Category Archives: Methodists

Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.
Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

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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).

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).

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.]

Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.
His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, our out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

10 Advent Outreach Ideas Better Than Train Communion (@GNJUMC)

train communionDesperate times call for heretical measures.  The Greater New Jersey Conference has announced an Advent outreach event designed to share the love of Christ with commuters at busy train stations throughout the Garden State: give the bread and cup to passers-by.  Building on a a similar practice increasingly embraced on Ash Wednesday – taking liturgical rites to public places – the Greater NJ Conference hopes to meet people where they are:

As a part of the All Aboard for Advent Campaign, pastors and lay leaders who live near train stations throughout the Greater New Jersey area are being called to bring communion to daily commuters at train station platforms.

“I think it ties in with our belief of having a ministry without doors,” said Rev. Frederick Boyle, the senior pastor at Old First UMC in West Long Branch. “To give communion to commuters will come as quite a surprise to them for sure. But I think spreading God’s blessing is important and we need to do that whenever and wherever we can.”

I hate to rain on the Christmas parade, but this kind of practice is implicitly forbidden by the official (General Conference-certified) document expounding the UM theology and practice of Communion, This Holy Mystery.  All throughout, THM presupposes a gathered community for the celebration of the Eucharist.  For reasons I explained at length here during the debate over “online communion,” the gathering of a community is essential to the nature of the act (and visiting the sick and homebound is not so much an exception to this rule as it is an extension of the table in proper pastoral circumstances).  As THM makes clear throughout, Holy Communion is indeed a communion:

Holy Communion is the communion of the church-the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural-we, us, our.

Since train communion (unless done as a full, public worship service, which doesn’t seem to be what is proposed) is a bad idea, I don’t want to leave my NJ colleagues hanging.  Here are ten ideas (in no particular order) for Advent outreach that are better, and far less offensive to UM theology and practice, than train communion.  I owe this idea, in part, to Carol Bloom who proposed several of these alternatives during a recent discussion in the UMC Worship Facebook group – so thanks, Carol!

  1. Prayer Stations: Pray with and for people.  Very few people – even the nonreligious and nominally religious – will punch you in the face if you ask to pray for them.
  2. Blue Christmas: Sometimes called a Longest Night service, these worship services are a great way to offer hope to the many in our communities who are hurting during the holidays.
  3. Free Hot Cocoa/Coffee:  Who doesn’t love a hot beverage in the dead of winter?  Also pairs well with #1.
  4. Gift Wrapping: Many of us (your humble author included) are terrible at wrapping gifts.  Offer a free gift wrapping station at a local shopping center.
  5. Advent Calendars/Devotionals: Advent gets too easily run over by the commercialism of the holiday season.  Hand out Advent calendars or devotionals to help people remember Jesus in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
  6. Parents’ Night Out:  Sponsor a parents’ night out for the community; get some Doritos and board games, throw on Elf, and let the parents drop off their kids so they can have a date night and do their shopping.
  7. Free Bibles:  If you give out whole Bibles you’ll already be doubling the effort of the Gideons.
  8. Christmas Meal: Odds are there are people in your community who either can’t afford a Christmas meal or don’t have family to celebrate it with, or both.  Reach out to them in with Christian love…and mashed potatoes.
  9. Go Caroling: Pick a neighborhood, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter and spread some Christmas cheer.  Against such things there is no law.
  10. Thank the Train Employees: Okay, this one is specific to Jersey, and other places with lots of public transportation.  The idea is very transferable, though. Pick some public servants in thankless jobs and show them some appreciation and holiday cheer.  Take care packages to the local police station.  Send cards to the neighborhood fire house.  Do something for the nurses that will be working while the rest of us celebrate.  You get the idea.

There. Ten ideas for Advent outreach that do not run afoul of This Holy Mystery, many of which could even be done in and around train stations.  How about it, GNJUMC?  Are you #allaboardumc with a slight change in plans?

I close with the words of Brian Wren from one of my favorite Communion hymns, I Come With Joy.  He reminds us that the sacrament, for which we gather and by which we are united, sends us out to fulfill the Missio Dei in a variety of ways – but hopefully none which deny the nature and dignity of the Eucharist itself.

Together met, together bound,
by all that God has done,
we’ll go with joy, to give the world,
the love that makes us one.

When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.
An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

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

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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.