From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Complaints dismissed against Bishop Joseph Sprague
Tue, 18 Feb 2003 15:54:37 -0600
Feb. 18, 2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert7(615)742-54707Nashville,
NOTE: A photograph of Bishop C. Joseph Sprague is available. The full
supervisory team's response and a statement by Bishop Sprague follow this
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Let us reclaim our mission of 'spreading scriptural holiness across the
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,
The complete supervisory response follows:
TO COMPLAINTS AGAINST
BISHOP C. JOSEPH SPRAGUE
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Grace to you and peace in the Name and Spirit of Jesus the Christ, our Savior
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
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
Your brother in Christ,
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
United Methodist News Service
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