Archive for the ‘Ecclesiology’ 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.

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?

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!

I am shifting the focus of these reflections to what is happening post-GC2019, which is far more interesting than what happened at GC2019.

5′ 5″ refers to our bishop, David Bard.  While I my estimate of his height may be off by a little, he is indeed not very tall.  However, his wisdom gives him stature far beyond that measure.

Bishop Bard recently called together the Michigan Area clergy for worship and a discussion about GC2019.  Not only was he prepared and gracious with the variety of comments and questions that came his way, he offered wisdom that I have taken to heart:

Step back and wait throughout Lent and Easter Sunday.

His direct reference was to those who are considering leaving the UMC, either individually as clergy or with their churches as there are some whose knee-jerk reaction to GC2019 is to file divorce papers claiming irreconcilable differences and leave the UMC to its curmudgeonly conservatism.  But “wait” also applies to any action driven by the passion of this post-GC2019 moment of heightened emotion.   Such passionate expressions range from the afore mentioned separation from the UMC to heated rhetoric and abuse spewed out on social media.

Mostly because of social media, we live in a culture of instant reactivity and more often than not, the quicker one is to respond to a provocation, the more likely one is to make things worse.  There was virtue, or at least a bit of a safety valve, in having to sit down with paper and pen to write a letter.  With computer and smartphone typing aids and voice-to-text entry, we no longer have to wait before dispatching our missives, responses, rejoinders, and trolling attacks.  They are away and out of our control before we’ve had the chance to decide if hitting “send” was a good idea or not.

Since I am not immune from this reactivity, my post-GC2019 Lenten discipline is to wait.  Throughout this season, I plan to take a generous amount of time to think, pray, contemplate, and if I feel particularly impassioned, take up a piece of paper and pen to write.  And I intend on making not decisions related to GC2019 until after Easter Sunday.

There’s no hurry.

It was 5 April 2008 all over again (I think I have the date right).

On that day, clergy from the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences, called together by Bishop Jonathan Keaton, gathered at the Lansing Convention Center to vote on merging the two Michigan conferences.  The firm expectation was that this time the merger would happen.  When the final tally was taken (on paper ballots rather than wireless, looks-like-refurbed-blackberry devices) the proposal to merge lost by a disciples-count of twelve votes.

Bishop Keaton, whose demeanor and meeting management were always so well prepared and managed, was gobsmacked.  It was clear that he was thoroughly unprepared for the failure of the merger proposal.  We were in a state of paralysis while he struggled to find something to say.

Roll forward to St. Louis and GC2019.  When the Traditional Plan was approved and the One-Church Plan relegated to the dustbin, it felt like 4/5/08 all over again.  My impression is that our Council of Bishops, informed by the One-Church Plan endorsement of the Committee on a Way Forward, were unprepared for the electoral result. They were gobsmacked.

The passage of the Traditional Plan by a narrow, but not razor-thin, margin (53%) has, and will continue, to invite speculation about what nudged the One-Church Plan over the edge of the UMC’s flat earth.  As interesting as it might be to know how each delegation voted, so we could map the vote in various ways, such statistics are irrelevant.  A more useful question to answer is, Why were the Commission on a Way Forward and our Council of Bishops blind to the theological demographics of our denomination?  Blind may be a bit harsh.  Maybe the more accurate characterization might be that they collectively suffered myopia, unable to see clearly across all of America and past the shores of the U.S. (but I’ll have to stop my speculation here as we’ve been told not to “blame Africa” or the rest of the more conservative UMC Central Conference world outside Western Europe for preferring the Traditional Plan).

My bishop was as gobsmacked as the rest of his colleagues, but unlike Bishop Keaton’s paralysis on (and after) 4/5/08, Bishop Bard has responded to the aftermath of GC2019 with wisdom in his words and a constructive intention to engage with all sides.  I appreciate his “we will talk about this . . . but not yet, let’s wait and give this space” approach.

In the wake of such unexpected results and dashed hopes, it is indeed better to step back and take a few deep breaths rather than flail into a reaction that only makes things worse.

Be Advised:  The following is not happy-to-glad and warm-and-fuzzy.  It is an unfortunate expression of my annoyance with my denomination.  If no one reads this, I’ll understand.

I’m torqued-off at my denomination, The United Methodist Church (UMC).  Yes, it’s about the UMC’s almost obsessive focus and arguments on issues around homosexuality.  And, yes, it’s about where the UMC is headed and the position it will put pastors like me in when we get there.

My primary annoyance is with the UMs’ focus on issues around homosexuality, as if we have nothing more important to get sorted.  For example, UMs have no consistent and consensual Christology.  Down into the heart of what it means to be a Christian, we have wildly differing views of Jesus Christ.  There are those of us who hold a traditional, orthodox belief in Christ, which includes acceptance of a virginal conception, the performance of supernatural works, and whole-person resurrection.  Across the spectrum, others of us take a liberal, “Quest for the Historical Jesus” view that posits Jesus as a metaphorical element at the center of a religious-political narrative of a sect of 1st century Jews in and around the Roman province of Palestine.  We don’t talk about this rather important difference of opinion of core belief, yet we are now ready to divide the UMC over an issue the Bible gives almost no ink to and Jesus himself said nothing about directly.  This tells me that we are a denomination that is defining itself on its opinion about a minor issue a long way outside the center of our faith.

My other annoyance is with the options for how the UMC moves forward that will be considered at a special General Conference schedule for February 2019.  One option creates three large conferences bordered not by geography but by belief in and around homosexuality.  If the decision regarding conference membership is pushed down to the local church level, then that will force pastors and congregations to expend a great deal of time, effort, and internal conflict deciding with which conference to affiliate.   At the local church, we have more important things to do.

There are two other, more likely options up for consideration, and they are just as problematic, if not more.  The first is called the Traditionalist Plan, which calls for a strict adherence to UM church law as it stands today and narrows it even further, specifically to declare that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine and thus clerical leadership, that same-sex marriage is prohibited, and that marriage can only be between two persons of different genders.  An off-ramp is proposed to allow churches who differ with this to exit the UMC with their church property.  In effect, the Traditionalist Plan would split the existing UMC into the UMC and whatever-it-calls-itself-MC.  My problem with this is that it would force me and my congregation to decide which Methodist denomination we would belong to based on our view of homosexuality.  To the outside world we would be a church known not by our proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship to Jesus Christ, but a church within either the homosexual-accepting or homosexual-hating denomination.  How can I and my congregation make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world if we are perceived primarily in these terms by the very people we need to reach for Jesus?!?

The other plan, the one favored by the study group that is reporting to the special General Conference, known as the One Church Plan, would also make my job way more difficult than it already is.  That plan pushes the decisions about issues around homosexuality down to pastors in each church.  I would have to choose, and be responsible, for whether I marry a homosexual couple, for example.  Congregations are rarely of one mind about anything, let alone homosexuality.  If, for example, I chose to marry the gay couple, I would surely anger some of my congregation and, likely, damage my pastoral relationship with them.  Should I refuse to officiate the same wedding, I would similarly anger and alienate others in my congregation.  Today, I can refer back to church law, which thus protects my ability to have a functional relationship with my congregation because they cannot hold me personally responsible.  Having to make decisions about issues around homosexuality without church law as a guide (or shield) would make me personally responsible and the focus of the conflict that might be precipitated from those decisions.  And again, to the world outside our walls, we run the risk of being defined by how we are perceived to embrace or exclude homosexuals.

As always, I put my trust in God to help us get things sorted.  I just hope God has been invited into the conversation.  My fear is that we are either ignoring or speaking over God as we discuss where to take the UMC.