I have a short, thick volume in my library. It’s entitled Creeds of the Churches. Editor John Leith went about the monumental task of gathering statements of faith, expressions of belief, and affirmations of communal confession throughout Christian history, from the Scriptures through the formation of the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council. Apart from the content of the work, which is invaluable when trying to figure out what, exactly, are the differences between the Reformed tradition and the Evangelical (Lutheran) tradition, or what the Assumption of Mary actually means (I made that up; that’s not in the book, although the declaration of Papal infallibility from the First Vatican Council is in there), by its sheer mass the book shows us the futility of settling on any single human statement of faith as full and sufficient for expressing the human faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Each and all, from the Scriptures to the present, are little more than snapshots in time of what particular bodies of Christians sought to affirm about the God they encountered in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Which is why I’m so glad I’m a member of a non-creedal tradition. That doesn’t mean we can’t and don’t read creeds, because of course we do. We United Methodists are non-creedal because we recognize there is no single, simple formula that captures the depth of the human experience of the Divine. Our Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Notes On The Old and New Testaments, and John Wesley’s Sermons lie at the heart of our faith because, let’s face it: How is it possible that any creed could express the fullness of our belief?
One of the things I like about our United Methodist system is that just ordinary folks can submit petitions for considerations by various legislative committees. A FB friend of mine, Joel Watts, submitted a petition that would have added the Nicene Creed to our Articles of Religion. Now, on the surface, this seems both uncontroversial and perhaps even beneficial. After all, the statement that emerged from the series of Councils at Nicaea and Constantinople in the 4th-5th centuries are the heart of our Trinitarian faith (albeit a tad weak in pneumatology, but I digress). The first such statement, printed above in its original Greek, was forged in a fight between two bishops over the metaphysical status of the Incarnate Son of God. Unable to win the fight “in the pews” as people might say today – the vast majority of Christians, including the Emperor Constantine’s mother were followers of Arius, who taught that, while certainly central to the faith of the believer, and whose sacrifice was necessary for the salvation of humanity, Jesus Christ was not Divine – Athanasius had the Emperor call a Council, making sure there would be sufficient numbers of Bishops present at the resort city of Nicaea to overwhelm any Arian bishops (and that all of it would take place before Arius could arrive).
I’m not saying this rather overwrought history means I’m not Trinitarian. On the contrary, the Trinity is perhaps the single most important religious and philosophical innovation in the West in 2000 years of church history. It violated everything people thought they knew about Divinity, Humanity, and their relations. It encapsulates the whole of what German scholars used to call Heilsgeschichte. Honestly, I believe took the dirty, underhanded politicking of that Imperial suck-up Athanasius and used it to further our understanding of who God is and how God loves us.
As I said, however, the creed we call The Nicene Creed is actually an amalgam of statements from several council over a couple centuries, demonstrating it is neither as simple or clear as it might seem. The Creed we read is in English, a language not even imagined when those Bishops gathered at the hot springs in Anatolia 1700 years ago. Most importantly, woven throughout the text are notions rooted in a mixture of neo-Platonic and Aristotelean thought that, quite rightly, is largely unintelligible to our contemporary ears. Affirming that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, after a few moments thought, seems rather odd to us. It was of vital importance to those Bishops who first gathered, however. Matters of physics and metaphysics were central to an understanding of the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. To say that the fully human Jesus of Nazareth was also fully divine – of the same substance – was to make a metaphysical claim that was absurd. Even with the floor packed with those who followed him, Athanasius only managed to pull off inserting a single word, homoousious, into their final statement by the skin of his teeth.
To ask of United Methodists to make the Nicene Creed a test of our faithfulness, then, involves much more than reciting some word. It asks of us to adhere to an outmoded philosophical system, a set of ideas on the nature of reality that have no meaning at all except to specialists. It is to make a measure of our faith a statement that existed long before John Wesley; long before Coke and Asbury; long before our Uniting Conference in 1968. Adding the Nicene Creed actually invalidates our Articles of Religion because they are rooted in a very different metaphysics, very different ideas about the nature of being and reality.
Words mean things. The meaning of the words in the Nicene Creed run deeper than matters of theology. Those words hold meanings that no one, really, can affirm say anything about the makeup of the Universe, or human beings, of what it means to exist as a created being as opposed to a Divine being. Adding the Nicene Creed as a test of faith strips it of its substantive meaning precisely because, translated from a long-dead language filled with its own baggage to a modern language unburdened by all that rigomarole about substances and essences and accidents, the real importance of the Nicene Creed is stripped away, leaving a husk of words that serve no purpose other than to make clear who is in and who is out.
Not just substantive meaning, however; inserting the Nicene Creed into our Book of Discipline robs it of its historic importance. In the 1964 Hymnal, on which I grew up, recitation of this creed was prefaced with the words, And now let us join in this historic expression of the Christian faith. That preface summarizes precisely what the Nicene Creed, and all formal creedal statements, are: historic expressions of the Christian faith. Moments captured in time, vitally necessary to the story of our faith yet not at all the end-all and be-all of our Christian confession. Our faith, like our God, is a living thing. We should always be ready and able to confess our faith as the Body of Christ. We should never claim that our confession at any one time is the sole and sufficient rule, containing all that is necessary to understand the lived experience of the Church. By refusing to allow the Nicene Creed to become some kind of test of fiath, we have staked our claim on the future as the hope of our faith. We have allowed the Nicene Creed to live on as it is, rather than killing it and stuffing it and shoving it in a museum called The Book of Discipline where it would sit while people walked by without seeing it. We have kept our faith alive, and kept the Nicene Creed alive in all its historic importance, precisely by rejecting it as some contemporary ruler to smack the hands of recalcitrant Christians.
Thanks be to God.
I think we need collectively to figure out how to have ongoing conversations with people with whom we disagree. None of us has the whole picture independently, but together we can make up the whole picture. – Cynthia Astle, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 18, 2015
There is little doubt the United Methodist Church is in trouble. As has been the case through our national history, we have taken on the poisonous politics of the surrounding society, leading to hostility, anger, and at times a pettiness that should embarrass us all. Like our secular politics, however, there seems to be no solution. Instead, we must traverse this particular valley of the shadow of death with faith that our LORD is with us. What lies on the other side will be something new, and as the Psalm sings, the LORD will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whoever we think they might be.
Two long-time friends of this blog, Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight and Joel Watts of Unsettled Christianity have come to a parting of the ways in a very public, shocking (to me at any rate; I’ve dealt with both for years and can’t fathom what’s happened in its specifics) way. A combination of miscommunication resulting in a bit of vitriol leaves me sad and puzzled. Astle has solicited “help” from people on how better to use this medium to continue the necessary on-going conversation among little-heard voices within our denomination. The problem, at least from my perspective, isn’t the medium. It is rather the larger context in which we try to engage others with whom we disagree. The Internet offers great opportunities for people to engage one another in honest, sometimes heated, discussion. That the anonymity and distance of the Internet also provides some people the freedom to say things they would never say in a face-to-face argument has long been a subject of criticism. All the same, that same distance allows a level of honesty and clarity that a face-to-face encounter could never provide. Too concerned over rules of etiquette and propriety, face-to-face encounters might produce discomfort should the argument get as heated as it does online. There are benefits to face-to-face meetings that no less personal encounter can match. Which leaves me, again, thinking it isn’t the medium. Rather, it’s the expectations we bring to Internet discussions and the ease of miscommunication always at play in written as opposed to spoken discourse that create part of our problem.
But only part. Another part of what prevents us from dealing with one another is the decision, as Astle names it, to disengage.
David F. Watson asked that his previous material be removed entirely from our database after we published an article by Geoffrey Kruse-Safford criticizing his work.
This part of Astle’s linked article shocked me. I had not seen Watson’s work in UMI. To learn that I was the reason for his refusal to participate any longer in their forum, however, was more than a little surprising. Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, I have certainly been critical of things he’s written. I would go further and say that those disagreements have been substantial, presented forcefully. To think that something I wrote made Watson wish no longer to engage, however, is more than a little embarrassing. After some checking, I found the article that might have been the reason Watson discontinued his association with UMI and I have to admit more than a little confusion. Ironically, that article concerned Watson’s scolding some people for how they conduct themselves in online forums; I pointed out to him that, by the standards of the larger Internet, while certainly heated United Methodists have by-and-large conducted our discussions with a great deal of civility and respect.
And now we have yet another voice, citing both “unWesleyan doctrine” – I’m honestly not sure what that means; are all United Methodists supposed to adhere to a narrow Wesleyan theology? – as well as “slanderous personal attacks” – for which I can find no evidence at all; one thing I admire about Cynthia is she does not countenance such things; I’ve been reminded of that several times by her when she read something of mine she took to be an ad hominem attack. It has made me far more conscious of how to present what I write, being clear issues and not personalities are front and center. Joel’s use of the word “threat” is more than a little odd. Cynthia “threatened” nothing; she informed Joel their Twitter discussion would be featured in a longer article explaining why his article had been removed.
Our poisonous politics, sacred and secular, make all of us edgy and ready to strike out when a perceived affront, insult, or just general disagreement arises. Rather than push through the frustration and anger, we all too often resort to ceasing any further dialogue. Breaking communion – in its original meaning – seems preferable to some than staking a claim to one’s position without closing one’s ears to others. Of course, the latter is difficult. The thing is, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. More than anyone’s feelings, or any group’s theological preferences, the stakes in our current illness are high. I have made my positions clear enough; I have also always made clear that neither I nor anyone else has some access to “truth” denied others; further, I know that the United Methodist Church has been and will be far stronger if all our voices – discordant as they may be now – join together. How facile, paltry, and even erroneous would we be if only like-minded persons gathered, heard sermons that made them feel good about themselves, rather than being challenged by the Word? How much less would our mission and ministry be if we only associated with people like us?
There are many steps toward healing that need to be taken. One of those steps is being willing to continue to talk with each other despite our differences. Whatever happens next spring will happen; the larger body of United Methodists, hierarchy, lay, academic, owe it to one another to keep talking. No matter how difficult that might be. We are all in this together. If we don’t remember that and carry on our discussions in the grace we preach and try to practice, then perhaps we need to be gone as a denomination. I would far prefer this not be so. Yet, as I see it, unless we are willing to take that small step, we just aren’t moving forward.
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen. – The Nicene Creed
A faith and a life unexamined is a faith and a life not worth having, however, many would use such an examination of the faith to decide that suddenly they alone know what we really should be doing and to upend 2000 years of Christianity. I believe the creeds reminds us of our rather temporal nature, that we must examine and must offer reproof, but we are cannot decide the course of Christianity simply because of some new data that may in fact be overturned in the next generation of scholarship. – Joel L. Watts, Facebook comment
You have heard; now see all this;
and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
hidden things that you have not known. – Isaiah 48:6
When the Emperor Constantine, following the advice of St. Athanasius, called for a council at the Anatolian city of Nicaea, the issue facing the Church was an important disagreement regarding the teaching of the relationship between what has since become known as the Second and First Person of the Trinity. The more popular understanding, rooted in the (now lost) teachings of Bishop Arius was that Jesus, incarnating the Son of God, was not co-eternal with the Father. According to Athanasius (who is the chief source regarding Arian teaching, and hardly a reliable one considering how much he detested both Arius and the man’s teaching) the chief teaching of the Arians was “There was a time when He was not.” For Arius and those who followed his teachings, God’s sovereignty and primacy prevented any thought that another Being would be equal to God in power, majesty, and primacy. Athanasius, relying upon a particular interpretation of Aristotelean and Platonic understandings of substance, accidents, and being, taught a far more subtle, and High Christology, insisting that Christ was not a creature even if primer inter pares. The Son, being of the same substance – what was understood as defining Divinity as opposed to fallen, human substance, the “stuff” that made God distinct from all Creation – with the Father, was by necessity coeternal with the Father. Only in this way was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and resurrection sufficient to achieve salvation.
All the same, as I wrote above, followers of Arius’ teaching were both more numerous and in positions of power in the increasingly senescent Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother was an Arian. The various tribes of Goths that had overrun parts of the western Empire, including Rome, had been Arian Christians. In a move that shows Athanasius to be as cunning a political operative as he was subtle a theologian, he convinced the Emperor to call the council for as soon as possible. It met before Arius, a fellow Bishop, could arrive; those present were predominantly those who believed as Athanasius did. While the Council was being held, discussions became both heated and absurd, spiraling down in attempts to compromise by using precise wording (in the Greek of the time) to accommodate both major parties to the dispute; thus the phrase “not an iota of difference” emerged as the attempted compromise inserted the Greek letter i into the word ousia, creating a new word, iousia, designating the Son to be “of similar subtance” with the Father. The Arians were willing (to a point) to accept this compromise, but being far outnumbered and their leader still in transit, the supporters of Athanasius managed to get “ousia”, proclaiming the Son to be “of the same substance” or “consubstantial” with the Father. Arius, his teachings, followers, and person, were anathematized in the official declaration at the end of the Council. Arius, however, did have the last laugh in a way; on his deathbed, the Emperor Constantine was baptized by an Arian Bishop.
Fast forward 1700 years, and I have to wonder what any of this history – political, ecclesial, and theological – has to do with us. Beyond creating the cornerstone for subsequent orthodox theology (an orthodoxy I hold, by the way), it also demonstrates how very human, limited, and contingent our understanding of the Godhead really is. This fundamental Christian reality – that our doctrines are always limited affirmation, ready and willing and able to be changed as circumstances change – is something we as the whole Body of Christ have always understood. No doctrine lasts forever; no theology captures the entirety of the Body’s experience of and profession of experience with the God who is revealed in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father.
To lift up any confession, doctrine, or particular hermeneutic of Scripture or the experience of revelation as final is to ignore the reality that we do not believe the confessions; we do not live out doctrine; and our understanding and appropriation of Scripture must always be prefaced with the understanding that it is we and our lives who are interpreted by Scripture prior to our being able to grasp Scripture as testimony and witness to the revelation of God. For Joel to claim that our faith has been consistent over 2000 years is ahistorical, and violates a central tenet of the Doctrine of Creation: That our Universe and all that is within it is contingent, partial, and sinful. For these reasons, we do not have a creed, or a doctrine, or a particular hermeneutic. We have multiple examples of each and all, and the whole Body of Christ is enriched by them all. To insist that changing understandings of the world through science; changing ways of interpreting existence through philosophy; and changing ways of expressing these understandings and interpretations of existence through the evolution of language are irrelevant to our confession and profession of faith is to ignore reality. We are not 4th century Greeks, or 6th century Romans, or 16th century Saxons or English, or 18th century Oxonian Anglican priests, or even mid-20th century Germans facing the Nazis, or late 20th century Latin Americans facing North American-supported fascist governments. All of these contexts and milieus, with their varying languages, immediate concerns, views of the world, and historical situatedness have contributed to the beautiful mosaic that is the Christian faith. None of them are primary, none of them are our plumb line; rather, they are important expressions of faith, touchstones from which we can gain wisdom, containing much that should be retained while always recognizing historical distance and all that entails will always prevent us from complete appropriation of any of them.
Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the Trinity, the loving coexistence of Three Persons in One God, is eternal. When Isaiah reminds the people returning to the Land that God is in the business of doing new things; when Christ announces from the Throne at the end of the Revelation of St. John the Divine that God has made all things new; when we Christians go about the task of living the Gospel in the world; we are always doing a new thing, and that new thing brings new voices, new languages, new understanding, new lives into the manifold chorus of those who praise God. We aren’t in the business of ultimacy. That’s God’s work. All any of us, the wisest, most educated, most holy, can do is add our understanding of our experience of the revelation of Holy Love in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of the Father.
Anything else, as St. Thomas noted after dropping his Summa because he realized it is “all straw”, is subject to revision, restatement, translation, and perhaps even ditching once we become clearer as a Body on what God has done for us.
The reality is, our connexional system was not made to take these strains because it is not built on individualism nor on the diversity of theology, much less mission, many of today’s United Methodists share. Another stark reality is this: there is a better chance that General Conference will do nothing, forcing people of conscience to leave The United Methodist Church, hurting our overall mission. A constitutional amendment, requiring a super majority, will not pass and any votes requiring a simple majority are either meaningless or impossible to predict and often distressing to the losers because of how close the vote was. Regardless, putting the future of The United Methodist Church to the vote — putting the histories, the hearts, and the loyalty of so many to vote – will continue to harm us, corporately and individually. Indeed, why do we vote on justice or righteousness? As such, we have to look at another way, a way of preserving the best of The United Methodist Church while allowing conscience. – Joel Watts, “No Vote, No Schism”, Unsettled Christianity, Jan. 26, 2015
We have, yet again, another proposal before us as United Methodists that seeks to avoid the one thing we most need to do: Confront our generations-long official policy of exclusion and practice of injustice toward sexual minorities. My good friend Joel Watts offers his proposal, detailed at the link above, that does everything except the one thing we as a corporate entity most need to do – confront the demons at the heart of our current malaise, name them, and exorcise them. By seeking to bypass our traditions of gathering in Holy Conferencing, trusting that even in the ugliness, rancor, and mutual distrust that always exist in politics of any kind that the Holy Spirit will move across the face of those chaotic waters and bring forth order and creation, Watts offers nothing more than a band aid. Worse, since the infection is deep and has metastasized, such a band aid will only make a few feel better as the rest of us continue to see the effects of the spreading sickness.
I will repeat it for emphasis. No one likes politics, except perhaps those who are powerful enough to work their will through the process. What is worse, church politics seems to violate our sense of what it means to be “church”, because it is little different in the passions it arouses, the enmities it creates, and the long-run bitterness that occurs, regardless of outcome. We would far prefer administrative processes, or at worst that should controversial matters be unavoidable that their outcome be predetermined in order to prevent the hostility and messiness of politics.
Alas, the latter has been the case with the Discipline language regarding sexual minorities, in particular at the last General Conference, and all it did was create the very bitterness, anger, and stubborn refusal to prevent the matter from disappearing with which we continue to live. As much as it might be nice to create systems outside – or perhaps even within – our current polity and practices that would avoid politics, the fact of the matter is we cannot avoid it. We cannot go around it. We cannot avoid looking our adversaries in the eye and speak the truth they already know: They’re continuing support for dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline, as well as the discriminatory practices that follow from that language demeans us as a body calling itself Christian; is antithetical to the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church, and violates the Great Commandments, in which the whole of the Law and the Prophets is summarized. That this is hard, to tell people – some of whom we might know, perhaps respect, maybe even love – that they are hurting not only our churches, but perpetuating an evil within our polity that is killing us. It is hard, but it is also unavoidable. All the other solutions save the not-yet-released conclusions of the Connectional Table seek to avoid this because it’s difficult, it will be painful, and it will create bitterness and anger for years to come.
Yet, we already live with bitterness and anger, mutual distrust and accusations of unfaithfulness, heresy, apostasy, and violations of everything from Biblical mandates to the Discipline. This isn’t going to stop if we adopt some magic formula that violates the one thing that keeps us in the Wesleyan tradition: Holy Conferencing. We will not be “church” if we refuse to face our collective sin, our rejection of an entire group of people, and the ways this rejection have hurt them and us, driving people away from what could be a fruitful encounter with the Living Crucified Christ while diminishing the pool of talents, gifts, and grace that could feed the stream of United Methodist ministry and mission for another generation.
As much as I admire Joel; as much as he has put thought and effort in to a solution that keeps to the Discipline, as much as it might seem a quick fix to a long-running problem, the truth is we have to confront this head on. We have to confront one another head on. We have to have this discussion, no matter how difficult it is. We have to be willing to speak our faith on this matter, because that faith is more important than the feelings of our interlocutors, or our own feelings of discomfort. It could very well lead to some leaving the denomination, although I still content that won’t happen in the numbers threatened, simply because that threat has been used for decades to prevent us from dealing with the matter of the sexual minorities in our midst, and I don’t see a whole lot of movement. No, we can’t avoid politics, however much we would prefer to do so. There is no way around, so we must go through and have faith that in the middle of our arguments and mutual denunciations God is present, moving us forward to be the church we are supposed to be. It isn’t a magic bullet, but there aren’t any.
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.
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever. – Ecclesiastes 1:4
A post from my good friend Joel Watts caught my attention for several reasons.
The Church universal is indefectible but people seemed to have forgotten that. Indeed, we no longer remember we are Christians together.
The two extremes in the United Methodist Church have likewise forgotten the nature of the Church. Both seek to control it. For them, it is there Church. Like Shea’s comment above, both extremes have lost faith in God — failing to realize the foundation of doctrine. Whereas the Church was once the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit that is supposed to lead us into all truth — it is now a battlefield between Justice-without-Righteousness and Righteousness-without-Justice. Both sides want to win in a place where we are to be made one, in a place where we are to be humble — in a kingdom established by the self-sacrifice.
I honestly had no idea what the word “indefectible” meant, so I checked it out. It is a Roman Catholic doctrine that means that Church shall not pass away. Watts is here transferring the idea to “the Church universal” from a specifically Roman context, via a post by Mark Shea at Patheos.
In short, neither Progressive nor Reactionary dissenters really trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the indefectibility of the Church. Both believe the development of doctrine is, at bottom, not the Church coming to a deeper understanding of the will of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but a random collision of power and mere human will in which anything might happen and any ideology might become top dog depending on who is the strongest. And therefore, they believe it is all on them to (for Progressives) Change the Church into modern reflection of Liberal Values or (for Reactionaries) Save the Church from mutating into a “dark and false Church“. Neither really believes the job of Savior of the Church has already been filled, so they need to make it happen.
To both I would respond: Everything dies. It’s really that simple. The photo above, showing the excavation of the ruins of Gobekli Tepi in Turkey, is really a marvel. Not so much “discovered” as pointed out by local goat herders who knew the rocks peaking above the sand meant something but couldn’t care less, the painfully slow process of unearthing . . . whatever these ruins might be – temple? waystation for travelers? part of a larger city? – has done at least one thing: Doubled the time span during which human beings are known to have built settled habitations. These ruins are as far back in time from the civilization in Sumer as we are from the Sumerians. Which, of course, creates a whole set of questions as yet unanswerable about evidence for what happened in the millennia in between. In any event, hazarding a guess, the folks who built the structure at Gobekli Tepi, folks like us who worried about putting food on the table, making sure their children grew up safe and happy, whether the government would be fair or arbitrary in the dispensation of justice; something tells me the folks who built this assumed it, and they, and the society that created it, would last forever. The irony, of course, is that at some point other people came along and purposely covered the entire site in sand and dirt, not so much destroying it as burying something as dead as Jacob Marley.
To claim either the Roman Catholic Church or the Church universal will last forever absent human action to make it so is ridiculous. What else is the action of the Holy Spirit but people actively continuing the work of the Church? What more potent statement of our sinfulness would there be than the closing of the last United Methodist Church, the sale of our assets to pay our debts, and the scattering of our people because we assumed it would just last without actual human beings fighting for it to do so? To claim that those actively involved in the process of moving the United Methodist Church forward both have forgotten the Holy Spirit and are “extremists” who should be ignored is deeply troubling. Where else do we see the Spirit in action, other than human beings engaged in the important work of ensuring the continuity of the ministries of the United Methodist Church? Where else do we hear the voice of the Spirit than in those vigorously engaged in discussions and disagreements about our future? Rather than claim some group or other seeks “control”, it might actually do us all good to look at what is actually happening. People passionately concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church are trying in faith both to discern the best course of action for our future and to move us toward that future together in the only way we have as a denomination to do so, through the mechanism of General Conference. To insist we should not listen to these “extremes” would be to insist we not become engaged in making our voices heard about the future of the people called Methodist. To insist upon the indefectability of the Church, whether Universal or some part thereof, is to ignore the reality that like all things zwischen den zeiten, the Church of Jesus Christ is simul iustus et peccator.
As much as we may rest our faith in the Holy Spirit to guide us, to proclaim the eternal presence of the Son for the sake and Glory of the Father, the churches are also human institutions, fallible and prone to all the foibles and evils our fallen state carries with it. We cannot sit back, call those who speak and act most forcefully “extremists” to which we should pay no attention, but rather listen to their voices, watch their work, and prayerfully seek to find the Holy Spirit in their words and deeds. Nothing lasts forever, human institutions most of all. It may well be the case that the particular ministries and what we call our emphases as United Methodists are now or will at some point in the future no longer either be relevant or serve their Lord. In either case, there will come a day when that last United Methodist church will shut its doors, and the people called Methodists no longer exist. In order to delay that as long as possible; in order to push that date far in to the future so no one is burying the last UM church in sand and dirt like some people did Gobekli Tepi, all we can ever do is act in love and faith and hope. This isn’t being extreme best ignored. It isn’t forgetting the presence of the Holy Spirit, but actively seeking it.
With all the nonsensical schism talk in the United Methodist Church, in the run-up to Annual Conference season – and an Annual Conference season when many Conferences are choosing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2016 – there has been a whole lot of push back against the Anonymous 80 and their silly claim that our United Methodist Covenant is already “broken” and therefore we should part “amicably”. Joel Watts has proposed what he calls “A Rough Plan for Anti-UMC Schism”. A poll commissioned by United Methodist Communications finds the issue of sexual minorities far down the list of concerns of the church members (I wrote about it here). The most publicized counter-proposal is called “A Way Forward”, and is endorsed by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of our mega-star pastors. Good News has responded.
All the statements, proposals, counter-proposals, and what-not root themselves not in Scripture, or an accurate readings of our traditions and theological task, or experience as a denomination. Instead, all these proposals come from individuals and groups who have no official standing within the church, beyond those who are clergy in a relationship to an Annual Conference. Even then, they represent their congregations. There has been far too much talk about an alleged “middle”, to the point that one commentator is still looking for it. I think my favorite discussion of this issue, however, is by someone trying desperately to read political tea leaves in a way that makes him sound insightful. While I agree that we as a denomination are, indeed, being played yet again, with the Sword of Damocles called Schism held over our collective heads, there are other factors that make the threat far less real. Less a sword and more a butter knife, there are realities that make the demand for the .status quo untenable as well as schism neither an attractive option nor practically workable for most congregations. Leaving these realities out of the equation makes me wonder, again, about the alleged middle I keep reading about yet never actually see.
First, same-sex marriage is here to stay, spreading across the land state by state. More than half the population of the United States now live in jurisdictions where it is legal. Part of the reason for this is that most Americans just don’t care about sexual orientation. Oh, sure, there are pundits and preachers aplenty willing to make all sorts of horrid statements about sexual minorities (including our own Book of Discipline, that calls “homosexual activity . . . incompatible with Christian teaching.”). By and large, though, the majority of Americans just don’t care. The acceptance of sexual difference, like same-sex marriage, is also here to stay.
These two realities combine, in our particular case, with the public declaration of over 1,000 United Methodist clergy to defy church law and officiate at same-sex marriages (you can find this at the linked article, “By The Numbers”, above). And more and more clergy are coming forward publicly. Now, my good friend Joel Watts in particular is a stickler for clergy obeying church law. And that’s all well and good. Until that law becomes unenforceable. For example, our Bishop here in the Northern Illinois Conference, Sally Dyck, has made it clear there will be no trials of any clergy accused of officiating at a same-sex wedding. Rather, it will be handled administratively, much as the case in the New York Conference was handled. As a practical matter, the desire of the folks at Good News to toss out all the clergy even on record as willing to perform as same-sex marriage in untenable.
It also reflects broader social and cultural trends that the church needs to recognize, in its law and practice of ministry. None of these things are new, of course. I’ve written about them before. My point here, however, is the allegation that there are two extremes pushing opposing viewpoints that ignore some “middle” that is never actually identified, and certainly not represented, say, in the poll linked above and discussed earlier. The main concern of the United Methodist Church is being the church it is called to be. To reach out to new, particularly young, people; to do our mission and ministry as we are called to do. Worrying about the sexual status either of clergy or those to whom clergy minister isn’t a priority. The “middle”, then, is pretty clear.
As Annual Conference season draws to a close, the sheer number of affirmations of support for change demonstrates that this mythical “middle” just doesn’t exist. More important, these statements coming from across the connection are actual official statements, rather than anonymous declarations or proposals by pastors of large churches, or even the public declarations of thousands of clergy. The “middle”, in our church as in American politics, doesn’t exist, not because there aren’t those who vocalize some point-of-view that exists between two declared extremes. Rather, the middle doesn’t exist because it is both untenable and unworkable in practice. Either we are going to be a church for all, ministering to all, including all in the full life of the church, or we are going to allow a small and ever-shrinking minority insist we continue to discriminate against sexual minorities, against the express wishes of Annual Conferences, pastors, and the members of church congregations represented by the poll.