United Methodists did an amazing thing during the weekend in choosing William H. Willimon of Duke University as their next bishop in northern Alabama. Willimon, one of the few theologians to devote a book to humor, was jocular and self-deprecating as journalists reported on his appointment.
“I’ve been told by too many people you can’t write what I’ve written and say what I say and be a bishop,” Willimon told Greg Garrison of The Birmingham News. “Very few people read my books; that’s helpful.” (Garrison points out that, taken together, Willimon’s 50-plus books have sold more than a million copies.)
Yonat Shimron of The News & Observer covers the important bases in Willimon’s career: his writing with Stanley Hauerwas on the renowned Resident Aliens, his agreement to permit blessings of gay couples in Duke’s chapel and, most recently, his intention to “defend the doctrine and faith of the United Methodist Church, which sees gays as persons of ‘sacred worth,’ but denies them ordination or same-sex blessings.” Shimron points out that Willimon was passed over eight years ago when first nominated to become a bishop.
Of his election this year, Willimon told Karen Hauptman of the The Chronicle, an independent daily at Duke:
“I was kind of a reform troublemaker kind of candidate — which Duke students would find strange because they think of me as the bastion of the status quo — so I was really amazed that they elected me. . . . Maybe they want to do some new things.”
Shimron offers these especially encouraging remarks from Willimon’s colleagues:
“It’s a sign we’re not dead yet,” said Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, referring to his friend Willimon’s election. “It’s a wonderful vote of confidence in the United Methodist Church.”
. . . “He’s very critical of the church always reaching out in a reflexive way toward relevance,” said Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at the Divinity School. “He’ll say, ‘Forget relevance. Let’s work on truth. The truth will make us relevant.’”