Category Archives: Ecclesiology

Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“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.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

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

Advertisements

“Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils of Online Christian Community

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons.  This is how group-think afflicted Christian often act online.
A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons. This is how Christians, awash in group-think unawares, often act online.

“How can you handle all that arguing??”  Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like.  They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it.  I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not.  For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.

There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity.  Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things.  His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)

So much truth here.  If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.
The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?

Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.”  Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian.  All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ.  You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.

In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community.  Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse.  It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.

There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it.  Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.

In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison.  The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted.  If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.

Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free.  As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master.  Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things.  This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.

Thoughts?

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

Better Together: Why the UMC Should Also #VoteNo

“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:13, NRSV)

As I write this, the BBC and other outlets are projecting that Scotland will remain, as it has for three centuries, part of the United Kingdom.  The St. Andrew’s Cross will stay within the Union Jack.  Though long and sometimes bitter, the fight is over and the Scots chose union over division.  Can the UMC do the same?

There are parallels.  A union of different regions, dialects, and ideologies attempting to hold together despite serious differences; a disconnect between the resources provided by certain regions and their influence in the rest of the body politic;  a variety of promises made by those pushing for independence, the veracity of whose claims is spurious at best.  On the whole, the question is essentially the same: can a bunch of different kinds of people learn to live well together, or will they choose the easy option: autonomy?

Like the United Kingdom, the United Methodist Church is “better together.”  Yes, there are grave challenges that must be faced.  Much akin to the situation of the Scots, there exists a variety of groups within the big tent of the UMC whose particular values and languages make independence a tempting case.  But the easy thing and the right thing are rarely the same.

The Scots have voted to keep the ‘united’ in United Kingdom.  Hopefully the time and effort put in to pursuing independence will lead to conversation and reforms that will aid the Scottish residents in feeling more valued by their countrymen and more respected as a cultural and political body.  The hard choice may well pay off.

Back to the church: schism is not hard, it’s easy – whether it is of the “amicable” variety or not.  There is nothing particularly interesting or remarkable in entropy, destruction, and tearing down.  It’s as easy as gravity.

But unity, despite the odds and genuine differences, despite the barriers in language, history, culture?  That’s an adventure.  That’s “advanced citizenship,” as Michael Douglas’ President Shepherd once put it.  That’s unity-as-gift, gratefully received and hard fought to keep.  But the juice is worth the squeeze.

That’s the path the Scottish people have chosen.  Will we be so wise as 2016 approaches?

For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way

Print
If you care about the state of the Bride of Christ, the church. read this book. Soon.

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)

 

Who is at fault for #UMC trials?

highway patrol
NC Highway Patrol car, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ownership: A Personal Account

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

Poster encouraging support for the EPA 36. A thought: pitting "Biblical" vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.
Poster encouraging support for the Philadelphia 36. A thought: pitting “Biblical” vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.

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.

Biblical Disobedience and Consequences

findingourway

I just finished the excellent Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. This new publication is a collection of essays by Bishops from across the Connection with a variety of perspectives.  We will be reviewing the book as a whole in an upcoming WesleyCast, but I wanted to share a bit from one chapter in particular.

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.

Towards Schism at Ludicrous Speed

spaceballs meme

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 ludicrous speedcan 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.

 

6 Questions for the #UMC Schismatics: Progressive Edition

humptydumpty
Humpty Dumpty, illustrated by Denslow, circa 1904. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

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.

Conclusion

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.

I believe we can and should strive to do better.

7 Questions for the Potential #UMC Schismatics

eggshell
Broken eggshell courtesy of dreamstime

 

1.  Is it about holiness or power?  If it is about holiness, there are existing Wesleyan communities that will share your core theological convictions and perspectives about human sexuality.  If it is about power, you will elect to go your own way.  If it is about being true Wesleyans and holding unflinchingly to traditionalist views of marriage, the Church of the Nazarene, Wesleyan Church, or other bodies would be happy to have you.  Why not strengthen an existing communion instead of adding to the brokenness of the Body of Christ?

2.  Will you have bishops?  I would note that, even if you do not like the historic episcopal office, you have authoritative voices among you which function like the historic episcopos: voices that you rally around, that provide unity and vision for your movement.  Which is to say: you may not care for the current slate of UMC bishops, but it is difficult to escape to need for leadership by whatever name.

3.  When will you have your Jerry Maguire moment? (“Who’s going with me?“)  Will you be content to leave on your own, or will you attempt do divide the UMC from some of its overseas partners, as has happened frequently in the Anglican world?  To put it another way, how many eggs do you want to break to make your new omelet?

4.  Will you itinerate? Many of the 60+ threatening schism have practically existed outside of the itinerant system, which leaves me wondering if you will move from a connectional polity to a congregationalist polity.  Of course, even in our current system, large churches are often able to function like they are within a congregationalist/call system.

5.  What about female clergy? The strict biblicism embraced by many of you about human sexuality could easily lend itself to moving the clock back on women’s ordination and leadership (especially since so many, if not all, of the leaders of this movement are men).  Wesley and his ecclesial progeny were among the first to recognize the value of women in the pulpit, and it would be a shame to see this lost in a schism.

6.  Has it already started? The so-called Wesleyan Covenant Network sounds very much like the Fellowship of Presbyterians/ECO, which quickly moved from a group of like-minded Presbyterians to a new denomination stealing congregations and promising more autonomy (see #1 above).

7. What is your end game?  Unlike some, I don’t think calling your bluff is helpful.  I appreciate being part of a big tent denomination, large enough for you and the Pacific Northwest and everything in between.  But we need to find a way to live together.  So, what do you want?

P.S. I am under no illusions that those threatening to pull away or withhold funds are the only (possible) schismatics in the church.  It can be argued that those churches/conferences/bishops that are choosing to ignore the discipline are acting in a schismatic way as well, even if they don’t go so far as withdrawing in toto.