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’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The only thing my mother told me about sex was that if God made anything better He kept it to Himself. That’s always worth at least a smile. That this was the only thing either of my parents told me about human sexuality, however, isn’t funny at all. I know that it’s difficult to talk to one’s children about sex. As a parent – a father of two girls no less – creating conditions in which discussions about physical love can take place with honesty, limits, and without embarrassment is never easy.The thing is, though, there are so few situations in which any type of honest, frank talk about human sexuality can take place if it doesn’t take place in the home, where else is it going to happen?
For a long time – since Seminary, in fact – I’ve said the Church is a place where honest, age-appropriate education about the physiology and emotional and moral aspects of human sexuality could and should take place. The Unitarian Univeralist Association has excellent materials that do just that. It would be wonderful if other mainline Protestant denominations were so courageous. See, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason we don’t do this is most adults are terrified of speaking frankly about human sexuality in any way. The idea of speaking honestly about making love – the phrase that describes what happens when two people connect physically, spiritually, and within a context of trust and intimacy – offers the threat of exposing not only things most people are hesitant to speak about openly; it presents the challenge of opening oneself to others, creating a sense of intimacy and trust with others that most of find difficult to do even with one person.
There’s also the sad reality that most everything people hear from Churches and “Christians”, when it comes to sex, is a series of “no”‘s that make it difficult to hear anything else. For example, did you know The United Methodist Book of Discipline begins its discussion of human sexuality with the affirmation that it is “a good gift from a good God”? Even if you’re a United Methodist lay person, I bet you didn’t know that. There are good reasons for that: all you hear from people are our declarations about celibacy in singleness; our anathematizing of same-sex physical love; no affirmative description of how or why sexuality is a good gift. These are all really good reasons to wonder if we United Methodists really believe that our sexuality is a gift.
How is it a gift? I’ll start. While not normally a fan of romantic comedies, one we like around our house is Notting Hill. I like it not least because there are times I feel like Hugh Grant’s character, a shy but friendly loser who finds himself in the company of a beautiful, well-known woman, a woman whose profession creates obstacles but also opportunities. Anyway, the scene in which they first make love, she comes to him, they say nothing for quite a while as they kiss. He slips Julia Roberts’ shirt off her shoulders. The audience sees nothing (because, we are told by the screen-writer and director in the commentary, Julia Roberts has a pretty strict nudity clause in her contracts; that she allowed her bare back to be shown was something no one expected) but Hugh Grant looks down, then back up into her eyes and whispers, “Wow”. The irony of all this is she is hiding at Grant’s place because someone leaked nude photos of her to the press. Hugh Grants’ reaction takes place in a context in which all of England has seen photos of Julia Roberts naked. That “Wow”, however, is the sigh of a man who sees what no one else sees. He sees her as a whole person, beautiful and open in the moment. It isn’t just that he sees her naked breasts. He sees Julia Roberts’ character as a whole person, standing in front of him, body bare, and he is saying “Wow” to that whole moment, that instant when the power and depth becomes real.
I know that feeling because that was the same reaction I had when I saw Lisa that way. The best thing is that I still feel that way. When we’re getting in to bed at night and the lights go out and before we drift off, I’ll have my hand resting on her bare skin. In front of my face is her shoulder and neck. I’ll lean forward, and every night I smell that good, clean, what I call Lisa smell. I kiss her shoulder and her neck. I whisper, “You’re so beautiful,” in her ear. The whole thing – us being together, the safety and security of our darkened room, the look of her body, the feel of her skin, that sweet scent, her smooth skin beneath my lips, the knowledge these are moments we share with no one else – is enough to make me a little giddy. Control is difficult to maintain.
This isn’t about sex. It’s about sexuality. That includes not just the physical acts, but the emotional, spiritual, and larger moral contexts in which two people share moments that bind them together more deeply, express the emotional depth of their love for one another, and might well have a certain measure of abandon about them, because those moments are all about those moments in their fullness.
How is it possible for us in the Christian Churches to be responsible stewards of the message of God’s infinite love and grace when we fail to allow space for serious discussions about the beauty and joy of making love? Nearly two millennia after the Christian Gospel allowed Neo-Platonism inside to reduce it all to the salvation of some “thing” called a soul, while our bodies were considered little more than dungheaps of filth, it is long past time to affirm that salvation in the Bible refers to the whole person. It is our bodies that shall be changed, a new Creation at the resurrection of the dead. We have a responsibility to teach the world that God loves us, that we are created as sexual beings, and that when our creation is complete God calls it “very good”. If we are only willing to condemn and restrict sexuality, insisting that real sexual intimacy is “private” which offers a convenient excuse to cover our shame and embarrassment behind alleged moral principles, what have we taught our children and youth, our young adults and even older adults? If we aren’t willing to tell the world how our sexuality is a good gift from a loving God, why do we pretend it is?
When I was little my older sister had the sheet music to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. I remember look through it, reading the lyrics. To this day, I remember what I felt when I read the third verse: “The first time ever I lay with you”. I thought “This is grown-up stuff”. And I was quite right. As much as I enjoy good fun songs about sex – without them what would we have? – there has to be room for grown-ups to talk about grown-up stuff. There has to be a place and time when we are willing to lift the veil on human sexuality, and offer really good, positive reasons and examples of just how wonderful sexual intimacy can be. Otherwise, why not just surrender and say, “Since we can’t talk about this, we shouldn’t talk about anything.”
In an effort to shine some light on a couple dark spaces, I’m going to say out loud what others have shared privately. I am also going to tell a very unflattering story about myself. Finally, I am going to answer a question someone has asked me several times.
Let’s start with the question: “How would adults act?” Because I often lament the lack of adults in the United Methodist Church, I think it is important to talk about what adult actions might or would or should look like. In order to do that, I’m going to tell a story about me not acting like an adult, and learning the hard way that tattling on others is far more wrong than any action someone feels compelled to tattle about.
I was in Seminary. It was evening. There was a night class getting out and I could hear through my open window a lot of animated talking. Interesting but not unheard of. Nothing animates people like sitting in a large classroom setting and hearing things that challenge your faith. A couple people walked by my room – I sometimes liked to leave my door open – and I saw two people in a hushed discussion. They looked upset. Curious (mistake number one; it wasn’t my business), I went out and asked them what was going on. I was told that discussions in the class were heated; afterward, one of the students was heard to complain about “c***s in the pulpit” and “uppity n****** teaching classes”. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how shocked I was (mistake number two; don’t be shocked by others’ words or actions).
I was filled with righteous anger. Someone should do something about this! If not me, then who? If not now, when? (you guessed it, mistake number three; never ever ever envision oneself as some kind of righteous hero because you’re just being an ass) The next day, having given the matter no thought and less prayer, I went to the Dean of Community Life. I told her what I had heard. I insisted “something had to be done” as if that was within my particular range of responsibilities. She made a reasonable request. She wanted me to convince the person who had told me, who had heard it first hand, to come forward. Filled with the righteousness of a quest for justice, I went and did just that: I went to the person who had told me, trying to convince this person to do what I’d done. I failed utterly. And for good reasons.
The person who relayed those statements to me made it clear that he might well have misheard what was said; he might ha heard that person relaying with disapproval something someone else had said. For all this person knew, those statements relayed to me might well reflect that person’s views but it wasn’t up to us to make a spectacle out of it. At the time I was sorely disappointed. I had to go to the Dean and tell her I had failed; at the time I still felt that “something” should be done. I was heartbroken, not least because this chance I had to be some kind of hero by exposing bigotry among the student body had been dashed by what I felt were “technicalities”.
I am much older now. I am, I hope, a bit wiser. I am ashamed of how I acted. Indeed, I’ve never related this story before in full to anyone precisely because . . . yes I look like a jerk. Being upset and angry that another student said such things about others, specifically faculty members, is fine. Believing it was my bounden duty to “do something about it”, however, were childish delusions. Those delusions, because they were childish, led me to do something I regret: I tattled.
Do I think someone willing to express such extreme views has a place in the pulpit on any church? Of course not. The nice things is, the hoops and stunts, committee meetings and papers, the sermons and lesson plans that candidates for ordained ministry need to complete are many, various, and spread across years. Everything from psychological evaluations to background checks are done. Going in front of a District Committee on Ordained Ministry, say or the Board of Ordained Ministry is never easy. A person who surrenders to the urge to speak in such a way about people doesn’t have an excess of self-control. The proper venue for acting on information that a person has said thus-and-such about others clearly isn’t a Seminary; and what that action might or might not be isn’t up to someone far more concerned with displaying his righteous anger than with getting at the real facts of the matter. I had no business doing what I did. That I can feel shame for doing so is a sign that, at the very least, I’ve learned one lesson in life.
It has been whispered in secret, in hushed conversations, but rarely been made explicit that when Drew McIntyre, Stephen Rankin, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge wrote their letter to the Bishop and District Superintendent of Western Michigan regarding the actions Ginny Mikita took, it was nothing more than tattling. It isn’t that they found Ms. Mikita’s actions wrong or in violation of the Book of Discipline that bothers people; I think most folks, including Ginny, understand that actions have consequences, consequences she was willing to face had proper procedure been followed and the proper actors been offered the opportunity to do so. As Ginny’s role in this was not a secret or hidden, those responsible for dealing with her as they saw fit – the pastor of her local church; her District Committee on Ordained Ministry – certainly had the information available to take whatever actions they deemed appropriate. Rather than allow such actions to unfold as they are set out in the Discipline, these men decided to act, not trusting the processes set out in the very book they claim to defend. They became both judge and jury, determining what her actions were and what the appropriate response from church authorities ought to be, due process and due diligence be damned.
What Ginny Mikita did, was it right, was it wrong? I haven’t a clue. I haven’t a clue because I’m not competent to make that determination. Furthermore, that isn’t my job. Were I truly outraged at a lay member receiving an online ordination in order to perform a wedding ceremony, I would contact that person personally and ask (a) why that person did it; and (b) does this person realize that in so acting this person has risked losing membership in the United Methodist Church. Let me type part of that again: I would contact that person. I wouldn’t tattle on them. I wouldn’t decide I knew better than others what ought to be done. I wouldn’t look at news reports and believe I knew all that needed to be known to make a determination that someone was wrong and “something needed to be done”. That’s the answer to the question about how adults would act. An adult would have gotten in touch with Ginny and say something like, “I saw this news report and I’m troubled. Could we have a conversation so that we both understand the full circumstances and implications?” If that request was denied, the matter should be dropped.
The harm done to the institutions of the UMC that flow from this letter are difficult for those outside to imagine. Imagine being a DS and fearing someone will write them a letter demanding action based upon what amounts to rumor, gossip, and hearsay. Imagine being a lay person who purchased an online “ordination” to help out a family or friend. Imagine knowing that out there are people who scrutinize every news story, every little blog post and might well find something wrong with it. While the actions taken against Ms. Mikita may or may not have been wrong, the thing that got this whole ball rolling, that letter, is morally repulsive, antithetical to any serious ethical consideration. That there are many in our denomination who think what they did was justified breaks my heart; to have such a skewed moral compass as to think that acting on rumor and the words of tattle-tales who weren’t even present for the events they report is acceptable . . . what are we becoming?
This is why tattling is just so wrong. This is a lesson some of us have had to learn the hard way. It is far worse than anything the tattlers believe has been done. We have so much to do to clean up this mess. Not the least have people start acting like adults.
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.
Faced with no good alternatives, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference recently negotiated a wayfor its fastest-growing church to leave the denomination but keep the church property.
Theologically conservative Wesley United Methodist Church of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, is now simply Wesley Church, having in June paid the conference $100,000 for the church buildings and land, along with an additional $58,000 in other conference obligations. . . .
Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, said she tried and failed to get Wesley United Methodist Church to reconsider leaving.
After that, she said, negotiating made sense because of the specifics of the situation, including a nearly $4 million mortgage on the property. – Sam Hodges and Heather Hahn, “Fast Growing Church Leaves With Property”, United Methodist News Service, July 28, 2015
Well, it had to happen sooner or later. A combination of bad theology, a refusal to abide by the covenant of faith and Discipline of the United Methodist Church, ignorance and rejection of its doctrine, and a cult of personality around a pastor who has served far too long in a single charge have all led a congregation to leave the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, after a negotiation over property and other issues. To say that I’m not surprised but am angry about this turn of events would be correct. All the talk about faithfulness to The Book of Discipline, about the importance of doctrine, especially upholding our Doctrinal Standards is shown to be nothing but smoke and mirrors, a bunch of nonsense I have always maintained it to be. Rather than submit to the discipline of the Church, to act according to the vows the pastor made at ordination and the legal obligations of the Discipline, the Rev. Blake Deibler has encouraged teachings antithetical to the spirit and letter of the historic doctrine of the United Methodist Church; rather than accept that, while differences with the denomination are to be expected, he has actually heeded voices to leave the church; rather than accept the trust clause of the Discipline, the congregation paid a fraction of the value for the building and properties in order to continue to exist at the same spot.
For how many decades have we been hearing about the necessity of heeding our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and upholding The Book of Discipline? How many times have we read “leaders” in the denomination insist it is those among us who support full inclusion of sexual minorities who violate all these things, repeatedly and with impunity? How many of these same leaders protest their innocence when charged with supporting schism? All of it, every bit of it, has been shown for the lie is has always been. It’s about some folks believing themselves not beholden to our communal beliefs and practices; it’s about some folks accepting faulty doctrine, bad theology, and enjoying a cult of personality rather than rooting their theology in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, always remembering that the Head of our church is Jesus Christ, not the pastor who’s been there for 22 years. To the good people of Wesley UMC, I bid a fond adieu and hope you enjoy your life among the Reformed Church.
What angers me most about this story is a bit offered by the authors toward the end.
The Rev. David Watson, a professor and dean at United Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Bill Arnold, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, have proposed a four-year suspension of the trust clause for churches at odds with the denomination’s Social Principle on sexuality. Under the proposal, such churches would be allowed to leave “with full ownership of their properties.”
Just last month, Watson insisted that neither he nor other “evangelicals” were in favor of schism. “The idea that evangelicals will vote the church into division at General Conference is simply unrealistic,” he wrote. Yet, this self-professed advocate for continued unity in the denomination – a Dean at one of our Seminaries! – wrote a year before that the rules of The Book of Discipline shouldn’t apply to some congregations. All through this earlier post, he insists his list of proposals are in defense of the unity of the denomination all the while they explicitly allow ease of schism, not least including suspension of the Trust clause for congregations who wish to leave. What little integrity he may have had, well . . . I don’t even know.
There are many questions still unanswered by the events in Pennsylvania, including Rev. Diebler’s status as an ordained clergy. Has he, or will he, surrender his credentials? Have his orders been recognized by the denomination into which he and his congregation have moved? And, this may sound needlessly and gratuitously vindictive, I have to ask just how trustworthy others should consider Rev. Diebler, taking a congregation that was not his to begin with out of a denomination to which he has vowed allegiance, accepting the good order and discipline of those appointed above him? What happens when he no longer has connectional resources to support him or his ministry? Is there, really, a matter of integrity involved in a person violating both his vows of ordination as well as the good order of a church that has nourished him, supported him, helped to educate him, acknowledged his call to the ministry of Jesus Christ, and offered him a place to serve for over two decades?
I have no idea if this action represents any kind of precedent, either in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the Northeast Jurisdiction, or the denomination as a whole. I do know that all the crap we’ve been hearing for so long is just what I and others have said it is – just that, crap. It is all lies, with which the self-serving self-righteous clothe themselves to hide the sad truth they earnestly believe being church is all about them, rather than bringing the Kingdom of God.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Unfortunately, mental health eludes many in our world resulting in considerable distress, stigma, and isolation. Mental illness troubles our relationships because it can affect the way we process information, relate to others, and choose actions. Consequently, mental illnesses often are feared in ways that other illnesses are not. Nevertheless, we know that regardless of our illness we remain created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more violent than other persons are. Rather, they are much more likely to be victims of violence or preyed on by others. When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized. Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care and eradicate stigma within the church and in communities. – The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012
Few things are more annoying to me than people who take up a particular cause, especially one that impacts them personally, and demand that all other causes be set to one side. Like conservatives with gay children who suddenly become compassionate, all such behavior does is demonstrate the lack of fundamental sympathy not only at the heart of conservative political ideology, but within the shriveling souls of the people themselves. It’s far better, I think, to admit one begins from positions of ignorance, a need for contrition for past failures, and the desire not so much to make one’s personal matters suddenly a thing of the gravest public concern, but at the least to let others know there is yet one more person who is learning about something we in America would so much prefer to set aside.
Mental illness is certainly one of those things. Anything that negatively impacts our national self-image as happy, youthful, beautiful, thin, sexually aware and competent without being too boastful about it, and certainly without anything such as scars from acne, a couple extra pounds, skating on the edge of financial ruin, and mental illness really isn’t something people wish to discuss. Physical and cognitive impairment are obviously on this list as well. We no longer tuck such individuals in our attics or basements; we do, however, ignore them in most of our policy discussions, our leisurely conversation, and most certainly in our churches. We have a hard enough time figuring out how to get folks to come, sit in the pews, and worship without adding such things as how we live with people who deviate from our social and cultural norms.
In our midst, however, are millions upon millions of people who live with mental illness. While depression is perhaps the most common form among people who are otherwise functional, anxiety disorders, OCD, even schizophrenia exist in our churches, our congregations, and our families. Unlike people with physical impairments, and some with cognitive impairments, it is impossible to know who is living with mental illness. You can’t look at someone and say, “Oh, this person has narcissistic personality disorder. Just look at her!” In part because of ignorance, in part because of fear stoked by imprecise and too often erroneous discussions in the media, despite the prevalence of mental illness, there continues to be an abundance of silence, overwhelming stigma, and deep prejudice about people who live with them in all their varieties.
For example, the painting above would represent, for the artist, Bi-polar disorder. Yet, when I found it online this morning, it represents what I see all too often when I look in the mirror. Because the self-perception of those living with mental illness is so severely impaired, this has implications not only for how our churches socialize with the diversity that is the American public. It also has deep theological implications: for pastoral counseling; for matters of theological anthropology; for the awareness of grace and how that becomes lived in the lives of individuals; how individuals understand doctrinal statements regarding anything from who God is through what it is to be sinful and saved to how to live in beloved community.
For my own part, despite my willingness to discuss my own experience generally, the internalized stigma associated with mental illness – “he’s that crazy person” – becomes a hindrance to dialogue. Especially since “depression” is a word tossed about without adequate understanding; “anxiety” is often dismissed as the creation of a pathology out of privilege (which it might well be, I don’t know); and even well-managed mental illnesses have flare-ups either from improper medication, poor counseling, or just a bad day; all these make it difficult to clarify that “depression” and “anxiety” aren’t moods or states of mind. They can be crippling pathologies, leaving those who live with them incapable of speaking, of standing, of doing much of anything other than wondering how those long hours are actually just minutes. Awareness of the outside world is changed; not just one’s self-image, but how one perceives any stimuli becomes distorted through the various lenses and ear-pieces the diseases create. It becomes nearly impossible to notice even drastic changes in behavior, demeanor, interaction, and related perceptions without help from the outside. Then, there needs to be the willingness to hear and respond. Especially since, again speaking only from my own experience, the preference is to lock up inside myself.
Hostility and anger are just as much a part of one’s emotional responses as sadness, apathy, and silence. Particularly as Wesleyan Christians, what might this mean for how such a person might react to the teachings that our salvation, for us, is primarily a lived expression of love for others? When one’s internal mental and emotional make-up skews stimuli toward being perceived as hostile, and fear dominates a person’s interactions with others, how is it possible to move toward a healthy understanding of grace, of the internal sense of salvation? When one sees the horrific in the mirror, and accepts it as normal, how can love from others be contemplated?
We in the churches have so much to consider. I am not a very good teacher – particularly on days like today, when my brain-chemistry is off, and just getting through sentences is a bit of a struggle; when I’m using a great deal of energy to present this without too much deviance – and my only real goal in being public with what I live with has been to offer some kind of help, perhaps, to just one other person so he or she might come to know there are others who get it, so I don’t really know what good I’d be as such. On the other hand, I do think that, before any of us get so excited with how much we know, or think we know, that we consider the possibility that there are millions among us for whom spiritual reproof, or benevolent encouragement, or even proffered assistance just isn’t enough. How is it possible to have a meaningful theological discussion about, say, the imago Dei, when there are folks like me whose self-image is so fragile at the best of times – and at the worst of times shattered in tiny fragments – that it might be helpful to remain quiet?
Too many of us are too eager to rest comfortably within our own walls, our own comfort zones, it is good to remember there are many for whom those walls are not comfortable at all, but rather a prison cell with no light. Some of us don’t have comfort zones at all, because our living is a day-to-day process of negotiating with ourselves about moods, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. For those we are in need, first, of a willingness to extend compassion through listening to the stories others tell. Then, perhaps, if the invitation is made, a journey with folks such as myself would be a good way to remember how much we have to learn, how far we still have to go, and how much our words as well as our deeds need to reflect an understanding of how little we actually know before pronouncing judgment upon others.
The Connectional Table discerns and articulates the vision and the stewardship of the mission, ministries and resources of The United Methodist Church as determined by General Conference and in consultation with the Council of Bishops. – “Who We Are”, umc.org
It seems every few weeks another proposal arises from the morass of discussions within the United Methodist Church over the status of sexual minorities. As I mentioned yesterday, the one thing these proposals have in common is an attempt to avoid the political process within the denomination, a process that allows people to speak their minds, to become angry, to threaten to break our bonds of union, and generally seek to avoid, divert, or somehow end the conflict within the church by administrative fiat, either through some action from the Council of Bishops, a series of interim agreements, or using various clauses within the Book of Discipline to allow churches to go their separate ways yet remain within the polity of the United Methodist Church.
None, however, regard our current process as legitimate. None accept the process of the Connectional Table and its promise to provide the 2016 General Conference legislation that will deal with these issues in a way that is constructive, healing, and reconciling for all. None of the things people are talking about want the Connectional Table to succeed, I believe, because it is tied so closely to the entire structure of the denomination and its hierarchy (for a list of the membership of the Connectional Table, just click here). For some reason, the entire discussion seems to assume we need “A Leader” to decide for us, rather to rely upon what is admittedly a long, slow, clunky, typically churchy process, using a committee to talk to concerned persons across the denomination on various aspects of the matter, not all of which will satisfy everybody. We would prefer clarity of vision and goal, rather than the hodge-podge of diversity that we know is our reality.
Yesterday, I was accused, despite any evidence in existence, of supporting retribution. I fail to see how that accusation makes any sense, considering all I’ve read about the matter. As an aside, I would add that it is strange to me that it is up to the communities of sexual minorities and their supporters not to seek retribution, despite centuries of repression, violence, denial of their sanity and even full humanity, as well as being automatically excommunicated simply for being who they are. They, however, must be gracious if and when the church decides to change and allow them full participation in the life of the church, as if the straight majority were somehow conferring a boon rather than recognizing what has always been the case: that we have lived with gay and lesbian and bisexual and other-gendered people in positions of leadership for the life of the church. Only now they have the imprimatur of our official documents. Untold violence has been wreaked upon sexual minorities, yet they are not to react in kind. Obviously they won’t, for any number of reasons, yet the fear of retribution exists precisely because those giving voice to these fears would act that way, so they expect LGBTQ people to act the same way. Rather, knowing their lives to be filled with grace, they will live according to that grace, rather than the power that befuddles the brains of far too many in our churches.
In any event, my modest proposal is simple: Stop listening to all these damn proposals. I don’t care who makes them, how steeped they are in our history, our polity, or our theology. There is an actual process in place, and it will have something ready for all of us well before General Conference next year. That will be that with which he have to do, not some concoction from denominational superstars, self-appointed leaders, or the more-clever-by-half individuals who believe they know what’s best because conflict, in and of itself, must be bad.
Except, it isn’t. The conflict within the denomination is good for all of us. We are seeking clarity on an issue that while hardly central to our theological or confessional life nevertheless demonstrates what we believe about who God is, about Creation and its goodness, about humanity and its goodness in redemption including our sexuality, and about what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. It is a canary in the coal mine of the world, telling those outside who we really are and what we really believe. Conflict gives us the chance to seek clarity on an issue of fundamental human dignity. Conflict gives us the opportunity to grow, because we come face to face with the limits of our own understandings, the possibility that we may well be wrong, for all the surety we offer the world.
So, allow the arguments to continue. Let the Connectional Table do its job. Get a sense of which way the wind is blowing in the months and weeks in the run-up to General Conference next spring. Give yourself a sense of peace that the men and women on the Connectional Table, for all their personal agendas, might well have the best interest of the whole church at heart. Have faith that, as a part of the Church of Jesus Christ, it exists within the power of the Holy Spirit no less (and no more) than all those heroic individuals who would clamor for attention for all their clever yet remarkably unworkable proposals that seek to bypass our need to come to terms with the ugliness of our language and our practice. If you don’t like conflict, or prefer we not deal with the matter of how we treat those among us who are different, there is no reason at all to participate. Unless of course it is conflict itself that leaves you uncomfortable. In that case, I suggest you sneak off to a cave to be an anchorite; conflict is as old as the church, and over matters of far more importance than this. In which case, please cease trying to to cash in on celebrity, cleverness, or a supposed attunedness with some majority in the denomination that exists only within your own mind. Allow the actual process created by General Conference to do its work.
I know it’s boring. It is so much better to think oneself the hero, rather than allow some bureaucratic/political process to complete its work. That, however, is what we have. It’s what I support. It is, in the end, what we need in order to confront the sin that implicates all of us, no matter how righteous we may think ourselves. Thus, my modest proposal: Let the system work. Who knows. We might all be surprised!