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Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

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Generous Spaciousness [Review]

gen space

“This book has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”

-Wendy VanderWall-Gritter

It is no secret that the church is consumed by debates about sexuality.  Further, it is widely known that Christians are often no better at debating sexuality than Congress is at crafting budgets, approving nominees, or making laws.  The sexuality debate, which demands our best resources, often brings out the lesser angels of our nature.

It is in that context that I greatly appreciate Wendy VanderWall-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness.  While it possesses some flaws, it is a valuable contribution to a dialogue that is too often as shallow as it is vitriolic.  Much of this has to do with the author’s own background.

VanderWall-Gritter spent many years in what is called the “Ex-Gay Movement,” a loose association of evangelical Christian parachurch organizations that sought to minister to gays and lesbians, though often in ways that were more de-humanizing than caring.  Probably the best known of such organizations is the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization notorious for its affiliates’  attempts to re-orient gay and lesbians persons.  The author began her ministry following seminary in this kind of environs, but over time began to question some basic tenets.  She eventually changed her approach, and that of the ministry (New Directions Canada) she led.

Relationship is central to her ministry, and to the approach of Generous Spaciousness.  Thus VanderWall-Gritter is at her best here when sharing the experiences and stories gleaned over a career in ministry with gay and lesbian Christians.  Many of them are gut-wrenching.  She is also not afraid to discuss taboo areas of this debate, such as reorientation (“praying away the gay” in common parlance), the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who are disgusted by LGBT sexuality but repeatedly fail to live up to their own standards, and the varied views within the gay Christian community itself (which is often taken to be, or presented as, monolithic).  She has stories to tell of gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians who live partnered, and still others who agonize over their sexuality for whole lifetimes.  For those of us – like myself – who have a dearth of experience with same-sex attracted Christians, Generous Spaciousness contains a wealth of anecdotes and personal accounts.

Indeed, this would have been a better book if the author focused on stories, which play to her experience, and set aside matters out of her depth – such as exegesis.  This would have been a stronger work if it were about 75 pages shorter, shorn of some material that was simply not interesting or outside the range of the author’s expertise.  The chapter on Scripture is especially stultifying, and I was immensely frustrated at the butchered reference to the (unnamed and, yes, so-called) Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the chapter on interpretation, which made all the classic errors one is not supposed to make using that particular hermeneutic lens.

Nevertheless, if the strengths and the weaknesses played see-saw, the weaknesses would remain far up in the sky.  I especially resonate with VanderWall-Gritter’s desire to adjust what she calls the “posture” of those who participate in this conversation.  In most corners of the church, postures about sexuality are rigid, set, and borderline hostile (regardless of which end of the conservative-progressive spectrum one identifies with).  But Generous Spaciousness calls us to a different, caritas-shaped posture, one built on respect for the other, for their story, and for our shared need for and love of Jesus Christ.

The quote above, taken from the concluding pages, is especially instructive.  While VanderWall-Gritter certainly has her own views and the book leans in a certain way, it doesn’t read like the usual echo-chamber propaganda.  Instead, it represents what is for her a very personal journey, some of which may be familiar to her readers and some not.  But who else has written a book on this white-hot topic without trying to convince the reader of a particular answer?

If this is book is widely read, as I believe it should be, then I believe the church can move a long way towards a better posture regarding her LGBT children, and a better discussion along the way.  Sexuality is a complex and powerful reality, and confronting it demands our best efforts and resources.  Generous Spaciousness is one such resource.  I’ll let some of the author’s concluding words finish this review:

“I believe it to be crucial that…we focus our hearts on Christ, on his desire that a unified church would be a witness to the world of his reconciling love, and on being the extension of that love to all our neighbors. I believe that hospitality is central to the heart and ministry of Jesus and that to the extent we fail to extend this hospitality to gay people, the church will fail to walk in the way of Jesus.”

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When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.

An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

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Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

gal 6

Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

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Who is at fault for #UMC trials?

highway patrol

NC Highway Patrol car, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ownership: A Personal Account

As a leader, one of my habits is to attempt, as far as possible, to claim maximum responsibility for everything that happens in my life.  It is not fun, but it is, I believe, a path to sanity.  The alternative – to refuse agency in my life  and calling – is infinitely more unpleasant and dis-empowering.

When I was in high school, I played soccer for one fun but inglorious season.  I was the classic benchwarmer; I only played because I had some close friends on the team, and since I was at a very small school they let me on the team despite my lack of speed, athleticism, and knowledge of or interest in soccer.  In one of my rare appearances on the pitch, I was shoved hard from behind by another player, so much so that I somersaulted.  I was furious.  At my next opportunity, I threw up a very hard elbow and sent my opponent to the ground.  The ref promptly brought out a yellow card.

My friend and team captain came over and began to explain to the ref that I was new to the sport and didn’t really understand what I was doing.  He was about to talk me out of getting the yellow card! But I was livid, and I wanted the other player to know that I thought he deserved it. So I walked over to the ref and exclaimed, “I knew exactly what I was doing!” The yellow stood.  For better or for worse, maximum responsibility has been my calling card – of whatever color – ever since.

This memory crept up as the news came out a few days ago: the ugly specter is back in the UMC.   Complaints have been filed once more, this time against 36 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy who conducted a same-gender ceremony last year.  This is, of course, the same conference that recently de-and-refrocked Frank Schaefer.

The Scandal of Accountability

No one likes church trials.   More then that, no one likes to see clergy who breach the covenant have to face discipline in any form. Those of us who serve in churches where previous pastors have faced disciplinary procedures know the toll it takes on our congregations.  It is always unfortunate, and yet, the coherence of any community demands that some boundaries must be set and maintained.  Even the most secular professional organizations have strictures on what is and is not acceptable for its members; how much more should this be the case for the church, where our work is not some product or service, but the proclamation of the Kingdom?

Many denounce trials as, more or less, “unchristian.”  These days, the bulk of such calls come from progressive Methodists who tire of worrying about trials for those who run afoul of the Book of Discipline in terms of gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies and (however ill-defined) “practice.”  I do not recall most of these folks claiming trials, similar hearings, and other agents of “institutional force” were depraved, pseudo-Christian institutions when a Virginia pastor was put on leave for refusing membership to a gay man.  Nor did Bishop Carcano argue with the decision of our judicial establishment when Frank Schaefer was recently refrocked.  It seems we all dislike disciplinary procedures when they don’t go our way, but can’t praise them enough when they vindicate our position.  But I digress.

The distaste with trials is exacerbated because of the polarized nature of the church (reflecting the wider culture), our inability to discuss hard questions with prayerful charity and theological rigor, and the more general scandal that any exercise of church authority causes in the post-Enlightenment West.

Rev. Hannah Bonner’s critique over at UMC Lead (a blog which seems to be pretty clearly picking sides now) is illustrative:

“It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems that the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us. The reality that trials are conducive to further division and damaging to our witness – and not cowardice – is the reason why many of our Bishops are seeking to find different paths forward through this struggle.”

Of course a trial is “not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light.”  No one wants them.  But trials are present as a final step when just resolution (or “reconciliation”) fails.  The BOD is quite clear that this is not the preferred outcome.  And yet those who have a distaste for trials seem to think only the church or “the system” is at fault for them: if only we didn’t resort to trials, our witness would not suffer so and we could come to a real “Christian” solution.

Credit Where Credit is Due: A Parable

But are trials only the fault of our (admittedly defective) system?  Pastors, at least, know the stakes.  As clergy who have taken vows which state we have studied and approve of church law, we know what we are welcoming if we flaunt it.  I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m not saying it’s pretty.  But at some point, pastors who knowingly play loose with the covenant should receive a share of the ire for putting the church through the cost and controversy of more trials.

To put it another way: imagine you are driving your car, and you just happen to have a CB radio tuned to the police band.  You get on the horn and announce to all the police in the area that you are about the speed on the highway.  You then get on the road and proceed to do 105 in a 70.  Not surprisingly, you are pulled over.  Because of the egregious nature of the speed violation, you are given a ticket with little discussion.  You will face court costs, an increase in your insurance rate, and possibly a suspension of your license.  All kinds of government resources will be used in holding you accountable: police time, magistrate salaries, a judge’s attention.  What a miscarriage of justice!  Wasted resources abound! You harmed no one. You were just speeding.

Would anyone blame the speed limit laws or the cop in this case?  No.  You announced to the world, and especially to law enforcement, what you were going to do.  Whether or not speed limit laws make sense is beside the point.  Their job is to enforce those limits, and you told them you were coming.  The onus, at least in part, is on you.

A crude analogy, perhaps, but is it that different from those who flagrantly disregard the Discipline and then balk at accountability?  I respect prophetic witness, but true prophetic witness means being willing to face the consequences.

Conclusion: On Owning Choices

Poster encouraging support for the EPA 36. A thought: pitting "Biblical" vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.

Poster encouraging support for the Philadelphia 36. A thought: pitting “Biblical” vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.

I don’t disagree that trials are damaging to our communion and our witness.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the only thing that may erode the glue holding together our denomination faster than church trials is the avoidance of trials and any semblance of meaningful accountability.

Furthermore, I am convinced it is not the role of bishops to seek “different paths forward” through these struggles.  Such direction is given by the General Conference and codified in the Book of Discipline. The bishops are called, as the executive branch, to order the life of the church in part by enforcing policy made by the General Conference and supporting our doctrine and order as agents of church unity.

We may not like what the “current path” holds, and indeed, I hate that so much energy and resources must go into trials, especially for  the reasons before us.  (I would not be so remorseful if we had trials for more crucial matters, like doctrine.  Oh, if only we would put rebaptizers and unitarians on trial!)

But the only thing worse than the trials may well be not having trials.  Part of the Christian life, as lay and clergy, involves making and keeping promises to one another.  We clergy have all agreed to live by a certain Discipline, and when we fail to do so – whether by momentary lapse of judgment or conscious, intended effort – there must be a response that recognizes that failure. A gracious response and oriented towards restoration, of course, but a response nonetheless.

And yes, church trials bring up some of the worst parts of Christian history, those things with which the New Atheists love to fill up their screeds: inquisitions and witch hunts.  But not every church trial is an inquisition, no more than seeing blue lights always indicates something like the Rodney King incident is going to occur.

We will find trials unpleasant. We should. They are always sad.  And I sympathize with fears that more trials will threaten to rend our communion past what it can bear.

But the only thing that might be a more serious threat, that might endanger our life together even more, is the refusal to hold pastors accountable when they choose to flagrantly violate the covenant and show no willingness to stop doing so.  We all know this is a delicate time.  Our church is imperfect, including its accountability structures.  But I can’t help but think that those pastors who flaunt the Discipline – regardless of the nobility of their cause – like the Eastern Pennsylvania 36 , are also at fault.

Part of maturing is owning our choices and the consequences that they bring.  Don’t tell the police you’re going to break the law, and then complain when you get pulled over.

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#UMC Victories, Vicarious and Pyrrhic

by Drew 7 Comments
sparta siege

The Siege of Sparta by Pyrrhus, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
                           when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice
.”                              -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)

I had a feeling this might be coming.  Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted.  When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause.  Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.

But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome.  The court did not say  the church was wrong to punish Frank.  It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate.  The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?).  So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.

The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable.  I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however?  It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial.  Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.”  As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!”  Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.

It could also be a pyrrhic victory.  A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted.  Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements.  The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt.  And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano.  Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.

So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn.  Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach.  As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.

And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart.  God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle.  There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion.  The tail need not always wag the dog.  God may yet surprise us.  In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold.  Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last.  May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:

Though with a scornful wonder
we  see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up: “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment.  Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.

 

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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.

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“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.

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