On November 20, Stefan Zürcher was consecrated bishop of The United Methodist Church (UMC) In this interview, he talks about the particular challenges of the current situation in his future Episcopal Area of Central and Southern Europe, a characteristic of his that could be especially helpful, and the future of his Church.
"Bishop Stefan Zürcher", how does that sound?
Still very strange! I'll probably need another 10 years to get used to it... (laughs)
Your election as successor to Bishop Patrick Streiff took place without any previous nominations. To what extent did you nevertheless expect that you could be elected?
Already one or two years ago, when it became clear that this election was coming up, there were individuals who approached me and asked: Could you imagine that? Since it was confirmed that the election could now take place in November, these voices have increased. Against this background, it was obvious that I had to and wanted to deal with this question.
The change in the bishop's office comes at a turbulent time for the UMC in Central and Southern Europe. What do you see as the greatest challenges?
One challenge is certainly the issue of human sexuality, which shows how different our convictions are, our imprints and the cultures in which we have grown up. These also affect how we understand faith and read the Bible. But this is only one example, which clearly shows that we in our Central Conference have always been in a very diverse situation. In dealing with this, we have to find ways.
In the discussions about the Round Table proposal, this was therefore also the basic question: What do we give more weight to, the differences – or the things that unite us? Let's say: We want to be church together. We accept, recognize and respect the diversity that exists. But in the end, this should not divide us. The common center, Christ, our faith, the mission out of this relationship with God – that is stronger and unites us.
The decision to want to be church with one another despite all the differences is now a challenge for everyone, especially for the pastors and superintendents, to carry it into the individual annual conferences and to continue with it there.
And you as bishop? What ability or strength of yours could prove particularly helpful in the current situation?
One of my strengths is my mediating nature. That is also feedback I receive from others. I can build bridges. That includes: listening and listening again. And listening one more time. Taking time.
In addition, preaching the Gospel is also an important element of my way of leading. I think that I can also give impulses in this way. By the question, for instance: What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ tell us in this situation? What – or whom – can we orient ourselves to?
Nevertheless, it will not be possible to simply keep everyone together. Individual parts of the church have already separated. Perhaps others will follow. How do you deal with this as a bishop?
As far as issues of church law are concerned, I'm still too little involved in the matter. Besides, in many places these processes have been going on for a long time. With regard to these, the question is what I can contribute to strengthen relationships and to understand each other well.
My deep wish and hope is that we stay together. Where this is not possible, it is certainly connected with sadness. Then it is also a matter of giving each other freedom, of giving each other the space to make a different decision. It is important to respect this - and to look for a good way so that a separation does not happen in a difficult atmosphere.
Beyond the current inner-church turmoil: Where will the UMC go from here?
At the moment I can only try to answer this with regard to Switzerland. With regard to the other countries, I have already seen one thing or another. Nevertheless, I still know too little to be able to make statements for these contexts.
For me, the image of "table fellowship" is helpful in this context: We have proven forms of table fellowship that we live out in congregations and from which much blessing arises. And there are new forms of table fellowship.
For me, table fellowship has something everyday about it. It's about eating together at the same table. It's about linking everyday life with spirituality again and again and shaping it from the point of view of faith.
The tendency for our congregations to become smaller will probably not be easily reversed for the time being. But perhaps this is also an opportunity for people who are looking for binding communities, if we succeed in shaping such cells of community with proven and new forms and also in forming new ones. The important thing is that these cells are connected to each other.
First, however, the transition takes place over the course of the upcoming months. What do you already know about this: What will this time look like for you?
It already starts these upcoming days: I will go to the Central Conference in Germany together with Bishop Patrick Streiff. Throughout the winter, there will be some introductory events from the Council of Bishops. When the various Annual Conferences meet one after the other, starting around April 2023, it is planned that I will go along to each of the meetings. At the end of each, there will be a handover of responsibility. I will then stay a little longer in the respective country and get to know people and communities.
by Sigmar Friedrich, Zurich
Photo: Jörg Niederer