The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. – Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World, p.8
It was the evening of the first day of the new Administration, January 20, 2017, when newly installed Presidential Press Secretary came to the podium and, rather than welcoming the press to a new Administration, harangued the alleged misconduct of the press by presenting as fact the relative smallness of the inauguration crowd when the Trump Administration insisted it’s crowd was far larger than either of his predecessors. Of course, everyone in the room, presumably including Sean Spicer, knew it was bullshit. The gathering for the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States was comically small, made even more ridiculous by the days-long obsession with denying this very obvious reality.
In the months since, we have come to accept that no words from this Administration or those who have roles of authority within it have any value whatever. Our 45th President has not even a glancing acquaintance with the truth and feels no need to improve his eyesight. We are nation gaslighted on a daily basis by a small group of (mostly) men who believe that reality is so malleable that mere repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them true.
And this is no odd occurrence. It is, rather, the outcome of nearly two decades of FOXNews presenting its alternative reality to a shrinking cohort of Americans who just want to count. Few things are as threatening as the complicated reality within which we live, a reality that less and less abides a single narrative voice speaking from one perspective to offer any authoritative commentary upon it. Building upon the manipulations of one of Richard Nixon’s original rat-fuckers, Roger Ailes, and aided and abetted by the spread of toxic “talk radio” in the voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others, there are millions of Americans whose view of the past two decades is not only radically different than the majority’s; it is a castle floating in the air, supported by the comforting tones of white men repeating a mantra that everything can be good once again, once we silence those other voices that aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t like us.
That the past is contested space isn’t a new idea. That’s precisely how historians present the ethical dilemma of their work: as best as possible to present the past as it was for those who lived and moved and had their being in the past. Rather than history, however, our reactionary fellow-Americans are far more content with a noxious nostalgia stripped of any humanity or meaning other than to bolster the fading power of a white cultural and political voice. Particularly with the rise of African-American history, feminist historiography, histories that bring to light hidden realities from the past whether that be the treatment of the native nations of North America or how Chinese immigrants living on the west coast were treated as viciously as African-Americans by a nation ungrateful for the labor they provided building our continental railroad system. We don’t like to hear or see things that upset our tranquil view of America as a beneficent provider of freedom and opportunity to the world. Such histories, however, darken the far too clean edges of our official memories.
I was sitting down to read Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, already disturbed by the subtitle, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. The idea there is “one right way” to do the necessary individual and social act of remembering is an idea that no longer carries any weight. Individual memories, as psychological studies have shown over and over again, are malleable things, sometimes presenting us with false memories either to console or disturb us. That our collective memory has long been contested space is something historians take for granted. To offer, then, a view of “remembering” as something to do “rightly” seems difficult to sustain. Human communities, including religious communities, are not immune either to the false god of nostalgia or the weakening of hegemonic discourses leaving confusion about what is and is not true and right. We in the churches find ourselves struggling in the midst of rapid social and cultural changes for which the assertion of “should” has no moral or pedagogical weight. There are only communities and the various ways they embody remembrance, including most especially the remembrance of violence, injustice, and persecution, as part of their practice of faith. Whether it’s in the liturgy, the pastoral, the missional, or theological expressions of the faith, we can no longer pretend there is a single answer to the question, “How should we Christians deal with memory in all its variety?”
Even more troubling, however, is Volf’s stated intention to present an ethic of memory that “goes beyond” justice (p.10). It is in remembering that the hunger for justice is kept alive. Memory is the enemy of any official statement, be it sacred or secular. The messy realities of human life, too often denied by our national or church leaders, are the one thing that keeps us from succumbing to the constant barrage of falsehoods either from secular leaders creating a false narrative and reality, or some in the churches who would insist that only doctrinally approved memories are fit grist for our theological mills. In a time when the very act of remembering denies the truthfulness of our public officials; when some would silence the memories of faithful lives lived outside sanctioned lifeways; living in such a moment when the very fabric of reality seems, at times, to be the main battleground, to demand an ethic of “right” remembering, rather than celebrating the varieties of remembering that keep alive identities too long denied and never fully satisfy the hunger for real justice that can only come by a transformation of our institutions. This doesn’t mean the past will somehow cease to be contested space; it will always be such. It is only to assert that remembering is a contested political act and contested act of faith. To declare the contest over by the mere assertion of how we “should” act, including remembering as an active ethical concern of real individuals and communities is a kind of religious imperialism that can only land within the already contested areas where memory and history, where real human lives and communities struggle to assert their full place within our collective consciousness.
I don’t regret not being able to get much beyond p. 12 or 13 of Volf’s work. The entire premise – there is a single ethical stance Christians should take regarding memory – is a house built on sand. That this sand is the all-too-popular idea of a transcendent, peaceful, “liberal” Christian “tolerance” (always a disparaging, derogatory stance) of The Other, even when that Other has done violence to oneself or one’s community, it is easy to watch the beautiful house crumble as the bloody flood of history rises and destroys it. To claim that we as Christians need to move beyond justice rather than always hold it before ourselves as a necessary part of true reconciliation is a blasphemous attempt to silence those whose history is one of official repression, denial, and murder in order to keep our histories and memories clean and male and white.
Now I just need to find something else to read . . .
I remember a time when churches were full on Sunday mornings. I remember when my home church, now dead and gone, had so many in attendance they’d set out extra chairs for people to sit in. The mighty sound of a full and full-throated choir bouncing off the hardwood and stained glass was powerful. People greeting one another after worship in long queues, across generations, smiling and thankful to be together.
I’m not saying I remember some golden age to which I wish to return. I’m just saying I remember a time when faith, a life of faith, the practice of faith still meant something. More than anything, such memories mark me as a bit older than I’d care to admit.
When I started Seminary, it was at the point in our local and national life when the decline of active church membership, and church membership at all, was starting to be noticed. Even as there were whispers and guarded discussions about what was happening, by and large our education was preparing us for a world that was disappearing far more rapidly than we could imagine, let alone wanted to admit to ourselves. There’s a saying that our military is always preparing for the last war. I guess it’s true with training our pastoral leaders: We’re getting them ready with old tools and skills for a world with new challenges, new dangers, and always always always the promise of something new happening.
Like anyone else entering middle age, the world around us is becoming less and less about us. The things we knew when we were younger are as dead as the past from which we dredge up memories of overflowing pews on Sunday mornings and a louder voice in our local and national affairs. Of all the new challenges with which we must deal, perhaps the most perplexing is the reality that for more and more people, the whole church-thing, God-thing, all the trappings of a bygone era are no more relevant than are tail fins on cars or touring with the Grateful Dead. It isn’t so much militant atheism with which the church must contend as it is a growing number of people who just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Meaning? Purpose? These things can be found in all sorts of organizations, life-ways, occupations, without all that weird metaphysical baggage that no longer makes any sense in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular age. We in the churches speak of Good News in a world that just no longer thinks it needs it.
A lot of churches, local and denominational, fall back on upholding old truths, drawing far more strict lines about who’s in and who’s out, demanding even greater adherence to doctrinal formulae and theological methods that, for all they once fed the multitudes are no so many empty baskets, ignored by those fed by other means. We now not so much invite as demand people come and see and hear and adhere and submit and their lives will have an overarching meaning, purpose, and telos that extends beyond the fragmented eternal nows that are the hollow substance of post-modern time. There are some, perhaps many, who find comfort and strength within such gated church communities. Upholding the past as true and the present as false offers a rock upon which to stand, someplace solid upon which to build a life of verities in the midst of a world that no longer cares about such things.
For every family that finds refuge within such seemingly solid structures, however, there are five, perhaps ten, that see these attempts at reconstructing a dead age for what it is – not a fortress within which one is safe from the world, but a Potemkin village, empty of anything other than those who admire the beautiful facades without caring how flat and false they are. Seeing this in abundance, all too often they look upon all churches as such false fronts, holding no promise, no message, no possibilities that cannot be found far better elsewhere. What these growing number of people see and hear isn’t so much Good News as it is a bunch of old words and promises for something no longer thought possible – safety and security in the midst of our chaotic world.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to reach such people? How do we in the churches who do not accept the crumbling sand of the same old thing and the incomprehensibility of so much of our talk about ourselves and our God still answer what we feel to be a call to tell the world there really is Good News? How do we live and practice our faith in a time when the very idea of “faith” is something about which fewer people care? These are the realities our churches face, the wall that separates us from those around us: we recognize the irrelevance of emptiness of so much of our talk, our ways of worship, our ways of living yet understand ourselves caught up in something the compels us to declare that God is, God is love, and God’s love extends to all creation.
I know I wasn’t educated or trained for such a world; I think our church leaders, those of my generation, weren’t either. We still read Bonhoeffer and Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr as if they were contemporaries, rather than oracles to a world that, even as we read their words, were receding more and more quickly. We thought Cone and Daly, Reuther and Gutierrez were radical when in fact they were no more than prophets to institutions unsuited to the challenges their messages announced. Ours is a world – truly a world – made up of neighborhoods. Whether we call them countries our states or even our local towns and villages, any global view always ends up zooming in on our increasingly nonhegemonic society, in which white and male faces no longer dominate; where love is greater than we thought, watching as same-sex couples celebrate blessed unions and state-sanctioned marriages; communities where the ravages of centuries of racism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism of all kinds have left indelible scars, requiring more than just good intentions and open minds and open hearts not only to overcome, but to accept the scars as a permanent part of our social, cultural, and political landscape. These and more are the new realities which confront our local churches, demanding an answer to the challenge, “With all this, why should I care about what you have to say and do?”
I’m not sure we yet have the tools to even begin searching for an answer, beyond recognizing the reality of the urgency of the question. I know our current generation of leaders weren’t given the tools with which to work toward anything like an answer. At the same time, I also know this is where we are, this is what our churches face, and if we do not even recognize the irrelevance of our claims to having something called “faith” that is vital to our lives and identities, we may very well wither and die. Falling back on false “timeless truths” is no answer, not really; it’s a reaction born of fear. We need to do and say something new in new ways, trusting that something beyond our own fears is giving us the ability to keep going.
When we lose our awe and humility toward the impenetrable mystery “surrounding all existence,” and our concomitant sense of the failure of ideas and words to articulate divinity, the qualitative gap between human language and divine ineffability collapses. God then erroneously “becomes father, mother, lover, friend.” – Heidi Epstein, Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music, p.13
In the summer of 1986, long before I had any inclination to attend Seminary, an old friend of mine who was in the midst of her own Seminary training told me that the first year of Seminary is like a wrecking ball: People’s confidence in their own understanding of the faith is destroyed, with the rest of the time being one of the faculty offering tools not so much to reconstruct a new faith structure but to move forward confidently without such a structure. I don’t know if I’ve told the story before – I’ve been writing blog posts for 11 years; it’s nearly impossible for me to keep track of everything I’ve ever written – but after about four weeks of her first semester in Seminary, my wife experienced a kind of acute crisis of faith that many people experience around the same point in their studies. No matter how open one is to learning about the faith, understanding new ways of reading the Bible, thinking about the Christ-event in our personal and communal lives, the impact of a great deal of new information in a relatively short period of time can shake even the strongest of faith-foundations. I saw a few folks walk away at this point; they were far too uncomfortable having their sureties challenged this way*. Most, however, ended up like Lisa, sitting and crying from a combination of mourning and fear. They were mourning the loss of what felt like anything solid upon which to stand. They were terrified that, having lost that solid rock of understanding there would never be anything to take its place.
One of the things at least my own Seminary professors kind of pounded into our heads was the reality that God’s revelation is not a “once-for-all” event; even should one adhere to some kind of strict Christocentrism a la Barth, denying the efficacy of other avenues of revelation, we human beings do not and cannot ever have the whole of divine revelation. Revelation includes not only a revealing but always a simultaneous concealing; there is always mystery, always more to see and hear. Were it not so, what the hell are we doing, anyway?
Over the past few days, I faced a true crisis of faith. It’s something that’s been building for a while, to be honest. The crisis within the United Methodist Church, the dishonesty and exclusivism of those who oppose opening our denomination to sexual minorities, and the narrow, stingy orthodoxy of those self-appointed arbiters of orthodoxy within our church have left me confused and angry. Matters regarding my current home church are also a problem, ones that leave me unsure of how to address them. Finally, reading a book about music and death over the weekend pushed to the forefront of my own mind the reality that our deaths, whatever else they might mean, certainly mean the annihilation of our personhood. In an instant what was will disappear, never to be again. Essentially, I spent part of the weekend wondering, “What the hell does anything matter?”
Yesterday, however, it occurred to me that this crisis was precisely the kind of thing that should happen periodically to all believers: We must face new information, new situations and contexts, new ways of thinking about the Christ-event and its meaning in our lives. When we do so, we should find ourselves unable, at least initially, to integrate all this into how we understand the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We should wonder what the hell any of it means. Having spent my adult life studying and thinking about the faith that informs my life, if I hadn’t experienced something new, then I was believing in the wrong God.
No matter how faithful we are; no matter how sure we have a handle on this whole faith-thing and God-thing, we should never be so arrogant as to assume we always have it all (something I tell other people all the time). One of the central meanings of the Christ-event is something theologian Jurgen Moltmann pointed out over and over again in his work: Our God is the God of New Things: New Life, New Creation, New Community constantly refreshed by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Refusing settle for that which the Church Universal has already said regarding the content and meaning of the Christ-event is a necessary way for the church and its members to remain healthy, open to all the possibilities yet to discover about who our God is and what God is doing.
As for my personal “crisis”, I’ll just say that it was a good reminder that I cannot rest confidently upon all that I have already learned. Our doctrines, our theologies, they are always and ever prolegomenna to that new thing that is yet coming from God. When we forget that, when we insist upon aged formulas in dead languages and thought, we keep Jesus buried in tombs we construct in our arrogance and lack of faith. Unless we’re willing to allow past be prologue, our doctrines to be the beginning of our theological exploration rather than the end, and allow for the possibilities that, as the Bible says repeatedly in both Testaments, that God is doing a New Thing, we shall wither and die on the vine.
God is never what we wish. It is always the case that we are told who God is. We must always remember that the canon is not closed, revelation is not exhausted, and God really does do new things all the time, whether that’s in our denominations, our local churches, or in our individual lives.
*During my first year, on the very first day of classes during a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, when the professor reminded the class there were two conflicting and contradictory stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, two people got up and left the room, never to return.
For those not “in the know”, PostSecret is this amazing website where people from all over the world anonymously send in their secrets to share with the world. There are PostSecret events, too, where people are invited to put their secrets in a box to be shared – again, anonymously – with the audience. There are books. There are people who are alive today because of PostSecret. PostSecret helped raise money to keep a suicide prevention hotline open. Some of the secrets are funny. Some are heartbreaking. A lot revolve around sex. Today, however, this secret appeared.
I wish I could talk to this person. I’d deal with the easiest question first: “What do I do with this information?” Whatever you want. You can forget about it. You can spend your life secretly puzzling over its meaning. You can deny the event ever took place. You can make a macrame of whatever it was God said and hang it on your wall. Because of that whole free-will thing, you can do or not as you see fit, and the truth is, it doesn’t matter.
We might as well go in reverse order: “Why ME and not a really religious person.” If you pick up your Bible, there is a little book in the Old Testament, an old old story called Jonah. It’s about a very religious man who had the same experience: God told Jonah to do something. And this very righteous, religious man did the exact opposite, ending up tied up and tossed overboard, eaten by a fish to be vomited on a beach where he ended up doing what God wanted him to do anyway (although in hardly a good humor; if you read to the end, after following God’s instructions to a “t”, he sits on a mountain above the city and waits for God to smite the Ninevites. When it doesn’t, he actually pouts! So much for your “really religious person” getting a message from God. God tends to use nonreligious people because they don’t have a whole lot of crap cluttering up their brains telling them what the best way to understand such a call might be.
The only question that really matters, then, is “Now what?” Because this is the first question you asked, you recognize, even if only subconsciously, that the moment was real, an event that happened in your life about which you have to do . . . something. I often wonder how many people hear such messages and ignore them. Or perhaps explain them away in one way or another. Then there are those to whom such moments occur for whom they are just too much. I wonder how many of our mental health facilities have people inside for whom the fact God spoke to them – regardless of content – is just too much to handle. Doesn’t seem quite fair, right? Shouldn’t God know whether or not people are or are not strong enough to deal with such things? Finally, there might be people who accept it as a rel event in their life, a real thing. Then they go on with their lives as if it doesn’t matter in the least.
You, however, asked the most important question first: “Now what?” I could have you running off to one institutional church or another, and I will confess I believe that most ordained clergy in most mainline, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches would be able to help you; they might even enjoy helping someone who is wise enough to ask, “Now what?” All the same, I think you need to turn to people you trust. It doesn’t matter if they’re religious, atheists, choir members, or whatever. Shoot, they don’t have to share the same religious beliefs you do at all! They should, however, be people in whom you place tremendous trust and faith. Talk with them.
The thing is, what comes next is up to you. It’s totally, completely, utterly, and irrevocably your decision. Just as the message is completely yours, so how you choose to integrate this particular event into your life is your choice. God doesn’t demand. God doesn’t give orders. In fact, God just speaks to particular people at particular times and those particular people are then free to do as they wish.
One word of caution, however. God doesn’t usually stop with just one such event. I’m not saying you’re going to hear God’s voice for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel that little tug, the occasional nudge. It’s never a bludgeon. It is also never a demand. It is what it is. There’s something God wants done and God wants you to do it. You can run away, like Jonah; just remember what happened to him. My recommendation – and that’s all it is – is that, now, you find one or two people you can trust and talk about it. Hear what they have to say.
Or you could choose to find some official from some organized body and have them help you work through it. That’s certainly an option, and one as I said such clergy might welcome (despite what the popular media might say, the fact is most clergy accept the reality of such moments, if for no other reason than they have usually experienced the same kind of thing in their own lives.
The important thing, however, is that you’ve asked that question, “Now what?” first. You want not only to know how to move forward with this event a part of your life; you’re going to move forward with this event a part of your life. All the other stuff, the “Why me?” question, the question of the practical usefulness of such a moment, that’s the stuff other people tell us we should ask. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t important questions; it just means they aren’t as important as that first question: “Now what?”
Everything else hinges on how you choose to answer that question. But just know, God knows you, sees you, and most of all God wants you to do something. Perhaps it’s a small thing. Perhaps it will change the world. Whatever it is, it’s yours.
Now what? I suggest you figure out how to get to Nineveh, pack enough supplies, and head on out. The rest, well, it’ll take care of itself.
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced – The General Rules Of The Methodist Church
Then there is what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face–especially in their relationships with their parents and their fellow believers (when they’re believers). Depending on the family and its unique fixations, it can be far worse than declaring oneself an atheist (or seen as not as bad since at least one still believes). In either case it’s bad enough often enough that any reasonable inference must put at least some significant blame at the feet of Christian parents for the epidemic of LGBT teens who wind up on the street, dead, or on suicide watch. While homophobia is not a phenomenon unique to conservative Christianity and while school bullying plays its own serious role in this crisis, in contemporary America, the war of demonization of homosexuality is carried out endlessly by conservative Christians, be they evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, or some other sort. Were these groups of people to flip their ideological stance overnight, full gay legal equality would be guaranteed within a year. – Daniel Fincke, “The Gay Enemy Threat In The Christian Home”, Patheos.com, May 21, 2014
Implications: S[exual]M[inority]Y[outh] who mature in religious contexts, which facilitate identity conflict, are at higher odds for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt compared to other SMY. Internalized homophobia accounts for portions of this conflict, but does not explain the whole of this phenomenon. Although leaving one’s religion due to conflict may appear to suggest an adaptive response to intolerance for SMY, it is also associated with higher odds of suicide. Not only do clinicians have the extra responsibility to assess for suicide in this population, but they also need to consider the implications of a client leaving his or her religion. Because of the increased risk for suicide, these finding suggest that clinical best practices do not involve encouraging SMY to leave their intolerant religion of origin. Further research is needed to investigate this complex relationship. – from the Abstract for Jeremy Gibbs, MSW, PhD Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA and Jeremy Goldbach, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, “Growing Up Queer and Religious: A Quantitative Study Analyzing the Relationship Between Religious Identity Conflict and Suicide in Sexual Minority Youth”, presented at the 2014 Conference of The Society of Social Work and Research, January 18, 2014
Marriage and Sexuality
We believe marriage and sexual intimacy are good gifts from God. In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We believe that God intends faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.
We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity. Hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes directed toward any individual or group are to be repudiated and are not in accord with Scripture nor the doctrines of the WCA. – Wesley Covenant Association, “Statement of Beliefs”
I know I’ve probably made this point before, but with Annual Conference Season just around the corner (it begins Sunday here in the Northern Illinois Conference) it bears repeating: The ongoing anathematizing of the peronhood of sexual minorities contributes to the ongoing crisis of suicide among gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer youth. As long our official bodies declare “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching”, we automatically excommunicate hundred and thousands of young people, undermine any claim to moral authority the church might have on other issues, and make a lie of our insistence that we have Good News to preach to the world. We find ourselves in the peculiar position of aiding and abetting both the psychological and physical destruction of already-vulnerable young people and demonstrating to a world increasingly uninterested in religion just how irrelevant we are.
Take a look at the statement of beliefs regarding marriage, sexuality, and human sexuality from the Wesley Covenant Association. By making the specious claim they are in tune with some ongoing historic doctrine regarding human sexuality that denies the full humanity of sexual minorities, they then go on to claim the full human worth of all persons. The blatant falsehood of this latter claim lays bare the harsh truth their basic reason for existing, denying full participation in the life and ministry of the church to sexual minorities due to some never-quite-made-clear “doctrine” regarding “homosexuality”.
The Three General Rules of the Methodist Societies, first set out by John Wesley in 1738 in response to a request from a small group of earnest followers are summed up quite nicely by their titles: Do No Harm; Do Good; Attend Upon All The Ordinances Of God. Because Wesley was always one who preferred clarity and thoroughness, however, he sets out examples of each and in none of them are matters of human sexuality mentioned. Except in “Do No Harm,” where Wesley writes, “Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.” When we tell people that, because of who they are, they are inherently and irrevocably separated from God; that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching; and then somehow claim we affirm the full dignity of all persons – you deny the humanity of these very same people. To me, that smacks of harm. Worse, it smells like evil.
Suicide rates among sexual minority youth, particularly among youth who identify as trans or nongender conforming is appalling, a scandal that hovers just over the horizon of our consciousness. We in the churches, especially we United Methodists with our dedication to mission, discipleship, and the transformation of the world, should be at the forefront of efforts to help vulnerable youth feel welcome and loved. Instead, we are engaged in a decades-long argument, the terms of which have ceased to have any meaning, all the while making our claims to moral authority more and more ridiculous and the general discourse of welcome, hospitality, of love and generosity and new blessed community meaningless and irrelevant to more and more people. Having spent far too much time, energy, and money arguing about human sexuality, we have made ourselves a laughingstock. As an institution, we in the United Methodist Church just don’t matter to more and more people precisely because we bicker and quarrel, claim to honor human dignity while dehumanizing sexual minority youth.
As we begin our march toward St. Louis in 2019, perhaps we should ask ourselves a very simple question: Do we uphold a statement regarding human sexuality that is doing very real harm to very real people for the sake of some never-named principle? Or do we look at the faces of our vulnerable young people and say their lives matter more than our fear and bigotry? Let’s not fiddle while Rome burns, shall we? Let’s not walk past the person beaten and forgotten on the side of the road because we believe they represent some threat to our holiness? Let us, perhaps, rededicate ourselves to doing no harm, to declare all persons, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, not only worthy of full human dignity but worthy participants with us in our Kingdom-building project.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that what we United Methodists need isn’t yet another fruitless debate and discussion of the question of the language regarding “homosexual practice”. Rather, it would be far better were we to have a discussion about the nature of our churches, their mission and ministry. All the same, I’m hardly surprised to find our General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has offered yet another study guide focused on the question of human sexuality. The subtitle, “Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” assumes both that there is some vague, as-yet defined “faithful witness” specific to United Methodism that we currently aren’t doing and that our churches don’t know how to include matters of human sexuality in their faithful witness. First of all, to take the two matters in reverse orders, our local churches tend to be wary of delving too much into matters of human sexuality not only because we Americans are embarrassed to talk about sex; they are also, by and large, adults who view matters of human sexuality as highly personal, and not matters about which the church should exercise itself overmuch. As for “faithful witness”, I would argue that our churches by and large are being faithful witnesses to the Gospel by keeping the doors of their churches open to pretty much anyone who walks in. They are being faithful witnesses by their local outreach, whether its local mission projects, Vacation Bible School in the summer, or what have you. Our churches know what they’re about, and to presume they need some kind of guidance from seminary professors on what it means to be a faithful witness both in general and in regards to matters of human sexuality in particular is precisely our problem.
Simply put, I think we’re supersaturated with study guides, books written by successful pastors on everything under the sun, and yet another class meeting some weeknight led by the pastor. Most churches liturgy is overflowing with sermon series’, sometimes based upon Scripture, sometimes on a, yes indeed, study guide. In an effort to coordinate everything from adult Christian education to liturgy to missional focus, ours is a denomination flooded with far too much top-down guidance through select issues.
In the United States, we are a church of thousands of congregations with around 8 million members. Among those members are successful business people, doctors, lawyers, counselors, teachers, non-profit workers and executives, academics, scientists, retired clergy, and based upon our demographics among the best-educated people in America. These are the people who make up our committees, our United Methodist Women groups, our Sunday School teachers, our small group leaders, and our faithful givers, tithers, and members. Rather than tap this ocean of expertise, we turn yet again to the same authors who ask the same questions and offer the same answers time and time again.
How many of our local church members are even aware that General Conference last year was a cock-up of epic proportions? How many know there will be a special called session of General Conference in February, 2019 to address not questions of human sexuality but primarily matters of the larger church’s organization? How many people know there’s an organization of clergy, some in their own conference, who are part of a group actively encouraging schism? How many of our local churches understand now is the time to speak up and act, to demand we focus our attention on our core mission of discipleship formation for the transformation of our world?
Why are we afraid of being open and honest about what’s going to happen over the next 18 months or so? Why are we ignoring the wealth of experience, of understanding, of specialized knowledge, of all the gifts and grace of our local churches, turning yet again to a study guide written by a committee, rather than coming to a consensus among the members of each local church after ad hoc conversations among themselves? Why is faithful witness something that is not assumed? Why? WHY? WHY???
We are facing grace matters yet there is little effort to harness the people called Methodists to shape and inform the discussions. We are looking to our usual ways of working with our usual problems: a study guide, taught in a class, usually by clergy. Not that there’s anything wrong per se with the current study guide; rather, it’s the lack of imagination that seeks to tell our local churches rather than listen to them.
Rather than talk about what others insist we must talk about, wouldn’t it be great for once if we listened to what our local churches had to say on matters of faithfulness, of in what each local church’s witness consists, its mission experience and goals? Wouldn’t it be nice if matters of human sexuality could be set within the context not of a 45 year old undefined formula (“practice of homosexuality”) that is really quite meaningless, considering what we know about human sexuality, and instead talked about the fact that sexuality might well be of little to no concern when it comes to the actual goings-on in our local churches? Wouldn’t it be nice if our delegations to the special General Conference went carrying not just the endorsements of their fellow Annual Conference members, but carrying the messages from our local churches regarding matters of church mission and ministry, the place and role of human sexuality, and what this should mean for our church structure?
In her latest column at Patheos.com, the Rev. Christy Thomas highlights what she sees as one of our major structural weaknesses inhibiting our growth:
[O]ur bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it appears that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.
Rather than a weakness, I for one see this as one of our great strengths. While not always perfect, and with some voices silenced either by cacophony or official proclamation, we are a denomination that insists that all voices are of value, all persons should be heard. I cannot imagine a church as large and diverse as ours operating in a way that limited discussions or sought to make quick decisions based upon matters of financial expense. This is who we are, and we should be proud of the occasional near-anarchy of our large meetings. Democracy is the least efficient way to do anything; we should seek faithfulness through consensus over efficiency every time.
By all means, we should be using the above study guide (and all those that are sure to follow). They should never replace the need we have to allow our congregations to speak for themselves, to tell their stories of faithful witness and mission. Let them tell their stories of their sense of place within the larger church. Let them talk about their understanding of the place of human sexuality within the life and mission of the church, an understanding that comes from years of faithful work at the heart of all church work – the local congregation. Not everyone is going to come out in the same place, and that’s OK. At least our church might actually be heard from, rather than told afterward what’s happening.
There’s been a flurry of activity among prominent spokespersons (all white men) from the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) as the Commission on the Way Forward begins its work. With Annual Conferences scheduled to begin around the United States in a week or two, the pressure on delegates to act certainly seems to be rising.
There are several things I think all Annual Conference members, Bishops, members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the average lay person in the pew should consider as the politicking becomes more intense and the rhetoric ramps up.
First, we need to be very clear what the WCA is and is not. It is a gathering of largely older, white, male clergy and academics whose goal is one thing alone:
“I think that the way ahead lies with an exit plan for those who cannot accept the canonical teaching and practice of the church rather than a plan for division,” Abraham announced, coining the term “Mexit” for this Methodist departure.
Abraham suggested “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.” – Mark Tooley, “‘Mexit’ For United Methodist Sexual/Theological Dissenters”, Juicyecumenism.com, March 29, 2017
There’s nothing Wesleyan or Covenantal about their organization. Indeed, I think it’s more than fair to say that, rather than the spokesmen for some silent majority, the WCA represents an ever-shrinking minority. Recent polling of the denomination, according to the linked Christianity Today article, has been consistent with a plurality favoring the removal of the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. The vast majority (90%!) want nothing to do with schism, split, or kicking anyone out over matters of sexuality, insisting the constant attention is diverting the larger church from its mission. So when Chris Ritter claims, “The majority of United Methodists believe what the Book of Discipline teaches about human sexuality whether they are vocal about this or not.” he is not only making an impossible, self-contradictory claim (how is it possible for anyone to know what the vast majority of any group believes if they also insist they are silent about it?), the claim is contradicted by actual surveys that show the UMC in America would far prefer we set aside the discriminatory language and lay the issue to rest to get back to being the Church.
From my own experience of more than four decades, I would venture to say the majority of United Methodists don’t even know there is a Book of Discipline or if they do know, only know it is a book of law for the denomination. I also observe that most United Methodists don’t live their lives on a denominational level but on a congregational level where they learn about and exercise their Christian faith far from any Book of Discipline.
This is a fair picture of my own experience as well. Which is not to say that church members consider matters of church law irrelevant. As they should be, and as surveys show, members of our United Methodists congregations around the country are far more focused on the mission of their local churches and how that fits into the mission of the United Methodist Church. Matters of human sexuality not only aren’t a priority; they’re a distraction.
The WCA claims to be the guardians of something one of their spokesmen calls “the Wesleyan/Evangelical/Orthodox tradition”. Yet none of the statements of the WCA regarding their beliefs – other than endorsing other statements of faith – has any theological content at all. Indeed, as I noted the other day in a piece linked at the top of this paragraph, what few statements I have seen are deliberately designed to be void of content while presenting to those outside the group a particular image: guardians of a tradition that is as old as the Church itself. For all they carry along a few big name United Methodist academics, there is nothing theological about their statements, about their attitude toward the larger denomination, and their insistence that either people who don’t accept the current Book of Discipline must leave or they will. They misrepresent who they are, who they represent, and how they should be perceived.
As we move into the always contentious Annual Conference season; as some observe from afar the working of the Commission on the Way Forward; as we all pray for discernment and peace; we need to bear in mind the WCA is the exact opposite of what it claims (as has its previous incarnations as Good News and The Confessing Movement): an aging conglomerate of the same older white men who have held far too much power far too long who deliberately mislead people regarding their intentions, often offering easily disproven claims as fact to bolster arguments that wind up being internally incoherent. They only have any power and authority because some people choose to grant it to them.
Their membership is relatively small, but there are members across the United States. We should love and honor these people who may have become members for any number of reasons all the while making clear they do not now and will not in the future represent some hidden silent majority of members of the United Methodist Church. They exist solely for the purpose of enforcing discrimination against sexual minorities, and will do anything to achieve their ends.
The easiest way to strip them of any power is not to grant them any; to speak plainly and honestly about who they are, how they operate, and that they just aren’t representative of even a large plurality of church members. Their goal, schism over questions regarding human sexuality, is rejected by the vast majority of the persons for whom they claim to speak. As they aren’t trustworthy conversation partners on a way forward for all of us, they should be rejected as part of that larger conversation.