Inquisitions and Finding New Ways Forward

IMG_4576“Inquisition.” When I think of what happened at General Conference this is the word that keeps getting stuck in my throat.  Before this plan passed, our Judicial Council likened a part of the traditional plan to the establishment of an “inquisitional court.”  This is, in part, why it was ruled unconstitutional before it passed.

Since General Conference, I’ve heard several responses from people who seemed to favor this plan but now are softening it with expressions of empathy and by giving voice to the acceptance of different perspectives.  I applaud this effort, but have some questions.  Is it a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit? Is it motivated by true contrition?  Do backers of this plan believe that it went too far?  Or, is this just a way to lure those deemed as heretical into a trap?  Is it mere candy-coating, trying to make something seen as horrible by some sound nice?  I truly hope that it is the former at play, but the latter questions must be addressed.  Our common table must be approached with caution as long as the word “inquisition” hangs in the air.

In my local church I’ve had many conversations, some with people who have more traditional views and were wondering about why I was so grieved. After assuring them that I honor the living tradition of the church and respect traditional views within the whole body of Christ, I have tried to explain what passed. This plan was a move to achieve unity as uniformity.  It moves us from unity in love to unity by law. This plan establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates restrictions only on this one issue.  It requires persons to pledge oaths if they want to serve in certain leadership positions, again only around one issue.  It takes accountability away from resident bishops and peers and puts it in the hands of a globally elected body to enforce the rules as mandated.  And one more time, it was likened to an “inquisitional court.”  It breaks my heart to say those words in association with the church I love.

After this explanation, I hear, “I’m not for that.”  “That’s not who we are.”  I am discovering many “traditional compatibilists” (and “progressive compatibilists”), to use a term that describes those who have particular personal leanings but still want to sit at the holy table with their friends who have different views and to find a way to be in ministry together.  In other words, they want to practice being the body of Christ, which becomes the environment where we get to learn humility, patience, kindness, bearing one another in a love that does not insist on its own way, and maintaining the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-6).  This is messy and holy work.

After General Conference, a fire has been ignited in so many who want to work for inclusion and the sharing of God’s love for all. That is one outcome.  Another is that much of the rhetoric, even from some who supported the traditional plan, sounds like the rhetoric behind the One Church Plan that received the majority of votes from U.S. delegates and was endorsed by 80% of our Bishops – calls for a higher unity, acknowledgement that we under a “big tent,” a desire to come together at the holy and open table where there is room for all.  Is this a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit?  I hope so.  I still want to be a part of that.

Love Still Grows Here (A Church Council Response after General Conference)

653D2175-7F64-4A20-8469-8F10A9BF51BFThis week we held our first Church Council meeting after General Conference. As an outcome of our conversation, we want to say: “Love still grows here…for all people.” We also affirmed the pastoral letter that was sent out last week and want to highlight this idea: To live into our calling to bear one another in love, with all humility, patience, and gentleness, and to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-6), “we must humble ourselves and admit that we don’t understand everything about matters of sexual identity and orientation, but we want all to know the love of God. We believe that all persons are created in the image of God and have much to offer. We want to cultivate an environment where all people can grow in faithfulness and in the life-giving love of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This affirmation grew out of rich and respectful conversation. In this council meeting, there were heartfelt calls to respect those who have different views from our own and affirmations that this diversity of thought glorifies God. There were calls to welcome all people without judgment. There were statements of hope that we could be a place where LGBTQ+ persons were not seen as our issue or cause, but as beloved children of God with us all. There was a shared agreement that legislation at the General Church does not have to define who we are, as individuals nor as a congregation.

We also affirmed our “Love Grows Here” statement which includes these words: “We are a community of open hearts and open minds, built upon the love of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and cultivated through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. We accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to love, forgive, bless, and honor one another. In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives. While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion. As John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once said, ‘As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.’ In another place he said, ‘In essentials unity; in nonessentials freedom; and in all things love.’”

Your Pastors and Church Council invite all of you into this vision at this crucial time. May we all work together to give this witness to the world, and to our own beloved denomination. “May love still grow here…for all people.”

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As background, our meeting started with Pastor Michael sharing his assessment of General Conference. He began by saying that he did not expect agreement from everyone. “My role,” he said, “is not to build agreement with my perspectives but to interpret the scriptures in ways that challenge people of all perspectives and opinions to grow in their own relationship with God. Godly transformation of heart comes from this challenge, probably more than from easy agreement.”

He shared his advocacy for the One Church Plan, the plan endorsed by 80% of our Bishops, but did not pass. This plan was a call to a higher unity and to offer space for pastors and congregations to be in ministry within different cultural context. He also shared his opposition to the Traditional Plan which did pass. This plan retains current restrictive language around homosexuality and adds measures to enforce these restrictions. He said, “My opposition was not because I wanted to stifle traditional voices and views within the church. I have given my life to honoring the living tradition of the church. While I do believe that changes need to be made in our Book of Discipline, my major concern was with the sprit of what was passed. In my opinion, we moved from unity in love to unity by law, from a unity of diverse gifts to unity as uniformity. This plan establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates restrictions and only on this one issue. It requires persons to pledge oaths if they want to serve in certain leadership positions, again only around one issue. It takes accountability away from resident bishops and peers and puts it in the hands of a globally elected body to enforce the rules as mandated. Before this plan passed, our Judicial Council (the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court) likened parts of this plan to the establishment of an “inquisitional court.” Friends, it breaks my heart to say those words in association with the church. I do not believe we should be trying to make this sound acceptable.”

Much of this traditional plan was ruled unconstitutional before the vote was even taken and yet it still passed by 53% to 47% of the worldwide delegates. It is worth noting that a majority of the U.S. delegates were against this plan. There were also many who wanted to see a move towards full inclusion. An outcome of this vote is that a fire has been ignited among people who want to represent the love of Christ for all. We certainly see this in our congregation.

May we all stay rooted in the virtues needed for us to all come together at the holy and open table – humility, patience, kindness, compassion, all wrapped up in a love that does not insist on its own way. May this be the continuing spirit of our life together. “May love still grow here…for all people.”

The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

IMG_4576Holy Spirit Come! That is at the heart of my prayer as General Conference approaches. To understand the meaning of this prayer, my go-to source is John Wesley.  From a big-picture perspective, Wesley’s focus was on the way the Holy Spirit works through ordinary means and basic virtues, rather than extraordinary signs and wonder. The witness of the Holy Spirit is best revealed when we come together in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.”  The Spirit is revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions. In my mind, we could use a lot more of our energy being open to this witness of the Holy Spirit rather than expecting something extraordinary.

In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  For Wesley, the “worst kind of enthusiasm” is where we are so convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense and actually create division.  In contrast to this kind of “enthusiasm,” the Holy Spirit leads us to “steer a middle course.” On this way, to draw upon the scriptures, we work to break down dividing walls of hostility and seek unity in the One who not only brings peace but is our peace (Eph 2:14).  This way is defined by an eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). To draw lines in the sand, and promote division is to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

After seeing this phrase in Jude, I had to do a little research. Sodom is used as an example. (We have seen this before in this series). As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used as a general term, often translated as “fornication” and here as “immorality.” It can be defined as objectifying others and using them only for our pleasure.  There is no doubt that this is against God’s will for us, but it is far from Jude’s main point (and that is important for our current debate). When Jude outlines “unnatural lust” he focuses on the way we use words to harm others and to get an advantage over others. To do this is to be “devoid of the Spirit.” In contrast, those who are with the Spirit keep themselves in the love of God and focus on sharing the mercy and peace of the Lord.  These virtues work only when we meet in the middle where we can then engage in the greatest challenge we are given, and that is to learn how to love one another.

To build upon Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, it is possible that God might come and give some extraordinary sign, but we have little reason to think that God will.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in the everyday and universal call to “steer a middle course.”  This cannot happen when we are intent on using scripture as a weapon to belittle faithful interpretations that differ from what we believe is the only right way. It cannot happen when we use good words – orthodox, evangelical, Jesus-loving, traditional, progressive, inclusive, gracious — as code words to create an “us and them.” Rather, God will be glorified in the way we love one another in our difference – with patience and kindness, without arrogance or envy, and never insisting on our own way. What a word! (I Cor 13:4-8).  If we were able to practice this faith, then I guess we could say that it would be extraordinary indeed.  Come Holy Spirit!

Is There Grace in Gracious Exits?

Around the Way Forward there is much talk about the need for legislation that allows clergy, congregations, and conferences to exit the denomination without penalty.  The proposal is being called “Gracious Exit.” I get the rationale at a surface level, and may even be put in a position to employ it, but I also find it theologically disturbing.  Here are my prayerful musings.

Using the word grace in this context feels like a violation to me.  Grace is a theologically charged word. Grace is much more than a synonym for “kind,” “polite,” or “civil.”  To attempt to define it, grace is the unmerited gift of relationship with the One who is above all, in all, and through all. Grace is knowing that we are not alone and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Grace is being included into something bigger than ourselves, indeed into an infinitely larger community where we get to practice the virtues of patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness, never insisting on our own way, and bearing one another in love – virtues not really needed in like-minded religious clubs or if grace is seen only as a personal transaction.  Grace holds all labels loosely.  Grace always works for reconciliation and unity, and in this work challenges our prejudices and holds up a mirror to our narrowly-defined agendas to secure our own comfort and get our own way.  It is this challenge that makes grace hard to accept or trust because this grace requiring so much sacrifice and even more humility.  Faith in something beyond ourselves and our own efforts is so hard, and that’s what is needed to know God’s grace. And so, we often turn away from grace in order to promote our own religious agenda.  And here is the really good news about grace; even in our self-righteousness, grace remains and works for good.  That’s what makes grace so amazing!

In recent days I have heard calls from several “camps” to allow for gracious exits as a part of our Way Forward.  I have heard people call for this freedom to “depart and thrive.”  Often, it feels much more like an invitation for others to leave, wrapped in polite or “gracious” language.  Many want this so that “the issue” will go away and so we can stop talking about it.  It just doesn’t feel right to me to use this sacred word to justify easy divorce and civil schism.  Grace is what beckons us to the common table, not to divide it.  Grace is what allows us to find our true selves in the presence of the Other and “others.”  Grace is knowing we are not alone, and thus the challenge to build life-giving relationships and to truly learn how to love.  Grace is the hard work of our calling.

Yes, we can be polite and civil in our eagerness for divorce, but I wonder, are we denying or cheapening grace in the process? While God can work for good in all things, will we be able to “thrive” with any sense of faithfulness to anything “Other” than ourselves, if we make divorce and cheap grace the accepted norm?   Perhaps our divisions and differences are not “impeding our mission,” as some claim, but are the very realities that make it possible for us to truly fulfill our mission and offer something truly life-giving to the world.  I wonder.

If we make this policy, what are the unintended consequences? Would it not be the de-facto demise of the denomination? What would hold the covenant together in terms of accepting things like apportionments or appointments? Could congregations come and go depending on the current climate?  Could congregations apply this same grace to staying instead of exiting, continuing to act upon the spirit of our doctrine and discipline, as they see it, and with the grace of their contextual colleagues and conference, until another who can claim to have never committed disciplinary sin is thus able to act in righteousness, instead of grace, and start casting stones? (Which may be a good way to look at it).  I wonder and will continue to pray for deeper understanding.