Tag Archives: covenant

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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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.]

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.

 

The Thin Line Between Marriage and Idolatry

ImageWeddings and Idols…closer than you might think.

One of my favorite nuggets from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s brilliant little book For the Life of the World is the following:

“The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’ It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God….the family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” (90)

Schmemann’s insight is stunning, and his accusation of idolatry is not too strong. The simple definition of idol is: anything that has more importance in our life than God. In that sense, based on an unduly childish notion of “love” (so-called) that is really more like an immature codependence, there are many married folk in our world who are attempting the impossible: building a lifelong relationship on the fleeting feelings that are no more eternal than a wedding cake. Real love is work, real love is a ministry, which is why marriage is not the final stage of “progression” in a relationship but a calling to be discerned and entered into (as the old liturgies go), “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.Ask any ordinand, or doctor, or plumber: following one’s calling is both a blessing and a curse, and all vocations (including marriage and singleness) are shot through with gifts as well as costs.

Marriage is about God. From a Christian perspective, the only good reason to be married is that you can follow God and mature more as a disciple by being united in a covenantal bond to this particular person than if you were not. Faithful marriage is a form of worship to God, but its inverse – marriage (or any relationship in which God is not central) as the summum bonum (“highest good”) imaginable in life – is a hideous idol.

There is a cross in marriage, because marriage is a gift from God and God’s gifts (as opposed to Hollywood mythology or sentimental fantasy) always call us away from our natural inclinations that we might be transformed into a nearer likeness of the Image of God. The good news is always cruciform, including the good news that God has called some to embody covenant fidelity with another human being. Ordered toward God, marriage is a beautiful, wondrous mystery. Oriented towards some smaller god good – making babies, or my own happiness, or a cure for mutual boredom and loneliness – marriage cannot be the gift it is intended to be.