In his first presidential address to the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce R. Ough brought the bishops alternately to their knees in prayer and to their feet in resounding applause as he laid out a message of unity to a new Council.
Bishop Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area became Council president in May during the 2016 General Conference. Approximately 119 United Methodist bishops, including 15 newly elected jurisdictional bishops, gathered last month at Epworth-by-the-Sea at St. Simons Island, Ga. to lay the foundation for working together during the 2017-2020 quadrennium.
Bishop Ough said the time together was designed to engage the bishops in exploring how the Council can lead in a time when "the entire United Methodist Church is holding its breath," and urged them to build and model unity within their own body.
"We clearly are at a crossroads. And, God is calling us to discover the right route for our souls," said Ough. But, he said, as we await the work of the Council and the Commission on a Way Forward, it's no time to stand idly by. Instead, we must lean into our mission.
"Let us resolve at this very gathering that we will not waver in claiming and living and preaching and teaching who we are and how God is using the people of the Methodist Way to form new disciples and change the world," he said.
Bishop Ough said that as the denomination moves toward the future, we must learn “to walk the wing,” referring to the act of wing walking during the early days of aviation when aerialists would climb out of the plane's cockpit during flight onto the wings for daring stunts.
"The wing-walker could only walk the wing if he was courageous enough to step into the gap between what was certain security and an uncertain future," said Ough. "We tend to forget that the very nature of the faith journey is to walk the wing ... Friends, we do not need to freeze by the cockpit holding tightly to the strut of fear, or doubt, or even certainty, because God is holding us tightly. That is the covenant promise!"
Bishop Ough repeatedly returned to the theme of unity during the address, but admitted it's not an easy task.
"Let’s admit it – this Christian unity stuff is difficult, in part because we tend to forget that authentic unity is a Spirit gift – not something we create or enforce by rules and law," said Ough, pointing to Paul's letter to the Ephesians. "I want to suggest to you this morning that authentic unity is essentially a Pentecost phenomenon. Authentic unity is ultimately a Fruit of the Spirit rather than a fruit of purity codes, polity systems, polite relationships or political compromises."
resolve at this very meeting that this Council of Bishops will, at all personal costs, “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” said Ough. "Let us commit to one another that we will not give credence or quarter to schism in our ranks or in our residential settings or in the denomination. Let us affirm, unequivocally, that division is never the will of Christ for his church. Let us resolve, at this very meeting that the Council of Bishops is one body and we will stand together against anything that will divide us."
Bishop Ough then invited the bishops to kneel together in prayer, using their chairs as prayer altars. "I believe, with all my heart, that God is trying to do a new thing within and through The United Methodist Church and this Council of spiritual leaders. But, I also believe God cannot accomplish God’s purposes among and through us unless we assume the posture of confession and prayer – unless we are completely vulnerable to the transforming presence and power of Christ."