Tag Archive | United Methodist Book of Discipline

A Reckoning

There are many voices within The United Methodist Church who want us to break up with them. From bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministries, and other leaders, we are told to simply leave. Is leaving home ever that simple? We are United Methodists because there is no other denomination with our unique connectional polity and distinctive Wesleyan spirituality. We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised.

We are coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex persons at this moment for several reasons. Foremost, we want you to know we still love you and seek to remain in relationship with you. Even if we should leave and you seek more restrictive language against LGBTQI persons, know that God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQI young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination. You cannot legislate against God’s call. The “LGBTQI issue” is not one that can be resolved through restrictive legislation but instead by seeing that all persons are made in the image of God and welcomed into the community of faith. – Reconciling Ministries Network, “A Love Letter To Our Church From Your LGBTQI Religious Leaders”, May 9, 2016

One of the most solemn and mysterious moments in Christian worship, a United Methodist pastor consecrates the elements prior to offering them to the congregation

One of the most solemn and mysterious moments in Christian worship, a United Methodist pastor consecrates the elements prior to offering them to the congregation

It’s happening. What I have been advocating for 25 years is finally coming to pass. Over a hundred United Methodist leaders have signed an open letter to our denomination as it gathers for General Conference, making plain for all to see and hear they are both LGBTQI and not going anywhere. This mass self-outing challenges the stated preferences of at least some United Methodist leaders to hold trials for each and every person who violates church law regarding the ordination of sexual minorities or those who officiate at same-sex weddings. On the one hand we have the principle that those who violate church law in this regard be put to a church trial (even though the Book of Discipline doesn’t restrict administrative responses to legal action) and the reality that there are now, always have been, and always will be sexual minorities serving church, as District Superintendents, Bishops, youth leaders, seminary professors, and candidates for ordination. Even should those seeking not only to uphold our current language regarding the legal status of sexual minorities and those who officiate at same sex weddings get their way, that not only doesn’t guarantee a successful prosecution; it also doesn’t change the reality that people whose sexuality is different will continue to be called to serve in the United Methodist Church. Restricting the language even further only changes the perception of who holds power within the Church.

I’m sure there are some people gathering in Portland who feel blindsided by this open letter. Even if they support changing the Discipline, this letter would seem to force a quick and decisive decision upon what was intended to be a consciously deliberative process allowing all voices the chance to speak and be heard. This letter is a direct challenge not only to the current Discipline but a challenge to the 800 delegates in Portland to act rather than prayerfully dialogue and conference together on such a sensitive matter. Truth is, I have some sympathy with this point-of-view.

I think, however, that the delegates in Portland might be able to see this as just another part of the deliberative process, another piece of the puzzle they’re trying to put together that is the future of our denomination. Just as there are those, I am sure, who would prefer not to hear the story of Ben Wood, or would prefer we not use our Doctrinal Standards or our Articles of Religion as a guide through the thickets of deliberation, I’m sure that this open letter, precisely because of its audacity, is something delegates would prefer not to consider. It is every bit as relevant, however, as all the other parts of the matter, from Biblical interpretation through practical considerations. All of it must be in the mix, not least the potential future of our brothers and sisters who have dared risk so much so that others might benefit from their audacity.

We stand on the brink. All of us, not just the 800 in Portland, have the gravest of responsibilities: facing the future of our Church together, regardless of how we believe that future should look. I think it is important to recognize and name the courage, the challenge, the promise, the hope, this letter represents. Nothing is as fearless as Christian hope. We should honor that in our thoughts and prayers, our dialogue and arguments, in all that we do to see that the People Called Methodist continue to serve the world in our unique, evangelical, liberating way. Our moment of reckoning is upon us. Let us be the Church circumstances call us to be.


At It Again

Not Only Could David Watson Be Accused Of Doing So.  I Could, Too

Not Only Could David Watson Be Accused Of Doing So. I Could, Too

While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what webelieve as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. – Dr. David F. Watson, “Unstable Origins In #UMC Doctrine And A New Series Of Posts,” Musings And Whatnot, February 10, 2015


I would argue that, despite the affirmations of our Articles of Religion and doctrinal standards, we United Methodists no more “have a clear sense” of our faith than any other group of Christians in our history.  Indeed, that is why we have, immediately following our Doctrinal Standards, a theological task, boiled down to making the words of our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Standards make some kind of sense in our 21st century world that is so different than the world in which the words contained in those previous parts of our Discipline were written (not to mention languages; cultural milieu; social structure; political structure).  While never denying we must needs affirm our faith, and make clear those affirmations have meaning for us, we should always remember Hegel’s dictum that the finite cannot ever contain the infinite.  Our words no more sum up who God is and what God has done, than our actions reflect what God would have us do.  Because our language is mortal and contingent; because we are mortal and contingent; because our words and our lives are, in a famous phrase, between the times, they are caught up in the reality of being both sinful and justified, trusting in God’s grace to cover the multitude of sins they contain. – Me, “Our Problem Isn’t Doctrine Or Theology, Either,” No I Has Heard, June 17, 2014

I have taken aim at Dr. David F. Watson, Professor of New Testament and Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH on more than a few occasions.  It seemed more than a bit beside the point, after posting a link to the post above on Facebook and chastising him a bit, to write yet another blog post.  As I got thinking about the matter, however, it occurred to me that, while I would be repeating myself in order to make clear Watson’s error, it is also important to make clear – again, repeating myself – that this obsession with doctrinal clarity in the United Methodist Church is not for its own sake.  It never has been.  It is about power, pure and simple.  Specifically, the power to use doctrine as a weapon against those with whom one disagrees.  The thing is, the article is so clumsy, telegraphing precisely what he wants, while the whole time pulling a bait and switch that is awkward as well as making much of the piece irrelevant, I have to wonder if he thought he was being clever or if, in the process of trying to be nonchalant while tripping over his own feet he didn’t notice how much he gave the game away.

He begins his piece writing about how the 1972 Book of Discipline described Doctrine within the denomination.  Indeed, he spends a great deal of time scolding the authors that when he later notes that the entire section on Doctrine was revamped in 1988, is still in force, and has become a source of a flourishing both in the study of our Wesleyan heritage, and in theological expansion, bringing marginalized voices more and more in to the conversation, he hardly notes the vast changes that have occurred because of the changes made in 1988.  Noting that the 1972 statement on Doctrine, our Articles of Religion, and Theological Task lacked the kind of force that Watson might have preferred, he only hints that the strength of the change in 1988.  Why is this the case?  Let’s read Watson in his own words:

There are a few things to notice here. First, the doctrinal standards are “not to be construed literally and juridically.” This might cause one to wonder in what sense they function as standards. Despite the fact that they are protected by the first Restrictive Rule, they have no real force. One has to be impressed with the ingenuity involved in this undermining of the very standards the first Restrictive Rule was trying to protect, even while leaving the rule itself intact.

Second, rather than allowing for literal and juridical doctrinal standards, we are to engage in” free inquiry within the boundaries defined by” scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet these “boundaries” cannot be “defined unambiguously” and should be interpreted with appropriate “flexibility.” By this point, we might ask why we would wish to use the term “boundaries” at all.

Third, there is no sense here that the material content of our doctrinal standards is very important. What is important, by contrast, is the process of “theologizing.” It seems that the set of claims we make about God is less important than the resources we use in developing those claims. This is akin to saying that the food I eat for dinner is less important than the ingredients that I use in cooking. If this seems to be an inversion of our common priorities when we cook, it is no less an inversion of priorities for Christian theology.(Emphases added)

This is a discussion not about our current Doctrinal Standards And Theological Task, but about our now-superceded “Doctrinal Guidelines”.  The game, however, is given away in the emboldened phrase in the first paragraph.  His complaint is not really about a lack of clarity, or the insistence that our theologizing allow for flexibility.  To insist that Doctrine carry “literal and juridical force” is to demand Doctrinal purity.  To claim that lacking such force undermines them is ridiculous on its face, because it isn’t “undermining” them that concerns Watson.  It is, rather, that neither our Doctrinal Guidelines nor our current Doctrinal Standards can be used to enforce doctrinal purity or rigidity.

Watson continues further down.

While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what webelieve as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

This is the marvelous bait and switch.  He spends much of the time writing about our 1972 Doctrinal Guidelines and spends almost no time on our 1988 Doctrinal Standards, which are still in force.  The reason he doesn’t discuss them is they are not only radically different, far more stringent, but are both the result of and have spawned much theological fruit for the denomination.  He doesn’t mention this, particularly the Renaissance in Wesleyan studies and the greater incorporation of Wesleyan ideas both in our teaching and practice of ministry because that would undermine his insistence that we United Methodists have “much work” to do on Doctrine.  Except, alas, we don’t.  Our Articles of Religion and our Doctrinal Standards are clear enough; that the emphasis continues to be directed toward our theological task is his real complaint, because that has expanded our understanding of how we as a people called Methodist understand those words like “Trinity,” “Atonement,” “Incarnation,” and whatnot.

And, of course, our Doctrinal Standards continue to lack “literal and juridical force”, so that means we can’t excommunicate people who argue, say, that sexual minorities should enjoy the full fruits of life in the Church.  This is his real complaint, as it was back in September when I said that doctrine wasn’t our problem; this is the real complaint of a group called “United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy”, the so-called “Confessing Movement”, Good News, the United Methodist project of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and other groups that use weasel words to disguise for the casual reader that they all exist for one purpose: To prevent any change in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that would allow for full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church.

This clumsy article, allegedly written to draw attention to a new series of posts at another website, stumbles over itself as it ends up flat on its face at the end, equating Doctrine with belief.  For one who is so insistent on Doctrinal Standards being more rigid, and who belongs to a group insisting on orthodoxy, I cannot imagine a more unorthodox, simple-minded, and erroneous view presented as part of an argument for doctrinal rigidity and reform.  Yet again, we have Watson attempting to distract United Methodists, whether scholars or not, clergy or lay, from the fact that the agenda he and others like him are pushing has nothing to do with our Doctrinal Standards, which are just fine, or our theological task, which continues to bear so much fruit.  It is, rather, an attempt to create a view of United Methodist Doctrine that is a weapon, a tool for the powerful to silence and exile the powerless, the marginalized, and most of all anyone wanting to use Christian teaching to show how the United Methodist Church should be more open to sexual minorities.  Again, all we should do is say, “No,” and be about the business of being the Church, doing our theology and thinking about our Doctrine as we go, which has always been the Christian way.

Theology Or Ideology?: The Worship Wars And Church Music

[Pius X] said “sacred music should possess in the best possible grade the qualities which are proper to the liturgy,” namely, holinesss, goodness, beauty,  excellence of form, and universality.  Gregorian chant was understood to embody these qualities most perfectly and was therefore regarded as the “highest model of church music.”  Palestrina’s Renaissance polyphony also fit the standards.  The church has “always recognized and encouraged progress in the arts,” said Pius X, and modern musi has “produced compositions good and serious and dignified enough to be worthy of liturgical use;” but “nothing profane’ is to be allowed.  The theatrical style is least fitted, especially the one “so much in vogue durin the last [19th] century” in Italy.  Pianos and “all the instruments which are too noisy or nimble, such as drums, kettle-drums, bells, cymbals, triangles, and the like” were forbidden.  Bands were “strictly forbidden” except in some circumstances where “a certain number of specially chosen wind instruments” were allowed.  The music they played had to be “reverent, appropriate, and in every way like that of the organ.” – Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church And Its Music, pp. 270-271


In light of the Magisterium of St. Pius X and my other Predecessors and taking into account in particular the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to re-propose several fundamental principles for this important sector of the life of the Church, with the intention of ensuring that liturgical music corresponds ever more closely to its specific function. . . .

Since the Church has always recognized and fostered progress in the arts, it should not come as a surprise that in addition to Gregorian chant and polyphony she [The Roman Catholic Church] admits into celebrations even the most modern music as long as it respects both the liturgical spirit and the true values of this art form. . . . I have . . . intended in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia to make room for new musical contributions, mentioning in addition to the inspired Gregorian melodies, “the many, often great composers who sought to do justice to the liturgical texts of the Mass.” . . .

I have . . . stressed the need to “purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated,” to guranatee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions. . . .

[T]he sacred context of the celebration must never become a laboratory for experimentation or permit forms of composition and performance to be introduced without careful review. . . .

It is . . . necessary to pay special attention to the new musical expressions to ascertain whether they too can express the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful in celebrations. – St. John Paul II, Chirograph on the Centenary of Tra le Sollecitudini, quoted in “An Anniversary Song: Pope John Paul II’s 2003 Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra le Sollecitudini“, Fr. Jan Michael Joncas, in Kroeker, ed., Music in Christian Worship, pp. 47, 51


1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. – John Wesley’s Rules For Singing, 1761




What is ideology?  How is it different from theology?  Can ideology be reflected in theology?  Can theology become ideological?  Whenever we in the churches engage in discussions, debates, and arguments, we must always stand guard against the creeping serpent of ideology whispering in our ears that God is a liar.  All the same, since Marx, we should recognize the ubiquity and near-impossibility of escaping ideology, regardless of our vigilance and self-examination.  Precisely because ideology is the over-arching set of ideas, assumptions, and historical-social-economic conditions of a particular period in history, they too often go unexamined or if examined, remain elusive in their full extent.

All the same, as we move through discussions of Christian worship, liturgy, and music, we should be cognizant of the omnipresence of ideology, the way it infects even our most holy of moments, and eats away at our best intentions.  Being aware that it is there,however, is not enough.  We must, when we encounter it, root it out by calling it by its name, much as Jesus cast out demons by naming them as what they were – agents of evil and disease that distort God’s good creation.

We should also be aware how even something as useful as the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, as effective a weapon against hidden ideology as one can imagine for churches practicing their theological task, still allows ideology to sneak around and infect us.  The best example, of course, is the language regarding sexual minorities in the Book of Discipline.  Without Scriptural reference, without historical precedent, without reasoned argument, and against all experience, the United Methodist Church continues to dehumanize and excommunicate thousands of faithful Christians, based not upon our historical criteria for theological judgments, but rooted instead in human bigotry.  This is ideology at work at the heart of the Church, tearing us apart at the seams even as we try to be faithful and honest both in our theology and practice of ministry.

Above are three musical settings of the same passage of Scripture, Psalm 103:12: “[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”  The first two, a Gregorian monophony, would certainly be acceptable to Pius X, as would the second setting by Palestrina.  Both would also have the imprimatur of John Paul II, although I wonder about the third.  There are times that I grant JPII more credit, wisdom, understanding, and grace than the historical record might allow.  For that reason I would give him the benefit of the doubt and can imagine him nodding his approval of Casting Crowns’s song.  It is faithful; it can certainly fulfill particular liturgical purposes, especially a reassurance after a congregational confession of sin; it has a particular aesthetic quality that can appeal across generations and particular preferences, if for no other reason than its particular pop-level blandness is as inoffensive and unobtrusive as possible.

Before I move on to John Wesley, I want to note that I am using these two Popes for specific reasons: They wrote extensively on the arts, particularly music, and its function in the worship life of the Church.  Also, the Roman Catholic Church has the benefit of a single individual, in the end, having say over what is and is not appropriate for the people at worship.  I do not and would not criticize, say, Pius X’s preferences.  For one thing, during his Papacy, Gregorian chant was having something of a revival through Italy and France, due to the work of monks at Solemses.  Prior to his Papacy, Pius X had encouraged his priests around Venice to incorporate the reforms flowing from the monastery into their worship.  In many ways, his was a forward-looking attempt at reform, hearing both in Gregorian monophony and Renaissance polyphony opportunities for congregational participation, through the assistance of a choir, in singing praises during the Mass.  In other words, I am not bashing the Roman Catholic Church at all; far from it.  It is the one group of Christians who has wrestled the most with the arts and the faith, and will continue to do so as long as the Throne of St. Peter is occupied.

Not to John Wesley.  To say that singing was an integral part of Wesley’s reforms of Christian worship would be an understatement.  Few hymn writers were as prolific, as theological, or are still in use so many centuries after their deaths as Charles Wesley.  It is often said that Wesley wrote his hymns to fit the popular songs of his day, so that learning the new words would be easier; there is little evidence that was his purpose.  Rather, the metrical conventions of the time were such that this was more the result of common practice than any purposeful act on Charles’s part.  In any event, Wesley’s rules on singing – and Lord did the man love his rules – are far less about aesthetics and far more about the spiritual attitude of the singer, as well as the theological content of the songs.  While I doubt Wesley would have been best pleased either with Gregorian or Palestrina – an anti-Catholic blind spot being part and parcel of the ideology of his day to which he was not immune – I refuse to answer the question as to whether he would have approved of a contemporary song such as the one by Casting Crowns.  For one thing, it’s impossible to say, judged by his rules for singing, how he would have felt about the instrumentation, the arrangement, or the form of the music (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus).

Yet, this is not all that Wesley had to say about our faithfulness as Christians.  Preaching hundreds of sermons, often varying the same text to fit particular instances, his sermon on “The Means Of Grace” offers at least a glimpse of a person at work stripping away layers of ideology, seeking the one thing – that pearl of great price – that is the heart of Christian faith:

But we allow, that the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that, consequently, all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God, they are not acceptable in his sight; yea, rather, they are an abomination before him, a stink in his nostrils; he is weary to bear them. Above all, if they are used as a kind of commutation for the religion they were designed to subserve, it is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God’s arms against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in.

3. We allow, likewise, that all outward means whatever, if separate from the Spirit of God, cannot profit at all, cannot conduce, in any degree, either to the knowledge or love of God. Without controversy, the help that is done upon earth, He doeth it himself. It is He alone who, by his own almighty power, worketh in us what is pleasing in his sight; and all outward things, unless He work in them and by them, are mere weak and beggarly elements. Whosoever, therefore, imagines there is any intrinsic power in any means whatsoever, does greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, neither the power of God. We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord’s Supper; but that it is God alone who is the Giver of every good gift, the Author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby, through any of these, there is any blessing conveyed to our soul. We know, likewise, that he is able to give the same grace, though there were no means on the face of the earth. In this sense, we may affirm, that, with regard to God, there is no such thing as means; seeing he is equally able to work whatsoever pleaseth him, by any, or by none at all.

4. We allow farther, that the use of all means whatever will never atone for one sin; that it is the blood of Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there being no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain for sin and uncleanness. Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him; that there is no merit in any of his own works; not in uttering the prayer, or searching the Scripture, or hearing the word of God, or eating of that bread and drinking of that cup. So that if no more be intended by the expression some have used, “Christ is the only means of grace,” than this, — that He is the only meritorious cause of it, it cannot be gainsayed by any who know the grace of God.

Precisely because Wesley stayed focused on the reality that nothing we have, nothing we offer, nothing we can do has any merit save through Christ who redeems us and our offerings, we have a bulwark against any ideological preferences taking precedent in our discussion of what is and is not proper in worship.  Precisely because of Wesley’s insistence on “heart religion” – that this is the source of our assurance of pardon as well as the source for Godly and faithful action in the world – we have the ability to question any and all demands that our outward expression of faithfulness, whether in individual action or corporate worship.  We can, then, skirt around the tired and largely meaningless “Organs! No, Praise Bands!” nonsense that, like all ideology, distracts us from a far more profitable discussion of the possibilities available, as long as we heed Wesley’s words to focus on our heart of faithfulness, the gift of grace in the risen Christ.

Which is why I would say that all three of the above versions of the same Psalm verse are not only acceptable, but could be used together in the same worship service, illustrating different points perhaps either of a discussion of the history of the faith, or how different eras of the Christian Church came to terms, musically, with the powerful theological message of forgiveness in Psalm 103.  Are they all singable?  Sure – as long as the Latinate verses are lined; the Palestrina version perhaps used as a choral anthem, while a praise band take over Casting Crowns’s version.  In this way, we escape the nets and traps of ideology, sidestep questions of aesthetics and appropriateness, and get down to the business of worshiping to the glory of God, using the whole breadth of our common history as a source from which to draw for our common life.

Contradictions At The Heart Of Ministry

The people of Green St. UMC In Winston-Salem, NC

The people of Green St. UMC In Winston-Salem, NC

A United Methodist pastor is facing a complaint under church law because he declined to officiate at a same-sex wedding.

A gay couple at Green Street Church, a United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has filed the formal complaint against their pastor, the Rev. Kelly P. Carpenter.

The couple, Kenneth Barner and Scott Chappell, charge Carpenter under the Book of Discipline with “failure to perform the work of ministry.” Their complaint also accuses Carpenter of “gender discrimination” in not officiating at their ceremony. Gender discrimination is also a chargeable offense under church law.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of church law and teachings, also states that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” It is a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to preside at same-sex unions.

In the complaint, the couple says the denomination’s rules are contradictory. – Heather Hahn, “Gay Couple Files Complaint For Refusal Of Wedding”, United Methodist Insight, Nov. 12, 2014

When I saw this story yesterday, my first thought was, “Here we go.”  After a day’s thought, it occurred to me that by highlighting the contradictions our current anti-LGBTQ policy create for real ministry to all persons, we take the argument away from the hurly-burly of the Internet, Charge Conferences, Annual Conferences, and even General Conference, and ask a fundamental question about what ministry means, in church law.  While perhaps less welcome than an actual multifaceted discourse among so many in our church, this case brings to the fore the heart of problem: What kind of church are we?

Going forward, I have no idea what the outcome of this case will be.  I’m not even sure if the church’s Judicial Council will consider it having merit, precisely because the members are gay.  If rejected on these grounds, that at least answers the question about what kind of church we wish to be.  On the other hand, if the courts take the case, it will be a matter of weighing ministerial and pastoral priorities under church law.  This will require not only a deft legal touch, but also a subtle theological touch as well.

So I say, let’s all follow the bouncing ball as it takes this case wherever it leads.  We may all be surprised by the result.

This Is The Story So Far

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. – 1 Peter 3:15b-16a

Geoffrey, I don’t know how you misconstrued any of our postings as a refusal or resisting prayer! Nothing could be further from the truth! Churches have been down this road so many times on exclusion of those they feel aren’t fit to be Christian and I, for one, am sick of it. I have a right to feel that way whether you agree with me or not. Here’s what gets me…these Bishops are supposedly our leaders, the ones with the wisdom and have a deep understanding of Jesus Christ. Really?? I don’t think so if they cannot grasp that the Lord said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul AND Love your neighbor as you love yourself (PERIOD)…there is no “but,” “unless,” “however,” after yourself. And since when do men know better than God? Why are so many reluctant to practice what He asked of us? Why does the UMC insist on hurting people with their “rules” made by man? Say what they will, our wise Bishops and other leaders who think or believe those within the LGBTQ community are somehow not equal or as worthy as the rest of us, but it’s old, tiresome and complete BS. Stop judging, picking and choosing the worthy people and start loving ALL people! What is hard about this??? – Michele Smith Vasquez, from Facebook in response to a discussion after posting this

My preference would be to move on.  At the same time, that very first sentence floored me.  Was it possible Ms. Vasquez hadn’t read the things I quoted in the linked piece?  Did she not read a sampling from the piece I wrote yesterday?  Perhaps she should read some of the comments on Cynthia Astle’s commentary at United Methodist Insight.  The very idea that I was somehow imagining a dismissal of a call to prayer, when just above Ms. Vasquez’s comment comes the following:

prayerThat just blows my mind.

Part of the problem, perhaps, was focusing on one particular thing I wrote – and perhaps not even reading it thoroughly – and not taking in to account a history that goes back decades, literally, speaking out and fighting for justice in the United Methodist Church.  As I wrote yesterday, my first public statement against discrimination in ordination came in 1988.  I repeated here that I have been an advocate of direct action on the part of the clergy since around 1991 or so, the first time I suggested ending discrimination would entail the simple act of all LGBTQ clergy standing together during an Annual Session, outing themselves, and challenging the Bishop to remove them all at once.  When the Schaefer decision came down, I made it clear that, for all intents and purposes, the actions in Eastern Pennsylvania, the decision by the Judicial Council, and earlier Administrative actions in the New York Conference have rendered the language of the Book of Discipline toothless.  The precedents are many and varied, and there is no longer any reasonable expectation formal, legal action will be taken against any clergy who defy the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings.

Which says and does nothing about ordination, although far more clergy are living out without any action on the part of Bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry, or judicial action.  As a matter of course, if not law, it seems to me that the matter has, in a sense, been decided.  For too many in the denomination, however, this is still controversial.  Consider Dr. David Watson of United Theological Seminary, for whom an end to clergy trials is “a non-starter”.  The demand from so many commenters for “action” and “leadership” ignores (a) the ways Bishops have all ready, in various way, taken a lead to dampen the fires by refusing to hold trials; and (b) led us forward to a time when, as I say, as a matter of fact if not of Church law, there is no longer any expectation for punishment for violating this particular clause of the BoD.  Our Bishop in Northern Illinois has made it clear – No More Trials.  In so doing, the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings is toothless.  While this may upset Dr. Watson, it is an Episcopal consensus de facto if not de jure.

My biggest pet peeve, perhaps, is one stated above: the demand for “action” on the part of the Council of Bishops, absent any clear consensus, or perhaps even plurality toward any specific action whatsoever.  As I asked yesterday, absent such plurality, who is going to lead?  To where?  Who will follow?  What will be the result of such rudderless “leadership” with a following that is no more coherent than a group on social media?  In many ways, this demand that someone, or perhaps some portion, of the Council “do something”, without any sense of what that might be, reminds me very much of demands from some people that our conversations on this topic be civil, decorous, and follow some set of rules.  I have made my feelings abundantly clear on this matter, calling such concern trolling “tone policing” and noting that, compared to so much discourse on the Internet, our debates and discussions about LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church has been heated but civil, never once approaching the depths that far too many such conversations reach.  Most of all, I have supported an intra-church political process that is indeed messy and rancorous, demonstrates to the world our divisions and need for prayerful guidance.  I have also made it clear that I believe that politics, rather than a test of faith, is (or at least should be) a practice of faith.  There is no way around the stormy seas of church politics on this matter, nor should there be.  Looking to the Council of Bishops mistakes authority for power, and ignores the myriad voices on the Internet, voices of those ready to do what it takes to change the language of the BoD.

As for that wording in the BoD, I took some time to look very carefully at it, repeating ad nauseum that it is not only rooted in an antiquated understanding of human sexuality, but is theologically dehumanizing, effectively declaring a portion of the human race outside the bounds of grace, no matter what precisely because of how they were created by God to live out their lives.  And speaking of lives, when the video concerning Ben Wood became public, I not only made clear my sadness and anger at the situation; I also made clear that all of us in the United Methodist Church share a measure of culpability in young Ben’s death just by creating space for a “youth leader” who would do something so cruel and hateful.  I also made clear my contempt for Bishop J. Michael Lowry for refusing to feel shame for the role the United Methodist Church played in young Ben’s decision to take his own life.  To suggest, even obliquely, that others have a greater feeling for the lives at stake in this discussion is not only insulting and ignorant; it demeans the very real struggle some of us have been waging a very long time against the language of the BoD.

Finally, I should note that this is not exactly a new issue, either for us or for me to comment upon.  I wrote something about the inability of the United Methodists to argue coherently and constructively in the run-up to the 2008 General Conference.  As I keep saying – this is a long slog.  “Leadership”, at least as some folks would like to see it enacted (“Just go out there and do something”), will come from us, lifting one another up.  Even those with whom we disagree.  We can pose as holier than all; we can insist that someone come forward to lead us all to the future light of justice.  Or, we can maybe, just maybe, accept this is a long process – one in which I’ve been engaged all my adult life – and rather than whine about a lack of leadership, or dismiss a call to prayer, we gird ourselves for what lies ahead, trusting in the God who calls us a people called Methodist that the end will be God’s end.  Not mine.  Not Ms. Vasquez’z.  Not the Council of Bishops.  Not Good News.  Because this is all about the Body of Christ known as The United Methodist Church, not me or him or him or her or any other individual or group.

The Wording Of The Discipline (I Am Not A Lawyer)

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enable reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.  The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.  We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.  We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. – United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2012 ed., Part V, Paragraph 161, F, partial, p. 111 (emphasis added)

In the midst of all our discussions, I have seen a paucity of discussion of the actual wording in The Book of Discipline that is at the heart of our contretemps.  It is a single sentence in the middle of a paragraph.  The sentence uses odd language, singling out a particular type of human behavior as existing outside “Christian teaching”.  The sentence jumps out of a paragraph attempting to express United Methodist love, grace, and desire for community with all persons.  In the middle of the paragraph, however, this jarring sentence appears, insisting that particular acts of physical love exist outside the bounds of that love, grace, and exclude from loving community by their very nature.  The paragraph continues to insist we should all get along, loving and ministering to all, while never forgetting that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  This sentence, in the context of the paragraph in which it appears, is more than anomalous.  It is contradictory.  This sentence is phrased in a way that no longer reflects our understanding of human sexuality, including same-sex attraction.  This sentence insists that a particular form of human sexuality, unlike so many others, exists outside the bounds of Christian teaching and that those who participate in acts of physical love with persons of the same gender condemn themselves through these acts in a way that is unique not only among human sexual love, but any human action whatsoever.  Insisting it is “incompatible with Christian teaching”, persons who persist in acts of physical love with others of the same gender are separating themselves from the blessed community, regardless of the desires of the Church to keep them within that community.  Persons who “practice” homosexuality are not persons of equal worth; the grace of God is not available to them unless they cease having sex with persons of the same gender.  They cannot be accepted in Christian community because they continue to defy “Christian teaching” by engaging in acts of sexual love with persons of the same gender.

This sentence not only discriminates theologically, without any reference to any larger Biblical, doctrinal, historical, or experiential source.  By its very wording, it makes a lie of the paragraph within which it appears, demeaning the love of a particular group of human beings, and dehumanizing them by declaring that their expression of physical love for others uniquely disqualifies them not only from membership in loving community, but the very grace of God we claim is available to all persons.  The sentence is dehumanizing in the worst possible way, insisting that though created by God to be the persons they are, nevertheless their expression of their sexuality destroys in a unique fashion the Imago Dei that no other sin can or does.

Part of the problematic nature of this sentence lies in its antiquated wording.  When first constructed and inserted in the Discipline in 1972, the idea that persons are born attracted to others of the same gender wasn’t entertained.  Same-sex acts were not understood as part of the experience of human sexuality lived out with integrity.  While it was generally understood, thanks in no small part to the Kinsey Report, that experimentation with same-sex acts was common, it had only been in the previous year or two that the American Psychiatric Association had taken “homosexuality” off its list of mental disorders.  Among too many, the idea that same-sex acts were integral to full personhood was (and still is) unthinkable.  We know more about human sexuality, about the spectrum of romantic and physical attraction, and the reality that some people are attracted to others of the same gender.  From a theological perspective at least, this brings up a host of issues for our doctrine Creation, our doctrine of Humanity including Christian teachings on human sexuality, and our Wesleyan perspectives on justification and sanctification.  I believe we are still wrestling with these doctrinal issues even while the language in the Book of Discipline continues to reflect an antiquated, and no longer tenable, understanding of what it means to be human, and express our sexuality.

That is only the first part of the sentence.  That some particular human act is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is neither here nor there.  Most human acts, even those we cherish as expressing our best selves, are “incompatible” with Christian teaching when done outside an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, of justification and sanctification, and without being clear about the mixture of sin and righteousness that attends all human action this side of the New Jerusalem.  Yet the Book of Discipline is at great pains to point out that “the practice of homosexuality” exists in a particular category of sin.  All human sexuality, however, is incompatible with Christian teaching at some level.  We United Methodists hold up celibacy in singleness as what is proper Christian sexuality.  I believe this completely, for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being my own experience of sex prior to marriage.  Even marital sexuality, no matter how blessed and filled with love and devotion is tainted by lust and simple physical desire.  Fidelity in marriage in no small part is reinforced by precisely  this – mutual affection and physical desire as much by a more elevated adherence to the principles of the marriage vows.  To say, however, that “the practice of homosexuality”, rather than any expression of human sexual love outside a committed marital bond, is incompatible with Christian teaching singles out this particular kind of sexuality without sufficient reason.

We are creatures existing in two worlds.  We live with the taint of original sin, all the while working through the Spirit, who is the mutual love of the Father and the Son, so to live that our actions might yet flow always and only from that Love that saves us.  Our love is tainted by sin, even as we work, with and through the God who has created us, who saves us, and will perfect us.  Our acts of mercy and charity are sinful.  Our worship is never true worship.  Our prayer is nothing but muddled words, as St. Paul himself noted.  Yet in all this, as St. Paul also noted, we are more than conquerors through Christ who saves us.

Yet, the United Methodist Church continues to insist that a particular category of human actions, practiced by a particular kind of human being created by God in the Divine Image are outside the bounds of the grace we claim is available to all.  Unless, of course, they cease “practicing” “homosexual activity”.  In other words, we as a church demand some persons live other than as they were created by God.  Thus, the sentence violates not only a clear understanding of Creation, of salvation, of sanctification, of our unique Wesleyan understanding of grace.  At heart, it muddles our understanding of who God is, creating confusion in our doctrine of God.  For all those who insist on doctrinal purity, it seems to me that only by removing this sentence from the Book of Discipline, and creating policies that truly welcome all persons in to Blessed Community, will our doctrine be consistent, our understanding of who God is and how God acts in love be clear, and our ongoing pursuit of Scriptural Holiness, both personal and social, not be sidetracked by the artificial limits placed upon it by our rejection of part of humanity.

Removing that sentence, changing the Discipline, will not change things overnight.  Nor will it erase bigotry, ignorance, or our history of exclusion.  Our end is not changing the language of The Book of Discipline.  Our end is being more faithful people of God called Methodist.  Changing the language of The Book of Discipline is only the first step in a much longer, more painful journey we must take.  It is only through fire that metal is purified; this is the fire through which we United Methodists must go.  On the other side is precisely what Wesley envisioned – a people on the way to perfection in love in this life.

Christian Unity: Reflections For United Methodists From Galatians II*

Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:24-29

Most of the church’s mistakes (aka, sins) were made by Christians looking for bad guys to fight instead of finding hurting people to bless.

And most of the mistakes the church makes today happen for the same reasons.

No, I’m not talking about those vile, publicity-hungry, sign-waving people who boycott soldiers’ funerals. They don’t have anyone fooled. No one thinks they represent a real church, let alone real Christians.

I’m referring to the average pastor, church or media ministry that spends more time and emotion denouncing the sins of their society than reaching out to the hurting with love and compassion. – Paul Vaters, “No More Angry Christians, Please – We’re Full Up”

There are few things more truly human than dividing folks up in to different categories.  It could be race.  It could be gender.  It could be sexuality.  It could be religion.  Hell, it could be eye color.  Those doing the dividing usually have a single thing in mind: defining who is in and who is out.  Our entire globe is carved up in to 200 or so nation-states on this very principle, pitting populations large and small against one another in the name of self-interest.

Over the past few months, during the back and forth concerning the future relationship of the United Methodist Church and the sexual minorities in its midst, the rush to dividing people in to various categories – liberal or progressive versus conservative or traditional; extremes versus the center; orthodox versus heterodox – has made my head swim.  It seems everyone wants to choose a side, to make sure they are on the winning one.

There are those, Cynthia Astle (editor and publisher of United Methodist Insight) most prominently, who continue to insist that the only way forward is together.  This particular position is one with which I concur completely.  At the same time, I have been very public and vocal in my refusal to accept what is unacceptable: the denial of culpability for so much of the bitterness, threats of schism, denunciations as heretics lying at the feet of particular individuals and groups within the denomination.  This is not to participate in “division”; it is, rather, to ensure that, going forward, we are clear about where responsibility lies for so much of our negativity, division, anger, threats, and intimidation.  Moving forward not only includes unity.  It also includes recognizing certain realities and their impact upon the life of the denomination.

In some recent posts, I chastised those I call “tone police”.  In so doing, I think there was misunderstanding about my position.  I have no problem with those who wish to carry on our conversations and discussions with a particular politesse and even reliance upon traditional argumentation, eschewing everything from sarcasm to personal attacks in the process.  Yet, if we are to have a real discussion as the whole Body of Christ called United Methodist, then we must include those who will not be so polite.  They, too, are part of who we are.  Excluding them a priori as unworthy conversation partners divides us even further, breaks communion, covenant, and community within the denomination, and declares not so much what some people believe as how they express themselves as outside acceptable Christian life.  Yet, isn’t it interesting, as the linked article above notes, that Jesus expressed anger not at the sinners who may not have been as clean or polite or acceptable but the religious leaders who excluded these very sinners for their appearance, their livelihoods, and their actions?  Part of Jesus’s ministry was precisely bringing in to community those excluded by self-proclaimed leaders of the faith.

There are so many who insist that our United Methodist covenant and unity lie between the covers of The Book of Discipline.  This, they insist, requires that any violation of the contents of this covenant places those persons outside not only the Body of Christ called United Methodist, but what is called “Christian teaching”, as if “Christian teaching” were not in fact bringing together all those divided by human sin.  Clearly, however, St. Paul is writing in the tradition of the most basic ministry of Jesus when he insists that our human differences, that by which we divide and define ourselves over and against others do not hold under the power of the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ.

To all those with whom I have disagreed – we are all in this together.  We are all United Methodists, sharing a heritage of grace-filled living, of spreading the Good News of the New Life and New Creation that is now ours in Jesus Christ, that we are called to be Disciples of the Risen Christ, working for the transformation of the world.  Our disagreements do not divide us precisely because the Spirit that is in us is greater than the spirit that is in the world seeking to divide, to denounce, to belittle, and in the end to destroy.  We are not progressives or centrists or conservatives; we are United Methodist Christians who share a common Spirit and common goal.  We are not orthodox or heterodox, but those who seek to live faithfully, always knowing we will fail and always knowing that failure does not define our lives of faith.  There is no “Us and Them”.  There is only us, all of us together, bound by the Spirit of the Risen Christ to give Glory to the Father, forced to wrestle together over what it will mean to be a people called Methodist in the 21st century.  It is here our common identity lies.  It is in Christ that our unity rests.  It is through the Spirit that we shall get through this period of debate, discussion, argument, politics, and hurt, anger, and desire for recrimination.  Our faith should remind us of this.  Our faith calls us to this.  Our faith tells us who we are, whose we are, and that we are all together in this because that is what God has done for us.

*This is the post I was originally going to write when the previous section from Galatians spoke to me.