Tag Archives: Council of Bishops

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.]

Idolatry is Bad Ecclesiology

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“God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”

-Acts 15:8-10

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the UMC, at least if you believe social media (which, as is rarely admitted, is a highly privileged, Western-centered conversation). The Council of Bishops met at Lake Junaluska, and much speculation was rampant about how they would respond to Bishop Talbert’s open violation of both the clergy covenant and the official requests of his colleagues. This week, the church trial of a pastor who performed a wedding for gay son has continued that heightened anxiety. Even an event designed to help young adults hear the call to ministry became a battleground of the culture war that has infected our denomination and many others. Everyone seems to be convinced of their faction’s absolute moral authority, whether it is thinly veiled Tea Party theology of the IRD, or the tolerance as the sum-total of the gospel that one finds in the Reconciling camp. Many of us are stuck in the middle, disliking both options for a myriad of reasons. Everyone seems to be weighing in with thunderous words from Olympus, either celebrating or lamenting. To me, it all just feels wrong: the trials, the need for them, the reaction to them, and the lack of attention given to things we could actually move the needle on if we focused our attention and resources (like the Philippines). I don’t know what the alternative is, but I did find a good description for where I think we are in one of Reinhold Niebuhr’s short essays:

“Politics always aims at some kind of a harmony or balance of interest, and such a harmony cannot be regarded as directly related to the final harmony of love of the Kingdom of God. All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, from “Christian Faith and Political Controversy,” in Love and Justice, (Louisville: WJK 1992), 59.

We need a better way, a third way, a truly Christian way. We need to stop relying on the way the world gets things done – bomb-throwing, trials, activism, platitudes as a replacement for genuine argument, and media stunts – and try something truly Christian: holy conferencing (which, by this author’s assessment, can’t happen in the social media space), sincere prayer, and a hermeneutics of charity. We need to at least attempt to get inside our opponents’ heads and hearts, stop presuming the worst, and cross the picket lines. We idolize our own positions so much that even basic communication becomes impossible. This isn’t working.

We all need to lay our idols down, come out of our ideological fortresses, get with Jesus (who did not identify, no matter what Reza Aslan says, with any of the factions of his day), and start over.

Let us close with an honest and yet hopeful word, maybe even a prayer, from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from  “The Rock”:

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings…

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.