Centrifugal Forces in the Church

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.
A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”

-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The church is about Jesus.  That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course.  Yes, it  seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ.  But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real.  As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here).  Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center.  Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.

Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:

Centrifugal force (from Latin centrum, meaning “center“, and fugere, meaning “to flee”) is the apparent force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation.

A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those.  All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources.  One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:

“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”

In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.

We all know the swing is fun.   The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around.  But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like.  As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.

After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation.  Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot.  What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?

Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.
From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

Get Your Ash in Church: One Blizzard Does Not A Diaspora Make (#AshesAtHome)

A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of heaven.  Why settle for less than the real thing?
A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of Heaven. Why settle for less than the real thing?

A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me.  Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion.  A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread.  No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room.  Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food.  Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle.  Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox.  Horrifying.

But wait! some will object.  If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of  King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?

We’ve all had that argument at some point.  Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point.  The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures.  And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?

This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.”  The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family.  After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:

“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.  

Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”

Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.”  I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church.  But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:

12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone.  The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:

“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”

ASH WEDNESDAYAs any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute.  Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?).  And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.

The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp.  Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time.  A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room.  The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent.  That’s what I will be doing.  Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible.  One blizzard does not a Diaspora make.  Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.

So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room.  Get your ash in church.  I’ll see you there Sunday.  And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion.  Discipleship is difficult work.  God, in His grace,  doesn’t intend us to do it alone.  It takes a church.  Thanks be to God.

Remembering How to Read the Bible

15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.
15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

An isolated reader of Scripture is as dangerous as a self-taught surgeon.  One of the presenting conceits of contemporary Christianity is that the isolated interpreter has become normative.  Few things are deadlier to Christian truth than exegesis stifled by personal idolatries and hidden prejudices. Princeton Seminary’s C. Clifton Black suggests, as a cure to such (mis)reading, bringing the saints alongside us as we explore “the strange new world” we call Scripture.  He takes a cue from Benedictine spirituality and encourages reading the Bible with both hospitality (welcoming strangers) and humility.

If you’ve never experienced Benedictine hospitality, you’re missing out.  Following the lead of both the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict, this vision of hospitality recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.  This delightfully informs our reading of Scripture, for if we meet angels unawares when welcoming guests, might the Spirit also speak to us about the truth of Scripture from voices we would otherwise ignore or neglect?  Thus, Black concludes:

“If like-mindedness is our overt or tacit criterion for interpreting Scripture in community, then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear only echoes of our own biases while learning little. Does the theologically liberal reader shield herself from scholarship more conservative? Does the neo-orthodox read nothing of the liberationist? For as long as members of the three Abrahamic faiths read their Scriptures only within conventicles, ignorance and mistrust are bound to proliferate. None of us holds  the truth in Scripture by the ears, and none of us ever shall. Hospitable interpreters seek help in understanding Scripture wherever they can find it. ” (58)

An openness to others’ thoughts naturally tends toward taking our own ideas less seriously.  The resulting – or at least correlative – humility is also a great aid to the exegete who desires her reading to be not only accurate or insightful but also an act of worship.  Humility is a monastic virtue that is foreign even to many Christian ears today.  Readers of Scripture, lay or clergy, novice or doctorate-wielding, would do well to remember the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts – and treat our interpretation of the text accordingly.  Again, Black is insightful:

“Because we are frail creatures and not our own Creator, we beware of mistaking our own voice for God’s alien word.  We discipline ourselves to listen more keenly, assuming our ignorance and not our knowledge. We resist a constant temptation to control other interpreters and to manipulate other voices – including those within Scripture itself. When the Lord sounds just like us – when Scripture can no longer surprise or disturb or offend us – we should be very, very afraid: it’s likely we’ve locked ourselves in an echo chamber. And if, God help us, we are entrusted with teaching others about Scripture, we should remember that we too much someday give an account of what we have said and done (Jas 3:1).”

The world has seen enough of proud,  isolated, and eccentric readings of the Bible.  What is needed today, for the renewal of the Church and her witness, is followers of Jesus who are able to read the holy writ well.  A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.  After all, the Bible is the book of the church, and reading it wisely means reading in a way that does not create a scandal  or shipwreck with our neighbors in the Body of Christ.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.
Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Humility and hospitality don’t cover everything, but I believe they would certainly go a long way towards renewing our encounter with the God’s word, which is, “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12, CEB)  Such a gift from the Triune God’s treasury will not be opened to hearts ill-disposed to the humility and hospitality which mark a disciple of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word from all virtue and wisdom flows.

What do you think? What other virtues are needed to read the Bible well? Are there downsides to these?

 

Source: Black, C. Clifton, Reading Scripture With the Saints (Eugene: Cascade Books 2014).

“Just Resolution,” Or Just Bullshit?

just resolution meme

In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem.  It’s been piling up of late.  Observe this trend:

  • In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree.  This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
  • In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding.  The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
  • A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages.  No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
  • In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops.  The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
  • Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner.  The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”

Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening.  (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)

To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout .  But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)

Someone has to say it:

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist.  At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.

Emperors-New-ClothesIn that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions.  They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials   (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.)  This may have been the intention at the beginning,  and it’s an understandable one.  At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense.  “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)

I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law.  What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy.  Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)

Bullshit vs. Lying

on bullshitTo be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots.  The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship.  The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it:  “The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)

Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.

Worse Than Lies

In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit.  Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences.  Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely.  Tell me it was lost in the mail.  All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter

“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)

Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?

The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit.  They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep.  This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.

“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.  His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.  He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)

Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.”  One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change.  Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”

A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table

If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that.  But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church.  In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable.  I believe this is about people of good will bullshit-meter1with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church.  Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better.  Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection.  (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)

I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure.  But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not.   In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.

And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.

no bs

Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.
Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.

Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.
Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

Why Yes, We Should Defrock Schismatics Just Like the #PCUSA

covenant meme

Grace Presbytery in Texas has officially defrocked a former renewal leader who led the charge to remove Highland Park Presbyterian (one of the larger churches in the Presbytery) from the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to the report, Joseph Rightmyer lost all credentials with the church of his ordination:

“The censure imposed…was removal from the ordered ministry of teaching elder. This means that he is no longer a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is no longer a teaching elder member of Grace Presbytery. This is the highest level of censure permitted by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The charges all stem from Rightmyer’s leadership of and participation in the process that removed Highland Park Presbyterian from the PCUSA and brought them into the ECO fold, including the charge of: “advocating and facilitating a process for Highland Park Presbyterian Church to determine whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

My guess is that this won’t actually bother Rightmyer all that much, since he will likely be enjoying the friendly embrace of ECO’s schismatic arms soon.  If it does, so much the better: there should be consequences for violating one’s covenant.  It’s even more troubling to me that Rightmyer led this effort in his capacity as an interim.  Funny enough, when you look on Highland Park’s website under “Our Denomination,” one of the things for which they praise ECO is a commitment to covenant: “To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.”  I don’t they know what that word “covenant” means.  This is, after all, a new denomination built on stealing congregations from the PCUSA.

This story caused a bit of a stir among some United Methodists.  I find it encouraging, actually.  Yes, schismatics – people who tear the fabric of our fellowship – should be defrocked.  This is as much a no-brainer as there can exist in the church.  Many UMs seem to have little stomach for something that is rather common in other professions (and yes, I know that clergy represent neither a business nor a “regular” profession).  One regularly hears of lawyers being disbarred or doctors losing their license for malpractice of some sort or another.  Some state medical boards even publicly list those whose licenses have been revoked or are facing disciplinary action.  When one’s vocation can seriously impact the lives of others for good or for ill, a lack of faithfulness to that vocation should lead to consequences.  We either care about the church or we don’t; refusing to hold schismatics, abusers, and incompetents accountable is not grace, it is spiritually sanctioned indifference.

It’s one thing for a pastor to find themselves at odds with the denomination that ordained them; it’s quite another to lead an exodus of clergy and/or churches from that denomination.  The former is unfortunate, the latter is unconscionable.

Every healthy organism has boundaries; like a cell, a healthy boundary is permeable – it’s not a wall, but it does have substance.  The UMC needs some of the intestinal fortitude shown by the PCUSA to maintain some semblance of boundaries, otherwise the organism can only grow more sick.

And remember, friends, there are schismatics on the left and the right.

boundaries

Thomas Ogletree on Covenant

ogletree book

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

-St. Augustine

With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community.  Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.

One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress.  In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about.  It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder.  Ogletree notes,

“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric  of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”

Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect.  This moral code, says Oglegtree,

“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”

Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion.  And yet, it is a part of our DNA.  Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:

Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.

As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything.  The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC.  Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:

“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)

 

[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]

Ordination as Temptation

A Lutheran (Missouri Synod) ordination, courtesy Wikipedia.
A Lutheran (Missouri Synod) ordination, courtesy Wikipedia.

Reflecting on a new genre of Christian literature that began to appear in the centuries after Nicaea, Robert L. Wilken notes that saints’ lives often featured a common temptation: ordination.  Strange as it sounds, one of the recurrent allurements that threatened to take the saint away from the sanctified path was the gift of holy orders.  As Wilken, a renowned professor of church history at UVA describes it,

“Neither are these tales of kings and generals, and seldom to they depict clergy. Most of the heroes are laymen and laywomen. Indeed one of the stock temptations is ordination, an enticement the best always resist. The lives are stories of simple and unassuming men and women who love God more ardently and serve God more zealously than their neighbors and friends, the kinds of person who are present in every Christian community, indeed in every religious community.”  (Remembering the Christian Past [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1995,] 132, emphasis added.)

Today, many are accustomed to talking of ordination as a kind of right, a religious license for which everyone should be able to apply based purely on personal inclination.  In my own United Methodist Church, much of the conversation about ordination sounds just like this: “I feel that God wants me to be ordained, and thus the church should affirm that.”

On Wilken’s description, the lives of the saints are a useful corrective.  As they reveal, the most saintly among us are usually not the ordained, and granting ordination injudiciously may be a great harm to the holiest women and men our churches have to offer.  Not only is ordination not for everyone, it may be that ordination is not for the best of us.  After all, the apostles, whom Jesus entrusted with his own teaching and mission after his resurrection and ascension, were drawn from common occupations, not the priestly caste.  The saints knew what we have forgotten: ordination may well get in the way of God drawing us to the fullest heights of sanctity.  That, to me, sounds more like a burden than a right, more a temptation to be avoided than a resume builder or professional hoop through which to jump.

This is just one more reason why ordination, like marriage in the older Anglican rite, is ” therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

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