So the Council of Bishops have called for a special session of General Conference for 2019. The reason for the session will be to receive the report of the Committee On The Way Forward and act on its recommendations. Of course, we all know the matter of the future of the United Methodist Church as a coherent denomination will hang in the balance. All over the matter of human sexuality. Precisely because we as a people called Methodist have no idea how even to begin doing a theology of human sexuality, we have been trapped for 45 years discussing a couple sentences in our Book of Discipline, which manage to reduce human sexuality to acts of sexual contact, rejecting some while implicitly accepting others. That these sentences contradict the assertion of human sexuality as a good gift from a good God should be clear enough; absent any clear understanding of what, precisely, human sexuality is, what it entails, and how it fits in the larger order of salvation, we have gone around and around this particular dog track so many times and for so long the runners have disappeared into the deep hole we have all helped dig.
It’s no secret what I stand on this matter. So I found myself in the uncomfortable position last year, watching proceedings on the floor of General Conference via live stream, agreeing in principle with those most vocal in their insistence that the language be removed, some sort of apology offered to those effected by the language, and we move forward affirming all persons and their place in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, however, I was also quite tired of their speech-making, their constant demands to be heard, their attempts to bully whoever might be the presiding Bishop, and their smug assurance that their own righteousness and the correctness of their position (with which I wholeheartedly agree!) would be enough to sway people voting on legislation. It was clear, however, from the very start this relatively small yet loud group had not done the one thing necessary in a political climate: they had organized no groups to side with them. In politics it is never about being right. It is always about power. In this case, what were these folks bringing to the table other than their sense of moral correctness?
They didn’t bring anything at all.
Meanwhile, the far right of the denomination was well-organized, working with delegations from African Conferences and others to block any attempt not only to change the language of the Discipline, but to alter the procedural method by which the Conference could arrive at some kind of consensus. Many people (including me) found it far too close to overstepping certain ethical boundaries, that Good News should not have been hosting these delegates, offering only a singular perspective on these important matters. All the same, it showed that while Good News, the Confessing Movement, and other such groups affiliated with our Church might well be bad at theology, they are most excellent at organizing. Looking at the final vote tallies regarding matters surrounding the removal of the questionable language from the Discipline, had General Conference only been an American affair, the language would have been removed. By wooing the delegates from the African Conferences, however, Good News managed to block any such change.
So, perhaps, rather than ask the same question – Should the language regarding the incompatibility of “the practice of homosexuality” and Christian teaching be removed from the Discipline? – perhaps because we know what the answer’s going to be, we should be asking a completely different question. That question should center on the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church; on the Biblical and Wesleyan mandate to preach, to baptize, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to work for the transformation of the world. Since we have never settled on the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “homosexual practice”, how it does or does not violate Christian teaching, or anything else pertaining to the place of human sexuality in the life of the disciple, we perhaps should be asking about how we move forward together, differing in our opinions regarding matters of human sexuality, yet unified in our mission to transform the world through making disciples. Perhaps we should accept the reality that we shall never, indeed, be of one mind regarding questions of human sexuality, and that as such they should be set to one side while we focus on moving forward together.
My experience as a United Methodist, particularly as a clergy spouse, is the matter is far less urgent among our church members. By and large matters of human sexuality in general and matters surrounding sexual minorities in particular are difficult ones about which to speak. I have heard from more than one lay person in more than one area of the country voice the opinion they would far rather the issues just go away. They don’t see it directly impacting their faith lives or the mission and ministry of their local church. Now many would put this down to a preference to avoid difficult matters for those about which discussion and consensus are far easier; that such a preference is passive-aggressive, avoiding tough matters.
Perhaps, however, we should listen to these voices. People want to talk about how their church is fulfilling its mission, both locally and within the connection. People want to share their stories, not talk in the abstract about what other people do largely within the privacy of their lives outside the work of the church. Even when the question is less abstract, such as a congregation member answering a call to ministry, seeking the endorsement of the local church through the charge conference, and matters of sexuality suddenly intrude themselves into the process (as it now seems the Judicial Council demands we do), I believe most churches would insist that regardless of their feelings on the matter, the question of suitability, of the reality of the presence of a real call, their support of this or that individual would not rest upon matters of the person’s sexuality. Certainly if the person before the charge conference was otherwise morally reprobate, perhaps including abusing the gift of sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with whether than person is straight, gay or bisexual, these are matters that need to be addressed with seriousness. If, however, a persons seeks endorsement as a candidate for ordained ministry, their life and actions demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether than person were or were not straight might well carry very little weight in the eyes of the local charge conference.
Which is why, I believe, it is important to change the conversation. There are those voices that are insistent, demanding, uncompromising, going around and around the language of the Discipline without regard to anything else the Church is supposed to be about. They shall always be with us. Which is precisely why we need to listen to other voices, ask other questions, and perhaps move forward together in one heart if not one mind. Our conversation long ago ceased to have any meaning, to exclude all but those most firmly committed to one extreme or another. That is why I think we might yet have the opportunity to salvage something from our current wreckage, becoming again the people called Methodist, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
There are many voices within The United Methodist Church who want us to break up with them. From bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministries, and other leaders, we are told to simply leave. Is leaving home ever that simple? We are United Methodists because there is no other denomination with our unique connectional polity and distinctive Wesleyan spirituality. We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised.
We are coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex persons at this moment for several reasons. Foremost, we want you to know we still love you and seek to remain in relationship with you. Even if we should leave and you seek more restrictive language against LGBTQI persons, know that God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQI young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination. You cannot legislate against God’s call. The “LGBTQI issue” is not one that can be resolved through restrictive legislation but instead by seeing that all persons are made in the image of God and welcomed into the community of faith. – Reconciling Ministries Network, “A Love Letter To Our Church From Your LGBTQI Religious Leaders”, May 9, 2016
It’s happening. What I have been advocating for 25 years is finally coming to pass. Over a hundred United Methodist leaders have signed an open letter to our denomination as it gathers for General Conference, making plain for all to see and hear they are both LGBTQI and not going anywhere. This mass self-outing challenges the stated preferences of at least some United Methodist leaders to hold trials for each and every person who violates church law regarding the ordination of sexual minorities or those who officiate at same-sex weddings. On the one hand we have the principle that those who violate church law in this regard be put to a church trial (even though the Book of Discipline doesn’t restrict administrative responses to legal action) and the reality that there are now, always have been, and always will be sexual minorities serving church, as District Superintendents, Bishops, youth leaders, seminary professors, and candidates for ordination. Even should those seeking not only to uphold our current language regarding the legal status of sexual minorities and those who officiate at same sex weddings get their way, that not only doesn’t guarantee a successful prosecution; it also doesn’t change the reality that people whose sexuality is different will continue to be called to serve in the United Methodist Church. Restricting the language even further only changes the perception of who holds power within the Church.
I’m sure there are some people gathering in Portland who feel blindsided by this open letter. Even if they support changing the Discipline, this letter would seem to force a quick and decisive decision upon what was intended to be a consciously deliberative process allowing all voices the chance to speak and be heard. This letter is a direct challenge not only to the current Discipline but a challenge to the 800 delegates in Portland to act rather than prayerfully dialogue and conference together on such a sensitive matter. Truth is, I have some sympathy with this point-of-view.
I think, however, that the delegates in Portland might be able to see this as just another part of the deliberative process, another piece of the puzzle they’re trying to put together that is the future of our denomination. Just as there are those, I am sure, who would prefer not to hear the story of Ben Wood, or would prefer we not use our Doctrinal Standards or our Articles of Religion as a guide through the thickets of deliberation, I’m sure that this open letter, precisely because of its audacity, is something delegates would prefer not to consider. It is every bit as relevant, however, as all the other parts of the matter, from Biblical interpretation through practical considerations. All of it must be in the mix, not least the potential future of our brothers and sisters who have dared risk so much so that others might benefit from their audacity.
We stand on the brink. All of us, not just the 800 in Portland, have the gravest of responsibilities: facing the future of our Church together, regardless of how we believe that future should look. I think it is important to recognize and name the courage, the challenge, the promise, the hope, this letter represents. Nothing is as fearless as Christian hope. We should honor that in our thoughts and prayers, our dialogue and arguments, in all that we do to see that the People Called Methodist continue to serve the world in our unique, evangelical, liberating way. Our moment of reckoning is upon us. Let us be the Church circumstances call us to be.
Simple Definition of sacrifice
: the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone
: an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god
a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice
Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016
Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .
My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016
[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016
I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”
Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.
Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.
We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.
As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.
When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.
I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.
So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.
I long for us to argue better. I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means. How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.
So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content. By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate. We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.
I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church. I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist. – Drew McIntyre, “3 Theological Reasons the UMC Should Reconsider Its Stance On Same-Gender Relationships”, Ploughsares Into Swords, May 2, 2016
This second offering of things to consider as we head into Portland, OR and General Conference, should, perhaps, have been written first. Before anything else, we are the Church, the Body of Christ, specifically the inheritors of those John Wesley called “the people called Methodist”. As the Church, our first aim always and everywhere should be to remain faithful. Before we consider anything, we should reaffirm our faith, prayerfully considering how we have neglected this or that or the other part of our collective confession, asking for guidance and strength as we go forward.
Prayer is the practical side of our declaration of faith. St. Paul insisted we should pray without ceasing. To that end we should in all times and places where we gather together seek in and through prayer to remain faithful to the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates us, saves us, and gives us life and new life. How would it be possible to deliberate as the Church if we did not pray and confess our faith together?
For a very long time there’s been a whole lot of talk about the place of confessing the faith within the life of the United Methodist Church. Ours is, after all, a non-creedal Body. There is no distinctive United Methodist Confession of Faith. Over 20 years ago, some people bemoaned this part of our life and formed The Confessing Movement, to the end that the programs and ministries of our Church be held accountable to the confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. While some, including me, have wondered at some of the things the Confessing Movement has written and said, their goal shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, if there is no guidance and limit to what we as a corporate Body preach and teach and witness, why call ourselves as “Church” at all?
Doctrine, a word much misunderstood and abused, is an expression of our collective identity. Too often used synonymous with “theology”, Christian Doctrine is the collective profession of our identity as this Church, this particular living Body of Christ at work in the world. Much bandwidth and ink has been spilled over the status and role of Doctrine within the life of the Church. I sometimes think arguments like this, substitutes for our real grievances against one another, are more entertaining than anything else. That it, until some either dismiss our Doctrinal Statements completely or insist that Christian Doctrine is some unchanging “thing”, existing since time immemorial, vouchsafed to us only to defend and pass on, unmarked by time and circumstance. At these points, I think we’ve entered loony land.
Doctrine is now as it has always been, our collective expression of our identity. People what to know what it is to be a Christian, what that means, all we really need to do is point to our Doctrinal statements and say, “Read this.” The words, their interpretation, different emphases (for example, our particular Wesleyan emphases on grace and Christian Perfection, on mission and discipleship) are always changing because languages change, people change, history changes, circumstances dictate what should be shouted from the rooftops and what should be whispered in secret. This is neither interesting nor surprising.
Gathering in Portland our delegates have a duty to reaffirm our collective profession of faith. In so doing, they should also prayerfully ask that our Doctrinal Standards be their rule and rod, their guide and limit for all they deliberate and decide. Only thus, in an attitude of prayer and in full knowledge of that which marks us as distinct, can our deliberations and decisions be understood as the fruitful outcome of faithful living, prayerful deliberations, and mutual love.
While I still believe that at least some of the emphasis upon Doctrine has been either code for calling those with whom they disagree heretics thus outside the bounds of Christian fellowship or a distraction from other matters, it needs to be repeated and emphasized: We either stand together under our collective expression of identity as professed in our Doctrinal Standards or we shall always be divided by the winds of whatever controversy comes down the pike. We cannot forsake our profession of faith and remain the Body of Christ, regardless of the outcome of our deliberations.
In prayer and profession, only there are we truly The United Methodist Church.
When I go to cross that river, She is comfort by my side
When I try to understand, She just opens up Her hands – Indio, “Hard Sun”, lyrics by Gordon Peterson
Yesterday, I wrote of my renewed hopes for the United Methodist Church going in to our General Conference in Portland, OR. The main point of the post was my hope that we may yet have a real, honest discussion of those words in our Book of Discipline, about “homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Today’s post offers a glimpse of part of what I hope and wish our delegates discuss and pray: That our words matter; the claim that our ethical stance regarding same-sex attraction or sexual otherness is rooted deep in our doctrinal affirmations do real, deadly harm.
I first wrote of William Benjamin “Ben” Wood’s suicide a year and a half ago. I think it’s more than fitting that this coming Sunday is the third anniversary of his death, seeing as it’s the eve of General Conference where the matter of those words in our Discipline will be front and center. Yesterday, his mother Julie Hilliard Wood, wrote a piece for the Reconciling Ministries Network. First, she recounts how our United Methodist Church failed her family, Ben in particular:
My son, had been teased and bullied periodically throughout his childhood. We changed schools from public to private, back to public, to private and back to public again. Through all of this, Ben was wounded but remained kind and grounded. He found pure joy and solid friendships in our United Methodist Church youth group. He was funny and his confidence grew with beautiful shared joy. Unfortunately, with a shift in the youth leadership, there was a change in the message. Ben was singled out by the leader while in a circle of his friends. In other words, the intimidation, the misuse of power, and the bullying began again. This time it was inflicted by an adult in authority representing the United Methodist Church. The unsaid message was eventually spoken in full ambush fashion. Ben was outed as gay (based only on suspicion but Ben did not deny), and was given the message that he did not belong. He was not worthy to be a part of the group and was no representation of Christ. It was announced that he was going to hell. His spirit was irreparably damaged for the remainder of his life. Each of us felt so many raw and difficult emotions. We, as his family, could not say enough, pray enough, love enough to undo the damage. Ben, his father, I and many others were changed forever because of that cruel and betraying message. This type of betrayal by the church which we had trusted, invested in, and loved, produced trauma to every cell of our body and being. This I know; our faith community seemed to have been paralyzed in addressing the abuse. I hold the Church responsible for not taking steps to safeguard our children and all who walk through the doors.
After telling a story of her experience at a meeting of the Western North Carolina Conference that further hurt and discouraged her, then how she was able to move not past but through that hurt, she writes:
Our Church as an institution is in a very odd and strange place. Some would prefer the noise to stop. Others, the harmed and the allies, are crying out for a simple application of the Golden Rule and for justice. The plea is an urgent one because we know that while LGBTQ persons are deemed “incompatible/unworthy,” the suffering continues. People are harmed and sometime lives are tragically ended. It feels strange to be a part of such fiery disagreements. It is uncomfortable and awkward. We even feel off balance.
Thank you God as you never give up on us. You help us grow and teach us as you reveal truths by expanding our view. We take in more and more of You. Insights change as words are changed to ensure that the sacred worth of each individual is tenderly held dear and understood as holy.
It is important to hear these words, the bitter words calling out betrayal and injury leading to death. It is also important to hear these words of hope, a call to faithful living. Bridging them is the faith that there can be no division within the Church that is not a division within Christ himself. If we take seriously our identity as a connectional church, that we are linked not only by institutions and laws but by the very Spirit that is the Spirit of Love between the Son and the Father, then we should also hear the confession I wrote back in 2014:
I am as responsible for the hatred and rejection this young man faced as are any who are a part of the United Methodist Church. I have not worked hard enough, I have not pushed hard enough, I have not yelled loudly enough to change who we are. For my failures, and those of the rest of us who have not been able to erase the hateful language from our Book of Discipline and prevent people like this young man’s youth leader from taking a position of authority in our churches, a young man who loved the church, who served others, who was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ transforming the world; that young man is dead. What’s even worse is I am sure there are more out there of whom we shall never hear or know, young men and women whose lives have been destroyed by the hatred and bigotry that we wear in our Book of Discipline, and express far too much in our ministries, and the people who carry out those ministries.
For the sake of William Benjamin Wood, and all the other gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and others who struggle with their sexuality and do not find sanctuary in our sanctuaries; who do not hear the Good News of God’s love for them, but rejection and condemnation for how they love; whose lives are counted as less and whose love is condemned as a sin and an abomination; for all of them, let us work to get rid, once and for all, of any statement that our church sees people who love differently than we do . Let us pledge, in memory of Ben Wood and all those whose lives have been impacted by what we do and what we say as a people, to perform acts of contrition, to ask forgiveness of those who we’ve hurt; forgiveness from the families whose members are lost in one way or another because the United Methodist Church turned its back on them.
Should anyone think I raise the tale of Ben Wood as some kind of bloody shirt to wave in the faces of some “other” or “them” distinct from myself and “us”, I believe Ben Wood’s story needs to be retold so that, as we move forward in our deliberations, we remember that all of us and each of us as United Methodists share responsibility for this young man’s depression and suicide. Not blame, because blame is for children. Taking responsibility for the harm we have caused, however, seeking both forgiveness and repentance, these are marks of a mature faith. Ben Wood’s story, and the ongoing story of his mother, these are reminders both of the failures of our Church as well as the hope and faith that lie at the heart of the Gospel. Death does not have the final word. It cannot, or else Christ rose for nothing.
All of us and each of us, whether delegates to General Conference, concerned United Methodists, or just your average Jane and Joe in the pews, whatever happens regarding our Discipline language should take a moment and pray for forgiveness for what we have done. You know, there used to be a commenter who would belittle my repeated claims that our Christian faith is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. The fact is that it is. We cannot sit in the luxury of distance or self-righteousness or callousness or a cowardly refusal to see what is before us. We must face this reality and act faithfully.
I think it’s providential that today’s WordPress blogging challenge – write a post in response to the word “hope” – meets my thoughts and fears, prayers and hopes, for the upcoming United Methodist General Conference.
While the sun hangs in the sky and the desert has sand
While the waves crash in the sea and meet the land
While there’s a wind and the stars and the rainbow
Till the mountains crumble into the plain
Oh yes we’ll keep on tryin’ – Queen, “Innuendo”, lyrics by Freddie Mercury & Roger Taylor
Let the lost be found and the dead be raised!
In the here and now, let love invade!
Let the church live loud our God we’ll say
We believe, we believe!
And the gates of hell will not prevail!
For the power of God, has torn the veil!
Now we know Your love will never fail! – The Newsboys, “We Believe”
Yes, it’s that time again. Once every four years, we United Methodists gather from around the world to pray and plan and argue and vote and protest and challenge one another; in other words, we are like any large gathering of people different from one another who are called to make decisions that impact millions of lives. Among the decisions we will be facing is the place of the North American Church within the larger world-wide connection; how better to call to accountability members of the clergy and hierarchy; of course, there’s the quadrennial matter of our Book of Discipline, our Constitution and laws that emerge from each General Conference session.
The thing is, this General Conference will be remembered as the one that either deals with our ongoing divisions over sexual difference and the place of sexual minorities within the ministry and clergy of our church; or it will be remembered as the General Conference where those issues are set to one side yet again, handed to a study committee, or – if four years ago is any guide – not discussed at all, with all mention of the matter quickly silenced, including arresting those who dared continue to speak in the midst of official demands for silence. Please note I am not here saying that a particular outcome will determine how our meeting in Portland, OR will be remembered. All I’m saying is the success or failure of this General Conference will be determined by how faithfully, humbly, prayerfully, and gracefully we approach the questions of the place of sexual minorities within the life, ministry, and clergy of our church.
The past year has been a time filled with frustration as many voices – including my own – rehearsed yet again the same arguments that have been around since the language regarding “homosexuality” – that its “practice” is “incompatible with Christian teaching” – was first adopted in 1972. Some, including me, have wondered whether or not the time of the United Methodist Church, already in peril for any number of reasons, most of which are outside our control, to recognize our race has been run and to pass the baton to others. The acrimony and bile of so many of our discussions seem to have passed the breaking point.
Yet ours is a denomination that believes: We believe in our Trinue God who is known because of the love and grace incarnate in the crucified and risen Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We do not believe in words or formulas or doctrines or hermeneutics or traditions. Ours is a living faith in the Living God who is love and grace. Anything else anyone wishes to say of the God proclaimed and for whom we live as United Methodists is always secondary to that prodigal grace and love for all creation, a grace and love that will not see a bit of it lost to sin and death. In our desire to pursue justice, to abide by covenants and vows, to remain faithful ministers to the world, to uphold the order of our Church, all of us at one time or another has lost sight of the simple reality that our God of love is greater than our own understandings of justice, or our all-too-human understandings of the Divine Word. In defense of particularity we have forgotten the whole, a whole that is love and grace more powerful than our self-righteousness and surety.
This is the reason that I revoke my earlier statements that the UMC should give up the ghost because of our divisions over the matter of human sexuality. I’m not necessarily hopeful that this year will be the year that “my” side is decisive in its “victory”. Where I am hopeful, however, is this time we might actually have a real discussion; we might actually no longer fear our disagreements and divisions, but rather recognize them as the very real expressions of different ways of being faithful; that rather than call “others” to account, we may yet be willing to go humbly before God and confess our own failings and failures, how we have contributed to a spirit of mistrust and resentment that could very well still overwhelm us.
And that’s why I say I’m hopeful. I’m not certain of anything. In 2012, I was shocked that a milquetoast declaration of difference, proposed by two of the most famous United Methodist pastor’s in the country, was steamrolled to defeat. Indeed, a restatement of our basic belief that God’s grace is available to all was affirmed by only a narrow margin precisely because to say so would seem to undermine the declaration elsewhere that some people – “homosexuals” – lived lives incompatible with Christian teaching (these are just two of the reason 2012 was such a disaster; any and all discussion was silenced in favor of a determination to falsely reaffirm and portray a false agreement regarding our Church’s stance regarding sexual minorities in our midst). It may well be that, despite all the arguments and politicking, the preparations for a different discernment process on this and other matters of great import, and despite all the changes in our Church, our nation, and our world over the past four years we will arrive at the end of our Portland meeting no further forward or backward than we are at the beginning.
Hope is not expectation. Hope is just that: hope. Since the last General Conference ended, I know I have felt energized to make this year’s meeting better not so much in outcomes, but rather in our openness to the movement of the Spirit, not to silence voices or punish those who protest restrictions upon freedom of access. I believe in the God who was manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, who died and three days later rose again; for that reason alone, I believe that it is yet possible for the United Methodist Church to rise and be the People Called Methodist into the rest of the 21st century.
And if the language in the Book of Discipline isn’t changed . . . again? Well, those of us who wish to see change always have the choice of surrendering and joining another denomination, or of leading this or that or another faction in splitting away from the United Methodist Church. We also, however, have the choice to stay and just keep fighting. There are no final endings in this life, not really. The pursuit of human freedom and justice never really ends. We must always know that if that is our calling – to work and fight so that all may yet be free and governed by real justice and live in peace – our work may end, but the work never ends. The only thing that strengthens us all in this fight is our faith that love, as the Song of Songs says, is stronger than death. Our hope is that candle we light in the darkness of the bitterness, the mutual denunciations, and all the brokenness that makes traveling in the dark so hazardous.
We can surrender, sure. I think, however, we’re called both to hope and, in the end, keep on fighting because that is all we can do, trusting in God for the end that reflects Divine love and grace. May we all pray that, at the very least, our prayers and hopes are guided by our faith in God, the living God.
I got to go to the Macklemore concert on Friday night. If you want to hear about how that went, ask me, seriously, I want to talk about it until I die. . . .
[I]t reminded me of church. – Dannika Nash, ” An Open Letter To The Church From My Generation”, “I Said I Don’t Know” – And Other Hard Questions To Ask, April 7, 2013
It is one thing to be moved by a positive statement about an issue of importance. It is yet another thing to be in the moment at a concert, allowing yourself to release your inhibitions. These, however, have nothing to do with worship. Few statements demonstrate our failings as a contemporary Church than that someone could confuse the genuinely ritualistic aspects of the concert setting and Christian worship. Doing so in the name of a generation, pleading that older folks hear the need younger people feel both for positive, inclusive statements as well as a worship experience that energizes them says that we may have well gone just a bit too far toward entertaining congregations rather than leading them to the Throne of God.
Good concert experiences can be emotionally satisfying. The thrill of being with other people who like a particular artist, seeing and hearing him or her or them performing songs you like, it’s a kind of flash-community, all sorts of different people joined together because of their love for this particular band or person. The lights, the visuals, the crowd, and the music overwhelm the individual and people get caught up in the moment, raising their hands, nodding their hands, moshing, screaming all propriety set aside as the audience lives out being an audience.
Christian worship, however, is something very different. It is a community united not by specific aesthetic tastes; a congregation doesn’t meet just in passing, but live through generations; most important, they are gathered through the power of the Holy Spirit in order to praise and worship God. All elements of worship are not designed to celebrate the people as they are. Worship is designed for all to hear the Word of God, to gather at God’s table, to present ourselves as a living sacrifice worthy for the work of Discipleship for the Glory of God. No matter how much we might wish to hear any particular message, the reality is that worship doesn’t exist to satisfy any particular need we might have. Words of grace, of course, are part and parcel of the Word of God. If you go to worship, however, to have your particular prejudices or preferences affirmed, you aren’t doing church right.
Yet I think a whole lot of responsibility for this failure of understanding, the ridiculous idea that worship should be entertaining and uplifting for us lies right at the feet of . . . the church. Whether we use “traditional” or “contemporary” worship styles; whether we sing hymns or Praise songs; whether we confess together the Apostle’s Creed or read something cobbled together by a worship leader – none of it should be for the edification or satisfaction of anyone in the congregation. If you aren’t uncomfortable during some part of worship – the prayer of confession, say, or perhaps singing a stanza from a hymn or song that convicts you of something of which you weren’t previously aware – then you aren’t paying attention. Most of all, if you’re looking for emotional uplift and joy and celebration as the reason you’re going to church, then someone has failed to tell you what worship is all about. Should a person feel uplifted in worship; if a person is moved to cheer, to cry, to clap; these are all good things and should be indulged. The presence of absence of these and other things does not make worship. The presence of the Holy Spirit, the Word proclaimed in Spirit and Truth, and the open table available to all: These are the marks of worship.
Church isn’t about having our prejudices confirmed. If the Church speaks of justice and inclusion for all, it does so out of faith. If younger people aren’t hearing these words or seeing these actions, it might well be they aren’t paying attention. How many clergy, even Bishops in the UMC, have risked their orders, their ministries in order to act out their conviction that ours will be a truly faithful Church only when we truly are open to all? If you’re looking for this kind of thing in worship, however, you’re in worship for all the wrong reasons. Head back to the concert hall. The is the Church of Jesus Christ, not the Church of the Millennials looking to be satisfied.