And Another Thing . . .
The two extremes in the United Methodist Church have likewise forgotten the nature of the Church. Both seek to control it. – Joel Watts
The other day, I wrote a piece criticizing the notion of the indefectability of the Church, the original written by Joel Watts. After a couple days, these two sentences, which had troubled me since I first read them, crystallized for me in to a matter that lies behind all the offering of distractions, the insistence on a particular type of “christian discourse” that ignores any reality save its own sense of its elevation above the give and take of actual discussions and arguments, and now a movement to notify delegates to General Conference on matters that might not have the full support of delegates prior to them coming to floor. What lies behind all this is a distaste for politics in the church.
Discussions, arguments, positioning prior to actually considering legislation, presenting the public with alternatives – this is all part of politics. Sometimes, it can get downright nasty, especially when people feel as passionately as they do about something like their faith and the Church in which they practice and live out their faith. While I refuse to reduce the realities to “extremes” versus those far more sober, orthodox, middle-of-the-roaders, there is little doubt that the nub of the matters before us as United Methodists is, indeed who controls our church. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The orthodoxy which Joel Watts praises so highly wouldn’t exist without political trickery. Martin Luther would be just another dead martyr to ideas for reform of the Roman Catholic Church if not for the internal politics of the Holy Roman Empire (and Charles V’s felt need to wage wars elsewhere rather than deal with the rising heresy within the borders of his realm). The United Methodist Church in the United States wouldn’t exist without Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury calling a Conference at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore and arranging for delegates to elect them our first Bishops, severing the American Church from its British parent. I could go on, but I think the point is clear enough: politics is part of church life, and politics is dirty, sometimes nasty, and always about power and control.
To attempt to stand above it all, declaring oneself adhering both to an orthodoxy and a practical via media that excludes those extremes that are so busy dirtying themselves and others with church politics is as much a political move as all the rest. The difference is the pretense of being above it all. As political as we are – Aristotle’s famous dictum about humanity being a political animal has yet to be proved wrong – especially we Americans are somehow averse to the idea that we are practicing politics. Thus in the secular world, we insist we don’t want a President who is political, but more like a corporate CEO. We want Congress to manage our national budget and financial affairs in the way households do, even though this is both impossible and unwise. We distrust politicians, insisting “they’re all alike” despite abundant evidence that politicians are as different as night and day.
To disdain church politics because its central concern is power and control is as unfaithful as disdaining the practice of the Sacrament because of intinction rather than separating the elements, or discounting baptism because one was sprinkled rather than immersed. Church politics are like anything and everything else in the Church – a vehicle for God’s will to become known and lived. Yes, politics can get nasty. Arguments can get heated and not always follow the niceties some would prefer. To insist one is above or between the extremes, thus outside the give and take and push and pull of politics is both to fool oneself and to offer others a vision of Church life that never has been and never can be. The pursuit of Church practice and polity always includes politics. Yet, if we are faithless enough to refuse to pray for and see the presence of the Holy Spirit even here as all sides, not just the extremes struggle both to have their voices heard and to get their positions part of Church life, then we might as well hang up our stoles, desacralize our buildings, and find something else to do. If we are so weak in our faith that we would rather imagine ourselves outside the all too human politics of Church life, then how is it possible to proclaim the Good News, if we do not trust it enough in our common life?
Church politics isn’t a test of faith. It’s a practice of faith. Accept that, and so much of the dross can be discarded.