Beyond the Nightmare (Comparing Plans for GC2020 at an Arkansas UMC Next Gathering, Sept 2019)

IMG_4576Unity vs. Schism

There is a new primary choice before us – unity or schism.  Before we look at the plans, I want these words to linger for a moment.  I want us to remember our calling “to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace” and to do so with humility, patience, and kindness (Eph 4:1-3). With this calling planted in our hearts, most of us here were willing to adopt the One Church Plan – and not for some vague sense of “unity” but real and incarnate unity where we stayed at the table together and learned how to love one another in the midst of our differences.  We believed that would truly glorify God.  Yet, as we know, this plan crashed and burned…But out of this burning we have also witnessed a fire being kindled in many hearts.

In the light of this growing sacred-fire, there is a renewed commitment to unity, but with a nuanced understanding. Unity of spirit does not necessarily mean unity of organizational togetherness. To build upon the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists, we want “unity in love rather than uniformity by law.” We want to cultivate sacred communities where there is “room for all.” We want to give witness to the unity found in God’s beloved community, in God’s kin-dom.

What about the word “schism?”  Schism is divorce on a community scale where groups within the body intentionally pull others away.  You will notice that this word in not used in the plans before us.  Instead we have notions of dissolution, new expressions, and the multiplication of our witness.  I will say that there is merit to seeing things from a different perspective.  This often leads to better outcomes.  Thus, it may not be schism at all.  At the same time, I believe it is important to ask if we are just putting a “silk dress on a pig” (as the saying goes). We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about this and our motives.

As I read these plans, and prepare as a delegate, it seems inevitable that we are moving towards schism, division, “multiplication of our witness.”  We seemed determined to “give into culture” in this way.   I have no doubt that God can work for good in the midst of this, but that does not mean it glorifies God.  I still suspect that God would be more glorified in our efforts to stay at the holy table together and learn how to love one another, instead of retreating into our own bubbles. If we take this course, we will need to find new ways to live into the clear calling that we have been given and find new ways to forge true unity.

With that introduction, let’s look at three plans, and then the one plan that is about to become policy.

The Indianapolis Plan

This plan was developed by leaders from each “camp,” including representation from the WCA.  It starts with the premise that there are “irreconcilable differences” among us and that we need to get beyond the “vitriolic” atmosphere that has marked our conversation for so long. Therefore, we need to “send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”  (I do wonder if “respective mission fields” is code for like-minded camps or if it is dressing up a pig). This plan takes great pains to avoid the notion of dissolving the church. What we know as the United Methodist Church would stay with the centrist/progressive branch – boards, agencies, etc.  Then, we would “give birth” to a new expression of the church for traditionalists (I find this image of being asked to help “give birth” somewhat disturbing…). This “new expression” would share some resources like Wespath, UMCOR, UMW, and Publishing. There would be a formula for allocating resources among the bodies, including future apportionments.  After blessing this new expression, then this plan would remove all restrictive language and the language of “incompatibility” around same-sex marriages and ordination.  Conferences, congregations, and clergy would make decisions about alignment, with a simple majority as the rule.  If no vote is taken, the default would be the centrist/progressive Church (The UMC) in the U.S. Interestingly, Annual Conferences in Central Conferences would default to the traditionalist branch.

UMC Next Proposal

This proposal starts by envisioning a UMC that welcomes everyone, nurtures devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, and equips our members to live as salt and light in the world. It calls us to reclaim the spiritual zeal and creativity of our Wesleyan heritage.   It keeps the UMC intact by allowing for greater regional autonomy and freedom to engage in ministry within diverse missional context. In this way it honors the diverse global nature of the church.  It directly affirms our doctrinal standards and core beliefs. And then, in the light of these values and beliefs, this plan removes “language and policies…that are harmful to and exclusive of LGBTQ persons.”  It affirms the ability of pastors to determine readiness for marriage and annual conference to determine criteria for ordination.  After offering a vision of what we can be as a denomination, this plan provides methods and resources for groups of churches to form new expressions of methodism. The plan acknowledges that separation can be a faithful step that honors those who experience a call to move in different directions. It grounds this possibility in the story of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark and thus gives the notion of multiplication biblical roots (Acts 15:37-40) and combines this with the life-giving theological language of respect, partnerships, and cooperation in ministry. The proposal ends by moving us back to vision and calls for a “commission on the 21st century church” to prepare a “comprehensive structure and governance plan…”  For a couple of other details, this proposal endorses a proposal from the Connectional Table to create regional conferences and calls for professional mediation to help all parties move forward.  In terms of voting, local church disaffiliation would require a 2/3 majority – an option available for a limited time.

The Bard -Jones Plan

Named for the two bishops that developed it, this plan is similar to the Connectional Conference Plan that came out of the Way Forward Commission, but never got much traction at the time.  Like the Indy Plan, this plan starts with the premise that we must find a way to address our division.  It starts by highlighting our options. 1. Relying on the legislative processes of Conference to make changes. 2. Groups just decide to leave.  3. A “forced schism,” through trials and active disobedience. Or 4 (the shining light)- to negotiate a new unity, a new connectionalism, and a mutual blessing for the parting of ways.  This plan calls for the creation of two or three self-governing branches – an “open” branch initially operating under the “simple plan,” a “traditional” branch operating under the “traditional plan,” and perhaps a “progressive” branch with a strengthen version of the “simple plan.” The United Methodist Church would be an umbrella organization, for the purpose of sharing in mission and organization support.

The Traditional Plan  

As with the rhetorical device, use in the Bard/Jones Plan, where three bad options are given to lead to new option, there is a parallel here. All three of these plans look good in the light of the one plan that was passed at GC2019 – the traditional plan (soon to be policy).  This is the big ugly elephant in the room – a plan that defines unity as uniformity, that establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates certain, that requires oaths in order to be in certain leadership positions, that creates a globally elected body to enforce particular rules, a body likened by our Judicial Council to an “inquisitional court.” And it was all passed knowing that much of it would be ruled unconstitutional.  One possibility before us is that General Conference will be about perfecting this plan.  And, that my friends, is my nightmare.  Even many who have more traditional views on particular topics are opposed to these draconian measures. They do not honor Christ or glorify God.

So, in comparison to this plan/policy, all the others look great! We need to keep that in mind. In terms of big outcomes, any of these plans (or some combination) would allow for the formation of a church that truly aspires to the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists:

  • Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law, where we come together at the holy table and give witness to the royal law of love.
  • Making Room for All and cultivating the values of inclusiveness and diversity as strengths that give witness to God’s beloved community (God’s kingdom) in our midst.
  • A High(er) View of Scripture where we honor the whole of scripture, interpret through key concepts as Jesus did, and move beyond proof-texting to affirm prejudices and opinions.
  • Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness rather than through judgment of others and zeal for our own righteousness.
  • A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity, an ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.

Beyond the Nightmare

Before our discussion, I want to elaborate on the nightmare that haunts me.  What if we are not able to pave any path for a church that cultivate these values. What if we don’t have the votes, even after the wave of support that occurs in the US?  (It is not unlike what we witnessed in St. Louis). What if I’m sitting there and I realize that it is not going to happen – at least in the legislative arena.  Can I (we) just sit there as more harm is done?

One image that comes to mind is something that happened at Annual Conference a couple of years ago when a group of women made the decision to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference abstaining from a vote on a resolution in support of women in ministry.  While acknowledging that the resolution was well-intended, it was reasoned that they did not want to subject themselves to the possible harm of becoming, once again, an “issue” to be justified and defended, or by having to vote, once again, on their own legitimacy.  And so, they chose a response that I believe honored our shared covenant.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this comparison, but I have a couple of reflections. First, resolutions are by nature contentious and designed to divide.  They may be well intended and still cause harm. Often there are better way to make affirmations. In the same way, our whole legislative process is often contentious and can cause much harm.  Acknowledging this, and as a small step, it is important to notice the language of the plans and ask: Do they come from a heart of love or do they mask other motives? Do they flow out of the values we have named, and if so, give the possibility for healing rather than harm? The hope is that we will let our values guide us through the turbulent waters of legislation. For a second connection, and more provocative, I wonder if we need some kind of contingency plan, for all supporters of an open and inclusive church, to possibly excuse ourselves and go to another room to work on a new way forward – while we are conveniently there in Minneapolis.  It is a big question mark at this point, but I do wonder.

I certainly hope that kind of action will not be needed.  I hope I will be able to say in hindsight, “Oh that was just a nightmare.” May our Lord help us see all of this through the light of love divine. May it be so.

Reclaiming Tradition (from the traditional plan)

IMG_4577I must say, at Conway FUMC (and this is true of much of Methodism), we are so traditional! In fact, we are more traditional than many who accuse us of violating tradition. I believe we need to reclaim this word and, to do so, we must understand more deeply what it really means.  At Annual Conference, we heard Dr. Greg Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, define tradition as “the living faith of those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.” That’s a good place to start if we are to reclaim the word “tradition” from recent abuse.  We can either use tradition to protect what is comfortable to us or we can add our witness to the living tradition and give creative expression to God’s continuing work in our lives, building upon the blessings that have been passed on to us.     

First, our worship is rooted in tradition. We honor the living tradition of the holy and catholic Church through liturgical seasons, historic prayers, hymns, and creeds – even in our contemporary services. We firmly believe that planting ourselves in the living tradition of the church is key to both faithfulness and fruitfulness. Without this rootedness faith becomes shallow and small.

Secondly, we have a very traditional view of scripture.  Our view is so traditional that we acknowledge that the church formed the Holy Bible, selecting the “standard texts” from many options. In other words, tradition gave us the Bible as we know it.  We are blessed that our tradition did not give one uniformed perspective.  We have four gospels and multiple forms of writings, all with diverse theological perspectives, and written in different contexts.  Taking the scripture seriously, we avoid the immature practices of proof-texting and selective literalism that are so popular among those who focus on using tradition to protect what is comfortable to us. We honor the whole while giving weight to key text that help us interpret the whole – even as Jesus used this method when he summarized all the law and the prophets with the word “love.” Led by the Holy Spirit, we are called to struggle together with the tensions found even within the scriptures themselves.  In this struggle we discern God’s will for our time and, most importantly, learn how to love.  That’s what it means to be part of the living tradition of the body of Christ.

Next, we make the important distinction between the living tradition of the church and our human traditions, which can easily become idols or false gods.  The living tradition of the church leads us into God’s truth.  In the scriptures, this truth is defined relationally.  Truth “reveals” or “discloses” what is good and life-giving (That’s what the original Greek word means).  Biblical truth is found in virtue more than opinion. It is revealed, or hidden, in how we treat one another.  In the Wesleyan tradition, truth is truth only when it is united to “humble, gentle, patient love for all.” Lies, on the other hand, hide goodness and conceal love.  Spiritual lies cultivate division, judgment, self-protection, and fear, and can be made to sound holy.  That’s what happens when we substitute the living tradition with our little traditions designed to actually hide us from God’s truth. 

A great irony about truth and lies occurs when some are accepted in the church only when they are willing to keep parts of their identity hidden. There are those among us who want them to lie about or “hide,” for example, who they love when the living tradition calls us to “bring to light” how we are all called to love – with faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and kindness.  There are those who want to focus on outward manifestations rather than illuminating the deeper truths of the gospel to which we are all called.  Jesus had a lot to say about this kind of white-washed righteousness. 

The plan passed at the last General Conference is called the “traditional plan.”  With mandates to exclude, punish, and strengthen rules that harm, I do not believe this plan honors the living tradition of the church.  Drawing upon a description from the Judicial Council, I would suggest that we call it the “inquisitional plan.”  That is much more fitting.  I’ve also heard it called the “mean plan.” The unintended blessing of this plan is how it has caused the truths of the gospel to come to life in the hearts of so many.  May this enlightening continue.  May we honor the living tradition of the church.

Our Calling Amid Possible Schism

IMG_4576The decision is in.  While I was hoping for a different result from the Judicial Council, I don’t believe we can blame the messenger.  I do wonder if they grieved over this decision, knowing that it would contribute to the schism that is likely to come.

Before General Conference, I wrote about Wesley’s view on schism.  Now I find myself revisiting his advice from a different perspective.  At the end of his sermon, “On Schism,” Wesley acknowledges that leaving a church, or forming a new church, can mean multiplication rather than division. It can be good for the body of Christ, as long as this move is not motivated by condemnation or personal comfort.  Withdrawing into “like-minded camps” is generally not the best way to glorify God.

In this sermon, Wesley actually defends heresy. It is a bit shocking – and very relevant for us today. Different perspectives – even factions or heresies – serve a positive purpose within the body of Christ. A variety of perspectives teaches us how to love and how to break bread together. There is likely some level of “heresy” in all of our stances and opinions.  Acknowledging this in humility leads us into life-giving community.  On the other hand, claiming right belief, and making this the focus of what it means to be the church, only breeds self-righteousness and creates “a present hell for those involved.” That’s Wesley’s take.

So where does this leave us? We are in a strange place where those who advocated for biblical unity are in the minority. After this ruling by the Judicial Council, the green-light has been given to a plan that moves us from unity in love to uniformity by law, with strict mandatory penalties, strengthened definitions that cause harm, and accountability taken away from bishops and the annual conferences. (If you are following the process, this is all old news).  I am glad that the provision for requiring oaths to serve in certain leadership positions was ruled unconstitutional, but it was still the will of the majority at General Conference. On the issue at hand, there is no room to do ministry from a different perspective. Those who want to make this room are being asked by many to “just leave” – or be subject to the new “inquisitional court” that will be established. That is where we are.

So, what’s next?  As we work through our grief, my hope is that we will join with others and focus on the calling God has given us – to bear one another in love and seek true unity of spirit (Eph 4:1-6).  Let us increase our resolve to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives, as we seek to listen and learn together, in respect and grace (that is possible and truly glorifies God), and in light of our current conversation, especially work to honor the gifts of our LGBTQ+ siblings and make room for them.  Let us promote a high(er) view of scripture where we honor the whole and seek God’s intended message in our time, using the royal law of love as our guide.  Let us affirm Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, as oppose to holiness defined by judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Let us promote a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, and the virtues summed up with the word love.  Let us work towards policies built on a shared ethic of calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity.   In sum, let us join with others to form a church that glorifies God.

Yes, some sort of division or “branches” is likely at a denominational level.  I hope that this possibility will increase our witness to the values we share. I believe that this is the calling we are being given, in this time, as we stay open to God’s work through us.

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.

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!

Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.  When one is “drunk from this spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.

The Truth about the Very Traditional One Church Plan

IMG_4577At our District-Wide Charge Conference, the three plans from The Way Forward Commission were presented in bullet points. This presentation directly following the FAQ that we were recently given. I want to speak directly to the bullet points used to outline the One Church Plan.

The first bullet point, as presented, was about how this plan removes current language about the practice of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching.”  That’s all that was said. While the plan removes language, it does not add language to imply that the opposite is true.  In fact, it immediately “adds language that intentionally protects the religious freedom of all who choose not to perform or host same-sex weddings….”  The point is repeatedly made that conferences, bishops, congregations, and pastors will not be compelled to act contrary to their convictions. This is the second sentence in the summary of the plan.  After this point is made, the plan “offers greater freedom to many who desire change but do not want to violate the Book of Discipline.”

The second bullet point, as presented, states that this plan changes the definition of marriage. This popular talking point is a mischaracterization of the plan itself.  Here are the actual statements in the plan: “We affirm the sanctity of the monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.“ Throughout this plan, the default position is traditional marriage. It does not mandate a change.  The plan repeatedly affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality.”  It continuously concedes to those who have a more traditional perspective.

Here is another key statement from the plan: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of the sacred gift.  Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults.”  Here the phrase “two adults” is not a change in definition but an acknowledgement that the church affirms sexual relations in a monogamous relationship and only among adults.  In this statement, the phrase “two adults” is not the subject.  To make this the main point is a misrepresentation and ignores the important and primary point being expressed – a point that would serve us well if it was to become our shared emphasis.

If I am reading the right document (and I had to question this based on the bullet points), there is only one place where the phrase “two adults” is used in connection with a definition of marriage.  Read it carefully: “Where laws in civil society define marriage unions between two adults, no United Methodist clergy shall be required to celebrate or bless a same sex union.” Again, every possible concession is given to the traditional perspective. In another place the plan changes the language from “heterosexual marriage” to “monogamous marriage.” One more time — this does not mandate a change in the definition of marriage but rather affirms the biblical principles of monogamy, mutual support, and shared fidelity over promoting an agenda about sexual identity.  What is wrong with promoting biblical values?  And, by the way, the plan includes pages of biblical and theological foundations, worthy of our attention as we seek holy discernment.

The third bullet point, as presented, “gives pastors the authority to perform same gender weddings.”  First of all, the correct language in the plan is “same sex” not “same gender.” Next, throughout the plan the default position is that a congregation will not perform or host such a ceremony unless the church intentionally votes to changes its wedding/union policy. This is the only time a vote would be needed by a congregation. Thus, the plan does not give a pastor this authority, at least not as a representative of the congregation or within a church, without explicit consent.

The next two bullet points, as presented, were about protecting the “rights” of pastors and bishops to not conduct “same gender” weddings or ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”  First of all, the language of “rights” is not a part of the plan except when it comes to due process. Secondly, in the actual document, this point is made much earlier and clarified in multiple places, as we have already seen. It is not an afterthought. These protections are woven into the whole plan, while also wanting to provide “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”

I must concede how hard it is to present these three plans in a way that “just gives the facts.” I respect the attempt. At the same time, I hope that we will all dig a little deeper.  These bullet points do not tell the whole story and, by themselves, can too easily cultivate a false narrative. I’m afraid that they push proverbial buttons that keep people from giving it a fair hearing.  With the stakes so high, I hope we can do better.