Referring to John Wesley’s ideal of spreading Scriptural holiness throughout the world, retired Bishop Woodie White said, “I hope there will be the continuing ministry of one Eben Taylor whose life demonstrated those words.”
When Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor introduced Bishop White at the first Eben Taylor Memorial Lecture on Love and Justice Nov. 12 at College Place United Methodist Church, she said White was “so much a part of the S.C. Conference that I have made him an honorary bishop of South Carolina.”
After serving a cross-racial appointment, White became general secretary of the Commission on Race and Religion and was a close friend of the late Rev. Eben Taylor. Before retiring in 2004, he served the Illinois and Indiana conferences and is now bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.
“One must be rooted somewhere or one will be drifted by the vagaries of life,” White said. “It takes rootedness to face conflict, ambiguity and even evil itself. Eben Taylor was rooted and grounded in a solid place – what might sometimes be called stubbornness.
“The Scripture warned there would be false prophets … The Church and its leaders must avoid the temptation to provide quick answers. You’d better ask what grounds you solidly.
“If I do not love, I am nothing,” White cited. Although taking strong stands, Taylor had a reputation for preaching on one theme, “God is love.” White said “love” is the word to be employed by those who have to say some hard and challenging things.
Congregations give pastors “amazing room to take them where they do not want to go,” White said. “Love must be the ethos.” The church should be doing things for people because we love them.
Church leaders should not put the “flag before the cross, not the institution before the Jesus we serve,” White reminded.
“We serve a God that says, ‘Let all come to me’,” a theme he repeated when, later, an elder asked him about the United Methodist church disenfranchising people of a different sexual orientation. Pastors must be ministers to all the people, White answered. “I hope that sign out front that says ‘All are welcome’ means it.’
“Pastors and bishops as well will have to answer for how they treated people,” White said and reminded of Jesus’ admonition, “The measure of your love for me is the measure of what you do with your children.
Differences of opinion separate us, the bishop said, noting that when Congressman Joe Wilson said “a person lies, he attacked that person. When you say a person doesn’t have it right, that attacks the position.” He recalled a time when he, too, was too quick to condemn.
“Prophets always speak against any power that would prohibit people from being the best God intends them to be.” They must say the right thing at the right place at the right time. They must speak truth to power, White said.
During a question and answer period, White said he began writing his annual Letter to Martin Luther King in 1976 when a lot of things weren’t moving as fast as he thought they ought to be. “It’s going to be tough (to write the letter) this coming year,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of more ugliness. I’ve seen a lot more hatred.”
When asked about the church’s disenfranchisement of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, White said, as bishop, he had gone to every district asking all his pastors to share experiences on the questions, and began dialogue using Scripture as the resource. “Regardless of your position, let me tell you what I think the good pastor is, a pastor who learns to be a good pastor to someone with whom they disagree with their lifestyle. I’ve never agreed with everybody’s lifestyle,” White said.
He told of a woman who said terrible things about those who differed on the issue. “And then she learned her son was gay. I don’t know if her position changed, but her posture did. She was no longer talking about a category of people, but a human being, talking about a person created by the same God” she professed to worship. White compared it to a battle about taking in a member of the Klu Klux Klan. “I could not believe colleagues who wanted them out of the church of Christ. We treat people as God would treat them.”
As she opened the service, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, one of two cross-cultural appointments in the conference now, said it was because of “God’s work in Eben Taylor,” College Place’s pastor during integration, that she could stand in the pulpit now as pastor of College Place UMC.