The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death. Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others. With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.
Martyrdom is Not Sought Out
Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it. The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out. Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:
“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”
This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him. Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.
Heroism is a Communal Achievement
‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse. We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails. Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate. A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:
“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”
In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche. Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):
“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero. The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts. Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)
The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.
Naming the Silence
Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death. I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy. Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:
: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death
: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret
We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them. An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed. For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks. How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?
I’m reminded of a movie scene. At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died. In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”
I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived. From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served. That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.
My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones. May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless. I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)
Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling? I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church. In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.
Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological. If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride. Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.
As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work. Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”). I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible. In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.
But enough from me. Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself. I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the full book in the comments section.
“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part [...] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)
“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering. To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”
“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other. An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)
“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)
“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)
As a leader, one of my habits is to attempt, as far as possible, to claim maximum responsibility for everything that happens in my life. It is not fun, but it is, I believe, a path to sanity. The alternative – to refuse agency in my life and calling – is infinitely more unpleasant and dis-empowering.
When I was in high school, I played soccer for one fun but inglorious season. I was the classic benchwarmer; I only played because I had some close friends on the team, and since I was at a very small school they let me on the team despite my lack of speed, athleticism, and knowledge of or interest in soccer. In one of my rare appearances on the pitch, I was shoved hard from behind by another player, so much so that I somersaulted. I was furious. At my next opportunity, I threw up a very hard elbow and sent my opponent to the ground. The ref promptly brought out a yellow card.
My friend and team captain came over and began to explain to the ref that I was new to the sport and didn’t really understand what I was doing. He was about to talk me out of getting the yellow card! But I was livid, and I wanted the other player to know that I thought he deserved it. So I walked over to the ref and exclaimed, “I knew exactly what I was doing!” The yellow stood. For better or for worse, maximum responsibility has been my calling card – of whatever color – ever since.
This memory crept up as the news came out a few days ago: the ugly specter is back in the UMC. Complaints have been filed once more, this time against 36 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy who conducted a same-gender ceremony last year. This is, of course, the same conference that recently de-and-refrocked Frank Schaefer.
The Scandal of Accountability
No one likes church trials. More then that, no one likes to see clergy who breach the covenant have to face discipline in any form. Those of us who serve in churches where previous pastors have faced disciplinary procedures know the toll it takes on our congregations. It is always unfortunate, and yet, the coherence of any community demands that some boundaries must be set and maintained. Even the most secular professional organizations have strictures on what is and is not acceptable for its members; how much more should this be the case for the church, where our work is not some product or service, but the proclamation of the Kingdom?
Many denounce trials as, more or less, “unchristian.” These days, the bulk of such calls come from progressive Methodists who tire of worrying about trials for those who run afoul of the Book of Discipline in terms of gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies and (however ill-defined) “practice.” I do not recall most of these folks claiming trials, similar hearings, and other agents of “institutional force” were depraved, pseudo-Christian institutions when a Virginia pastor was put on leave for refusing membership to a gay man. Nor did Bishop Carcano argue with the decision of our judicial establishment when Frank Schaefer was recently refrocked. It seems we all dislike disciplinary procedures when they don’t go our way, but can’t praise them enough when they vindicate our position. But I digress.
The distaste with trials is exacerbated because of the polarized nature of the church (reflecting the wider culture), our inability to discuss hard questions with prayerful charity and theological rigor, and the more general scandal that any exercise of church authority causes in the post-Enlightenment West.
Rev. Hannah Bonner’s critique over at UMC Lead (a blog which seems to be pretty clearly picking sides now) is illustrative:
“It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems that the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us. The reality that trials are conducive to further division and damaging to our witness – and not cowardice – is the reason why many of our Bishops are seeking to find different paths forward through this struggle.”
Of course a trial is “not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light.” No one wants them. But trials are present as a final step when just resolution (or “reconciliation”) fails. The BOD is quite clear that this is not the preferred outcome. And yet those who have a distaste for trials seem to think only the church or “the system” is at fault for them: if only we didn’t resort to trials, our witness would not suffer so and we could come to a real “Christian” solution.
Credit Where Credit is Due: A Parable
But are trials only the fault of our (admittedly defective) system? Pastors, at least, know the stakes. As clergy who have taken vows which state we have studied and approve of church law, we know what we are welcoming if we flaunt it. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s pretty. But at some point, pastors who knowingly play loose with the covenant should receive a share of the ire for putting the church through the cost and controversy of more trials.
To put it another way: imagine you are driving your car, and you just happen to have a CB radio tuned to the police band. You get on the horn and announce to all the police in the area that you are about the speed on the highway. You then get on the road and proceed to do 105 in a 70. Not surprisingly, you are pulled over. Because of the egregious nature of the speed violation, you are given a ticket with little discussion. You will face court costs, an increase in your insurance rate, and possibly a suspension of your license. All kinds of government resources will be used in holding you accountable: police time, magistrate salaries, a judge’s attention. What a miscarriage of justice! Wasted resources abound! You harmed no one. You were just speeding.
Would anyone blame the speed limit laws or the cop in this case? No. You announced to the world, and especially to law enforcement, what you were going to do. Whether or not speed limit laws make sense is beside the point. Their job is to enforce those limits, and you told them you were coming. The onus, at least in part, is on you.
A crude analogy, perhaps, but is it that different from those who flagrantly disregard the Discipline and then balk at accountability? I respect prophetic witness, but true prophetic witness means being willing to face the consequences.
Conclusion: On Owning Choices
I don’t disagree that trials are damaging to our communion and our witness. Unfortunately, the reality is that the only thing that may erode the glue holding together our denomination faster than church trials is the avoidance of trials and any semblance of meaningful accountability.
Furthermore, I am convinced it is not the role of bishops to seek “different paths forward” through these struggles. Such direction is given by the General Conference and codified in the Book of Discipline. The bishops are called, as the executive branch, to order the life of the church in part by enforcing policy made by the General Conference and supporting our doctrine and order as agents of church unity.
We may not like what the “current path” holds, and indeed, I hate that so much energy and resources must go into trials, especially for the reasons before us. (I would not be so remorseful if we had trials for more crucial matters, like doctrine. Oh, if only we would put rebaptizers and unitarians on trial!)
But the only thing worse than the trials may well be not having trials. Part of the Christian life, as lay and clergy, involves making and keeping promises to one another. We clergy have all agreed to live by a certain Discipline, and when we fail to do so – whether by momentary lapse of judgment or conscious, intended effort – there must be a response that recognizes that failure. A gracious response and oriented towards restoration, of course, but a response nonetheless.
And yes, church trials bring up some of the worst parts of Christian history, those things with which the New Atheists love to fill up their screeds: inquisitions and witch hunts. But not every church trial is an inquisition, no more than seeing blue lights always indicates something like the Rodney King incident is going to occur.
We will find trials unpleasant. We should. They are always sad. And I sympathize with fears that more trials will threaten to rend our communion past what it can bear.
But the only thing that might be a more serious threat, that might endanger our life together even more, is the refusal to hold pastors accountable when they choose to flagrantly violate the covenant and show no willingness to stop doing so. We all know this is a delicate time. Our church is imperfect, including its accountability structures. But I can’t help but think that those pastors who flaunt the Discipline – regardless of the nobility of their cause – like the Eastern Pennsylvania 36 , are also at fault.
Part of maturing is owning our choices and the consequences that they bring. Don’t tell the police you’re going to break the law, and then complain when you get pulled over.
Bishop Michael Lowry from the Central Texas Conference has an excellent chapter on church order. In the course of this chapter, he examines the notion of ‘biblical obedience’ from Bishop Talbert and his supporters, which is little more than a baptized version of civil disobedience. Of course civil disobedience has a long and valuable history in our country and around the world; its ‘biblical’ variant, though, leaves something to be desired. Lowry reflects,
“…it should be carefully noted that when civil disobedience is invoked, Christians have been willing to bear the penalty for such disobedience. This has long been a principle of civil disobedience. The need for order is not ignored but rather embraced on a higher level through the witness of being willing to face the penalty incurred. Presently, the position of biblical obedience, which evokes by some of civil disobedience against church law, is corrupted by the lack of meaningful penalties applied to those engaging in disobeying church law. it is now acceptable for some advocates, some church juries, and some bishops to settle for a twenty-four-hour suspension of the guilty clergyperson. Such a meaningless level of accountability has the effect of giving a person an extra day off for violating church law established by General Conference. Such actions offend the very integrity of the advocated biblical obedience.” (pp.75-76)
In other words, if one wants to invoke the honored history of civil disobedience within the church, part of that legacy is accepting the penalties that come. At present, ‘biblical obedience’ advocates are doing everything they can to avoid consequences. This, as Bishop Lowry points out, effectively neuters the power of strategic disobedience – because instead of forcing onlookers to see unjust penalties carried out, what we have is a de facto change in church law underwritten by certain places in our Connection.
Progressives can’t have it both ways. I can respect the desire to call upon the powerful witness from decades past of civil disobedience, for it is a valuable tool for social change. Much of the force is taken away, however, from biblical dis/obedience when its advocates refuse to face the consequences of their actions. The result from continuous disobedience devoid of consequences has not been and will not be a change in church law, but a continued strain on our covenant life together that could well bend our connection beyond what it can bear.
Let those with ears, hear.
P.S. For more on Finding Our Way, and reactions from other UM leaders, check out the helpful page dedicated to this discussion over at Ministry Matters.
“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)
I had a feeling this might be coming. Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted. When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause. Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.
But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome. The court did not say the church was wrong to punish Frank. It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate. The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?). So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.
The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable. I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however? It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial. Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.” As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!” Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.
It could also be a pyrrhic victory. A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted. Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements. The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt. And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano. Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.
So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn. Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach. As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.
And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart. God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle. There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion. The tail need not always wag the dog. God may yet surprise us. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold. Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last. May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:
Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up: “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment. Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.
I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.* The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it. The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising. I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents. Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:
“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”
In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation – is theodicy.
Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism. We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will. One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil. That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.
That leaves us in a difficult spot, though. Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent. God can do anything. That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain. Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church. Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship. But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them? Yes. And we will, and should, wrestle with that.
But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important. In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices. In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion. Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No. It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.
I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast. But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential. It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.
At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together. Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults. We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.
And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!
*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal. His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement. One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement. Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial. Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.
I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work In the Ruins of the Church. Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read. It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century. Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience. Thus,
“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”
To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence. I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.” In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project. We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:
“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”
We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance. Any claim to moral authority or truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum. The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities. For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.
The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns. “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.” In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times). While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,
“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”
Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community. We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.
In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural. Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones. Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in. But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle. In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.
Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master. An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)
We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them. We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it. After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom. And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.
As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will. In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.
[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]
I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C. I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college. While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned much during my all-too-brief time with the community. Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself. I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.
1) Community is a blessing
Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience. As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died. Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways. They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same. After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.
2) Community is difficult
The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together. This, of course, would not be without its own problems. But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift. After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times. This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)
Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a rather petty creature. I suspect I am not alone. That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places. Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.
3) Reverence is a rare treasure
Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery, was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence. Awe. Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp. I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship. God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness. But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost. We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort. In his instructions to his Order, known as the Rule, Benedict says,
“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!”
4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift
UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.” The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way. The Rule of Benedict, again, says:
“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region wants to live as a guest of the monastery, let her be received for as long a time as she desires, provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”
I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel. They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome. As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me. He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.” He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.” What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.
5) Obedience and freedom are connected
Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them. I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way. The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop. Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”
The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,
“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”
Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together. Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries. Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true. Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.
6) Silence is holy
Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence. The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence. They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect. This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast). The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.
In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,
“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times, but especially during the hours of the night.”
I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction. My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is. After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk. I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again. They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.
Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:
“Whoever you are, therefore, who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, fulfill with the help of Christ this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; and then at length under God’s protection you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue which we have mentioned above.”
One of my favorite films of all time is actually a spoof of one of my other favorites. As you may have guessed from the title, it is Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, a classic slapstick comedy that pokes fun at the Star Wars saga (later George Lucas would release three “Prequels” that were even more hysterical parodies of his original work). At one point in the film, the villain Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), sets out to pursue the hero Lone Star (Bill Pullman). His second-in-command orders light speed, but Dark Helmet informs him that “light speed is too slow” and orders him to take it to the next level: ludicrous speed. (Watch the scene here if you wish – minor language warning, though.)
Today a self-appointed College of Cardinals mysterious cabal of conservative pastors and theologians announced in a press release through Good News that schism is already a reality, and we should be Christian enough to go our separate ways in charity. In other words, they have just gone from light speed to ludicrous speed.
I was particularly disappointed in their dismissal of a “middle way,” for which my colleagues and others have been advocating. I cannot resist the temptation to use their own wording against them and suggest:
Talk of an “amicable” separation is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality that we need to admit. Neither extreme represents either the main thrust or the majority view of the UMC, most of whose members and clergy live somewhere in between.
But today, mostly I am just sad that it has come to this. The will of God is not divorce, however polite and “win-win,” but reconciliation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reflects,
“It grieves the heart of God that the children are estranged from God and from one another. God wills an utterly reconciled community and is at work toward that reality…the task of reconciliation includes the ordering of the family of faith itself. It is ludicrous for the beloved sons and daughters of God to be alienated in their own life. Surely at the center of God’s vision of reconciliation is an image of a united church. That will not come by trade-offs or power plays but by a new radical obedience in which our hoped-for unity calls us to abandon much of our divisive history, even that part of it that we treasure.” (104)
I am on retreat this week at a Benedictine monastery, planning sermons for the upcoming year. Part of my time has involved worshiping with the community throughout the day. A couple of nights ago at vespers, we sang Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!”
It was deeply moving, not only to sing that as a United Methodist in a time of chaos, but to do so among a group of brethren who have taken the Bible seriously enough to pursue the hard work of what Brueggemann calls “radical obedience” towards that vision. God’s ultimate will for his church is not brokenness, however harmless and cordial, but unity. The extremes – both left and right, mind you – seem intent on running in the opposite direction. But we will not accomplish God’s will through “trade-offs or power plays.” You can end a hostage standoff by shooting the hostage, but that defeats the purpose. Likewise, two (or more?) churches that would result from the desired schism may purchase a measure of relief, but it will come at great cost.
Ludicrous speed it is. If the extremists in both camps – and yes, I think both are equally responsible – don’t take their hands off the accelerator soon, there is only one place left to go: to plaid.
And while I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to find out.
My recent post questioning the conservative UMC schismatics garnered a wide range of responses, including many who called on me, in the name of fairness, to ask similar questions of those progressives in the UMC breaching covenant in various ways. Though I had at least hinted at the end that I saw their actions as equally schismatic, I did not have time and space to then go into my questions for the left in a similar fashion. So, in this follow-up, I offer some questions to my liberal UMC neighbors:
1. What ever happened to doctrine? Progressive Methodists excel at talking about and advocating for social justice, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. These are wonderful things, of course. But often these terms are simply lifted from secular culture and deployed in progressive Christian circles with little to no theological content. There are strong theological voices for progressive Christians to draw on, in the sexuality debate and beyond. However, the seeming lack of interest that many progressives have in basic Christian orthodoxy gives moderates and conservatives concerns about the presence of foundational Christological and Trinitarian affirmations among our more left-leaning neighbors. A little doctrine and theology would go a long way, not just in building trust in the church but in making your own arguments more plausible. If you talk like a Unitarian Universalist, you can’t expect to be taken seriously in any discussion about church beliefs and structure.
2. When did celibacy become oppression? I believe that there are valid concerns that the sexuality clauses of the Book of Discipline (BOD) are unevenly and unfairly enforced against our LGBT members and clergy candidates (outside of answering one written question that was not discussed, sex was not brought up at all throughout my ordination process). It is fundamentally unjust to hold LGBT persons to the “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage” clause (as marriage in the church is not, at present, an option) if we also do not take celibacy equally seriously among unmarried heterosexual Methodists. By so doing the church is, quite literally, placing “burdens too heavy to bear” upon our LGBT members and clergy candidates to which we are not willing or able to hold heterosexuals accountable (Acts 15:10).
That said, Christians have always – since Jesus and Paul – held that celibacy was a valid Christian vocation. No doubt, in a world that idolizes sex, we need to be much more proactive in providing resources and showing grace to persons called to a single life, but this should be viewed as a positive vocation with a long history among our monastics, clergy, martyrs, and saints. By itself, the Church’s call to celibacy in singleness is not oppression; our highest calling as a people dedicated to sanctification is not expression or intimacy but holiness. In that regard, the Church of the 21st century would do well to recover the witness of celibate persons and lift up singleness in all the possibilities that it offers. The debate over who should be celibate will and should go on, but celibacy as a valid calling for Christians should be unquestionable. We worship Jesus, after all, not Freud or Kinsey.
3. Have you counted the cost? Some folks did not like when I brought this up at the New York Annual Conference forum on Clergy Covenant and Human Sexuality, but it needs to be considered. The regions where progressives dominate the church are not the healthiest parts of our communion. There are more United Methodists in North Georgia than the whole of the Pacific Northwest. A member of the Connectional Table informed me that many Annual Conferences have pension funds that are unsustainable. Many others Annual Conferences can’t even pay the full bill for their episcopal leaders. Meanwhile, the churches that are leading the charge for a formal schism in reaction to breaches of covenant by progressive UMs are mostly within (and would likely draw many supporters from) the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions. These two jurisdictions alone “pay in” through apportionments a much larger percentage than their numbers represent – a rough estimate I’ve heard was that these regions represent 40% of the church numerically, but pay 70% of the apportionments. How much will your ministries of justice, peace, and mercy – not to mention all those boards and agencies that we fought so hard to keep intact in 2012 – suffer if some of our largest churches pull out? This is not to defend the tactic – even though it seems to be getting popular with progressives now, also – but simply to say: you may get what you want, but at what cost?
4. Can people of good will disagree with you? Part of the trouble with binaries like liberation/oppression and justice/injustice is that they create a very simple narrative world in which those on one side are righteous and those on the other side are evil, if not sub-human. I have seen traditionalists, the Book of Discipline, and even the UMC as a whole labelled “homophobic,” “ignorant,” “oppressive,” “hateful,” and the like by those on the left. At the Connectional Table dialogue last month, someone stated that “violence” had been done, presumably because one (fairly tepid) panelist kinda sorta defended the BOD. Violence? Hatred? Oppression? Those are a very broad brushes with which to paint.
I have many conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve sat down with some of the leading evangelical pastors in our denomination. These are not people who fear or loathe LGBT persons. You certainly won’t win them to your side by declaring that they do. But this rhetoric persists.
Now, of course, homophobia, discrimination, and hate speech should have no place at all among God’s people. Even Christians who do not see lesbian and gay relationships as valid expressions of God’s will should, in the name of Christian love, defend the persons in them from abuse. Likewise, I believe (and think it should be a no-brainer) that the church should support efforts to make sure that gay and lesbian partners be given civil and legal recognition in matters of inheritance, visitation, etc. on par with heterosexual couples. But on the matters of church discipline vis-a-vis marriage and ordination, I ask: is it possible to disagree with you about sexuality and still recognize each other as sisters and brothers in Christ?
5. What else is up for grabs? I sense a concern from moderates and traditionalists about deeper divisions among us than just matters of church discipline and sexual ethics (see #1). If whole conferences and jurisdictions feel justified, on principle, to ignore or disobey certain clearly defined parts of the BOD, what else can be ignored? Progressives will sometimes argue that their current breaches of covenant “do no harm” to the rest of the UMC, and so should be allowed to follow their own path. But if this persists – absent an agreement similar to Bishop Coyner’s recommendations – what else can be ignored, and how is the rest of the church to trust that this is the only area of the BOD that progressives will seek to pressure until it breaks? When even left-leaning bishops do not seem particularly interested in listening their peers, there seems to be a legitimate concern that progressive United Methodists have no concept of authority outside of personal conscience. A church full of self-appointed Luthers (of whatever ideological stripe) is going to find it difficult to live together and serve God’s redemptive and healing mission.
6. What is your end game? I believe the vast majority of UM progressives, like their conservative neighbors, sincerely love Jesus and feel caught between their personal convictions and their love for and commitment to the UMC. Those of us who disagree with their beliefs and/or actions should still be in prayer for them, as they are our beloved in Christ. So I ask you, my progressive friends, the same question I asked the conservatives: what is your end game? It seems pretty clear to most observers that, given the demographics, General Conference 2016 has little chance of removing the language related to marriage and ordination. So, barring that, what can you live with? Is an “agree to disagree” statement worth pursuing? Could you live with a United States Central Conference, that could have more flexibility (as all the other Central Conferences have presently) with what language to adopt around sexuality? I hope, for the sake of a church that I truly love and that still has much to offer the world, that there is something short of full victory (represented by a full excision of the LGBT clauses in the BOD) you are willing to accept – because continued “biblical obedience” may tear the church apart to such an extent that, like Humpty-Dumpty, it could not be put back together.
Ultimately, I don’t want to be in a church of only personal holiness or or only social justice. As Methodists in the lineage of John and Charles Wesley, I think we really are at our best when we strive to have our cake and eat it. And so in asking tough questions of the schismatics on both ends of the spectrum in the UMC, it is in the service of this goal: that we might be one.
The old song was wrong: breaking up is not hard, it’s easy. It’s what the rest of the Mainline has done.