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Premeditated Abdication: A Rejoinder to James Howell

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Premeditated abdication is a strange way to run for Bishop.

Going back to 1784, American Methodists have been guided by a Book of Discipline. Though it has changed over the years in response to new laws, splits, and mergers, the Discipline has been a staple of Methodist life here in the former colonies.  For as long as there has been an entity called the United Methodist Church, the Discipline has also been a source of controversy.  Since 1972, questions about sexuality have led the agenda for many Methodists.  With increasing fervor, arguments about the clauses related to LGBT persons have raged as the decades rolled on.  Rev. Dr. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC, has recently offered these pre-Portland thoughts (high-fived by Bishop Willimon here) on our meddlesome book:

A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.

I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.

It seems strange to argue that enforcing church law “sounds punitive” when it is bound between two covers with Book of Discipline on the front. If what we have is church law, and many churches (along with non-profits, states, cities, and middle school student councils) are governed by laws, then said law can be broken or maintained, defended or flaunted, enforced or ignored.

I also think it’s important to note that Dr. Howell is himself speaking in code. The issue is clearly not whether or not “enforcement” is a positive or negative practice.  The real issue is that he disagrees with some parts of the Discipline and, in a coded way, is arguing for ignoring them.

It may sound shocking, but there are times when enforcing the Discipline is wholly uncontroversial.

For instance, when a Virginia pastor was removed from ministry because he refused membership to a gay man, I do not recall progressives decrying the worldly, legalistic culture of “enforcement.”

Moreover, when a pastor runs off with the Sunday offering or with a partner who is not their spouse, we not only expect, but we hope for enforcement of clergy standards.  If you’ve ever been in a church wounded and riven because that enforcement came too late, you learn to appreciate it.

In the Christian tradition, discipline can actually be a means of grace, or even an act of love.  Augustine argued that it was loving to rein in the Donatists, because their apostasy was ultimately destructive to themselves and others.  Dr. Howell rightly notes the example of the eccentric St. Francis, but we might also mention the more ancient Rule of St. Benedict, in which we discover that correction includes not just public excoriation but excommunication and even corporal punishment.

Can enforcement be an act of love?

Earlier this month a judge in Fayetteville, NC sentenced a veteran to 24 hours in jail.  The veteran, Sgt. Serna of the Special Forces (retired), spent twenty years in the Army including four tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times, and has one Purple Heart and many other awards to his credit.

His life post-service has been difficult. Like so many combat vets, he’s struggled with PTSD in the ensuing years.  Serna turned to alcohol for relief, which has led to several DUI’s.  Though he’s been working a treatment program, he confessed to Judge Lou Olivera recently that he had lied about a recent urine test, which led to the 24 hour sentence.

But what came next was astounding. Judge Olivera himself drove the veteran to jail, and then joined him in the cell.  Worried that Serna’s PTSD might rear its hideous head if left alone in a cell overnight, he stayed with him.  They spent the evening talking about military service. Olivera, you see, is himself a veteran of the first Gulf War and knew Serna’s pain better than most.  An overwhelmed Serna had this to say:

I cannot even put into words how I feel about him…I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.

broken chaliceCompassion and enforcement are not of necessity opposites.  As Christians who have tethered ourselves by sacred vow to a church whose foundational doctrine is grace, governed by laws together compiled as the Book of Discipline, this should not be surprising.  Grace and discipline. Love and order.

It is fashionable to decry those who are in favor of church order as Pharisees and fundamentalists – cheap attacks are easier than relationship and engagement, sadly – but this of course ignores the many positive references to correction in Scripture. To name just two:

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding. (Prov. 15:32, NRSV)

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Gal. 6:1, NRSV)
Scripture values correction, and so does our own particular church history. For those following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys, discipline should not a four letter word.  John Wesley and later Francis Asbury held their circuit preachers to high standards of accountability. Likewise, band and class leaders who formed the skeleton of the Methodist movement also maintained serious (though loving) boundaries. (Remember, it is not unheard of in our tradition to have to receive a ticket from one’s spiritual overseer to receive Communion!)

I am especially concerned about the outright rejection of enforcement because Dr. Howell is my conference’s nominee for Bishop. Going back to ancient precedent, Bishops are in fact to be foci of unity for the church. Thus, St. Ignatius wrote in the 2nd century, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.” If one were to imagine the church as a house, Bishops are charged with ensuring there are not termites in the wall or cracks in the foundation. If there are, some action will be necessary.

Elsewhere, Ignatius argued that the unanimity of the bishops and the priests was to model and reinforce the singleness of the one Lord Jesus Christ:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.

The United Methodist Church operates in like manner. We “come together in one place” and decide how to order our common lives. No one is forced to be a United Methodist, but if you have decided to be a lay or clergy member, the results of these quadrennial gatherings shape our mutual life. If some decide instead to follow what is “reasonable and proper to [them]selves apart,” if the oneness of the church is broken, we have a process for restoration that must be followed. The hope is that this can be done short of something punitive or drastic, like de-frocking. But more severe corrective measures are certainly on the table.

To say otherwise, a priori, is an abdication of a crucial apostolic duty that belongs to bishops alone.

The Book of Discipline is an imperfect document by and for imperfect people. In that, let us grant each other grace. But let’s also care enough about our life to not shy away from this sacred bond.

I would hope that someone called to the office of Bishop in our particular corner of Christendom would see that our covenant, warts and all, is a sacred bond: a bond worth preserving where it is eroding, worth defending where it is threatened, and worth enforcing where it is violated.

While I greatly respect Dr. Howell as a preacher, a theologian, and a leader not just in my conference but across the denomination, I cannot support a candidate for episcopal office who has already signaled a premeditated abdication of duty.

This is a path to increased chaos, not coherence.

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The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.”  The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish.  For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.

In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish.  But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break.  It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?

I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:

The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.[1]

Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net.  The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well.  In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net.  All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.

The net is one.  We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.

The church should reflect that.

Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.

But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body.  The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.

How is your corner of the net looking?

 

 

[1] Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.

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When Will the Tail Stop Wagging the #UMC Dog?

by Drew 9 Comments
Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

When will the tail top wagging the dog? When will the whole United Methodist body cease to be driven hither and thither by what is really a small appendage?

I’m a longtime critic of the various caucus groups in the UMC.  While I don’t think they are all equally villainous, I do believe that on the whole they serve to draw resources from United Methodist pews that are better spent elsewhere.  Moreover, they form a sort of self-reinforcing system that goes something like this: RMN organizes to change the Book of Disciplinee; Good News fundraises to counter their efforts; Love Prevails then bounces off the “harmful” rhetoric of evangelicals and announces ahead of time that they plan to make sure nothing gets done in Portland which they don’t explicitly condone; then, finally, the IRD fills their coffers by reporting on the adolescent shenanigans of Justice’s Storm Troopers.  The caucuses have a sort of symbiotic relationship and form a vicious cycle.

These groups, in many ways, lead our denominational conversation – though I’m not at all convinced that, even all combined, they remotely represent the views of a majority of United Methodists.  I’m reminded of this quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who noted that the bluster of radical groups often far outstrips their real influence:

“The vanity, restlessness, petulance, and spirit of intrigue, of several petty cabals, who attempt to hide their total want of consequence in bustle and noise, and puffing, and mutual quotation of each other, makes you imagine that our contemptuous neglect of their abilities is a mark of general acquiescence in their opinions. No such thing, I assure you.”

Despite the noise, there is no “general acquiescence” to the caucuses.  They are merely the loudest voices in the conversation.  If the Trump living nightmare candidacy has taught us nothing else, we’ve sure learned this: being loud, rude, disagreeable, loose with the facts, quick to attack, and light on nuance can actually get you a lot of attention.  It will even get you a seat at the table.  The committee in charge of organizing General Conference even met with the leaders of these groups last year.  Now, really, do we think this will placate the caucuses or embolden them?

Burke again would urge us not to take such tactics seriously:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring…whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most United Methodists do not share the priorities of the divisive caucuses.  A representative sample of over 500 parishioners was taken in 2014 to get a sense of the real priorities of the people who sit in our pews.  Sexuality did not even crack the top 5.

I see no future for us unless we stand up to the denominational hostage-takers and refuse to let the tail way the dog.  Much like Americans are experiencing in the national arena, denominational politics are not well served by letting the loudest, most divisive voices lead the conversation.  They don’t represent us.  They have every incentive to increase outrage and bend the truth to fund their own projects.

For the United Methodist Church to have a healthy and vital future, we cannot allow the most brutal voices to dictate the conversation.  We can do better.  We must do better.  But make no mistake: it’s up to us.  We, the vast majority of Methodists who love each and every one of their neighbors and want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, decide this future: the ways that we engage one another, the things we read and share, the delegates for whom we vote give away whether we are directing our mental, emotional, and other resources towards victory or agape.

The tail does not have to wag the dog. But that’s up to us.

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The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.

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Martin Luther Roundtable (#ICYMI)

What do you think of Martin Luther?conciliar post

That’s the question that a group of us have addressed for a recent Round Table discussion over at Conciliar Post.  I’m really humbled to be a part of such a healthy and deep conversation among Christians of different traditions.  In case you missed it, I wrote the Methodist response, but all of them are well worth a your time (especially the others).  Here’s a sample from my contribution:

Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation.  I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself.  The reasons are twofold.  For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition.  Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are.  Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated.  It should be remembered, of course.  Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery.  But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?

The full article is here.  Thanks again to the CP team for letting an amateur Wesleyan theologian hang out with such a sharp group of talented, bright folks.

Is Reformation Day worthy of a celebration? Is Luther a hero or a villain? Leave a comment below!

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The Form Without the Power: “Non-Theistic” Worship

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why would a church worship “non-theistically”?

The two things I am most interested in, as both a perpetual student and as a pastor, are doctrine and liturgy.  I suppose that’s why I take lex orandi, lex credendi so seriously.  The two coinhere, or both become a joke.  With that in mind, consider the following post from an Episcopal bishop (emphasis added):

Looking at (Episcopal) parish search profiles (for the purpose of finding examples for one of our parishes in transition), and ran across this: “We are an open communion church with a central altar. Our 9am, 11:15 am and 5 pm services are based on Rite II in the BCP, liberally adapted to express our progressive, somewhat non-theistic approach to worship.” There are no words.

As horrific as this is, let us attempt a few words anyway.

The bishop did not name the congregation, but I wish I could watch a live stream and find out what “non-theistic” worship looks like.  Foolishness like this cuts to the heart of what ails Mainline Protestantism, whose erosion I have frequently noted.

Looking back in the vault, then, I would connect the phenomenon glimpsed above to:

  • a failure to explicitly proclaim and comprehend the God implicitly narrated in the Book of Common Prayer and other historic Christian liturgies (a distinction I just learned from Nicholas Wolterstorff).
  • those occasions when “progressive” Christianity nukes the fridge, and leaps from a harmless politically liberal version of historic, Trinitarian Christianity to a loosely defined sub-Christian farce of vague spirituality held together around no-doctrine-as-doctrine at its gelatinous core.
  • a proper caution when considering claims from emergent Christians and sacramental progressives like Rachel Held Evans who link an ancient ritual aesthetic to millennial interest (without a concomitant interest in the creedal and conciliar context for such ancient resources).

Earlier this year, I referenced the doctrinal situation of the Episcopal Church in a post seeking  to affirm a high view of Scripture, something I believe the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” undercuts even though it was clearly held by Wesley and his Reformation forebears like Luther and Calvin.  The danger I sense in my own Wesleyan tribe is something I see in Mainline and center/progressive Protestantism in general:

…though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.

What’s shocking is not that such congregations or clergy exist; what is shocking is that Mainline Protestant leaders lack either the interest or the will to do anything about it (or both).  To name a few: in the UMC, the PCUSA, and Episcopal Church (and let’s not forget about our United Church of Canada friends) we tolerate the abandonment of our Reformation roots and basic orthodoxy among our leaders with barely a sigh of resignation.  If we will not even insist our ordained clergy believe in God, we quite simply deserve to die so that God will no longer be mocked.

There is a place for “non-theistic” worship with Christian trappings, and it is the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Otherwise, ostensibly Christian communities who engage in such deformed liturgies are doing little more than highly organized lying.

I take comfort in remembering that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church rests on the firm foundation of the birth, holy life, cruel death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Though many forces threaten to tear us asunder, our spiritual union with the Tripersonal God – our whole purpose for being, by the way – cannot be sundered, no matter how much human cowardice and supernatural evil conspires to separate the church from he who reigns as her sole Head, Israel’s messiah, and the world’s true Lord.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.

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Shifting to a New Gear

by Drew 0 Comments
Time for a shift. Fiat 500L 6-speed shifter, courtesy Peter Milosevic via Wikimedia Commons.

Time for a shift. Fiat 500L 6-speed shifter, courtesy Peter Milosevic via Wikimedia Commons.

Buckle up – things are shifting!

This is my first post at my newly reworked homepage.  Any links from my previous site, pastormack.wordpress.com (aka Uniting Grace) should now connect here.  You may notice a few changes.

What’s New?

  • Location. I now have my own domain name (and it’s the same as my twitter handle).  What can I say? It was time to go legit.  If you had previously subscribed, you should be migrated now to the new site and not have to do anything. (And if you have not subscribed, now would be a great time to do just that…there…over on the right!)
  • Name. The name has changed to Plowshares Into Swords, and the tagline is also new: “Contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”  Both are biblical references (Joel 3:10/Jude 1:3), and I chose them together to clarify the purpose of this blog.  The Christian tradition has, in most times and places, agreed with Qoheleth that “there is a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8)  There are times to turn swords into plowshares, and times to the do the reverse.  I believe that the state of Christianity in North America today demands the latter.  It is a time to fight some fights that need fighting.  It is a time to contend for the things that matter most.  The faith “once delivered” is under assault from within and without the Body of Christ: dehumanizing forces like secularism, individualism, and materialism (to name just three) degrade Christian faith and practice from the outside, while gospels of sin management (left and right), prosperity gospels, self-help masquerading as preaching, infotainment substituting for worship, and pastors-cum-CEOs threaten to rot the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church from within.  It is a time to take seriously the call of the church to be an alternative community of Word and Sacrament, called out of the world for the sake of the world.  It is a time to face the winnowing of Christendom and decide: will we remain faithful to Christ and his Church, confident that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against his Bride (Matt. 16:18), or anxiously flit from fad-to-fad, servile to market research and technocrats to tell us how the accomplish the Missio Dei?
  • Conversation Partners. I will continue to help curate Via Media Methodists and the WesleyCast, both of which are a joy and continue to grow their audiences.  I will no longer be contributing to UM Insight, but I look forward to participating in the conversation at an exciting ecumenical project called Conciliar Post. (I previously participated in a round-table discussion hosted by Conciliar Post on the incarnation here.)  Conciliar Post boasts some of the deepest cross-communion dialogue happening on the Christian blogosphere today, and I will have to be on my game as I try and keep up with the sharp young minds there assembled.  It will be a treat to offer a Wesleyan voice in conversation with so many charitable, bright folks from across the theological and ecclesial spectrum.

    conciliar post

    If you don’t know about Conciliar Post, you’re missing out.

What stays the same?

I will still post on a variety of topics, mostly having to do with Christian living, theology, ministry, and the church, but with occasional book reviews, political/cultural commentary, and miscellany.  There will be some Wesleyan/Methodist content but most of that will now be at Via Media Methodists, in addition to occasional guest pieces at Conciliar Post as well as a variety of Metho-nerd outlets.

Thanks!

To all of my readers, those who are fans and those who are critics, those who are fellow theology geeks or Metho-nerds and those who are Jesus-followers looking for bread on the journey as we seek to tarry on with our Lord, I give my sincere thanks.  It is a joy to share reason, wrestle, pray, and wonder with you, and I thank you for reading and sharing, for offering feedback, and for inspiring me towards sanctification even in this peculiar world of theo-blogging.  I raise my glass to you and thank you for joining as we shift gears and drive on to the next phase of the journey.

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The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But after the cross…

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

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

Sources:

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

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

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

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

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

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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