Tag Archives: UMC

6 Questions for the #UMC Schismatics: Progressive Edition

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Humpty Dumpty, illustrated by Denslow, circa 1904. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

My recent post questioning the conservative UMC schismatics garnered a wide range of responses, including many who called on me, in the name of fairness, to ask similar questions of those progressives in the UMC breaching covenant in various ways.  Though I had at least hinted at the end that I saw their actions as equally schismatic, I did not have time and space to then go into my questions for the left in  a similar fashion.  So, in this follow-up, I offer some questions to my liberal UMC neighbors:

1. What ever happened to doctrine?  Progressive Methodists excel at talking about and advocating for social justice, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.  These are wonderful things, of course.  But often these terms are simply lifted from secular culture and deployed in progressive Christian circles with little to no theological content.  There are strong theological voices for progressive Christians to draw on, in the sexuality debate and beyond.  However, the seeming lack of interest that many progressives have in basic Christian orthodoxy gives moderates and conservatives concerns about the presence of foundational Christological and Trinitarian affirmations among our more left-leaning neighbors.  A little doctrine and theology would go a long way, not just in building trust in the church but in making your own arguments more plausible.  If you talk like a Unitarian Universalist, you can’t expect to be taken seriously in any discussion about church beliefs and structure.

2. When did celibacy become oppression?   I believe that there are valid concerns that the sexuality clauses of the Book of Discipline (BOD) are unevenly and unfairly enforced against our LGBT members and clergy candidates (outside of answering one written question that was not discussed, sex was not brought up at all throughout my ordination process). It is  fundamentally unjust to hold LGBT persons to the “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage” clause (as marriage in the church is not, at present, an option) if we also do not take celibacy equally seriously among unmarried heterosexual Methodists.   By so doing the church is, quite literally, placing  “burdens too heavy to bear” upon our LGBT members and clergy candidates to which we are not willing or able to hold heterosexuals accountable (Acts 15:10).

That said, Christians have always – since Jesus and Paul – held that celibacy was a valid Christian vocation.  No doubt, in a world that idolizes sex, we need to be much more proactive in providing resources and showing grace to persons called to a single life, but this should be viewed as a positive vocation with a long history among our monastics, clergy, martyrs, and saints.  By itself, the Church’s call to celibacy in singleness is not oppression; our highest calling as a people dedicated to sanctification is not expression or intimacy but holiness.  In that regard, the Church of the 21st century would do well to recover the witness of celibate persons and lift up singleness in all the possibilities that it offers.  The debate over who should be celibate will and should go on, but celibacy as a valid calling for Christians should be unquestionable.  We worship Jesus, after all, not Freud or Kinsey.

3. Have you counted the cost?  Some folks did not like when I brought this up at the New York Annual Conference forum on Clergy Covenant and Human Sexuality, but it needs to be considered.  The regions where progressives dominate the church are not the healthiest parts of our communion.  There are more United Methodists in North Georgia than the whole of the Pacific Northwest.  A member of the Connectional Table informed me that many Annual Conferences have pension funds that are unsustainable.   Many others Annual Conferences can’t even pay the full bill for their episcopal leaders.   Meanwhile, the churches that are leading the charge for a formal schism in reaction to breaches of covenant by progressive UMs are mostly within (and would likely draw many supporters from) the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions.  These two jurisdictions alone “pay in” through apportionments a much larger percentage than their numbers represent – a rough estimate I’ve heard was that these regions represent 40% of the church numerically, but pay 70% of the apportionments.  How much will your ministries of justice, peace, and mercy – not to mention all those boards and agencies that we fought so hard to keep intact in 2012 – suffer if some of our largest churches pull out?  This is not to defend the tactic  – even though it seems to be getting popular with progressives now, also – but simply to say: you may get what you want, but at what cost?

4.  Can people of good will disagree with you?  Part of the trouble with binaries like liberation/oppression and justice/injustice is that they create a very simple narrative world in which those on one side are righteous and those on the other side are evil, if not sub-human.   I have seen traditionalists, the Book of Discipline, and even the UMC as  a whole labelled “homophobic,” “ignorant,” “oppressive,” “hateful,” and the like by those on the left.  At the Connectional Table dialogue last month, someone stated that “violence” had been done, presumably because one (fairly tepid) panelist kinda sorta defended the BOD. Violence? Hatred? Oppression?  Those are a very broad brushes with which to paint.

I have many conservative friends and colleagues.  I’ve sat down with some of the leading evangelical pastors in our denomination.  These are not people who fear or loathe LGBT persons.  You certainly won’t win them to your side by declaring that they do.  But this rhetoric persists.

Now, of course, homophobia, discrimination, and hate speech should have no place at all among God’s people.  Even Christians who do not see lesbian and gay relationships as valid expressions of God’s will should, in the name of Christian love, defend the persons in them from abuse.  Likewise, I believe (and think it should be a no-brainer) that the church should support efforts to make sure that gay and lesbian partners be given civil and legal recognition in matters of inheritance, visitation, etc. on par with heterosexual couples.  But on the matters of church discipline vis-a-vis marriage and ordination, I ask: is it possible to disagree with you about sexuality and still recognize each other as sisters and brothers in Christ?

5. What else is up for grabs?  I sense a concern from moderates and traditionalists about deeper divisions among us than just matters of church discipline and sexual ethics (see #1).  If whole conferences and jurisdictions feel justified, on principle, to ignore or disobey certain clearly defined parts of the BOD, what else can be ignored?  Progressives will sometimes argue that their current breaches of covenant “do no harm” to the rest of the UMC, and so should be allowed to follow their own path.  But if this persists – absent an agreement similar to Bishop Coyner’s recommendations – what else can be ignored, and how is the rest of the church to trust that this is the only area of the BOD that progressives will seek to pressure until it breaks?   When even left-leaning bishops do not seem particularly interested in listening their peers, there seems to be a legitimate concern that progressive United Methodists have no concept of authority outside of personal conscience.  A church full of self-appointed Luthers (of whatever ideological stripe) is going to find it difficult to live together and serve God’s redemptive and healing mission.

6. What is your end game?  I believe the vast majority of UM progressives, like their conservative neighbors, sincerely love Jesus and feel caught between their personal convictions and their love for and commitment to the UMC.  Those of us who disagree with their beliefs and/or actions should still be in prayer for them, as they are our beloved in Christ.  So I ask you, my progressive friends, the same question I asked the conservatives: what is your end game?  It seems pretty clear to most observers that, given the demographics, General Conference 2016 has little chance of removing the language related to marriage and ordination.  So, barring that, what can you live with?  Is an “agree to disagree” statement worth pursuing? Could you live with a United States Central Conference, that could have more flexibility (as all the other Central Conferences have presently) with what language to adopt around sexuality?    I hope, for the sake of a church that I truly love  and that  still has much to offer the world,  that there is something short of full victory (represented by a full excision of the LGBT clauses in the BOD) you are willing to accept – because continued “biblical obedience” may tear the church apart to such an extent that, like Humpty-Dumpty, it could not be put back together.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I don’t want to be in a church of only personal holiness or or only social justice.  As Methodists in the lineage of John and Charles Wesley, I think we really are at our best when we  strive to have our cake and eat it.  And so in asking tough questions of the schismatics on both ends of the spectrum in the UMC, it is in the service of this goal: that we might be one.

The old song was wrong: breaking up is not hard, it’s easy.  It’s what the rest of the Mainline has done.

I believe we can and should strive to do better.

7 Questions for the Potential #UMC Schismatics

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Broken eggshell courtesy of dreamstime

 

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.

“To This Annoyance We Are Called”: Why Dialogue is Not Dead in the Church

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Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I am heading to New York to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Just Resolution in the Ogletree case.  I am grateful for the invitation and I’ve been doing my best to prepare.  When the panel was announced, many cried foul: “We’ve been talking for 40 years!” “Dialogue is dead!”

Both the left and the right are difficult to please with these conversations.  People associated with Love Prevails (for whom “love” apparently means crashing every gathering of 2 or more Methodists with placards and a video camera) declared that “violence” was done at the recent Connectional Table panel discussion, presumably because one person was bold enough to suggest the Book of Discipline might be correct.  Conservatives often feel set-up in these discussions, which, is claimed, often seem weighted against them – this was certainly true in the CT dialogue, which makes the resulting progressive outrage all the more confusing.  Conservative Methodists have also pre-determined that I am a progressive because I have been known to criticize the right (because, if you aren’t for us, you are against us), and thereby dismissing me before the conversation happens.  Thus, if you listen to those on the fringes, it is easy to believe that dialogue is fruitless.  But there are others who deserve a hearing.

In his dense but valuable little work Church in Crisis, Oliver O’Donovan examines the sexuality controversy in the Anglican Communion.  He notes that a major part of the crisis was a failure to do the hard work of communal discernment:

…the North American churches merely acted, in default of a thorough deliberative process of their own, under the force of strong cultural pressures, the reasons for which they never explained even to themselves, since an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)

Theology is not some academic pursuit that is or should be confined to cloistered students in seminary, but the name given to conversation with and through the Church.  While it is easy to lose patience with what O’Donovan called the  “discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together,” to shun this calling to cease being the Church.  That said,  we should also be honest enough to admit that it can also lead to much consternation, especially in a worldwide communion like Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or the United Methodism.  Differences in culture, language, theological emphases, political context, and other matters can lead to a great deal of friction in the work of Christian conversation.  But, O’Donovan notes,

“…to this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and so spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more.” (81)

Of course dialogue is uncomfortable. It’s always easier to live life surrounded by those who do not challenge us (studies suggest that those around us impact our ability to reason independently).  But God’s people are not called to comfort, we are called to the communion of love and truth that is the Body of Christ.  We are called to struggle with the Spirit, trusting that God will not leave us without His voice.  Afterall, it took us centuries to get to Nicea (pictured above), and thus to define some of our core doctrines; it never has been and never will be as simple as an appeal to Scripture and/or common sense.  We are called to wrestle, and, like Jacob wrestling until morning, we may walk away limping. But we might also discover we’ve received God’s blessing in the process.  O’Donovan concludes his book with an exhortation to keep striving:

“But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to disciplines of patient common inquiry…

There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.” (118-119)

Our calling as Christians is, in part, a calling to be in conversation with one another, in charity and humility.  As Paul said to the Ephesians,

“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ” (Ephesians 4:1b-3)

May God continue to give us patience to live out our calling as the Body of Christ – even when it is annoying –  and may we followers of the Crucified One lay down our arms so that we can endure each other.  And this, not out of some sentimental devotion to harmony, but out of devotion to the triune God, that the Church may be one and the world may believe.

You are Not an Independent Thinker

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Living in a bubble is safe, but it can also make us hostile to what is outside. Courtesy WikiSein, the Seinfeld Encyclopedia.

What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?

One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant.  Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns?  Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist?  Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?

Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments.  Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently.  The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer.  Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:

Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.

But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain,  Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)

Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems.  When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:

The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)

Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers.  Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group.  She concludes,

Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.  these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)

We are blind to the effects of peer influence.  In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim.  All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.

If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?

Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves.  This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong.  It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us.  Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable.  The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there.  And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.

What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?

At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed.  Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.

What do you think?

Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold

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I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

Idolatry is Bad Ecclesiology

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

-Acts 15:8-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.