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Complaint Against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague for his Views on Christological Doctrines

Jan 10, 2003 09:59 AM EST

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 Jan. 7.

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 comments.

"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 church.

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 ordination."

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 so.

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."

By Albert H. Lee
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