- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

United Methodists who filed a heresy charge against a liberal bishop in Chicago said this week's dismissal of the charge shows a "dysfunction" in church accountability but can stir healthy debate about historic beliefs.
"What is dysfunctional is that we even have to make complaints," said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, who led a group charge against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague for doubting the virgin birth, divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus.
On Tuesday, a panel of bishops for the North Central Jurisdiction of the church said Bishop Sprague did not break clerical vows "to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim corporately and individually the apostolic faith."
The complaint, filed by 28 clergy and laity in December, said that a lecture by Bishop Sprague "appears to deny the apostolic, orthodox and ecumenical Trinitarian understanding of Jesus."
It said that he "maintains that Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation," and thus is guilty of "dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine" in the church.
The panel, however, ruled that the bishop "is obedient to Christ's teachings."
It recommended that Bishop Sprague publicly endorse church doctrines and called on a set of theological forums for the vying parties to discuss their differences in public.
"I affirm the historic doctrines of our Church," Bishop Sprague said in a statement, adding that they nevertheless "require constant, informed, and Spirit-led exegesis, exposition, integration, and interpretation."
The bishop said his talks and writings aimed "to stimulate informed debate," and it "was not my intent that those who were unaware of the issues raised would be confused or hurt."
The yearlong dispute began with Bishop Sprague's lecture at Iliff School of Theology in January 2002 from his new book, "Affirmations of a Dissenter," which prompted two other bishops to issue counterstatements.
During his lecture, Bishop Sprague said, "The myth of the virgin birth was not intended as historical fact." He also said, "Jesus was not born the Christ, rather by the confluence of grace with faith he became the Christ."
The panel asked the 28 plaintiffs to apologize for going public in what is a confidential complaint process.
"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 panel said. "Let us cast out our penchant to power and control."
Mr. Lambrecht, pastor of the 225-member Faith Community United Methodist Church in Greenville, Wis., said the ruling at least will lead the church to look at the doctrinal issues more closely.
"We are probably going to release a detailed response to the decision," he said.
He said pluralism in the faith is proper in academic settings. "It's different when a bishop is making these kinds of comments," he said.
Mr. Lambrecht said that such open theological argument among the bishops "is almost unprecedented," and that it bodes well for the church.
The panel ruled that diverse personal approaches to belief can live alongside historic doctrines.
"The theological and doctrinal issues raised in the complaint are already a matter of considerable public debate," said the ruling, which described the case as "a potential watershed moment in our denomination."
Mr. Lambrecht said the ruling reflects "the high failure rate of complaints" made by more traditional believers in the 8.4-million-member denomination.


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