To Dissent or Be Silent: The History of The United Methodist Church’s Approach to Homosexuality (Guest Post)

The UMC Cross & Flame

The UMC Cross & Flame

From its earliest days as a movement within the Church of England, Methodism has always pushed for progressive social action in the face of the unjust status quo. It is a tension that can be traced to as far back as John Wesley’s struggle with the Church of England over the issue of ordaining lay preachers. In June of 1754, a Methodist preacher was excommunicated for preaching without a license. This was not unlike more recent episodes in our denomination of defrocking those who disobey the Discipline.  Recognizing the urgency of the situation, John Wesley reacted succinctly: “It is probable the point will now speedily be determined concerning the Church: for if we must either dissent or be silent, Actum est [it is all over].”[1] For some, this statement fully describes Wesley’s opinion toward the Church establishment. According to the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University, this statement represents Wesley’s entire approach “from first to last. He loves the Church of England but he cannot be silenced.”[2] For many of us Wesleyans, choosing dissent rather than silence in the face of injustice is at the heart of everything we value about our tradition. It is the underlying reason our heritage includes so many stories of heroes working on the frontlines against war, poverty, slavery, racism, and gender discrimination, even while being pushed back at every turn by an unrepentant Christian rigidity disguised as holiness and an ecclesiastical bureaucracy adopted and adapted from the Church of England.

The stated purpose of this space, the Via Media Methodists blog, is to move beyond polarization, simultaneously raising the level of discourse with the United Methodist Church. So while my own theological views on social issues are more radical than most — the curators of this blog project included — I think many of us recognize that our current moment calls for utter honesty, genuine humility, and increased engagement from people with diverse viewpoints. What is often lacking—what I think we are in desperate need of at this stage—is a review of our history so we can all see how we ended up here. My hope is that those with traditional views on sexuality and marriage will come to understand how those of us on the other side of the debate believe we are acting in accordance with the values of our Wesleyan heritage. My overall argument is that speaking out against exclusion and inequality on the issue of sexual orientation is essential if we are to be faithful to the “extraordinary dispensation” that God began in the Methodist movement.

***

Before the 1960s, Methodists and mainline Protestants had given little attention to sexual orientation and gender identity (apart from gender equality, such as the debates that led to the Maud Kiester Jensen being the first female to be given full clergy rights on May 18th, 1956). In many ways, Methodist advocacy for persons who did not fit within the gender binary and heterosexual norms of the wider American society—often termed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons—had an important initial moment at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. Glide’s minister, Rev. Cecil Williams, with the help of Rev. Ted McIlvenna headed a project to offer compassion and assistance to teenage runaways living on the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood. This quickly brought the ministry into contact with homosexual individuals who had been treated with hostility and ostracized by their parents and peers. McIlvenna provided a meeting space at Glide for gay organizations, and sought for advocacy and support from the larger Methodist connection. This was the act of hospitality that brought about the movement for compassion and inclusion in the wider Methodist Church.

At the end of May, 1964, the Glide Urban Center organized a four-day consultation that gathered sixteen ministers and gay activists to tour San Francisco and meet with gay and lesbian men and women. Acknowledging the role that religion had played in the persecution of homosexuals, the group promised to initiate a dialog with their denominations. This group continued to meet for several months, eventually forming the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in December 1964. In order to raise funds for the new organization, they held a New Year’s Eve party for the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, this party only resulted in harassment and intimidation by police who looked on the whole affair with disdain.

In March 1972, the United Methodist’s social concerns magazine, Engage, published the final report of the Social Principles Study Commission’s drafting committee. While neither condoning nor condemning homosexual practices, the statement concluded: “We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth, and we welcome them into the fellowship of the church. Further, we insist that society ensure their human and civil rights.”[3] Later, the General Conference Legislative Committee on Christian Social Concerns met in Atlanta to deal with a proposal concerning the statement. Based on the testimony of Gene Leggett, who had been discontinued as a clergy member a year earlier because of his sexual orientation, the committee drafted a text that included the affirmation that homosexuals are “persons of sacred worth,” while removing any language that outright stated that homosexuals were welcome.

The proposal was met with great opposition, including the telling of a horror story of a 14-year old boy who had supposedly been kidnaped and murdered by a homosexual. Thus, the long and hard work of the Study Commission and the testimony of real individuals were met with homophobia and a demonizing urban legend. Eventually, the statement passed, but not without being amended with a clause added by a lay attorney, Don J. Hand, that stated: “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

This passage has not significantly changed since. Nevertheless, there have been numerous cases of clergy appointments of gay and lesbian pastors, as well as pastors who have been defrocked because of their sexual orientation or public ritual performances blessing homosexual unions.

In July 1975 several pastors joined to organize a United Methodist Gay Caucus, which was later renamed Gay United Methodists, and then finally, Affirmation. In 1983, in order to make it clear that the UMC was of a divided mind on human sexuality and prepare for the 1984 General Conference, Affirmation created the Reconciling Congregation Program. This program aimed at identifying local congregations where LGBTQ persons are welcome to participate, to provide an avenue for education and ministry around issues of human sexuality, and to empower churches to advocate for LGBTQ concerns on the national level. The Reconciling Congregation Program continued to grow and, in 1989, officially broke away from Affirmation. Because its reach continued to extend to ministries beyond the traditional congregation setting, in 2000 it changed its name to what we know it as today, the Reconciling Ministries Network.

***

As John Wesley would say, our calling as Methodists is rooted in an “extraordinary dispensation.” In other words, our existence as a movement is rooted in the freedom and power God gives us “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This is the commitment we make each time we repeat our baptismal vows. And anyone who takes Wesleyan holiness seriously cannot skirt this commitment just because it challenges oppressive traditional views on human sexuality. Failing to speak against teachings and practices that encourage the demonizing and dehumanizing of others—rather than affirming their God-given dignity—is an utter disavowal of our baptism. The compassionate work of Rev. Cecil Williams and Rev. Ted McIlvenna in the 1960s raised the initial awareness that we Methodists needed to respond to the needs of burdened and broken people that both society and the wider Church had excluded. These heroes of the faith were acting in accordance with the heart of Wesleyan holiness by living up to their baptism vows. And the faithfulness of our movement today depends on following in their footsteps—as so many have already done—beyond the desire to protect the status quo. We must decide to live up to our calling. Otherwise, the time for that “extraordinary dispensation” of a people called Methodists will have ended. In the face of injustice we must dissent. The faithful must refuse to be silent.

michaelhowardThe Rev. Michael Anthony Howard is a licensed local pastor and a certified candidate for ordination as an Elder in the Greater NJ Annual Conference. He serves as the Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Mullica Hill, New Jersey. He was born and raised in the hills of Kentucky, and he has done ministry all around the world, including Peru, Brazil, India, and Ethiopia. He holds a Master of Public Administration from Morehead State University in Morehead, KY and a Master of Divinity from Drew Theological School. He blogs at pacificpilgrim.com and you can follow him on Twitter @pacificpilgrim.

[1] John Wesley, The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 26, ed. Frank Baker (Oxford: O.U.P, 1982), p. 563.

[2] The Wesley Center Online, “LONDON, June 23, I755,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1755/ (accessed January 9, 2013).

[3] “Report of the Social Principles Study Commission,” Engage 4, no. 6 (March 1972): p. 18. Quoted in Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 469.

Addressing The #UMC Elephant: 4 Lessons

Image courtesy of The New Yorker.

      Image courtesy of The New Yorker.

At this last session of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (my annual conference), two churches submitted several pieces of legislation that sought to change The United Methodist Church’s current teaching on issues related to human sexuality. As most of you are likely aware, our denomination currently holds to the following: 1) that marriage is a life-long, monogamous relationship between one man and one woman; 2) the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with historic Christian teaching; 3) no “self-avowed, practicing” (i.e. partnered, married, etc) homosexual is to be admitted into the clergy; 4) that no United Methodist clergy person is to preside at a same-sex union nor are any United Methodist properties/buildings to be used for such celebrations. This has been our church’s position since 1972, when it was formally entered into our Book of Discipline. After discussion and a close vote, the Greater New Jersey Conference approved legislation that would alter current denominational teaching; this will be sent for consideration at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

I struggled with how and when, and even if, to share and explain this annual conference action with the two churches I serve. Just like all United Methodist congregations, my churches have folks who feel very strongly about these matters. As I prayed about an appropriate response, I received some emails from church members, expressing consternation regarding the annual conference vote, even indicating this might spur their exodus from the denomination. I clearly realized I needed to open the conversation. So, instead of addressing this during Sunday worship, which I felt would not allow adequate time for processing and feedback, I decided to begin the discussion using our church communication (weekly e-mail and bi-monthly newsletter) and Wednesday Bible study. I want to share with you a few things I learned as this conversation has unfolded in my local context:

1) People are grateful when the conversation is opened. I cannot count the number of people – conservative, liberal, and in between – who have told me they have appreciated “naming the elephant in the room” (one church member’s way of phrasing it). Just providing people the space to discuss this has been liberating and cathartic for so many. When the pastor opens the space for the conversation, she or he has the chance to model holy conversation and gives permission for others to engage.

2) Don’t underestimate the power of story. As the dozen or so of us sat around that table at Bible study, a few people began to share stories that were new to all of us — about a gay relative who died of AIDS in the 80’s, about two gay couples who traveled with a church couple to adopt a child overseas. As people chose to be vulnerable and trust each other, the focus shifted from how the church stands on an “issue,” to the church’s relationship with a gay family member, or friends who are a gay couple, etc.

3) Our church folks want to understand our polity. At the beginning of this conversation, I spent a substantial amount of time detailing United Methodist polity — how legislation works, the relationship and differences between Annual and General Conference, how the Book of Discipline is amended. Many of them are now very clear on what the Book of Discipline says, and they can more clearly articulate church teaching. People feel empowered when they have a firm grasp of how we United Methodists order and structure ourselves.

4) Our people can handle disagreement and difference. Even after hours of discussion and prayer, people in my church are still not of one mind on how the UMC should approach LGBT concerns. Some would like to see the language and prohibitions in our Book of Discipline changed; others believe our current teaching is faithful and right. Homogeneity isn’t the goal; loving and serving God and each other despite difference is (Rev. Jeremy Troxler brilliantly wrote about just that).

How, if at all, has this conversation played out in your local church? Feel free to leave a comment below.

“Tend Always to Reconcile”: On Refusing the Given Categories

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, via Creative Commons.

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, via Creative Commons.

So much of the contemporary theological and ethical conversation in the United Methodist Church is just damned boring.

We pantomime the culture wars that we see repeated ad nauseam, we speak exactly in their vicious tones and monolithic categories, and then self-segregate into caucuses that mirror precisely those ideological divides.  And then we wonder why we are gridlocked and frustrated.

In such an environment, the only sensible move is to refuse the given choices.

Actually, scratch that.

To do justice to the risen Christ, who explodes our categories and turns the very world on its head, the only faithful move is to reject identification with these anti-gospel cultural constructs (conservative/liberal/traditionalist/progressive/etc.) with the capacity only to distort Christian identity and stifle our witness.

In his advice for fruitful reading from his masterful book The Intellectual Life, the Dominican A.G. Sertillanges suggests that we should

“…tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another. The critical spirit has its place…[but] it is futile to linger endlessly over differences; the fruitful research is to look for points of contact.”

Too often, the UMC mirrors Western culture rather than acting like the ekklesia of God.  We “linger over differences” rather than “points of contact” from which we might build consensus and grow more effective in our shared mission.  To do so will be swimming upstream, but isn’t the way of Jesus usually against the current?

I resonate with the spirit of the Catholic writer Elise Italiano, who draws on Pope Francis’ admonition to “make a ruckus” of things and argues:

“It would be easy to take shelter in the categories determined by cultural and political ideologies: so-called conservative Catholics are expected to reject or downplay the urgency of environmental protection, and so-called liberal or progressive Catholics are expected to downplay marriage as the union of one man and one woman. However, Pope Francis has called us to resist such categories, as they reduce people. It is possible—and necessary—for us to witness to the fullness of our faith. The Gospel is too expansive for limits set on it from the outside. Perhaps he will say that we millennials must ‘make a mess’ of the ideological constraints imposed upon faith in order to live it fully.”

What would it look like for United Methodists to witness to the truth that “the Gospel is too expansive for limits set on it from the outside”? It would look like a hermeneutic of appreciation, a genuine effort to think with the whole church throughout time and space, and not just in the predetermined boxes that cable news gives to us. It would be a conversation both deeper and wider.  It would be radical (“to the root”) in living out Wesleyan holiness, and aggressive in doing so in ways accessible to 21st century ears.  It would be what L. Gregory Jones has called “traditioned innovation,” neither stiflingly nostalgic or myopically neophiliac. In brief, it would be gloriously different than the United Methodism of today.

His Holiness Pope Francis, via Wikimedia Commons.

His Holiness Pope Francis, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the footsteps of Wesley, a refusal of the given categories would mean an ecumenical revival, not just in terms of drawing on various branches of the Christian family tree, but in taking seriously a wide swath of human wisdom, past and present.  As Sertillanges says, honey comes from many different flowers (and if you’ve ever looked at Wesley’s Christian Library, you know how many different flowers from which our honey has been made):

“The man who wants to acquire from his authors, not fighting qualities, but truth and penetration, must bring to them this spirit of conciliation and diligent harvesting, the spirit of the bee. Honey is made of many kinds of flowers. A method of exclusion, summary elimination, and narrow choice is infinitely harmful to a man’s formation…[s]uch an intelligence grows narrow; instead of looking at everything from the point of view of the universal, if falls to the level of a spirit of clique and gossip.” (164-165)

Many of my friends and colleagues are put off by the current state of the UMC because it is rancorous.  I appreciate that, but I would much rather have spirited and interesting debate than the paint-by-numbers efforts with which we are currently presented.

I am not a sunny-eyed optimist.  This is a difficult work.  By looking for true reconciliation among our differences, which will only come about by refusing the given categories, I don’t know if all of our problems can or will be solved.

But if we can move in this direction,  we’d at least have the beginnings of an interesting discussion whose logic, tenor, and language is recognizably Christian (and perhaps even Wesleyan).  I long for that day.  And until we get there, I will continue to try and model and encourage the kind of conversation I think we need to be having.  I will keep refusing the categories. I will continue to look for points of contact across the divides.  I hope you’ll join me.

Where do you see examples of Methodists and other Christians who are refusing the usual categories and seeking reconciliation?  How can we be better about looking for “points of contact” instead of focusing on where we disagree?

P.S. Thanks to you, our FANTASTIC readers, listeners, contributors, conversation partners, and friends we recently reached 600 ‘likes’ on Facebook.  If you haven’t already, please connect with us there and at our podcast, the WesleyCast.  And THANK YOU for all of your support and prayers.

“Till Death Us Do Part”: A Call to Unity Offered the Sunday After SCOTUS Decision

umc-cross-and-flameThe following was given last Sunday as a preamble to worship at Spruce Pine UMC in the Western North Carolina Conference. We are grateful to its author, Rev. Jeremy Troxler, for letting us share this excellent reflection. Rev. Troxler is pastor of Spruce Pine UMC in Spruce Pine, NC, and former Director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School.  He served in the WNCC delegation to the 2012 General Conference, and was recently elected to the 2016 delegation.  We also recommend this collection of responses and instructions by UM Bishops (courtesy Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards) following the SCOTUS decision.

Via Media Methodists is curated by Rev. Stephen Fife, Rev. Drew McIntyre, and Rev. Evan Rohrs-Dodge (visit the about page for more).  Via Media Methodists also produce the WesleyCast podcast, available on iTunes. 

“Till Death Us Do Part”:

A Preamble to Worship and a Call To Unity Offered at Spruce Pine UMC

the Sunday after SCOTUS Decision

June 28, 2015

Dear Church,

Unless you have been living in a cave in the woods for the past week, most of you know by now that on Friday the Supreme Court made a historic ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States.

Different folks in our congregation have had dramatically different responses to this decision.

Some of you celebrated with elation and even wept with joy, because to you Friday felt like a kind of divine miracle, because you believe the ruling was victory for civil rights and for equality among God’s children, because now either you, or your children, or your family members, or your friends who are gay or lesbian can have the opportunity to have their love for their partner formally recognized, because you feel grateful that all people can now share in the affirmation of dignity and the blessing of committed companionship that the status of legal marriage brings, because perhaps you feel that gay and lesbian human beings are finally accepted as full and equal citizens of our country.

Others of you viewed the Supreme Court’s decision Friday with great sadness or even anger, not because of any hatred in your heart, but because you believe the ruling to be a misguided over-reach of the courts, because you believe it to represent an example of how society is either ignoring or badly interpreting or even defying what you hold to be God’s clear commands in Scripture, because you believe that a sacred institution has been redefined in a way contrary to God’s will, because you believe the practice of homosexuality to be a sin incompatible with Christian teaching, and because you are concerned over whether now you can practice freedom of conscience in this regard.

Some of you feel anger rising within you that I have even mentioned the other side’s point of view here in worship, because it is just so obvious to you that you are on the right side and they aren’t, so why even talk about it?  You came here maybe expecting everybody else to be dancing in the aisles with you or you came here maybe expecting everybody else to be shaking their heads with you, and now you hear that’s not the case.  Others of you feel caught in the middle between people who feel so strongly:  you think it’s complicated and you don’t know exactly what to think, but it breaks your heart to see people in such conflict, and you just wish people could get along better.

I share this with you because even though the Supreme Court’s decision changes nothing about the formal stance of the United Methodist Church towards same-sex marriage – only our United Methodist General Conference next summer has the power to do that – the last few days have reminded many of us how divided we are as a United Methodist church and as a people over questions such as these.

The Bible says that in the church we are to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice” – but what do you do when half of you are weeping and half of you are rejoicing?

One thing I might propose for us is that sometime before General Conference next spring, we hold a Bible Study and holy conferencing dialogue about this issue.  But in the meantime, another thing we can do is to remember what binds us together.

The Bible says that the church is like a family, where we are brothers and sisters with each other.  If your family is like mine, then there are a lot of important things that you and your family members disagree about or even fight about.  But at the end of the day you are still a family; you are still held together by something deeper than whether or not you agree.  You are held together by the fact that you have been made part of one another, and you are held together by stubborn, durable, steady love.

The church is a family like that.  We are a family that can disagree about important things, but at the end of the day we are held together by something deeper than the fact we agree about everything, or even about every important thing:  we are held together by the fact that God’s grace has rescued us and is remaking us and has made us a part of one another.

We are held together by love, the love of Christ.

That love does not banish disagreement, but it does join us in a oneness deeper than all difference, a fidelity more enduring than our fights, a reconciliation that outlasts our wrongs.

Perhaps we even need some level of disagreement for this love to grow among us.

In his 2nd Inaugural Address, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln meditated on the fact that both the North and the South prayed to the same God, and believed the same God was on their side, and trusted that the same God would grant their side victory, and yet the war just kept going on.  Lincoln said that the prayers of both could not be answered, and the prayers of neither were answered fully.  Clearly neither side could be wholly in the right, or God would have ended the bloodshed.  Lincoln speculated that perhaps in allowing the struggle to continue, God was accomplishing larger purposes that neither side had taken into account.

Perhaps God has God’s own purposes in putting us very different people, with our dueling facebook posts and our rival news sources, all together next to each other in the pew.  Perhaps one of those purposes is to learn the meaning of love.  Perhaps it is only by learning to love people we disagree with, only by learning to love people who we know are wrong, only by learning to love sinners that we learn what love, Christ-like love, even, yes, married love, really is.

Later this morning as we receive new members we will read words from I Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul writes to a divided church about how we are all part of the body of Christ, a body where the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor can the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  We are a body, where, paraphrasing what the Bible says about marriage, the many become one flesh.

Here’s what I think that means:

If you celebrated on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you were upset on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you didn’t know how to feel on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you think what I have said here is too wishy-washy,  and you wish your preacher took a stronger stand with your side today, you belong here and are needed here.

The only way you might not belong here is if you believe the body of Christ should be a place where everybody agrees with you 100%, and where what you hear from the pulpit every week should just confirm whatever you came here already believing; basically if you think the body should be made up of one part:  your brain.

I would say that if that’s what you want, the only way to get it is if you keep your own company.  But maybe you won’t find satisfaction even there:  I can’t get even the different sides of my own mind to agree with themselves half the time.

Perhaps if you searched hard enough you might finally be able to find another group of believers who agree with each other on things like this 100% – but if you do, whatever it is, it won’t be the church of Jesus Christ.

So I guess we’ll just have to accept God’s own mysterious purposes and continue struggling to seek God’s bigger-than-we-thought will with each other.

I guess we’ll have to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, even all at the same time, even if it means we try to force a smile through our tears because at least our friends are happy, of if it means we celebrate but with a catch in our throat because we can’t totally forget those who find it hard to rejoice with us because of conscience.

I guess we’ll have to stay together and try to respect and love each other and fail and ask forgiveness and forgive and then try again.

I guess we in the church will need to choose again

to have and to hold each other,

from this day forward,

for better or for worse,

for richer or for poorer,

in sickness and in health,

to love and to cherish,

in agreement and disagreement

until death us do part:

just like all married folks must do.

Now let us worship God together.

(I am indebted to Dr. James C. Howell of Myers Park UMC for having first articulated some of the ideas here.)

#UMC Unity Yes, “Centrist Movement” No

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.

In this post, we will examine together the curious phenomenon calling itself the “United Methodist Centrist Movement.”  We begin with a thought experiment, then explore whether the UMCM lives up to its claims, and finally close with some thoughts about the unity to which God is calling the UMC at this time.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine a marriage on the rocks.  This couple has been drifting apart for quite some time.  Their friends notice it.  They are not very happy together.  Their vows and common history don’t seem like enough to hold them together.  Everything they do to come back to their first love seems to backfire.  It looks as if they are heading for a split.

Then, an idea comes.  At first it seems strange, even morally questionable.  It goes against their own inclinations and the expectations of their friends and family.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.  They try out something they’ve only seen on TV: an “open marriage.” Each partner can sleep with other people, as long as they are open about it with their spouse and with the other person.

A radical step? Yes.  But it just might preserve the institution.  The unity of the covenant can be maintained, it just takes a little negotiation of the boundaries.

The So-Called “Centrist” Movement

bankruptcy

There are at least two meanings. Read on.

If you aren’t familiar with the UM Centrist Movement, it’s likely because you don’t live in Ohio.  In some ways, it is the Holy Roman Empire of United Methodism.  Just as the Holy Roman Empire (in Voltaire’s words), was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” so the UMCM is not Methodist, not centrist, and not a movement. That is a bold claim, but one which I think is clearly justified by their written statements and actions.

  • Methodist? Under “Our Theological Foundation,” the UMCM lists works of piety and mercy as “the main connective links of our Wesleyan Theological Heritage.”  Of course, the problem with this is two-fold.  First, there is nothing unique about the emphasis on both works of piety and mercy (this remains true even if you add in their concocted neologism, “prophetic piety”).  Most of the great Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) would tell disciples of Jesus to live out the faith through piety, mercy, and prophetic action and speech.  Secondly, even if these were uniquely Wesleyan, they are far from our “main connective links.”  As I’ve said before, the main realities for Christians in the company of the Wesleys are relational: class, band, society, conference.  The soteriological and the relational are always found together for the people called Methodists, and it is this radical insistence on “social holiness” (rightly understood) that has made the Wesleyan way of discipleship both unique and effective.
  • IMG_3722Centrist? The UMCM was quite open that its recent success in terms of getting delegates elected to General Conference was the result of an alliance with West Ohio progressives.  On June 11, they posted to their Facebook page: “Final election results from the West Ohio Annual Conference. In a historic partnership with our progressive friends, we elected 12 of 16 clergy (all clergy elected to GC) and 7 of 16 lay delegates to General/Jurisdictional Conference.”  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we’ve been had.  You cannot both claim the centrist moniker and ally with one “wing” of the church.  If I’m wrong, I’d invite someone from the UMCM to tell me a substantive difference between the goals of the UMCM and the goals of West Ohio Conference progressives.  This alone, to be blunt, showed the whole “Centrist” notion to be a ruse.
  • Movement? This is a pet peeve of mine, I’ll confess.  Just calling something a “movement” does not make it so.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Office, Michael Scott screams, “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!!”  He doesn’t realize there is more to it until someone gently reminds him that it takes more than verbalization.  Likewise, the UMCM, as best I can tell, does not represent a “movement,” but a very clever ploy to encourage the dominance of progressive views in the West Ohio Conference.  (And it certainly can’t be much of a movement until successes are repeated across the UMC, and not just in its home turf.)  I love to blog and chat and discuss with my fellow WesleyCast hosts and Via Media contributors, but we are realists enough to know that what we have is a blog and a podcast, and perhaps a budding community of similarly interested Wesleyans.  To call what we have a “movement” would be only slightly less laughable than applying the same term to the UMCM.

Unity – In What?

Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed

Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed “Christmas Conference” in Maryland, 1784. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The most grievous issue with the UMCM and similarly motivated groups is that the only unity envisioned is institutional in nature, which is to say it is superficial.  Like the hypothetical married couple in my opening paragraphs, those who want unity “at any cost,” or a unity in institution, are missing out on the biblical and Spirit-gifted reality to which the ekklesia of God is called.  To stay together for the sake of appearances, or pensions, or property, is not a unity worthy of the name church.  I fully agree with the UMCM that unity is Christ’s will for the church, and have written here and here to that effect, but the path unity they are currently offering is thin gruel: an institutional unity built on a barely-veiled progressive platform (their plan for “regional conferences” lines up nicely with what the Northeast Jurisdiction called for) relying on the fog of fear (“schism is coming!”) and the false piety of lowest common denominator agreement.  Christ has called us to do better.  As David Watson noted,

“Simply saying we want to “avoid schism” isn’t enough. The only real Christian unity is unity in the Holy Trinity, which means mutual love, mutual accountability, and the proclamation of the faith once delivered to the saints. Institutional commitments themselves cannot serve Christian unity unless they are visible expressions of our unity in God.”

Conclusion: We Can (and Must) Do Better

Superficial unity that maintains a connection while destroying Connectionalism is not God’s will for the United Methodist Church. That’s why the UMCM platform is bankrupt. Like the desperate married couple above shows us, not every method offered to save the institution is worthy of the institution itself.  Unity is a pneumatological reality, and to reduce it to vaguely-defined virtues and financial self-interest is to risk blaspheming the Spirit who makes the church possible.  And finally, no United Methodist should reward any movement that claims the center and subsequently aligns with one side to get elected.  Duplicity is a poor path the unity to which Jesus – as the way, the truth, and the life – has called us.

Unite the Two So Long Disjoined: Doctrine & #UMC Vitality

Courtesy Andrew Thompson.

Courtesy Andrew Thompson.

“No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living.” UMC.org

Lately, Western Christians have been asking something that puzzled ‘Papa’ John Wesley long ago: Why are we so ineffective? Reflecting on Jeremiah’s grief in looking for “a balm in Gilead,” Wesley asks about the effectiveness of the church in his day in Sermon 116, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity“:

“I would seriously inquire, Why has Christianity done so little good in the world? Is it not the balm, the outward means, which the great Physician has given to men, to restore their spiritual health? Why then is it not restored?”
From his perspective as leader of the Methodist movement, Wesley goes on to name three ways in which Christianity can self-destruct: First, a lack of doctrine, of basic Christian teaching; secondly, lack of discipline; finally, a lack of humility and self-denial.  For Wesley, if Christ is truly preached (doctrine), and the Christian life is ordered towards full salvation (discipline), the only hindrance to the church’s effectiveness is her refusal to take up the cross.  He is vexed at the state of his movement, for he believes they excel in the first two but have neglected the third:
“To bring the matter closer still. Is not scriptural Christianity [read: doctrine] preached and generally known among the people commonly called Methodists? Impartial persons allow it is. And have they not Christian discipline too, in all the essential branches of it, regularly and constantly exercised? Let those who think any essential part of it is wanting, point it out, and it shall not be wanting long. Why then are not these altogether Christians, who have both Christian doctrine and Christian discipline?”

This is a crucial point for two reasons.  First, this helps to explain why the recovery of a humble and irrelevant church is likely a key to renewal, as Evan Rohrs-Dodge has suggested.  Secondly, it shows the central position that Christian teaching (aka doctrine) had for John Wesley and the early Methodists.

To put it another way: we are beginning Annual Conference season in the United Methodist world.  Across the denomination, clergy and lay representatives will gather to do the work of the church: to vote on budgets and ordain, to celebrate, to equip, to worship, and fellowship together.  The first such Conference was held in 1744, and they determined to focus on three matters:

  1. What to teach
  2. How to teach
  3. How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice
Christian proclamation – what Wesley referred to as “offering Christ” – is central to the work of the Wesleyan revival and intimately connected to the whole of Christian living.  We are even told that Wesley and his fellow preachers spent two days of the first conference discussing doctrine:
“For two days they conversed on such vital doctrines as the Fall, the Work of Christ, Justification, Regeneration, Sanctification.”

It’s difficult to imagine a single Annual Conference session on doctrine these days, let alone one or two full days.

On my reading of John Wesley’s priorities, I find that difficult to defend.

At least in today’s UMC and most of the mainline (and I would add in most of Protestantism), the basics of Christian doctrine are little known and seldom taught. Most Methodists I know can’t even articulate grace as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.  How can we neglect this?  It’s easy to dismiss doctrine as something not relevant to people’s lives; preaching doctrine doesn’t have the pizazz of a marriage series or something about raising children.  But how can we possibly know how to follow Jesus as a parent or spouse without knowing who Jesus is?  How can we justify ignoring doctrine if we don’t know what justification is? I see little reason to pursue brain surgery if we have yet to master the anatomy chart.

I realize doctrine isn’t everything.  Wesley didn’t think so, and neither do I.  However, doctrine – basic Christian teaching on who God is and what salvation looks like – has been so ignored that we can no longer pronounce that arena is taken care of, as John Wesley did, or assume it is old news and thus irrelevant.  In fact, to place the contemporary UMC in conversation with Sermon 116, we care little for doctrine, discipline is little more than a name on a book we sometimes read, and are so far from self-denial we are still clinging to the trappings of Christendom.

Doctrine is a necessary but not sufficient quality for any Wesleyan revival within the body called the United Methodist Church.  Then as now, the need is for us to articulate and hold to these central questions: What do we teach? How do we teach it? And how do hold each other accountable to Wesleyan doctrine, discipline, and practice?

Without such recovery, we will become more and more the “dead sect” that John Wesley feared, more akin to the church that the early Methodists left behind than the doctrinally sound, practically concerned, and holistically (but rigorously) disciplined movement known as the Wesleyan Revival.

The Pew Forum Report and Ordination in the Mainline

Father Henri Nouwen

Father Henri Nouwen

In one week, my bishop will place his hands on my head and invoke the Holy Spirit as he ordains me to the office and work of an Elder in The United Methodist Church. Those of you who are United Methodist clergy or working towards orders know that the process can be long, arduous, and at times overwhelming. While I can only speak to my experience, I have found the process to be an incredible, Spirit-filled journey, and as I reflect on my growth and development over these past 6 years (from declared candidacy to the present), the grace of God is clear. I began in spring 2009; during that time, I switched from Deacon to Elder track and even transferred my membership from the New England Conference to the Greater New Jersey Conference. Each step of the way, I have been surrounded by people who have loved me, nurtured me, and, at times, told me some hard truths. I have done my best to be open to the process, and the willingness to do what was required of me and my trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit has made all the difference.

Last month, those to be commissioned and ordained went on an overnight retreat with the Bishop. He gave each of us Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (Drew McIntyre has an excellent reflection on this book here). This small book could not be more timely. In light of the recent Pew Forum report that indicates certain expressions of Christianity (namely mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism) are continuing to lose influence and that millennials are overwhelmingly not finding the spiritual food of these traditions nourishing, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. In light of the ongoing debates and disagreement over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church and numerous proposals to fundamentally alter our denomination over this, and in light of the denomination’s continual narrative of crisis, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. It might appear that ministry in The United Methodist Church — a mainline Protestant church — is an exercise in religious irrelevance.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, writing out of his experience of living and working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario, Canada, wrote:

The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.

As I prepare to enter a new phase of ministry that is the culmination of a long process, I believe now more than ever that leaders must refuse the temptation to be relevant. It would be easy to jump on the latest church fad wagon in pursuit of the glitter of religious success. Instead, we must claim the unfashionable radicalness of the Gospel that says that God loves us not because of what we have accomplished, but because we have been created in God’s image and redeemed by the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Leaders that are rooted in this God-given identity and are committed to this proclamation and praxis by offering their own vulnerable, authentic selves with no conditions develop a Biblical relevance for which many are hungry, a relevance that seeks the face of God instead of the accolades of people. Institutional decline, denominational politics, and generation gaps offer leaders an opportunity to stand in the midst of all this with the Gospel message, to take risks to be the church in new ways, to develop a spiritual life that engages deeply with the hurt of the world. 

It might appear to many that mainline Protestantism is in its twilight.

However, embracing our irrelevance might lead to our renewal.

Lamentations-3_40

Lamentations and a Suggestion

Most of what I witness in my denomination gives me grief right now. The United Methodist Church seems to be insistent on pushing itself into a narrow trajectory of winners and losers. No matter what your belief is on the issues facing the church today we seem content on setting the stage for GC 2016 to be a battleground that leaves no one unscathed.

A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. The Bible is full of laments. For the Great 40 days I have been preaching through the Psalms. These hymns are filled with expressions lament. In Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus laments over all Jerusalem wanting to embrace the city as a mother hen embraces her young. There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations that is filled with laments. Laments are expressions of our faith.

The first lament I have is, we have traded real community for virtual community. I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft and would spend hour after hour playing online in a virtual world. We had a slang term for not being online: RL or IRL(Real Life or In Real Life). When someone wasn’t online in the virtual world they were operating in real life. The 16 year old movie, The Matrix, explores this concept brilliantly. When Neo is freed from the virtual world of The Matrix he has trouble believing the real world. Morpheus tells him, “We have a rule. We never free a mind once it’s reached a certain age. It’s dangerous, the mind has trouble letting go.” I can identify. Our minds have trouble letting go of selfie online hyper connected world of the internet. At a recent pastor’s gathering there were smart phones everywhere (myself included).   We have virtual relationships. If our pictures, selfies, and blog posts can get enough likes we are satisfied. It doesn’t matter who we have to step on to get there, only that we get there. Online relationships have become commodities that are bought and sold with each click. With the recent hoopla over online communion, drive thru ashes, and independent blogs from across the political spectrum (including this one) we no longer need real life relationships. We no longer need to share a common meal together. We can eat at home while tweeting away. Ashes become the same thing as a happy meal when they are stripped of the confession and peace. Blogs can continue to produce hit piece after hit piece for just a few more clicks. After all it doesn’t matter in the virtual world if that person on the other side is a real person or not.

The second lament I had is that we have traded our story for my story. One thing I have noticed with conversations among people from my neighborhood is that our culture is shaped by this myth of individualism. The grand narrative of God working in human history has been replaced by my own personal narrative. Instead of any type of grand meta narrative of us as a body of people, there are multiple narratives each with a different version of the truth. We can no longer identify with each other because they are so foreign to us. My own church is struggling with people of different races, cultures, and socio economic backgrounds encountering one another. It is amazing to witness, but it is difficult to be in the midst of. There is a lot of anxiety in encountering the other and building relationships with the other. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe Paul was seeing this as a hoped for reality. One where all our stories could be joined together in God’s redeeming story.

Which brings me to my final lament, we have traded God for gods. It doesn’t matter if that god is the god of orthodoxy, fundamentalism, liberalism, evangelicalism, emergent, post liberalism, post modern, progressive, missional, or whatever term is next. We all have developed our own concept of god (who usually ends up being just like us or just like we imagine god to be). Our god talks like us, thinks like us, acts like us, and wants the same things we want. Our definition of justice becomes God’s definition of justice. Sin becomes a corporate only thing or an individual only thing. We cannot conceive of a God who might have different desires then we do. God then fits into whatever box we want god to fit in. Anslem’s ontological argument points out that God is above our own thought processes. Whenever my god becomes just like me, I think my conception of God is flawed.

Already I am beginning to see rhetoric lining up along the battle lines that seek to turn this battle into one that lays waste to a denomination. We call each other names, but we fail to see each other. So as we begin to ready our stones, swords, picket signs, and crosses
I want to offer a suggestion for finding a better way. Share a meal. Put down your phone and talk to the person you are eating with. Stop worrying about your number of hits if you don’t put out a blog on something controversial. Stop using rhetoric that defines the other as intolerant or theologically weak. Listen to their story, their hopes and dreams, their hurts, their joys. You might just find out something unexpected. Allow the other to challenge your preconceived notions of God, and vice versa. The ancient mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross had spiritual mentors to talk stuff over with that would challenge them and keep them focused on deepening their relationship with Christ. We need one another to challenge us and keep us focused on Christ. Now I am not saying we will abandon our theological presuppositions for that of the other. I am saying that if we understand where the other person is coming from it might better inform our own thoughts.    Now is the time before the battle begins to take that pause and really talk about what is best for the body of Christ and the people called Methodists.

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. – Proverbs 27:17

Guest Post: Itinerancy: A Response

Asbury statue

A statue of Francis Asbury at Drew University, Madison, NJ.

I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response to Drew’s article about the itinerancy. I find things I agree with, and things I disagree with. The dialogue keeps us all thinking about what could be best for the people called United Methodist. My words come from the viewpoint of one of the first group of district superintendents who has lived under the newer task of being a “chief missional strategist.” This is my 5th year appointed as a superintendent.

I will take Drew’s points one at a time:

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today. I think it would be more accurate to say, itinerancy was originally designed for a different context. However, the philosophy behind the original context and the present context seems to be a good mix: what is the best strategy to (1) deploy clergy, (2) match giftedness of pastors to the needs of a congregation, and (3) can a third but involved and prayerful party (the cabinet) partner with clergy and congregations in discerning how we can best do evangelism and discipleship in a changing reality? While it is unfortunate that we have come full circle from Wesley’s desire to reform the Anglican Church, it seems that our present manner of supplying clergy to churches may be more appropriate than ever. While Asbury and Wesley might not recognize what itinerancy has morphed into, I believe they would certainly recognize the need for it, more than ever. The need to strategically match pastors and congregations is greater than ever.

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men. I couldn’t disagree more. I doubt that we would have as many female clergy and people of color in pulpits were it not for the itinerancy. We are far, far from perfect in that area, and clergy couples and professional spouses are certainly a challenge. But I know from experience that many congregations would not “take” a woman or person of color as a pastor were it not for the system we presently have. And, I am happy to add, many churches have learned through the itinerancy to change their views regarding women and race. We still have work to do.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service. Again, I think it is more accurate to say, “Itinerancy was originally designed for short-term service.” However, it changed as the church changed. Are there tweaks and adaptations that could make it better? Absolutely. But I know in my conversation with others in different traditions that many “envy” our way of providing pastoral leadership. There is certainly nothing “sacred” about the itinerancy, but I think the charge of “organizational habit that is no longer effective” discounts the ability for adaptability, and disregards the itinerancy’s main function: to deploy clergy who are missionally sent. It is also a reminder to churches and pastor that we are not self-made, but formed and transformed by a community of faith, yoked together with Christ. Together, let us try to perfect it, rather than do away with it.

The Rev’d Sky McCracken, OSL, is District Superintendent of the Purchase District of the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church.

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Whose Time Has Come…and Gone #UMC

asbury horse

Bishop Asbury struggling with his horse, courstesy Asbury Seminary. What if Asbury is the UMC and the horse is itinerancy?

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy (the United Methodist system of deploying clergy) should go.

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today.  Originally, itinerancy emerged in a context where a large number of laity were being served by too few clergy.  Then, itinerancy strengthened the ministry of the laity, as preachers served a “circuit,” only visiting local parishes semi-regularly.  In their absence, a strong system of lay leadership maintained and grew Methodist communities.  The situation is now the opposite: the church has come to be a support network for a large number of clergy to hold down jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy today is at best a husk; I daresay neither Wesley or Asbury would recognize much of the machine we call “itinerancy.”

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men.  Itinerancy, as conceived by the early Methodists, was not designed to be a system for anything but single men.  Preachers who wanted to have families were “located,” that is, taken off of the circuit.  Itinerancy has not evolved to handle the realities of female clergy, clergy families, or clergy couples; despite the excellent service many of these clergy render, they are still considered a burden to a system that thus rewards men, unmarried clergy and clergy whose spouses do not work outside of the home.  Oh, and it’s (still) a system that rewards white men in particular.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service.  The UMC is coming around to something that many other denominations and church networks have already figured out: longer appointments are better for churches and for clergy.  The old standard – a 3 or 4 year term – is now recognized as the bare minimum amount of time a pastor generally needs to start earning trust and be able to lead serious change.  Some conferences are now telling their clergy not to even request a move until 4 or 5 years in.  Yes, John Wesley did argue, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best.”  With all do regards to our denominational progenitor, we have found by longer experience that this is no longer the case.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.  That is not to say itinerancy is without any merit; Joel Watts raises an excellent point that itinerancy serves as a safeguard against cults of personality (a danger any alternative system would have to attend to, as well).  But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.  All in all, I think the picture above sums up itinerancy nicely: represented by the horse, itinerancy is a system designed before both cars and trains, which was effective for a time, but which is now a burden to accomplishing our mission.*

But What Alternative?

For more on this conversation, and what an alternative might look like, I recommend you check out the discussion on the latest episode of the WesleyCast, available here (and even if you aren’t interested in the itinerancy discussion, listen for the interview with Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith).

*As I am not familiar with the realities on the ground outside of the US, I am open to suggestion as whether this is still an effective system for clergy deployment in other areas of the Connection.  The last thing we need is the US dictating policy to the rest of the world in yet another area.