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Contacted by Those Who Support Open Discussion on Intelligent Design, United Methodist Bishop Lashes Out

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Take action now: Contact United Methodist officials and urge them to overturn their ban on Discovery Institute.

United Methodist Bishop Michael Coyner, based in Indiana, has published an online missive chastising the many United Methodists and others who have been contacting him over the United Methodist Church (UMC) decision to ban Discovery Institute from sponsoring an information table at the UMC General Conference in May.

Bishop Coyner complains that his in-box is being filled with angry messages from people accusing him of all sorts of misdeeds. He professes that he initially didn’t know what the heck people were talking about. He asserts that he had nothing to do with the decision to ban Discovery Institute, although he goes on to defend the decision and spread inaccurate information about it. He accuses those who contacted him of having “spammed” him. He ends by admonishing his correspondents to follow James 1:19: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry.”

Whew. It’s clear that the many communications from people protesting the UMC’s decision to ban Discovery Institute are having an effect. UMC officials have moved from ignoring the issue to becoming defensive and lashing out.

Bishop Coyner appears to claim that he initially didn’t know what the fuss was about when he started to be deluged with emails. (“It took a while for me to understand the source of all this anger–and ironically it is for a decision that I did not make or know about until the last few days.”) Coyner’s claim surprises me. As Chair of the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration, he was one of three officials to whom I sent a letter on January 6 via email asking for the ban on Discovery Institute to be overturned. To be blunt, my letter was received by Bishop Coyner many days before Discovery Institute went public with what had happened, and well before Bishop Coyner would have received any emails from others. If Bishop Coyner truly didn’t know what people were complaining to him about, it can only be because he ignored the letter sent to him on January 6.

As for why Bishop Coyner is now receiving emails along with other UMC officials: We’ve made clear that the decision to ban Discovery Institute was officially made by an entity called the Commission on the General Conference, and we’ve named the chair of that group (Judi Kenaston) as the first person people should contact. But Bishop Coyner is being less than candid when he implies that this controversy has nothing to do with him. The decision to ban Discovery Institute was implemented and communicated by an employee working for the General Council on Finance and Administration –the very group that Bishop Coyner chairs!

That’s why Bishop Coyner was one of the people addressed in our appeal filed earlier in January. And that’s why we listed him among the parties people could contact to protest the decision. Bishop Coyner’s accusation that those writing him have “spammed” him is completely unjustified. As the official head of the group that implemented the decision in question, he certainly is one of the relevant parties. Coyner is also a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and as such, he is an official representative of his church. So even if the General Council on Finance and Administration had played no role in carrying out this decision, it still would be appropriate for concerned individuals to contact him. One of the most basic functions of a church leader is to listen to those who have concerns. When leaders of a church start to claim it is illegitimate for others to contact them with their complaints, it’s a sign there is something unhealthy going on in the leadership culture.

Another sign of unhealthy leadership is when a leader chooses to demonize and dismiss those who express concerns rather than seriously responding to them. Yet that is precisely the tactic adopted by Bishop Coyner. He basically smears all who have written him as angry people who “spammed” him with false and mean-spirited accusations without knowing the facts. Of course, I don’t have access to every single message Bishop Coyner has received. Some of the communications may have been inappropriate. However, I have received copies of many messages people have sent to Bishop Coyner as well as other UMN officials. I have been struck by how thoughtful many of the messages were. They raised concerns that deserve to be heard, not dismissed.

Although Bishop Coyner disclaims any responsibility for the decision to ban Discovery Institute, this doesn’t stop him from defending the decision, albeit by spreading false information. Coyner asserts that “the General Conference Commission turned down [Discovery Institute’s] request for a variety of reasons, mostly because they are not a UM group or a mission project, nor does the concept of ‘intelligent design’ fully correspond to our UM faith in the God of Creation.” (Emphasis added.)

In truth, the UMC never told us it had rejected our request “mostly because [we] are not a UM group or a mission project.” Indeed, the UMC never raised this issue with us at all, and the UMC’s own vendor information clearly didn’t limit vendors to just UMC ministries. Bishop Coyner is correct on one point: There was an effort to claim (wrongly) that allowing an information table about intelligent design would somehow violate United Methodist policies or beliefs. But if Bishop Coyner really wants people to take seriously these offered justifications, he should address some inconvenient facts. For example, if the UMC is so concerned about limiting participation to Methodist groups as well as enforcing doctrinal purity, Bishop Coyner should explain why the UMC accepted as sponsors of the General Conference two large corporations (not known as Methodist ministries, surely!) who advocate positions explicitly contrary to the UMC’s stated standards on marriage.

Bishop concludes his online missive by challenging his critics to listen before they speak and to engage in genuine discussion:

And so I am reminded that our Christian response to this age of “everyone feeling offended” is to LISTEN before speaking, to UNDERSTAND before jumping to conclusions, and to ENGAGE in meaningful discussion rather than one-way messages.

I certainly agree with Bishop Coyner’s advice, but Coyner doesn’t seem to understand the irony in it. Coyner’s own missive is a good example of someone not listening to others, jumping to conclusions, and avoiding “meaningful discussion rather than one-way messages.” Indeed, when it comes to intelligent design, Bishop Coyner defends the decision of UMC officials to prevent “meaningful discussion rather than one-way messages” about intelligent design at the UMC’s General Conference.

The many wonderful members and pastors of the United Methodist Church around the world deserve better than this from their Bishops.

Image: Statue of John Wesley, Melbourne, Australia, by Paul Raphael Montford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.