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 Some state medical boards even publicly list those whose licenses have been revoked or are facing disciplinary action.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.
“…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?
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)
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
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.
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.
“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)
I had a feeling this might be coming. Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted. When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause. Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.
But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome. The court did not say the church was wrong to punish Frank. It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate. The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?). So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.
The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable. I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however? It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial. Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.” As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!” Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.
It could also be a pyrrhic victory. A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted. Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements. The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt. And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano. Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.
So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn. Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach. As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.
And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart. God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle. There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion. The tail need not always wag the dog. God may yet surprise us. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold. Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last. May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:
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.
Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment. Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.
I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.* The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it. The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising. I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents. Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:
“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”
In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation – is theodicy.
Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism. We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will. One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil. That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.
That leaves us in a difficult spot, though. Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent. God can do anything. That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain. Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church. Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship. But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them? Yes. And we will, and should, wrestle with that.
But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important. In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices. In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion. Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No. It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.
I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast. But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential. It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.
At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together. Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults. We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.
And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!
*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal. His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement. One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement. Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial. Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.
I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work In the Ruins of the Church. Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read. It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century. Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience. Thus,
“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”
To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence. I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.” In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project. We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:
“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”
We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance. Any claim to moral authority or truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum. The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities. For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.
The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns. “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.” In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times). While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,
“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”
Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community. We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.
In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural. Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones. Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in. But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle. In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.
Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master. An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)
We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them. We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it. After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom. And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.
As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will. In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.
[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]
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 can 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.
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.