Tag Archives: UMC

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.

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

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).

The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord ActonPewForum

 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” -James 4:10 (NRSV)

If you’ve ever been to a Hospice House, you know that there is such a thing as holy dying.  Even in a film absurd enough to suggest that Tom Cruise could be a samurai, the viewer encountered the idea of a “good death.”  As Christians, death and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith.  Thus it is surprising to see the defensiveness, anger, fear, and finger-pointing among Christians that have accompanied the release of the recent Pew Forum obituary report sounding the death knell for most forms of Christianity in the US.  Evangelicals point to the attitudes and theologies of liberal Christians. Liberal/Progressive Christians point to the intolerance and judgmentalism of conservatives.  Decline is everyone else’s fault. And we’re pissed.

The Pew results are neither surprising nor encouraging, but I want to suggest they need not cause us to despair, either.  Most forms of Christianity are suffering because we have so accommodated to American culture (regardless of which side of the culture war battle lines one prefers) that we no longer offer a compelling alternative that is more interesting than a football game, yard sale, or an extra hour of sleep.  To make matters worse, many of the most ‘successful’ churches have bucked this trend not by offering a faithful alternative, but by doubling down and out-MTVing MTV.  Their end is destruction.

Instead, perhaps what we are experiencing is a necessary winnowing.  Elaine Heath has suggested the church is going through a “dark night of the soul,” a period of spiritual struggle from which we will emerge more vital and faithful.  I can’t help but think that the decline of Mainline Protestantism is overall a good thing.  The “Christian Century” was marked by the worst atrocities and wars humanity has ever concocted. We deserve to lose our prominence.  Maybe if we can embrace our newfound irrelevance, as my friend Evan suggests, we might find the only renewal worth having.

My own United Methodist tribe is marked by a sad compromise with the world that defines our history even today.  Scott Kisker reflects on the compromise that led early Methodists to abandon their anti-slavery stance in a devil’s bargain to win the frontier (and eventually become the “most successful” church in the newly united US):

“When Euro-Methodists abandoned some of our brothers and sisters to accept a place at America’s table, we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power that went with the position to do good. We didn’t notice we were being changed by the power. We became worldly, not holy.” (1)

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The story of American Methodism is mimicked heavily in US Protestantism more broadly; this is so whether we consider the Moral Majority, “Cross & Flag” triumphalism of the 1980’s or the gradual succumbing of denominations like the UCC to forms of liberal Religious Leftism that mirrored and thus could not critique politically compromised evangelicalism.  They were both Constantinian in approach: seeking power and influence on the world’s terms in the guise of the gospel.  Like Kisker notes in reference to Methodism, “we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power” without being co-opted by it.  Lord Acton’s dictum remains true for all who are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That’s why the Pew Forum report gives me hope.  In our newfound (and uncomfortable) powerlessness, we just might recover the church of the apostles.  Our failure on the world’s terms just might lead to success on God’s terms.  Isn’t the direction of the gospel the story of downward mobility? Henri Nouwen thus reflects:

“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different.  It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.  It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place!  Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?  Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” (2)

Jesus once told Peter (John 21:18) that when he was older, he would be taken where he did not want to go (this indicated Peter’s death by crucifixion, in imitation of Jesus).

Likewise, the church in North America is being led where it does not wish to go.

Jesus, though, has walked this lonesome valley before us. We journey towards a cross.

But after the cross…

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250.  Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.
Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

Why Yes, We Should Defrock Schismatics Just Like the #PCUSA

covenant meme

Grace Presbytery in Texas has officially defrocked a former renewal leader who led the charge to remove Highland Park Presbyterian (one of the larger churches in the Presbytery) from the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to the report, Joseph Rightmyer lost all credentials with the church of his ordination:

“The censure imposed…was removal from the ordered ministry of teaching elder. This means that he is no longer a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is no longer a teaching elder member of Grace Presbytery. This is the highest level of censure permitted by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The charges all stem from Rightmyer’s leadership of and participation in the process that removed Highland Park Presbyterian from the PCUSA and brought them into the ECO fold, including the charge of: “advocating and facilitating a process for Highland Park Presbyterian Church to determine whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

My guess is that this won’t actually bother Rightmyer all that much, since he will likely be enjoying the friendly embrace of ECO’s schismatic arms soon.  If it does, so much the better: there should be consequences for violating one’s covenant.  It’s even more troubling to me that Rightmyer led this effort in his capacity as an interim.  Funny enough, when you look on Highland Park’s website under “Our Denomination,” one of the things for which they praise ECO is a commitment to covenant: “To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.”  I don’t they know what that word “covenant” means.  This is, after all, a new denomination built on stealing congregations from the PCUSA.

This story caused a bit of a stir among some United Methodists.  I find it encouraging, actually.  Yes, schismatics – people who tear the fabric of our fellowship – should be defrocked.  This is as much a no-brainer as there can exist in the church.  Many UMs seem to have little stomach for something that is rather common in other professions (and yes, I know that clergy represent neither a business nor a “regular” profession).  One regularly hears of lawyers being disbarred or doctors losing their license for malpractice of some sort or another.  Some state medical boards even publicly list those whose licenses have been revoked or are facing disciplinary action.  When one’s vocation can seriously impact the lives of others for good or for ill, a lack of faithfulness to that vocation should lead to consequences.  We either care about the church or we don’t; refusing to hold schismatics, abusers, and incompetents accountable is not grace, it is spiritually sanctioned indifference.

It’s one thing for a pastor to find themselves at odds with the denomination that ordained them; it’s quite another to lead an exodus of clergy and/or churches from that denomination.  The former is unfortunate, the latter is unconscionable.

Every healthy organism has boundaries; like a cell, a healthy boundary is permeable – it’s not a wall, but it does have substance.  The UMC needs some of the intestinal fortitude shown by the PCUSA to maintain some semblance of boundaries, otherwise the organism can only grow more sick.

And remember, friends, there are schismatics on the left and the right.

boundaries

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?

Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.
Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

The Walk Out

In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.”  This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:

Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory.  The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man.  When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory.  But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”

The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.

Round 1

In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016.  There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative.  But not all of them have been so thoughtful.

Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):

There was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!

The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored.  Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men.  This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:

All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.

While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.

Round 2:

Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:

Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.

On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu.  Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote.   Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left.  Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”

This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?

Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives.  Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.

The Judges’ Decision

The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church.  I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback.  I have thick skin.  I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)

I love a good argument.  But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm.  I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.

As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.

A good argument can accomplish much.  But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.

The choice is ours, church.

 

P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.

Temper-Tantrums or Conversation? #UMC

quarrel

Healthy discourse is hard to come by, especially in contemporary forms of media in which the best way to get attention is through insult, rant, and hyperbole.  We all say we hate sensationalism, but the ugly truth is we are far less likely to read something that doesn’t make a shocking or outrageous claim.  Much of the Christian blogosphere, as reliant as it is on idol-worship and idol-busting, is rife with this sort of madness.

After all, it is much easier to dismiss an interlocutor with insinuation, ad-hominem, or labeling than to actually engage ideas with which we disagree.  That is because, in our infinite capacity for self-deception, we easily keep exclusively to the self-licking ice cream cone of our own ideological outhouses.   We  too often succumb to the temptation of intellectual comfort by surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us, who confirm all our biases, and then proceed to shout down in the most dishonest and uncharitable fashion possible any criticism we receive.

Welcome to the internet.  Welcome to our polarized society and church.

But there are some different voices, and they are worth highlighting because change will only occur if we reward people for writing with sense and sensitivity, with passion and restraint.  Here are three examples, all with similar stories to tell, and all people of intellectual rigor and genuine caritas.

  • David Watson from United Theological Seminary reminds us that how we argue is as important, if not more so, than the truth for which we argue.  Ends and means both matter.
  • Stephen Rankin from Southern Methodist University tells a personal story about how his own sincere, bridge-building effort to move a difficult conversation forward was dismissed out of hand with a simple label.  A sad, all too common story.
  • Evan Rohrs-Dodge, a UM pastor and fellow curator over at Via Media Methodists, uses Aragorn to remind us how important it is to actually listen to one another.  Listening is harder, but the only way to actually get anywhere.

As Chesterton asserted, it is easier to quarrel than to argue.  A quality argument can do much to bring needed change to couples, families, churches, and whole societies.  But petty tempter-tantrums and name-calling will only dissolve our bonds and harm whatever efforts there are to produce genuine conversation.

USA and #UMC, take heed.

How not to move the conversation forward.  Courtesy freeimages.com.
How not to move the conversation forward. Courtesy freeimages.com.