Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Yes, it’s a very bland and almost tedious title, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Recently I explained my problems with taking one side or the other in the UMC’s ongoing response to General Conference 2019 (GC2019).  As I described with more detail, I don’t feel that either side–conservative/traditionalist or progressive/liberal/inclusivist–has made sufficient theological arguments based on critical exegesis of the Bible, which we claim as our primary authority.  I recently bumped into an article by on William B. Lawrence that effectively makes my point and raises an issue that deserves some exploration.

Lawrence argues that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” distorts and otherwise violates the UMC’s theology and doctrinal standards.  The “incompatible…” phrase refers to “the practice of homosexuality,” which by the letter of the current (2019) Discipline prohibits those engaged in “the practice of homosexuality” from entering the ordination process.  Moreover, same-gender marriage is prohibited.  Because Methodism never developed a single doctrinal statement, it synthesizes its doctrine from a variety of sources, which include its Articles of Religion (adapted from those of the Church of England and the Evangelical United Brethren Church), and a particularly revered collection of John Wesley’s sermons plus some of his journals and his notes on the New Testament (forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two).  Even with this rather chaotic framework for its doctrine, Methodism has a structure for theological reflection that is called the Quadrilateral, with its four vertices being church tradition (teaching), reason, experience, and in the preeminent position, the Bible.

But that stuff isn’t what Lawrence leans on.  Instead, he argues his position for doing away with “incompatible with Christian teaching” because it violates the General Rules of Our Methodist Societies (so called by John Wesley).  The General Rules are a trinity of ethical statements:
(1)  Do no harm.
(2)  Do all the good you can.
(3)  Attend to the ordinances of God (I.E. do those things that maintain one’s relationship with God).

The problem Lawrence strays into is that, while he asserts that “incompatible with Christian teaching” has harmed LGBT persons, he maintains that this ethical violation is also a violation of our theology and doctrine, but he never substantiates this claim.  Instead, he seems to conflate ethics, theology, and doctrine.

While I accept his assertion that LGBT persons are experiencing the harm that comes from exclusion and discrimination based upon the current polity of the UMC, I am unwilling to use that ethical valuation to make claims about the UMC’s theological and doctrinal understandings.  Doing no harm is not an ethical position unique to Methodism.  Lawrence, like many (all?) of his progressive colleagues, needs to address what scripture and a few thousand years of church teaching say about homosexuality, as hostile as they may be.  They cannot simply be ignored because people are experiencing changed realities within our current societal culture.  Nor can we impose a generic ethic on the church and declare it doctrine without demonstrating how its roots dig down into scripture and church teaching.

None of this is to say that our ethical sense in these matters is invalid.  It may be that our ethics has gotten ahead of our theological and doctrinal formulations.  After all, the church has changed its doctrine and dogma over the centuries and our understanding of theology, even Biblical theology, isn’t entirely fixed.  However, acknowledging such change hardly gives license to avoiding the hard work of constructive, competent, and critical exegesis and theological reflection.

As someone occupying middle ground between conservatives/traditionalists and progressives/liberals in the UMC, I have been pushed to reflect on GC2019 and its aftermath. This piece comprises my observations regarding about the conference’s debate (if we can call it that) and the One Church Plan.

Point of disclosure: I was once both disaffected by the church and an Atheist, and can still look into the church from the outside. I am also the Peter Abelard of the UMC in that I question everything.

The following are issues and a question raised by GC2019 that are based on the following observation:

Neither the Commission on the Way Forward (CWF), progressives (Progs), nor the traditionalists (Trads) effectively argued their positions. The Progs and Trads simply presented their long-held and hardened positions and the CWF laid out its plan without any underlying justification based on our Wesleyan (or any) theological process.

ISSUE: There was a failure to look at the conflict over human sexuality, specifically how to approach non-cisgendered persons and the new realities they present the church, from an outside perspective. The conflict remained internecine with positions on all sides being presented but not adequately defended. It was a significant error to not give serious consideration to the perspective of NONES, the unchurched, those disaffected by the church, and Atheists, all of which are persons we are called to reach out to by The Great Commission. Had these perspectives been considered, I believe there might have been far more work put into establishing the positions that were taken rather than simply putting them forward. It was most disappointing that the CWF presented their One-Church Plan with the implicit assumption that no one outside the UMC would be interested in the denomination’s debate, thus they failed to include critical arguments regarding the Bible, church tradition, current understandings of sociological and psychological issues, and the dynamics of lived experience.

QUESTION: What is the exegetical, ecclesial, and pastoral position of Trads and Progs that takes into account the best biblical scholarship and exegetical practices, the historical scope of church teaching from a wide perspective (I.E. not just about human sexuality), sociological and psychological understandings, and the lived experience of real people (both cisgendered and LGBT)?

Both Trads and Progs needed to present critical, detailed arguments to support their positions. Neither did this.

Trads simply claimed homosexuality a sin, marriage as comprising a man and woman, and biblical authority as if they owned the Bible and its exegesis yet they did not make the case for why they believe they are right (more specifically, they did not make the case to someone who does not hold the same perspective and presuppositions). They also leaned on church teaching as if it never changes. If that were so then the Bible would still be in Latin and withheld from laity, and we might still be burning witches following trial by the Inquisition.

On the surface, it seems that Trads look at experience and reason somewhat abstractly rather than as integral parts of who we are as humans created in God’s image. If we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a rubric for theological reflection, then what I have observed is that Trads address Bible and tradition while ignoring reason and experience (or they look upon them with skepticism).

Progs were just as presumptuous, claiming that because LGBT persons suffer exclusion and disaffection due to language in the Discipline, then that language needs to be removed. They claim a felt need for inclusion in a church that has failed to keep up with changes in society, but they have not addressed how changing the position of the church is not mere cultural accommodation. If the church means to be the counter-cultural reflection of the kingdom of God, then more needs to be said by Progs as to how their position comports with almost 2,000 years of biblical exegesis and church teaching. They need to address what the Bible says about human sexuality (specifically homosexuality) and the composition of marriage as we claim the Bible as our primary authority. They need to address the church’s historical positions on these matters as well.

ISSUE: During GC2019 debates, an number of Trads argued Jesus’ teaching on marriage from what I consider to be a manipulated eisegetical viewpoint. Over and over, Matthew 19.4-6 was cited as the argument that Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and woman, thus same-gendered marriage is wrong. I believe this interpretation reads too much into the text and does so in order to support the Trads’ position on marriage. A close and more extensive read shows that the context is a question about divorce, not about the composition of marriage. In his answer, Jesus was reciting the traditional rubric about marriage found in Genesis 1.27 and 2.24 in order to set up his argument against divorce in Matthew 19.6-9. In other words, Jesus was not teaching about the composition of marriage, which no one in his audience would have questioned, but about commitment to the marriage covenant. Trads needed to work a lot harder to establish their claim that Jesus taught heterosexual marriage.

The following is liturgy used at Tecumseh UMC to work through a difficult week nationally as I reflected on how the focus of our public discourse has been misdirected toward President Trump’s prejudiced rhetoric, white supremacists, and the two shooters in last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  While each of these have some responsibility for the conflict and suffering of our recent days, what is missing is a call to us–to America, and especially white America–to look into our own hearts and lives.  After all, we elected Trump having heard plenty of his hateful speech.  We are willing to be tempted into fear of the non-white ‘other’.   And we now routinely cycle through trauma, outrage, then acceptance of “the new normal” with every new mass shooting.  We are complicit.

Call to Worship

The table is set
The food is prepared

Invitations have been sent . . .
to Whites, Blacks, Browns, Reds, and Yellows;
to Anglos, Africans, Asians, and Latinos;
to citizens, immigrants, and refugees—with and without documentation;
to straights, gays, and trans;
to conservatives, liberals and progressives, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents;
to you and to me.

Will you come to the table Christ has set for all?

Prayer of Confession

Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed. (James 5.15-16)

Holy God, we are a people loathe to admit our mistakes, ill-chosen words, neglect of others, and harmful actions.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We too easily forget that all people—every race and nationality, party and ideology—are created in your divine image.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

In our day we have too often welcomed the hateful speech of others, claiming they refreshingly “tell it like it is” while denying how such speech affirms our darkest impulses and tempts us to validate our own fear and hate.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

Leader: We have allowed ourselves to become insensitive to the suffering caused by the violence of word and deed.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We thank you, Holy God, that through your Son Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Bring us now to repentance—change our hearts and lives that we may be more Christlike in all our ways.

The Great Thanksgiving

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us lift up our hearts.
We lift our hearts to the Lord.

Let us give thanks.
It is good and right to give our thanks and praise to God

We give thanks to you, Almighty God,
not to serve the need of ritual or tradition,
but because it is good and right for us
to acknowledge your love wherever we are
and in any season.

You created a good world.
Having made us in your image and given us life,
you placed us into the world to care for it
and build community with each other.

We confess that we have not been satisfied to be your people;
that we have rebelled against your authority
as spoiled children wanting things our own way.
We have abused your creation and each other
through what we have done and left undone.
We have let prejudice, difference of opinion,
and fearmongering build walls of suspicion and hatred between us.
We have broken your heart.

Yet out of love, you pursued us and cared for us.
When slaves in Egypt, you freed us.
When wanderers in the wilderness,
you offered us a covenant to guide us
in our relationships with you and with each other.
When we strayed, you sent prophets to call us back to you,
prophets who cast before us your vision
of justice, righteousness, and peace.

For these mighty acts of love, we raise our voices with
all people on earth and all the company of heaven
to praise your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

You are holy, perfectly righteous,
and likewise your Son Jesus Christ who, at the right time,
entered our corrupt and broken world to be a beacon of hope
to a people stumbling desperately through the dark.

Through him you gave sight to the blind, good news to the poor,
belonging to those on the margins and beyond,
and love to the untouchable.

Through him you lifted up the lowly and humbled
and repudiated the status, position, and honor
of the rich and powerful.

Through him you fed the hungry and healed the sick for no charge.

Your own Son came to us as a servant to be Emmanuel,
your presence with us.

He obeyed your will without question,
trusting in your wisdom and your plan
as he freely accepted death on the cross.

Through his suffering, death, and resurrection
you gave birth to your Church,
freed us from sin’s power and our souls from death,
and renewed you covenant with us.

[ Institution of the Lord’s Supper
Bread – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said…
Cup – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said… ]

In this remembrance of your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves with thankfulness as a living sacrifice
in union with Christ’s offering for the world.

May your Holy Spirit rain down on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and juice
so that we may experience them as the body and blood of Christ.

In that experience, may we be the body of Christ for the world.

Knit us together with Christ and with each other by your Spirit,
that we may go boldly into the world to minister and to offer the gospel
until Christ comes again in final victory, and we join his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours, Almighty God, now and always.

Amen.

Let us in The United Methodist Church stop calling ourselves, or even aspiring to be, countercultural.  We have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are thoroughly accommodated and inured to our 21st century American culture.

Lest you think I am adding my voice to those of conservatives who decry the an accommodation to society’s cultural mores regarding human sexuality by progressive UMs and conferences such as the Michigan Area Conference, such is not what I have in mind.  Instead, I am taking a much broader view and seeing a UM church comprised of conservatives/traditionalists/evangelicals and progressives/liberals that looks like the greater culture in which it lives.

I had hoped, at the start of General Conference 2019 and again at the start of the Michigan Annual Conference 2019 that its delegates would do what we have forgotten how to do in our society’s public discourse: hold constructive conversations that present the issues of the day in depth so that opposing views (and opposing sides) might be understood and considered.  I had hoped that there would be substantive theological and ecclesial debate in which both conservative and progressive view would be compellingly defended.

Instead, from GC2019 through MAC2019, the pattern of presentation (the word debate is inappropriate) was like that in our national discourse.  Each side raised their flag, stated their position without defending it, labeled the other, and assumed the other performed political maneuvering to undercut the other.

Conservatives claimed adherence to orthodox biblical authority and church tradition regarding homosexuality without arguing why their position remains the necessary one today after so much in the church has evolved in the last two millennia (for example, we no longer attribute mental illness to demon possession, withhold the bible from the laity, or treat divorce as a sin leading to excommunication).  Nor did they address the suffering caused to LGBTQIA+ by their position, nor current scientific understanding of sexuality and sexual identity beyond calling anything other than cis-gendered heterosexuality a sin.

Progressives appealed to the pain LGBTQIA+ feel when confronted with language such as “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibitions against ordination and same-sex marriage without dealing with almost two millennia of church tradition regarding human sexuality, and, more importantly, the passages in the Bible that speak quite forcefully about homosexuality.  They did not defend their position in a way the church, with the Bible as its primary source for theology and authority, could embrace let alone understand.

I realize that what I wanted to see—thoughtful, constructive, and critical debate—would have been hard work.  Unfortunately, without that debate all that was accomplished was the further separation and solidification of the opposing positions with an unhealthy dash of suspicion and distrust thrown in.

We had a chance to be countercultural and we wasted it.  We call each other names (using labels), raise our flags of “orthodoxy” and “inclusive love”, and eye each other warily across the ever widening divide.  How is this different than the world around us?

The following is a Facebook post that looked meaty enough to blog.  It references the following UM News item:
https://www.umnews.org/en/news/denominations-future-under-discussion-quietly

It sounds as if there is a sense of ownership of the denomination underlying the discussions mentioned in the attached article–more so by the progressive side but also by conservatives.
What everyone might want to consider is the statistical implication of the GC2019 vote to adopt the Traditional Plan. It was 438 for to 384 against. The difference is just about 6% or +/- 3%. Anyone who does polling will tell you that this figure is the standard margin of error. Any poll within this margin is statistically equivalent. Except for the technicality of a majority vote (a quantitative but not qualitative rubric), one might conclude that neither side “owns” the UMC; neither side “won”.
For progressives, who are feeling that there is no place for the draconian hard-line of conservatives in their church, and conservatives who are feeling a bit triumphant that they “won”, the statistical equivalence suggests neither side has accomplished anything but a more public articulation of our differences.
I expect all of the above may be labeled “gobbledygook” (or worse) by anyone who feels that discernment of the divine will has been achieved by a narrow numeric superiority and that there is nothing more to be said. One can print this off and paper a bird-cage with it if desired.
My take on this, from a qualitative interpretation of the vote, is that both sides dug trenches and threw ideological grenades at each other, never really making a compelling case that might have inspired at least a moment of consideration of each other’s views. It’s not enough to simply say, “LGBT persons feel disenfranchised and 2nd class, which is wrong” or “this is what the Bible and the church have always said, therefore it is so”. Such statements are little more than introductory summaries to the debate.
(time to wrap this up . . . have probably hacked off enough people for a Tuesday morning)

A man with a skin disease approached Jesus, fell to his knees, and begged, “If you want, you can make me clean.”
Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to.  Be clean.”  Instantly, the skin disease left him, and he was clean.  (Mark 1:40-42)

Jesus wasn’t miffed or a little annoyed.  He was incensed–enraged, angered, feeling a moment of “don’t even mess with me” pique.  By the time we get to this scene, Jesus had seen a lot of sick and disabled people with both physical and mental illnesses.  When yet one more sick man approaches Jesus, he gets lit and loses his temper.  While we might interpret his rage as a kind of holy anger at the world’s brokenness displayed in the begging man, I suspect he might have simply had enough of dealing with sickness and disease and flashed into anger.

At that moment he had a choice.  He could, as angry people often do, walk away.  The other option, the one that he chose, was to do something about the need and brokenness before him.  He channeled his anger into a furious fit of healing and cured the man’s skin disease.  In other words, he didn’t walk away but remained to do what he could to make things better.

Right now, church congregations, factions within churches, families, and individuals incensed, enraged, angered, disappointed, frustrated, and/or saddened by GC2019’s decision to retain The Discipline‘s ban on gay clergy and same-gender marriage are contemplating leaving The United Methodist Church.  I understand, or am trying as best I can.  It’s an understandable reaction.

A reaction–but not a response.

If anyone reading this is in the midst of this reaction, please hear me out before you act.

This is a good time to remember who we are–the people God has gathered to be the Body of Christ in the world, the community of Christ’s presence, and the people who offer a glimpse of what the coming Kingdom of God will look like.  The problem we have is that the church is full of people, and worse, sinful, reprehensible, short-sighted, selfish, people (and these are the ones we call “the saints”).  For 2,000 years the church has been a frustrating and disappointing cesspool of human pride, prejudice, and failing.  But it has also been the place where God meets us with his grace, forgiveness, healing, and inspiration to do something about the brokenness in the world around us.  Indeed, if the church was a place where everyone were paragons of virtue, morality, and wisdom, it would be . . . well . . . plastic, and really dull.  As it is, it is the church is living, breathing, good, bad, ugly, and sometimes great, profound, and amazing.  It is where God meets us and invites us to wrestle with what being human and God’s people mean.

For those who are angered–incensed!–by GC2019’s decision and considering walking away, please step back for a moment.  Take the space provided by Lent to breath, pray, think.  And discern where you are called to ministry.  Maybe, in this season of your discontent, your ministry may be in staying and channeling your anger, as Jesus did with the sick man, and helping your church here in the place where you worship and serve, do its best ministry to the world through its worship, teaching, and service.

Keep the faith!

The Michigan Statement, today, hit the newspapers.  It now belongs to our culture as an artifact of our time that represents the religious, social, and political dynamics of our culture, not just United Methodism in Michigan.  In its public form, it is a simple statement of support for full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in all areas of the life of the UMC, particularly within the Michigan Conference.  It includes a confession to LGBTQIA persons for the pain inflicted by the GC2019 decision to affirm 47 years of homosexual exclusion in the clergy, a more recent rejection of same-gender marriage, and the assertion of more severe sanction for disobedience in these areas.  In addition, the statement declares support for LGBTQIA persons.

In addition to the public statement, displayed on The Michigan Statement website’s homepage, is a link to a page containing the much longer letter read to the Michigan Area bishop on 9 March during a session including the bishop and Michigan Conference clergy (no laity were present).  That letter says the same thing as the briefer public statement, albeit with greater verbosity.  It also says something that the statement does not say–that the undersigned vow to disobey the prohibitions of homosexual clergy and same-gender marriage found in The Discipline.  This takes The Michigan Statement a step further than I am willing to go and further alienates me from the veritable who’s-who of Michigan Methodism who have signed the letter.

Collegial alienation, or at least some distancing, is something I do not want but is something I can deal with.  I expect to not always agree with my peers in ministry, although disagreements have been rare.  But I do worry about what might happen should increasingly more partisan colleagues come into positions of influence over clergy assessments and appointments.  So far, I have not been willing to entertain the cynical distrust I am hearing from others.

Unfortunately, a document, which has been published but not widely distributed by our conference Board of Ordained Ministry, makes me wary.  In it is a declaration to disobey The Discipline‘s prohibition on gay clergy should it be determined that a LGBTQIA person displays the gifts and graces for ministry.  My concern is how the BOM might deal with clergy that do not agree with their position, or, like me, reject disobedience of church law.

I continue to be disappointed that many on both sides of the divide are not taking time to pause, breath, pray, contemplate, and take time to not react.

I just heard on our local NPR outlet a report about the BOM’s vow to disobey (4:00pm).  I suspect this to be the result of a press release given them by someone representing the BOM.  If this is the case, it is more than a little disturbing because it implies the conflict is being pushed into the arena of public opinion.  I find this unwise.