From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Group files complaint against Bishop Sprague
Thu, 9 Jan 2003 15:16:42 -0600
Jan. 9, 2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert7(615)742-54707Nashville,
NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of Bishop C. Joseph Sprague is
A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
A group of United Methodist clergy and laypeople has filed a complaint
against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago, calling for his removal based on
comments that he made about Christ's divinity last year.
Twenty-eight people from 11 annual conferences, including six of the 12
annual conferences in the North Central Jurisdiction, have signed the
complaint. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, group spokesman and pastor of Faith
Community United Methodist Church in Greenville, Wis., announced the filing
The group cites comments made by Sprague in a Jan. 28, 2002, speech at United
Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology in Denver and in his recent book,
Affirmations of a Dissenter, published by Abingdon Press.
"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," Lambrecht said. "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.
"These positions of Bishop Sprague are all contrary to the standards of
doctrine established by the United Methodist Church, particularly as stated
in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith," Lambrecht said.
In his speech at Iliff, Sprague discussed "who Jesus the risen Christ is for
me" - a fully human Jesus. The bishop admitted his comments would sound
offensive to some, but he said he did not intend to offend anyone.
"My hope is to encourage confused believers or those who yearn to believe,
especially those who want to affirm Jesus but find little meaning in the
stilted Christological language of the ancient creeds," he said then.
When reached for comment about the complaint, Sprague said: "There are many
things that could be said, but my understanding is that the complaint process
is supposed to be confidential. So, given the disciplinary procedures
requiring confidentiality, I must choose to say nothing."
Sprague's views stirred debate within the church. One of the most widely
circulated responses came from Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida Area.
"I wrote a response to Bishop Sprague, and when I sent out the response I
also sent a letter to members of Council of Bishops," Whitaker told United
Methodist News Service. "In the letter I rejected the suggestion that a
complaint should be filed against Bishop Sprague.
"The reason I reject the suggestion is partly because I don't think it is
clear that he has violated the teaching of our church on the issue of the
divinity of Christ. I certainly have been very tough on asking questions, and
I think he said things that make people wonder what his view is, but I
believe he should have the opportunity to answer those questions."
Retired Bishop Richard B. Wilke, who was asked to review the manuscript of
Sprague's book, described being "taken aback by the flap" over Sprague's
"The book is primarily a social witness, but the flap is over his
Christology, his understanding of Jesus," Wilke said.
"He has a little material in the book that tells how he had to come out of a
very conservative upbringing to a new understanding of the faith when he was
an adult," Wilke said. "From the point of view of many theologians, including
myself, I would say I found his Christology - his understanding, for example,
of the virgin birth or the resurrection - not the same as mine or as most
Methodists'. But the reason I was thrilled with the book is because of his
social witness. I think he understands the spirit of Jesus, and that is what
the book is about."
Wilke said Sprague is "under the influence of Jesus" and added that his
social witness is in harmony with many of the United Methodist Church's
Social Principles. "My hope is people will read the book, even though they
will not agree with everything, to see his tremendous social witness."
The complaint alleges that Sprague committed two chargeable offenses as
defined in Paragraph 2702 of the Book of Discipline: 1) dissemination of
doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of the United
Methodist Church and 2) disobedience to the order and discipline of the
The bishop allegedly violated the order and discipline of the United
Methodist Church by using his office "to undermine and overturn the apostolic
faith and the theological traditions of the United Methodist Church." The
Book of Discipline requires bishops "to teach and uphold the theological
traditions of The United Methodist Church."
The 28 signers of the complaint are from the Detroit, Iowa, North Indiana,
West Michigan, West Ohio, Wisconsin, Alaska Missionary, Central Pennsylvania,
Holston, Kentucky and North Central New York conferences.
Pat Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement, said she has
received numerous calls from regular "people in the pews" upset over
Sprague's comments. Her organization, with offices in Indianapolis, is an
unofficial United Methodist group that describes itself as a renewal movement
in the church.
Miller added that this has motivated many to become more active and involved
in the future of the United Methodist Church. "In some ways it is
strengthening the church in the classical biblical faith because now people
are saying that is not what we believe. We do believe the Bible is the Word
of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus is the way to salvation."
The complaint was filed with Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the College
of Bishops for the North Central Jurisdiction. The complaint asks that this
matter be brought to investigation, and if sustained, "that Bishop Sprague
either (publicly) renounce his contrary teaching and maintain his teaching
within the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, or that he
resign (or be removed) from his office and surrender his credentials of
The Book of Discipline states that when a complaint is filed against a
bishop, the president of the jurisdictional college of bishops shall make a
supervisory response. The response is "directed toward a just resolution
and/or reconciliation among all parties." This may include consultation with
the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy or voluntary mediation in which a
neutral, trained mediator or mediation team is brought in.
The supervisory response "is not a judicial process," the book states. If the
response doesn't lead to a resolution, the case could be referred to a bishop
from another jurisdiction or central conference or a pastor from the same
jurisdiction or conference. That person would serve as church counsel,
representing the denomination in pressing the complaint. The counsel would
sign the complaint and forward it to a committee on investigation. From
there, the complaint would go through a clearly defined process. Meanwhile,
efforts for resolution would continue.
The committee would have the power to call witnesses and hold hearings during
its investigation. If it decided that the charges were valid, it could
recommend that a trial be held. In that case, a trial court of 13 United
Methodist clergy members would be convened. Nine votes would be needed to
convict. With a conviction, the court would have the power to impose a number
of penalties, some severe - such as expulsion from the church - and some less
Whitaker said the judicial process is not ideal for handling the case
involving Sprague, but that the current system provides no other way to
address concern about someone's adherence to doctrinal standards. "I believe
we need to look at our procedures and see if we need something that is a
little different (and) that enables us to have more dialogue before we go to
the judicial process."
# # #
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville,
United Methodist News Service
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