Admitting that you made a mistake, especially publicly, is extremely difficult. I suspect it becomes more difficult the more visible your position of leadership is.
It is not hard to find examples of people making mistakes. But it is rare to see someone own a mistake and apologize for it. And this is exactly what Bishop Mike Lowry, the resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church has done.
His apology is direct and unequivocal:
As your Bishop, I erred in my theological judgment by endorsing “online” communion. The fault is mine and mine alone. I apologize for so doing to the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference, and am writing about this because I believe both that confession is important and that my error needs to be corrected and perhaps debated. More importantly, we have a teaching moment and a significant opportunity to theologically learn together by wrestling with the deeper implications of “online” communion.
This is one of the most encouraging acts of both humility and courage that I have seen in quite some time. I want to publicly thank Bishop Lowry.
Lowry’s essay should be required reading for two reasons.
First, it is an excellent example of intellectual virtue. Bishop Lowry stayed with a difficult and complex topic, even after taking an initial position on it. He continued to pursue the truth and sought to understand what was at stake in permitting “online” communion as best as he could.
And once he became convinced that he was incorrect, he acknowledged this and did what was in his power to do to make it right. He explained the reason for his change of mind. He encouraged clergy who had celebrated communion virtually to consider ceasing the practice. But he also acknowledged that some might feel that a drastic change within the local church might do more harm than good and honored his initial statement.
This is an exceptional example of leadership.
Lowry’s essay is required reading, secondly, because it is a deeply thoughtful consideration of communion itself. Here is just one glimpse of what you will find in this essay:
The classic definition of the sacraments is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The actual elements used in Holy Communion are to be consecrated by an ordained elder (or appointed licensed local pastor) who is physically present with the elements (bread and wine/juice). Such action ties together the three-part discipline of Word, Sacrament and Order for which elders are ordained.
This line in particular haunts me:
The way we have handled this issue, both individually and collectively as bishops, highlights the theological poverty of the UMC.
Bishop Lowry succinctly describes why the way permission for online communion has troubled me so much. The disagreement about whether the church can offer communion when it can’t be together in person shows just how fractured the UMC is.
The disagreement over whether communion can rightly be officiated online cuts across an entirely different fault line than the painfully visible disagreement about same sex marriage. The pushback I received to my writing about online communion on social media and elsewhere was fairly evenly split between those who agree with me about human sexuality and those who disagree with me.
This disagreement is visible within the Council of Bishops itself.
One final thing that makes Bishop Lowry’s mea culpa so remarkable: Lowry initially took a step away from the historic understanding of communion and on more careful consideration returned to it. For me, this is a reminder of the continued riches of the living faith of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Thank you Bishop Lowry! May your tribe increase. And may we all learn from your example.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.