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.

 

Is Win/Win Possible? (A response to Bishop Scott Jones on the One Church Plan)

IMG_4576A video post by Bishop Scott Jones sparked these thoughts. Are we really at a crossroads? What if we used another paradigm to frame the issues before us– say, a “crosspoint,” where we asked ourselves: What is at the core of the “extreme center?” What connects us into one faith and one love? What light reflects outwards touching all sides?  The crossroads paradigm creates an either/or dichotomy and cultivates division. It sees division as inevitable. Perhaps we need to step back and look through a different lens – or repent to use another word – and find a more faithful path. There must be a better way and must be leaders willing to guide us.

It is natural that the crossroads image would lead to calls to take the “road less traveled” – and to be among the truly righteous.   What if we reframed this with Jesus’ image of the narrow way?  Building upon Wesley’s sermon on this passage, the wide and easy way is the way of division, contention, power, and judgment.  The narrow way is the way of humility and mercy. It is the way of “ordering conversations aright,” and thus working for unity in the bonds of peace. What if we were focused on how to do that well?  In a paradoxical twist, Wesley defines the wide way with having a “narrowness of spirit.”  By contrast, the narrow way of Christ leads to a wideness of spirit – perhaps so wide that we all might be able to find a place and where all might rejoice that others have found a place as well.  What if we focused our witness around that vision?

Wesley once asked, “How can we bear the name of the Prince of Peace and wage war with each other – “party against party,” faction against faction!”  This happens when we are “drunk with the blood of the saints.” In this state, we allow contention and malice to drive us, “even where [we] agree in essentials, and only differ in opinions, or in the circumstantials of religion!”  Our true calling, says Wesley, is to “follow after only [his emphasis] the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”  Anything other than this is to “devote each other to the nethermost hell.”

It is sad to hear a leader among us say that there is no win/win possibility.   That is only true if we have totally shut God out or if God has taken away all anointing from us. There could be a “win/win” if we were to come together around the values that we want to promote.  We could name them and agree – monogamy, faithfulness, relationships that cultivate patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness and love.  There could certainly be a win/win for all who acknowledge that there are faithful people and faithful interpretations of scripture that differ from others, but who still want to be in communion together. Does God really want us to divorce into like-minded camps around one issue?

Looking through a different lens, I see a glimmer of hope in the One Church Plan.  This plan calls us to a higher unity.  I do not believe it is fair to pollute the plan with the “slippery slope” argument.  The same doubt-casting spin could be placed on any plan, in any direction. This plan does not represent a “decisive turning point” toward a particular outcome. That is an unfair characterization. The plan actually protects those who do not want to move in the direction of the supposedly telegraphed destination. It is true that the One Church Plan will not end the conflict, but what plan will?  Looking at this through a different frame, this issue is not going away because God has given us an opportunity to figure out how to love one another, and we have yet to acknowledge what God wants from us and for us.  We cannot take this path while blinded by the bias that characterizes only those on one side as engaging in disruption until the “other side” changes or leaves.  I am holding out for the possibility that we can do so much better.  By the grace of God, I trust that a win/win solution is possible. And yes, we need to pray hard.

Conference Resolutions and Unintended Consequences

IMG_4576Resolutions often bring hurt and harm. The process taps into deep emotions and strong convictions.  While sometimes necessary to move us forward, the process is also designed to divide. To build upon Bishop Saenz sermon at Annual Conference, this process pushes us into the perspective of disciples behind locked doors, motivated by fear, suspicions, and a need to fix things on our own. In this place it is hard to notice the living Christ in our midst saying “peace.”

After resolutions this year, I have heard colleagues express deep hurt.  I know how that feels and ask forgiveness where I have caused it.  For a personal example, I remember the time when my daughter, as a youth “member,” gave an impassioned speech against a resolution and then was accosted with both physical and verbal aggression.  She literally had to run away in fear.  And, I have noticed people express being hurt, in some cases, by people who express being hurt, in other cases. That’s the power of resolutions.

Much is being said about the hurt that came from the resolution affirming women in ministry.  In hindsight, I believe we need to reflect on this process that can so easily be used to inflict harm, often as an unintended consequence.  It is clear to me that there were intentions of good-will in the presenting of this resolution.  In conversations, the presenters called it an olive branch, a show of support, especially after the tension, and suspicions, around the amendments last year.  I believe we need to honor this effort and give thanks to them.

At the same time, I believe we owe deep gratitude to some of the women who countered this resolution.  While, in hindsight, there may have been other ways to handle it, some chose to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference (not leave the conference) and abstain from the vote.  This was an appropriate political response to a political offering. It was not breaking covenant. It was an action that made us all aware of a need for healing. It may have also saved us from a deeper discomfort. By their nature, resolutions invite opposition.  If it had gotten to that point, someone could have argued that much of the Christian world does not support this and offered a biblical rationale.  Women in ministry would have become an issue to be justified and defend – once again. This resolution was asking women to vote on their own legitimacy – once again.  I can certainly see why this was a problem, and why many felt like they had to come up with a response in the moment (and there was no time for much advanced planning). Again, we owe them our gratitude and continued conversation, not accusations and reprimands.

I have been shocked by the backlash. In most circumstances around resolutions, we fight and move on – sometimes even go out to dinner together. Why did this “fight” lead to such discomfort among us? What do we fear about the deep emotions and strong convictions expressed in this one? It reminds me of father-figures in my life telling girls to “calm down” while telling boys to “get tougher.”  Perhaps the problem for some is that these women didn’t just politely go along. Oh, if we could come together and laugh at the irony and learn from it.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, I believe that a statement of affirmation would have been appropriate, rather than calling for a vote. In hindsight, I wish some would recognize this, even if they don’t like the way the others handled it. I hope we can all try again in some other form than a resolution.  Together may we give thanks for the treasures of forgiveness and grace held within this “earthened vessel” called the church, full of fallible and flawed beings who are the reason for these treasures and who have the power to make them real.

The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (A part of the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It is interesting to me that divorce figures so prominently in our debate on the way forward.  In our Annual Conference, for example, one pastor wrote a beautiful reflection on how his own divorce led to a change of heart. This sparked a defense of divorce by others, arguing that we have permission to be gracious to the divorced and remarried, but there is no biblical justification to extend this same permission for same-sex unions, for one example.

It is true that our statement on divorce in the Book of Discipline is redemptive and gracious. In my mind, this makes it very relevant to our current debate. In this statement, divorce is described as a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”  Implied is the need to address the “brokenness” before we embrace the “alternative.”  If we do not engage the “regrettable,” in “grief over the devastating consequences,” we are likely to become indifferent to both divorce and remarriage. We will come to see it as an “acceptable” alternative. We will minimize the devastation and block out the pain. I have seen this happen among us. Even pastoral leaders can be divorced and remarried multiple times and it is a non-issue among us – at least in public discussions.

I wonder if our indifference to divorce and remarriage plays a role in the permission some feel to call for divorce or schism in the church.  It is even argued that we might be able to love one another better if we would go our separate ways. Perhaps this alternative, and our impatience with difference perspectives among us, will glorify God. That seems to be the claim.

In this call for divorce or schism, we also hear a lot of blaming. It is so tempting to project the cause of brokenness onto others. I love the way Wesley so eloquently described the extent of our brokenness in his sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”  Building upon the Apostle Paul he says, “No one is righteous, not one.” And in this same sermon he says that the “grand objection of the infidels against Christianity” is how Christians themselves live and claim their own righteousness.  Not acknowledging our own brokenness contributes so much to the brokenness in the world.   For Wesley, in this sermon, our first calling is to watch and pray.  It is not to defend God and try to fix others on our terms.  It is God alone who transforms, and we all need to be more focused on our own need for transformation than we do on others.  In this sermon, Wesley gives this beautiful vision of a God who “will arise and maintain his own cause and the whole creation shall then be delivered from both moral and natural corruption. Sin shall be no more.  Holiness and happiness will cover creation, and the whole race of humankind shall know, love, and serve God, and reign with God forever and ever!” This is what is in store for us! What if we all did more confessing of our own brokenness, rather than trying to fix others, and together put our trust in God to bring this vision to fruition for all – even in ways beyond our human understanding?  That would lead to much healing.

From a biblical and wesleyan perspective, marriage itself is an acknowledgment of brokenness.  It is a part of our collective brokenness. In heaven, when all brokenness is healed, marriage will not be needed.  Marriage, as we have seen in the series, is an institution meant to bring healing.  Its primary purpose, beyond reproduction, is to help us grow in the virtues of holiness – humility, patience, kindness, and love. What if we found a way to honor all who want to make commitments, practice faithfulness, and bear the fruit if this holiness? What if we all were so focused on our own need of healing that we really didn’t have much time to point our finger at others. What if, instead, we worked at finding ways to honor one another?

In a culture of divorce and division, schism and polarization, why would we accommodate to this culture?  Are we not called to give witness to a higher vision? Is it not worth seeking the “mediation” called for in the BOD’s statement on divorce and to pour our energy into how we might stay united in love? I wonder.