Tag Archives: United Methodist

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.

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).

“Just Resolution,” Or Just Bullshit?

just resolution meme

In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem.  It’s been piling up of late.  Observe this trend:

  • In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree.  This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
  • In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding.  The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
  • A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages.  No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
  • In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops.  The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
  • Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner.  The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”

Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening.  (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)

To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout .  But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)

Someone has to say it:

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist.  At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.

Emperors-New-ClothesIn that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions.  They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials   (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.)  This may have been the intention at the beginning,  and it’s an understandable one.  At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense.  “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)

I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law.  What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy.  Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)

Bullshit vs. Lying

on bullshitTo be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots.  The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship.  The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it:  “The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)

Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.

Worse Than Lies

In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit.  Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences.  Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely.  Tell me it was lost in the mail.  All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter

“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)

Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?

The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit.  They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep.  This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.

“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.  His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.  He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)

Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.”  One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change.  Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”

A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table

If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that.  But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church.  In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable.  I believe this is about people of good will bullshit-meter1with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church.  Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better.  Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection.  (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)

I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure.  But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not.   In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.

And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.

no bs

Barbarians at the Gate: Shock Politics, Civility, and the Demand for Total Surrender #UMC

Hadrian's Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Historically, we build walls to keep out invasive forces.  For all the sentimental claptrap about “walls never stay standing,” the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall still stand as reminders that there is always a need to set limits between civil and uncivil forces.  There is a similar need now in the UMC.  The walls are metaphorical, of course, but no less important.

Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church.  As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed by anonymous minions.  Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic.  In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice.  While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.

But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level.  A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student.  Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident.  Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.

Another problematic feature of the UMC conversation of late is the totalizing politics at play.  One of the great missteps of the 20th century was the Allies’ demand for total and unconditional surrender from Japan.  It is arguable that, had some negotiation been possible, the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been necessary.  When one gives up on conversation and the only outcome one can live with is surrender, tragedy often ensues.

To observe this in the UMC, consider the recent witch hunt for Richard Hays, NT professor and Dean of Duke University Divinity School.  Andy Oliver, a staff member for RMN, posted a profoundly misguided article  calling for Hays’ capitulation on a number of fronts, even recanting parts of one of his most famous books.  Oliver posted this with the kind of totalizing, threatening language that would make Good News proud (promising legions of anonymous supporters ready to strike).  In a political world where everyone who does not fully support your agenda is a contemptible enemy, one need not take the time to make rational arguments or reasonable demands.  If total surrender is your only acceptable outcome, you’ve already decided that no amount of eggs is too great to get the omelette of your dreams.*

The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.
The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.

When the barbarians are near, it’s time to remember that fences make good neighbors.  One need look no further for this than the recent Connectional Table-sponsored panel discussion based on Finding Our Way.  The fruitful dialogue was made possible because a band of insurgents was not allowed in the room, likely because they had already promised to do what they always do: (d)isrupt the stated agenda.  Whether this show of intestinal fortitude was a one-time experiment or a sudden lapse into strong leadership  by the Connectional Table remains to be seen.

We have serious matters before us.  We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing.  Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another.  Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment.  In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.

The barbarians are at the gate, friends.  They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two).  We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender.  The choice is ours.

*An excellent rebuttal from the Indiana RMN affiliate to the atrocious hatchet job about Dean Hays can be found here.

Reimagining United Methodist Education

pfeiffer
Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC.

What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice?  Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.  Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.

To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise.  I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds.  The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education.  See what you think:

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.

Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America.  Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition.  Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self.  With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more.  And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament.  I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend.  I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?

But I was told “no” by the alumni office.  So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.

For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable.  The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.

I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related.  We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.

But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life.  At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.

At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others.  We educate soteriologically.  Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational.  James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.

A lofty ideal, of course.  But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection.  What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?

One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.

What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?  

Postmodern Allergies and the Rebuilding of the Church

rr reno book

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.]

Dragging Fosdick Into the Present

While preparing for an upcoming sermon series that deals with the cultural polarization that has infected our churches, I reread Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  I found the following sentences as applicable today, in our current controversies, as they were in the 1920’s.

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this – shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested?  The Fundamentalists say not.  They say the liberals must go.  Well, if the fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation – multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.

Within my own denomination, all inclinations are that we are becoming incapable of staying at the table with those with whom we disagree.  We are talking, but at one another and past one another, not to one another.  We have fallen into camps that are little more than a sad mime of cable news.  As Adam Hamilton asks in Seeing Gray, “Are Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong our only options?”