to the whole church, as well as the parties to the complaint. The parties to the complaint (Bishop Sprague, the Mississippi Conference elder and the spokesman for the group of complainants) have agreed to this public disclosure of the supervisory response."

In its recommendations, the supervisory response team asked Sprague to release a public statement clarifying and reaffirming his adherence to the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church. The team also recommended Sprague and the complainants participate in a third-party public dialogue; that the Council of Bishops enter into serious theological reflection on issues of Christology, biblical authority and the mission of the church; and that the complainants offer a public apology for disregarding the spirit of confidentiality intended in the supervisory process.

In response to the decision, the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, spokesman for the complainants, said, "The signers of the complaint against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague are deeply disappointed in the decision by the supervisory team to dismiss the complaint. Upon first reading, it appears the rationale of the complaint did not objectively consider our perspective, but was heavily weighted against our point of view.

"We affirm the supervisory team's recommendations for theological dialogue and declare our willingness to participate. We believe, however, that we as a church need to go beyond dialogue to develop an understanding of what binds us together theologically in the United Methodist Church - what our theological identity is.

"This decision appears to give official sanction to the personal interpretation of our doctrinal standards in a way that diminishes their unifying and binding force. Sadly, this approach to theology within the United Methodist Church will only deepen our divisions and weaken the mission and ministry of our church.

"We call for the church, in a spirit of civility, mutual respect and fidelity to the Lord whom we serve, to reclaim 'the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.' (Jude 3) This is the faith for which the apostles and martyrs gave their lives - the faith for which many Christians suffer and die around the world today. This faith alone can provide the impetus for the loving, grace-filled ministry that will lead our church to become spiritually vital and growing once again."

Sprague released a public statement Feb. 13. "It was my intent, in the Iliff lecture and with the book, to stimulate informed debate," he said. "It was not my intent that those who were unaware of the issues raised would be confused or hurt."

When filing the complaint, Lambrecht had said, "In his address and book, Bishop Sprague appears to deny the apostolic, orthodox and ecumenical Trinitarian understanding of Jesus as God in favor of a form of Unitarianism or 'adoptionism' that denies the virgin birth and full deity of Christ. He denies the physical resurrection of Christ's body. He maintains that Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation and appears to deny the substitutionary atonement of Christ through his sacrificial death on the cross."

In his statement, Sprague cited the Book of Discipline, Paragraphs 404, 414 and 415, outlining the duties and responsibilities of bishops. Bishops are "to guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim corporately and individually the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically."

Sprague also points to Paragraph 104, which states in part that the theological task of United Methodists is the "testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling to spread spiritual holiness over the lands."

"The Iliff lecture, the book, my preaching, teaching and other writings reflect an unequivocal commitment to both honoring and interpreting Scripture and tradition," Sprague said. "As a bishop, I shall continue to guard, interpret, live and transmit the wondrous treasure we have been given, in earthenware vessels, until that time when I no longer see through a glass darkly but face to face."

The supervisory response team stated Sprague has taken responsibility for his actions as a bishop, including acknowledging how bishops can create division and confusion in the Body of Christ with their words and teachings.

"It became apparent to the supervisory response team, in our review of this case, that Bishop Sprague knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, has faith in Christ's saving and transforming power, and is obedient to Christ's teachings."

The statement further states this matter is an opportunity for the church to "seek the Spirit's wisdom." The church's mission is being diminished in part because of factions in the denomination that do not listen or talk to one another across theological lines.

"Let us enter into a season of listening deeply to the Holy Spirit and to one another. Let us cast out our penchant to power and control. Let us lay aside our arrogance.
Let us reclaim our mission of 'spreading scriptural holiness across the land.'"

A press conference in support of Sprague was held Feb. 18 at First Chicago Temple United Methodist Church. A group of more than 30 clergy and laity celebrated the dismissal of the charges.

In a statement of support, the group said, "We declare ourselves among those who stand in faith, friendship and loyalty with Bishop Sprague theologically, missionally and doctrinally. We affirm our support for him, and we will continue to seek to live and act within the spirit of John Wesley who declared, 'If your heart is open to God and my heart is open to God, then let us join hands.'"
# # #
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

The complete supervisory response follows:

SUPERVISORY RESPONSE
TO COMPLAINTS AGAINST
BISHOP C. JOSEPH SPRAGUE


Introduction

On December 30, 2002, a formal complaint was filed against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague by a group of United Methodist clergy and laity. The complaint alleged two chargeable offenses as defined in The Book of Discipline (2000):

1) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church ( 2702.1f), and
2) disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church ( 2702.1e).

The complaint was based on an address delivered by Bishop Sprague at Iliff Theological Seminary on January 28, 2002 and Bishop Sprague's recently published book, Affirmations of a Dissenter.

A similar complaint was filed by an elder in the Mississippi Conference in September 2002. This complaint also alleged the offense of dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church based on the Iliff lecture.

The president of the North Central College of Bishops convened a four-person supervisory response team according to 413.3 of The Book of Discipline (2000). The team met in January and February 2003 to review the complaints and make a supervisory response.

The Book of Discipline (2000) calls for the supervisory response process to be carried out in a confidential manner. However, in this case the supervisory response is being made public to The United Methodist Church. This decision is driven by three factors. First, and foremost, was the decision by the group of complainants to publicly disclose their complaint. It is regrettable and unconscionable that Bishop Sprague first learned of the December 30th complaint through the press. Second, the theological and doctrinal issues raised in the complaint are already a matter of considerable public debate within The United Methodist Church. Third, the supervisory response team desires to speak to the whole Church, as well as the parties to the complaint. The parties to the complaint (Bishop Sprague, the Mississippi Conference elder and the spokesperson for the group of complainants) have agreed to this public disclosure of the supervisory response.

Response and Recommendations

The supervisory response team is dismissing the complaints against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague. In doing so, the supervisory response team requested that Bishop Sprague issue a public statement clarifying and reaffirming his adherence to the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Sprague's statement is attached.

Further, the supervisory response team strongly recommends the following:
1) Bishop Sprague and the complainants participate in a third party facilitated dialogue on the theological and doctrinal issues presented in this case. Further, we recommend this dialogue be open to the public. The purpose of the dialogue would be to discover and explore the points of continuity or disconnect between the traditional and new interpretations of our doctrinal statements.
2) The Council of Bishops take immediate steps to enter into serious theological reflection on issues of Christology, Biblical authority and the mission of the Church. Further, we recommend this process be open to the public and bring to the table persons to represent the wide range of theological thought present in our denomination. Further, we recommend the Council develop means to invite the entire Church into similar study and reflection. In effect, this process was begun when several bishops made public responses to Bishop Sprague's lecture at Iliff.
3) The group of complainants offer a public apology for disregarding the spirit of confidentiality intended in the supervisory response process.

Rationale

The complaints (essentially charges of heresy) against Bishop Sprague are a very serious matter, both for Bishop Sprague and the Church. Indeed, the supervisory response team recognizes this as a potential watershed moment in our denomination. The response to the complaints could establish the cultural ethos and the missional direction of the denomination (particularly in the United States) for the foreseeable future. The entire Church is watching. Critical questions hang in the balance and frame the context of the complaints. Questions such as:
1) Are we drifting, or being driven, toward becoming a doctrinal or creedal Church, rather than a Church rooted primarily in Wesley's "heart religion?"
2) Are there certain foundational doctrines that cannot or should not be subject to scholarly examination and interpretation?
3) Is there room in the Church for leaders (ordained clergy and consecrated bishops) to engage in serious theological and biblical discourse, either of a scholarly or confessional nature, without threat of charges?
4) How do we deal with the growing perceptions that the complaint processes are ignored by the bishops and abused by complainants?
5) Are there corresponding points and processes of accountability for groups and individuals that relentlessly and increasingly pressure Church leaders and agencies to reflect their positions?
6) Are we spiritually mature enough to have truly open "conferencing" on the critical theological, doctrinal, social and missional issues confronting the Church?
7) Who will lead the Church toward such spiritual maturity - a spirituality rooted in "self-knowledge" (a term Wesley used as an equivalent for true repentance), faith in Jesus Christ, the disciplines of vital piety and the praxis of social holiness?

Acknowledging the denomination's current ethos in no way diminishes the seriousness of the complaints. Bishop Sprague has taken responsibility for his actions as a bishop of the Church, including acknowledging how the words and teachings of a bishop can create division and confusion in the Body of Christ.

It became apparent to the supervisory response team, in our review of this case, that Bishop Sprague knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, has faith in Christ's saving and transforming power and is obedient to Christ's teachings. This is evident in the fruits of his pastoral and episcopal ministries and many of his public statements. It is also clear that his intentions were to write a confessional statement (Affirmations of a Dissenter) that reflects his personal journey of faith, his biblical hermeneutic and his assessment of ecclesiastical and missional issues confronting the Church and society. In the book, Bishop Sprague attempts to balance "professing" the doctrine of the Church and "confessing" his own journey of faith. This task appears difficult to accomplish in the current cultural environment of our Church.

Even as we ask Bishop Sprague to reaffirm his upholding of the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church, we are bold to invite others in the Church to affirm a spirit of civility, embrace the historic conciliar process and form of our Church's discourse, and desist from exploiting this and other serious matters facing our Church to gain financial support or incite division in the Body of Christ.

We affirm that there is a place for healthy and constructive dissent within the Church. We affirm that there is room for reform. A good portion of our Church's DNA is constructed of strands of dissent and reform. Many United Methodists have suggested it would be healthy, in the long run, for an open and public airing of the issues attending to these complaints. The supervisory response team agrees. However, we maintain that the openness sought cannot be achieved under threat of charges or in a Church trial. It is to this end that we are recommending Bishop Sprague and the complainants participate in a public dialogue, facilitated by a third party, and that the Council of Bishops assume a leadership role in framing a dialogue within the Council and the entire Church. We plead with both the dissenters and the reformers to conduct the discourse without personal attack, with mutual respect and for the purpose of strengthening our Church's ministry, witness and mission.

Conclusion

Let us be absolutely clear. It is the rightful expectation of the Church, and certainly this supervisory response team, that every bishop continue to "guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically" ( 413.3). Further, it is a rightful expectation that bishops of the Church assume a leadership role in our theological task, including the "testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling to 'spread scriptural holiness over the lands'." (The Book of Discipline 2000, page 75).

This matter affords an opportunity for the Church to seek the Spirit's wisdom. We urge that it be seized. The United Methodist Church's powerful message of grace, and equally powerful mission of making and equipping disciples of Jesus Christ for the purpose of transforming the world, is being diminished, squandered, and sacrificed, in part because factions in our beloved Church do not talk to each other across theological lines. This situation often leads to us focusing on the wrong issues and undermining one another.

In response to a question about the unity of the Christian witness at a recent ecumenical gathering in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. James Forbes, pastor of New York's Riverside Church, said, "When we recognize the common threat, we will come together." Many in our Church believe the threat is doctrinal impurity and heresy. Others in our Church believe the threat is the narrowing of Wesleyan doctrine to a static, rigid formulation. It is the humble, but considered, opinion of the supervisory response team that the real threat may well be our arrogance and parochial attitudes. The Evil One is surely enjoying our folly!

Only surrender to Christ Jesus will move us beyond our addiction to schismatic attitudes and litigious behaviors and toward the unity of mission we profess, but do not practice. Only a deep, abiding, persistent listening to the Holy Spirit will remind us of what Christ would have us be and do.

We conclude with Jesus' words from his farewell conversation with the twelve disciples:

"But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you love me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way."
(John 14:26-31, NRSV)

Indeed, Church, rise, let us be on our way. Let us not miss this opportunity. Let us enter into a season of listening deeply to the Holy Spirit and to one another. Let us cast out our penchant to power and control. Let us lay aside our arrogance. Let us reclaim our mission of "spreading scriptural holiness over the lands."

In the name of Jesus Christ, let us rise up and be on our way!


Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President
North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops
for the Supervisory Response Team
February 17, 2003






Bishop C. Joseph Sprague's statement follows:


February 18, 2003


Dear Ones:

Grace to you and peace in the Name and Spirit of Jesus the Christ, our Savior and Liberator.

This offering is in response to the charges filed against me. I write with regret and embarrassment for the anguish these charges have caused my family, colleagues, the people and congregations of the Northern Illinois Conference. The misunderstandings attendant to this situation are most unfortunate and could have been avoided had disciplinary process been observed. Nevertheless, I am particularly grateful for the innumerable expressions of gratitude and support received.

It was my intent, in the Iliff lecture and with the book, to stimulate informed debate. It was not my intent that those, who were unaware of the issues raised, would be confused or hurt. Because some have been adversely affected, what follows is written to erase misunderstanding, assuage hurt, and affirm clearly the doctrines of our Church.

The 2000 Book of Discipline, Paragraphs 404, 414, and 415, enumerates the duties and responsibilities of bishops. Among these, bishops are "to guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically." (Paragraph 414.3., page 280)

This is set in the context of what The Book of Discipline, Paragraph 104, identifies as "Our Theological Task." This paragraph, in part, states, "Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling 'to spread scriptural holiness over the lands'." (Pages 74-75)

The Iliff lecture and the book, Affirmations of a Dissenter, stand as vivid indications of this bishop's response to these inherent expectations of the episcopal office.

Affirming the primacy of Scripture and the benchmark nature of historic doctrinal statements, including the Articles of Religion, the Standard Sermons of Wesley, the Explanatory Notes Upon The New Testament, and the Confession of Faith, I have been informed and influenced for a lifetime by the continuing flow of biblical and theological scholarship so as to be "led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically." (Page 280)

My writing, teaching, and preaching reflect our Church's historic understanding of Scripture's primacy. These offerings fulfill the on-going responsibility of a bishop to interpret divinely-inspired, but humanly-transmitted, Scripture and tradition.

I affirm the historic doctrines of our Church (Pages 58ff). However, like Scripture and other aspects of Christian tradition, these benchmark indicators of the faith once delivered require constant, informed, and Spirit-led exegesis, exposition, integration, and interpretation, if they are to inform and embolden the Church's witness and mission for such a time as this. Bishops share a particular responsibility for this essential task. I approach this responsibility with ultimate seriousness.

My abiding fear is that a repeated failure to interpret Scripture and doctrine, metaphorically and symbolically in today's Church, will continue to drive countless spiritually-searching and critically-thinking people away, not only from this Church but from the very Gospel for which their hearts yearn. Therefore, I engage Scripture and tradition, as I do, believing that these are profoundly wondrous means for proclaiming the Gospel, here and now, to the end that individual believers and the whole church will repent, believe the Gospel, and lead transformed personal and institutional lives worthy of Jesus the Christ.

Historic doctrine is foundational. It is our Church's benchmark from age to age. I do "guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim…the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition." And, in accordance with the vows taken as a bishop, I do "as…led and endowed by the Spirit…interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically."

The Iliff lecture, the book, my preaching, teaching, and other writings reflect an unequivocal commitment to both honoring and interpreting Scripture and tradition. As a bishop, I shall continue to guard, interpret, live, and transmit the wondrous treasure we have been given, in earthenware vessels, until that time when I no longer see through a glass darkly, but face to face.

Your brother in Christ,

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague

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