PHOENIX – Bishop Earl Bledsoe had his day in church court Friday, asking the UMC’s Judicial Council to overturn his involuntary retirement by the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee.
The hearing went three hours – twice as long as projected – and included both dry discussion of legal fine points and emotional debate about fairness, accountability and even the fate of the denomination.
The council was to resume deliberating behind closed doors Saturday, but it’s unclear when a decision will be reached or announced.
Bishop Bledsoe’s lawyer, Jon Gray – a former Judicial Council member – argued that the action against Bishop Bledsoe amounted to a rush to judgment that violated the UMC Constitution and fair process as laid out in the Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, and various Judicial Council decisions.
“Gross unfairness has resulted, and the Judicial Council must fashion an appropriate remedy for the benefit of Bishop Bledsoe, but even more so for the benefit of the church,” Mr. Gray told the council.
Don House spoke for the South Central Jurisdictional episcopacy committee, and defended its work, saying it carefully followed a provision of the Book of Discipline that deals with involuntary retirement of bishops and was upheld by the Council in a decision released just last month.
Mr. House praised Bishop Bledsoe as a spiritual leader. But he stressed that the episcopacy committee felt the South Central Jurisdiction needed to take the lead in reversing the long decline of the UMC in the United States, and decided that accountability must include the bishops.
Bishop Bledsoe, he told the council, had the lowest score of all bishops in the jurisdiction in 37 of 45 categories in the evaluation process. That led to the decision to retire him involuntarily.
“If we’re going to save this denomination it has to happen in the South Central Jurisdiction and we can’t afford an ineffective bishop,” he said.
Bishop Bledsoe, 62, attended the hearing with his wife, Leslie.
The episcopacy committee’s decision last summer to retire him for ineffectiveness was unprecedented, and has stirred strong reaction, pro and con, throughout the connection.
Bishop Bledsoe was elected to the episcopacy four years ago, and assigned to the North Texas Conference, at the request of representatives of that conference.
He made major changes in administration, and endured various controversies, including a Judicial Council decision overturning some of his reorganization.
On June 1, just before the North Texas Conference’s annual meeting, he surprised many by making a video announcement that he would retire, saying he felt God was leading him in another direction.
At the meeting, some clergy and laity asked that he reconsider, suggesting he might have been pressured into retiring by the jurisdictional episcopacy committee.
At the very end of the meeting, on June 5, Bishop Bledsoe dramatically announced that he had reconsidered and would fight to remain an active bishop, despite pressure from the episcopacy committee for him to step aside.
With the controversy out in the open, Mr. House soon confirmed that the episcopacy committee had evaluated Bishop Bledsoe negatively and was prepared to hold a hearing to consider retiring him involuntarily. The committee held a two-day hearing with Bishop Bledsoe before the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in July, and followed through with the vote, exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary to retire him.
Delegates to the jurisdictional conference affirmed that vote by a large majority, and Bishop Bledsoe filed an appeal with the Judicial Council.
Through Friday afternoon’s hearing, he mainly listened attentively, sometimes conferring in whispers with Mr. Gray. But council member Ruben Reyes, of the Philippines, asked Bishop Bledsoe to answer for himself why he first announced he was retiring voluntarily, then reversed course.
Bishop Bledsoe came to the dais and said he ultimately concluded that the evaluation was unfair, that statistics bore out the good job he’d done, and that the episcopacy committee had been unduly influenced by his opponents in the North Texas Conference.
“There was a group within North Texas that just wanted me out,” he said. “I felt like I had to stand in the face of that kind of coercion within the United Methodist Church.”
Mr. Reyes told Bishop Bledsoe “a peaceful settlement would be the best outcome,” then asked: “Would you like to reconsider and go back to your previous decision to retire voluntarily?”
The Rev. William Lawrence, president of the Judicial Council, said. “That question is not properly before us. What’s before us is Bishop Bledsoe’s appeal of the action to retire him involuntarily.”
Bishop Bledsoe is seeking a return to active status and assignment to an episcopal area.
Mr. Gray said after the hearing that he took some encouragement from the Judicial Council’s recent overturning of General Conference legislation to end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.
That legislation and the involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe have in common a shorter-than-usual process for removing someone, according to Mr. Gray.
“It’s a choice between giving someone fair process or pushing somebody off the cliff in 30 days … This is against our history and polity,” he said.