Almost one year ago Bishop Ken Carter interviewed Bishop Woodie White for the Commision on a Way Forward. They discussed how The United Methodist Church has dealt with divisive issues such as racism amidst previous conversations about unity and division. Bishop White was interviewed by Bishop Ken Carter on February 27, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. See the full transcript below.
Q: Bishop White, thank you for being part of the conversation. We are a part of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. This is the time in the life of our church where the principle of unity is contested in terms of who we are. You have been a pastor, founding General Secretary of the Commission on Religion and Race; you were a bishop of the church in Indiana and Illinois and at Emory University you served as resident bishop. What do you see as you the most important resources that can help the church in this way forward?
Bishop White: I think we have to make an effort to include in our discussion and deliberations persons from annual conferences in some linkage, and this will help the commission as it reports to the Council of Bishops. I think we will benefit from opportunities that are provided for annual conferences to be engaged along with the Commission, opportunities for having some input, and this will lead the work to be more helpful once it gets to the Council.
Q: You shared with the Commission that you were a leader in the church as the church united and as it later sought unity after the desegregation, and you talk about some of the principles that helped the church move through that time. What do you recall from that time that might be relevant today?
Bishop White: Well, I think the most important principle is a commitment that the church will hold together. There were people in that time who believed that the church would divide over this the issue of racial inclusiveness. But I think for the most part the church said we're going to hold together and try to address all of the issues that seem to divide us and move forward as it were. So that was the basic commitment, that we're going to stay together.
Q: In the area of race, which is an unfinished agenda, you've been a voice of leadership and in our denomination many read your annual letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given the advances and at times what appear to be setbacks, what sustains you as a leader, what sustains you as a bishop, and what sustains you as a Christian?
Bishop White: I always see progress. I always see progress. The church does not move as fast as I would like it to move. Sometimes progress is not permanent. But what sustains me and what increases my hope is that I always see the church getting better. It's never what I want it to be, but it's not what it used to be! And I think that if people can see that they won't get discouraged, they won't become cynical, and they won't lose hope, because they can see changes and know there is progress. And so this is what sustains me.
Q: In your presentation to the Commission on a Way Forward, you reflect on the Central Jurisdiction as a part of our history in American Methodism. You mentioned Bishop L. Scott Allen, the last bishop to be elected by the Central Jurisdiction; he ordained me, this was right after I had graduated from divinity school. What lessons can we learn from the Central Jurisdiction for a time such as this?
Bishop White: Well, that changes are never guaranteed, and progress is never guaranteed in terms of permanence. So, you always having to work at it. You always having to evaluate. You are always having to address an issue. And if we stay alert and continue to stay on top of our progress, I think we will assure that we will get to where we want to be. But if we ever kind of let our guard down, if we think, wow, we have solved the problem, then we just get the problem reinventing itself! That is what happens.
Q: You were a resident bishop in Indiana, in Illinois and then you had an extended season when you served as the bishop in residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. What did your role as a spiritual leader with students teach you? And what did you find yourself communicating with them?
Bishop White: The thing that surprised me was how little sense of history they had. They did not know where the church had been and, so they didn't have an appropriate appreciation for the accomplishments of those who had gone before them, an awareness of some of the sacrifices that had been made. And I found myself then in a position to help them to understand where the church was, and what sacrifices had been made by those who had gone before. And then I was able to say them that those forebears didn't do all the work! They saved some of that work for you and you have to pick it up!
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