A Blessed #UMC Roundup: From The Threatening Through The Pompous To The . . . I’m Not Quite Sure
Responsible thinkers throw caution to the wind
But I find myself speaking from within
I can’t live my life walking on eggshells
To stay on your good side
Using your words, controlling my life
Can’t you see it’s my words that gives you your life
So I hurt your feeling’s well, I’m really sorry
But I don’t give a shit, no – Dream Theater, “Burning My Soul”, lyrics by Michael Portnoy
When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. – Matthew 21:23-27
Looking around at various individuals, groups, caucuses, pastors, lay people, organizations, and others within the United Methodist Church, I am bewildered by what I read. Not because there’s so much of it; nor because there seems to be no consensus on matters of process, let alone goal; nor because the entire conversation is dominated by those who seek to control the content of the discussion in order to steer it toward their own, preferred, conclusion (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m bewildered, instead, because no one seems to have noticed how glorious, how open and wide ranging, how many topics are suddenly of grave importance, from doctrine through Biblical interpretation through our collective history to our current pastoral practice and its legal basis are all part of the mix. I’m wonderfully, happily bewildered because no one is celebrating the one thing in all this that is so obvious no one seems to have noticed: We United Methodists are showing the rest of the world just how diverse we are. For any group, caucus, petitioner, outside yet interested party, pastor, theologian, Bishop, institution, or organization to claim even a heavy plurality of support in the midst of the din would be ridiculous.
Such, for example, is the case with the folks from UMAction at the Institute For Religion and Democracy. A member of UMAction published an op-ed in the United Methodist Reporter that is standard (for them) boiler plate nonsense about doctrine and history, their version of which bears no resemblance to anything in the real world. But that’s OK. The real meat of the piece comes in one sentence:
I invite all those interested in the unity of our church to join UMAction in:
- Explicitly recognizing that any truly Christian church unity will ultimately insist on some firm communal boundaries;
- Insisting on meaningful consequences for clergy and other UMC leaders who willfully and recklessly attack our unity by openly opposing our Doctrinal Standards and/or disregarding our biblical, covenantal standards related to sexual self-control; and
- Opposing current efforts of progressive United Methodists to use the name and resources of the whole church to support very partisan, debatable political agendas issues on which faithful Christians can and do disagree, as this fails to honor our unity and diversity and suggests that only people of certain political persuasions are welcome in our churches. (Bold in original, but that’s the sentence I wanted folks to notice)
Isn’t that threat smoother than a baby’s butt? Forget the bullet points, which are meaningless word salad – firm communal boundaries? Really? In the Body of Christ? The only thing that matters in the whole long editorial is that single sentence, containing the threat of schism should “those interested in the unity of our church” not work toward UMAction’s goals. There is not a bit of effort to bless and praise our diversity; indeed, it is anathematized, particularly in that last bullet point, in which disagreement is recognized yet condemned at a “threat” to “unity”, as if our “unity” weren’t rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Then there are those for whom the messiness of church democracy is something to be scorned, even while claiming for one’s own some alleged middle-ground over and against two undefined yet similar extremes.
Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church. As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed anonymous minions. Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic. In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice. While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.
But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level. A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student. Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident. Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.
Isn’t it terrible? A family communicating to the rest of the church how a leader in a local United Methodist congregation contributed to the suicide of their gay son? We have no need to hear about things like that! We have no need to hear schism talk!
We have serious matters before us. We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing. Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another. Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment. In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.
The barbarians are at the gate, friends. They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two). We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender. The choice is ours.
Yes, serious matter indeed, which certainly do not include such unserious things as allowing the diverse voices of the United Methodist Church be heard. We should be praying, you know. And fasting. We shouldn’t be doing any actual arguing or disagreeing or celebrating our enormous wealth of talent and vision across the denomination.
Finally, there are those whose positions I just can’t quite understand:
First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.
John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.
What are we trying to accomplish?
Really? How long has the United Methodist Church been doing this dance, talking about Scripture, talking about tradition, talking about doctrine, talking about being in pastoral ministry to sexual minorities and including them fully in the life of the church? Is it really possible a United Methodist clergyperson could write that last sentence? It might well be time to take a deep breath and figure out why you’re writing such a thing.
Me, I’m happy to be a part of this great and multifarious chorus of voices, from the extremes through the muddled middle to the merely confused. I would love to see this reflected more in our more official discussions. Saturday, the Connectional Table held an event in which several Bishops and the head of the UM Publishing House sat on a panel and discussed a book. They took questions from Twitter, through a monitor, while barring the door both to the press and to outside groups demanding their voices be heard. I’m quite sure it was polite, except perhaps for that horrible video that upset Drew so much. I went to Facebook and spoke my desire to have the Connectional Table host an event in which lay persons, local clergy, mixed with theologians, a bishop or two, and maybe an agency head all sat on a panel, were given an opportunity for a brief (no more than two minute) statement, then the whole thing is opened up – to the floor, including the press (secular and denominational); to social media without a monitor; allowing protest groups to speak their minds. Let the Connectional Table see and hear what the real discussion is really like. Let the whole church see and hear the faces and voices from across the spectrum, from the polite through the formal to the outlandish. We are always talking about diversity. How about we live it through a Connectional Table-sponsored event?
No matter what, I shall continue on as I have, trying to get my tiny voice out there amid the din. Personally, I’m happy there are theologians and seminary Presidents and Bishops who are speaking out. I’m glad there are those who would prefer we stick close to certain issues in order to remain focused. On the other hand, I’m also happy there is a cacophony of choirs, from the dignified to the indignant, demanding their voices, too, be a part of the discussion. This can only help us as a people called Methodist. So, if I offend some folks, well, that’s part of the process, isn’t it? And if I refuse to answer a question, well, there may well be a good reason not for doing so. There’s room for all of us, and what sounds like Babel to us may well be a mighty chorus of the faithful to our God.