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.
According to The Book of Discipline , the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves, neither bishops or district superintendents have the authority to excommunicate lay persons from the church, nor to remove individuals from candidacy for ministry.
In choosing to become ordained in The Universal Life Church (ULC), Ms. Mikita elected to change denominations. This action automatically withdrew her membership in The United Methodist Church and as a certified candidate for ministry. – Statement from Michigan Area Press Office, United Methodist Insight, September 10, 2015
[T]he fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, September 5, 2015
I took a few classes on law as an undergraduate. While not at all making me knowledgeable about the law, it offered a window in to the practice of law. Law is a profession concerned with the meaning of words. Do the words of a particular statute apply to a particular set of facts? How do they apply? It isn’t an accident that a lot of law schools recommend the study of English as a prerequisite to law school, along with a course or two in logic. It all boils down to how we use words, and whether or not a particular set of described facts is a subset of a particular set of described prohibited acts. Like that song from My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words . . .!”
Defenders of the expulsion of Ginny Mikita from membership in the United Methodist Church, including the Press Office of the Michigan Area Episcopal Office, insist the word “excommunication” is hyperbole, used erroneously, and does not at all describe what actually happened in this case. Others, including me, insist the word properly describes the actions taken to punish Ms. Mikita. So the question is simple: Who’s right?
Let’s consider the word itself. “Excommunication” literally means “no longer in communion”. The practice of excommunication was used to expel persons from the central means of grace, the Eucharistic table at Mass. As a social practice, it also meant those still in communion could have no private or public intercourse with such persons. Rooted in the ancient doctrine of extra ecclesia nunc salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation”, excommuncation not only left individuals social pariahs. Unless such persons renounced the specific heresy or practice for which they were originally were tossed out of the Church, sought absolution and acted upon whatever penance was meted out, excommunication meant damnation. One’s soul was forfeit along with one’s social position.
In the modern and contemporary age, the practice has largely been dispensed with. Protestants of most stripes no longer practice it, save for the Amish and their practice of shunning. There is no formal process for the practice set out in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. There is, however, a description of formal action to be taken in the case of an individual who is a member of the UMC and also a member of another denomination. The statement from the Michigan Area Press Office quotes it:
If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after her person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference.
Now, the pastor of the church where Ms. Mikita is a member left a comment in which he stated that he has not, in fact, entered “Withdrawn” by her name on the membership rolls. For official bodies of the Michigan Area to inform Ms. Mikita that she was no longer a member of her local UMC is factually inaccurate. Their insistence, however – echoed by David Watson of United Theological Seminary – that she is indeed no longer a member by dint of her own actions ignores the statement of the BoD regarding the process to be undertaken in such an instance. Disregarding proper procedure, summarily declaring Ms. Mikita’s membership forfeit without having done due diligence in regards to the clear process outlined in the Discipline is best described as “arbitrary and capricious”. It also amounts, for all intents and purposes, to excommunication. That the Conference outlines steps she can take to return to membership as well as become a candidate for the ordained diaconate is neither here nor there; the Church has always offered steps to return to full communication to those cast out.
Is it hyperbole or factually inaccurate to describe as excommunication the actions taken against Ms. Mikita? While I believe this is a matter best left to Church lawyers, in my opinion it is not. Others might well disagree, and as I say the final arbiter should be our Judicial Council. All the same, it’s important to be clear that the choice of this word is not arbitrary, nor is it a rhetorical tactic used to shame anyone. It is also quite relevant that one of the persons who instigated action against Ms. Mikita has publicly endorsed the practice of excommunication. It may not be definitive, but it does show that using the word is hardly something taken from nowhere.
This is an ongoing matter. For the sake of clarity it is important to be definitive about how we describe the events in question. Are emotions involved? Of course, but also irrelevant. That this was an instance of excommunication is clear from the facts of the matter. The choice of whether or not to use the word is not a rhetorical decision to shame supporters of Ms. Mikita’s expulsion. It is only used to call an action by its name. If they feel shame, that isn’t anyone’s fault but their own.
It has come to my attention that some of the people in our United Methodist family have gone on the internet and purchased ordination certificates from a number of websites. Lay people as well as local pastors with limited sacramental privileges are getting these certificates. Some have performed weddings and consecrated communion using the authority of these ordaining bodies. Some have seen it as a way to qualify for tax exemptions. The process is very simple and it requires no seminary training, interviews or screening. Literally anyone can become ordained and hold ministerial credentials using this method and some sites do not even charge for this service.
This is not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church, the Philadelphia Area, the bishop or the cabinets.(emphasis added) – UM Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area, “Ordinations Online?”, Bishop’s Blog, Oct. 10, 2013
Getting an online ordination separates you from the UMC. Not oppression or injustice. Just is. Blog post from 2013 before a dust up this year in Michigan.(emphasis added) – Rev. John Meunier, “Bishop’s Blog: Ordinations Online?”, Sep 5, 2015
When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC . . .
To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. . . .
This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in the complaint against Ms. Mikita. But the fact of the matter is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, Sep. 4, 2015
I am the local pastor of the woman whose case hit you so hard (and rightfully so!). I have *not* written “withdrawn” on her membership record and I *have had* very close communication with her throughout all that has transpired. Not all relevant voices have been heard; this story is still in progress. – Rev. Robert Eckert, blog comment
Four years of Seminary. Several more in local church ministry. Papers and interviews with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. More papers and interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry. Continuing Education. To become an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church was expensive, intellectually and emotionally taxing, providing ups and downs and more hoops through which to jump than the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Watching and supporting Lisa go through this gave me so much admiration not only for those who made it through (and I know many who didn’t); it gave me a great deal of respect for our denomination, that it took the special vocation of ordination that seriously.
Yet we live in a place and time when both church membership and ordination just aren’t all that valuable. Indeed, ordination has become a commodity, obtainable online with a credit card. As a wedding disc jockey, I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve worked at which a family member or friend purchased one of these ordination certificates in order to perform the ceremony. I must admit when I first learned about it all, I was a little taken aback. Then it occurred to me that in our capitalist society everything has a price, and the worth of all things comes down to what others are willing to pay for it. We in the United Methodist Church may well hold ordination in high esteem. That doesn’t mean everyone else does.
The matter of Ginny Mikita receiving an online “ordination” from The Universal Life Church has become the focal point of much of the discussion surrounding what John Meunier understatedly describes as “a dust up”. Supporters of Ms. Mikita’s excommunication insist action was taken, from writing a letter to the actual expulsion, because she obtained an online ordination in violation of our Book of Disipline. They point to a blog post by Bishop Peggy Johnson (because we all know how authoritative blog posts are, especially from United Methodist Bishops) in which she writes that such “ordinations” are “not condoned” by our denomination.
Except, of course, we don’t really know that. Just how relevant to church membership is it if a person, having been asked by a friend to perform a wedding, buys one of these pieces of paper, does the wedding, and continues attending worship and participating in the ministries of the local church? Has membership been forfeit? Did Ms. Mikita’s actions mean she expelled herself from her church?
That, it seems, would be an interesting question of church law. What I find fascinating in all this is that these online ordinations and their use has been around for a long time; before that were mail-order ordinations for people to do much the same thing. I haven’t seen any big stories of the United Methodist Church polling their members to see who has done this. I can’t imagine, what with all the Sturm und Drang about church membership decline, the summary expulsion of all those who have done so. Indeed, I would like to know if anyone, anywhere, can find a few actual stories from the past five years or so in which a member of a local UM Church was so treated.
What those writing in support of Ms. Mikitia’s excommunication forget is that even if the matter of her online ordination were front and center the Book of Discipline calls for specific actions to be taken by specific people. None of them include either her Bishop or District Superintendent. For Meunier to say no injustice was done is to ignore the way the Discipline violated in this case. For Watson to say that Ms. Mikita expelled herself ignores the fact that she continued as an active member of her local congregation. Is this matter of online ordinations such a threat to the integrity of United Methodist congregations that the processes set out in the Book of Discipline can be set aside in order to uphold another part of the same BoD?
That Ms. Mikita took the action she did to officiate at a same-sex wedding of a former West Michigan Conference clergy member looms more and more as the real reason she was excommunicated. Some folks want anyone who defies our denomination’s stance on sexual minorities and same-sex marriage punished. Driven out. If it takes mass trials, some Bishops are willing to go that far. To sit around and pretend this is about the threat of extraordinary ordinations, a practice that’s existed for decades in different forms, s to play games. The obfuscation and dishonesty is appalling. When one of those participating in such nonsense insists that “honesty” is one of the key intellectual virtues he tries to instill in his students, I just shake my head. If we’re going to talk about online ordinations, let’s do some surveys of local churches. All those who have them get kicked out. Period.
Otherwise, can we talk about what’s really going on?
Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his ` running the race which is set before him.’ He cannot therefore `lay up treasures upon earth,’ no more than he can take fire into his bosom. He cannot speak evil of his neighbour, any more than he can lie either for God or man. He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot `speak idle words; no corrupt conversation’ ever `comes out of his mouth;’ as is all that is not `good to the use of edifying,’ not fit to `minister grace to the hearers.’ But `whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are’ justly `of good report,’ he thinks, speaks, and acts, `adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. – John Wesley, A Plain Aaccount Of Christian Perfection
So I’ve begun a process of spiritual re-evaluation. It is long overdue. It is, in fact, covering the whole spectrum of my beliefs and actions. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, wondering just how much of a real Christian I am or have been. I feel, however, more than a little at sea. I feel like I am venturing in to territory that is strange, filled both with light and darkness, and deeply personal. This last, of course, means that I need to be conscious of my reliance upon others, not just here and now, but that cloud of witnesses who have gone before down similar roads.
To that end, I felt the need to begin reading John Wesley’s A Plain Account Of Christian Perfection (and thank you Northwest Nazarene University and the Wesley Center Online for providing this and so much more of John Wesley’s writings for people who wish careful study and reference online). I didn’t want to speed through it, but read it slowly, studying and digesting what it has to say. So it was that, this morning, I came across the above epigraph and just stopped reading. I knew I had to stop. I had to stop and think, I had to stop and pray. Most of all, I had to stop and see myself reflected very poorly in these words.
Part of what I believe is at work in me is accepting my role in the continuing heated exchanges that are corrupting so much of what should be holy conferencing and loving conversation within the United Methodist Church. To that end, the title of this post from last year, as well as its content, is clearly a lie. It is the perfect kind of lie. It is me lying to myself; never mind that I am lying to the whole world. It should be clear from far too many of my posts here that I am, in fact, not only quite happy to involve myself in arguments, including those which are not mine at all, but willing to go looking for them.
More than arguing, sometimes. This post is just one in a series in which, rather than ignore something with which I disagree or go to the person and address them privately, I thought it best to show off just how clever I think I am. In the process, I thought that humiliation was a good tactic. It isn’t just David Watson, however. It is also Rev. Drew McIntyre. Others, too, were the targets of my own smug sense of superiority. To say I’m ashamed of these posts is far too mild. I cannot ever take them back. All I can do is accept them as the products of my own nonsensical belief that I had some monopoly on righteousness and intellectual integrity.
Which is part of this journey. Before I can move forward at all, as I wrote before, I have to look within. It also means owning all that I’ve said and done. So much of that, however, just doesn’t reflect the person I am or want to be. I have no choice, however, but to say, “Yes, this is not just mine. It is me.” I cannot become clean if I do not come clean. Which is why this post makes me cringe so much. I wanted to look so humble. I wanted to appear as if I, too, were willing to accept that I, too, were wrong. The truth is, however, all I was doing was demanding others admit they are wrong all the while basking in my own . . . what? Superiority?
All this and so much more are things for which I take responsibility. I have not been a positive force for moving the conversation forward, which is what we need. Rather, I have rested on self-righteousness, smugness, and the easy judgment of other’s intentions and beliefs rather than speaking (or writing, as the case may be) from real love, real self-denial, and real conformity to Christ.
This journey I am on will be long. Before I go traipsing in to conversations that are not mine; before I go telling everyone in the world how wrong they are; before I do much of anything else, I first have to own all the ways I have not allowed love to keep the door of my lips, to speak from genuine Christian love and affection for my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church.
The photo above, of the gentleman lying prostrate, is an ancient practice in the church. It signifies true obeisance and honest humility when one faces the Throne of God. We in the Protestant traditions have, by and large, surrendered this practice. It is, however, a great and honest post one should take. Particularly when one is confronting the worst parts of oneself. How better to show that we are serious about asking forgiveness? How better to demonstrate our understanding that we are not at all worthy of the grace that is ours? Sitting and closing one’s eyes and maybe folding your hands, what does that have to do with any sense that, in the words of Thomas Cranmer’s prayer of Holy Supplication, one is not worthy to gather up the crumbs under Christ’s table?
This is just a tip-toe forward. So much more to do, I think before the real journey begins.
The beliefs that the church has handed on to us, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the power of sin, the atoning work of Christ, and the resurrection of the body, are simply sensitive instruments and effective prescriptions in God’s medical kit, just as the Eucharist, baptism and the Bible are. When we engage one another with these canonical means of grace, we are acting as the nurses in God’s hospital, going about the work of our divine physician. – David F. Watson and William J. Abraham, “Creedal Faith”, Ministrymatters.com, November 30, 2014
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood. – Tom Waits, “Come On Up To The House”
I saw the above-quoted article earlier today on Facebook, and seeing who one of the authors was, I knew I had to go read it. I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often. For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work. To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know. I just . . .
Let’s start with that “analogy”, shall we? I mean, like all straw arguments, it seems impressive, until some big bad wolf comes along and blows the house down:
Imagine you went to the doctor and the doctor walked into your room and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad
news.”“Okay,” you respond. “Let’s have the bad news.”
“The bad news is that you have an illness that will eventually kill you if left untreated.”
“Wow . . .” you respond. “That is bad news. What’s the good news?”
“The good news is there’s a cure.”
“Great! Let’s have it.”
The shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk.”
“Doc!” you shout. “I’m dying!”
“Indeed you are,” says the. “But I do have this large stack of medical books that I’ll loan you. The cure to your illness is somewhere in these volumes. You are going to have to read carefully, synthesize ideas, and learn information that I could give to you much more quickly, but if you do find the cure before you die, you’ll be a better person for it.”
Now, we would never accept this kind of answer from a doctor, but too often this is exactly the kind of “medicine” that we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.
I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin with the more-than-a-tad-snarky bit – No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk – because this reads like a parody of some conservative’s understanding of “liberal” approaches to ministry, doctrine, and the Christian life. I say “reads like a parody” because there is no way any of this bears any resemblance to any church of which I’ve been a part; any teaching of any pastor, teacher, or church leader; certainly not the United Methodist Church and its approach to doctrine, our theological task, and our expression of faith as the people called Methodist. The authors say “this is exactly the kind of ‘medicine’ we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.” I would ask: One example, please. Just cite a denominational statement, a theological work, a statement from any mainline Protestant body that says anything like this.
Of course, they won’t because they can’t. Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false. Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father. Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about. Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired. It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation (like individual attempts at living the Christian faith apart from the Body of Christ, say). That’s why we Protestants no longer have a Doctrine of Purgatory. We do not have a Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Up through the 17th Century, many bodies, Catholic and Protestant, had a Doctrine of Death. None do now, at least of which I’m aware.
Doctrine is our collective profession of faith. When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task. That is why they exist. Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference. What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation. That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy. When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime. This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ. Some move along this path; some do not. Some move further along than other. Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification. This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.
There are at least two ways of looking at Christian orthodoxy. On the one hand, orthodoxy could involve a set of claims that can be used as a litmus test to see who is in and who is out. Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. A much healthier way of thinking about the orthodox claims of the church is as life-giving resources. These claims are critical not because we need some minimal set of admission requirements, and not simply because these claims delineate our tribe from other tribes, but because knowing the truth about God can lead us more fully into the life of God, and it is within the life of God that true life is to be found.
So much of the game is given up in this paragraph, I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else. Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way? A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate. To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous. The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out. This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given. Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself. Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience. Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith. Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus? While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine. We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God. It is never that we know the Truth of God. Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.
Wesley knew what so many of us have forgotten today: The set of claims that we make about God will shape the ways in which we view the world around us and will come to bear significantly upon the way we live. We all have a way of looking at the world, but not all ways of looking at the world are equally virtuous or healthy. Not all ways of looking at the world are equally true. The witness of the church through the centuries is that the most virtuous and truest way of looking at the world is through the lens of our creedal faith.
The final sentence is missing a key feature of the the church’s witness: That these claims of virtue and truth are claims of faith, to be considered even while confessed, to know how they hold us rather than being held by us, and are at best an expression of what the Church could be if it lived wholly in the Spirit of the Risen Christ to the glory of the Father. All the same, they are part of our profession of faith – profession being distinct from confession – which is precisely that: a profession of faith, not a witness to any human Truth. It can only be understood, even dimly, when we grasp that we are in the hand of our loving God. As for the rest of the paragraph, I’m not even sure who has forgotten that our claims about God shape how we live. After all, even atheists insist their denial of God shapes their lives. Those who profess other religious faiths certainly understand their lives shaped by their beliefs about God, Allah, the pantheon, or the dream that is life from which we need to awaken. It’s silly to pretend that folks have “forgotten” this; it’s even sillier to insist that such forgetting is, or could be, relevant to a discussion of Doctrine, in particular a discussion of Doctrine that somehow insists it is no less a means of grace than Baptism of the Lord’s Supper. If Doctrine really were a means of grace, such a forgetting on the part of the Church would be impossible; as it is, no one of whom I’m aware has “forgotten” such a thing, i.e., that our beliefs shape how we live.
For United Methodists, these are given in the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Holy Trinity brought all things into being, created humankind, mourned our rebellion, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, taught us how to live, bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose bodily from the dead and will come again in glory. That narrative—if you internalize it—will shape the way you view everything. And so, as we say at the very beginning of “Key United Methodist Beliefs,” “Belief matters.” It matters a great deal.
Let’s consider “The Holy Trinity brought all things into being,” etc. This “shorthand” is as unorthodox as the too-often-heard claim, “Jesus is God”. An understanding of the Trinity includes understanding that the Three work as One, and the One works as Three. Thus, for example, Creation is the work of the Father with the Son through the Spirit. “The Trinity” didn’t bring all things into being; Creation, which is an ongoing, love-and-grace-filled act of God, is a specific action of the Persons in specific ways. The Trinity did not “become incarnate” in Jesus of Nazareth. The fullness of God in the Person of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father, was Jesus of Nazareth. To say that “Belief matters”, without recognizing the errors of doctrine expressed in their defense of doctrine; without admitting their adherence to an individualistic understanding of the role of Doctrine rather than its existence as the historical expression of the teaching of the Church about its encounter with the Living God, in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father; well, to do these things is to demonstrate precisely why any individual’s understanding of “belief”, while certainly a matter of importance, is neither here nor there.
Finally, I just have to wonder who in the United Methodist Church would deny the importance of Creedal Faith as an expression of our collective faith. Considering the number of creeds in our United Methodist Hymnal, their similarities and differences, their differences in emphases, and how they are used in various ways by congregations, the collective profession of our confession of faith is certainly important in the life of the Church. What this has to do with doctors denying treatment, or Doctrine erroneously treated as a means of grace, or whatever the point of this article was, I don’t know. Which leaves me, as always, wondering how it is possible pastor-scholars could write this and present it to readers.
Unless the matter isn’t doctrine at all, of course. Which has been my contention all along. This is yet another part of the sideshow, the attempt to drag the Church away from our conversation about living the Gospel with integrity by insisting that other things are both more primary and more important. Naming what the game is all about, especially when theologically educated professionals write such doctrinally suspect things as this apologia for doctrine, is important.
Back on September 30, I wrote about Dr. David Watson’s attempts to police the tone of the conversation among United Methodists about a variety of issues. The past couple days have brought to my attention what I think is part of the problem. Some folks, no matter how well meaning and wishing the Internet was a space where people could engage thoughtfully and productively in discussions just have no idea how ugly and hateful it is out here. Hence my refusal to allow comments. Trolls – and worse – are out there. The best way not to feed them is not allow them access.
A new post at United Methodist Insight pulls the usual stunt of criticizing the way some people argue.
A recent flurry of blog posts and “sharing” among United Methodists reveals some of the problems we need to avoid if we’re going to make any progress toward resolution of our denominational struggles. One blogger , for example, openly charged that others suggesting that General Conference 2016 be closed to all except delegates and other essential parties are all white straight males trying to protect their privilege. A briar patch of problems we find here. Statements have implications and when we begin to look at them, we see the problems.
The “one blogger” is a reference to Rev. Jeremy Smith, who made the observation that the majority of those supporting the idea of closing the floor of General Conference in 2016 are straight white males acting to protect their privilege and power. Rev. Steve Rankin goes to a whole lot of trouble to make the point that Smith’s “argument” is flawed. I always find posts like this fascinating because Smith’s position isn’t argumentative; it’s descriptive. Furthermore, he isn’t making a categorical statement, viz., all straight white males want to protect their privilege and power and therefore support the closing of the floor of GC2016. Which causes confusion for Rev. Dr. David Watson, who wonder how a straight white male like Smith could make such a statement, without realizing he, Watson, has fallen in to the simple trap of mistaking a factual observation for an argumentative position. Rankin continues the tone and argument policing, insisting that we need to argue better, and Smith’s statement is just bad-bad-bad.
As it happens, today I ran across a post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money that links to a post at freethoughtblogs.com. Before continuing, I just want to warn readers that what follows includes hateful, vulgar language, so reader discretion is advised. It seems there was an online project about misogynistic language used on Twitter and in comment feeds on posts on feminist issues. A couple people whose comments and Tweets were included in this list took offense at being so included, and took to Twitter to express their outrage in thoughtful, proper arguments:
Blocked by @GretaChristina So that’s how it works, you take my comments out of context (The Glue God) then turn your back like a coward? LOL
To which another Twitter user responds in support:
@SteveOortcloud @GretaChristina It’s not much of a lost. She is a filthy looking beast! I would welcome the block from that cunt!
The relevance of all this is simple enough: Neither Watson nor Rankin have any idea, really, how ugly and hateful Internet conversations can be. Attempting to police the way we United Methodists conduct our arguments runs up against the simple reality that, in fact, Smith’s blog post about straight white males was fair, accurate, and made a point about people not aware of their own privilege and power, and how they are perceived as protecting it through their demand that the floor of GC2016 be closed. To get huffy about Smith’s post, then write about it, actually proves his point in a way I am quite sure neither Watson nor Rankin understand. Furthermore, rather than insist on some kind of decorum and proper argumentative procedure (Rankin’s article is subtitled “Why Method Matters”, as if we were all in some kind of graduate seminar), perhaps it would be of use to get out more on the Internet. See how so-called “Men’s Right’s Advocates” (MRAs) and “Pick Up Artists” (PUAs) respond to women who point out their hateful misogyny. This doesn’t even come close to comments when race is involved.
From my perspective, the discussion at United Methodist Insight and elsewhere has been heated but civil, bringing up salient points without any real rebuttal, and focused on the issues at hand rather than the personalities of the persons involved. Indeed, as a lesson in argument on the Internet, the discussions among United Methodists is a model of Internet civility and proper “method” for arguing in a vast forum filled with hate and violence.
So Dr. Watson and Rev. Rankin, take a gander at the rest of the Internet. You should be applauding your opponents for their civility, integrity, and argumentative style, not clicking your tongues at them for doing nothing more but being forceful without either insulting or belittling. It could be oh so much worse.