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.

Stopping the Slippery Slope (and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It was a shocking realization while sitting at a district gathering to discuss the various plans for the Way Forward.   I purposely set next to one of our youth who had recently come out and was now invested in the discussion in a new way.  At the table, a man launched into prepared talking points.  At the heart of his argument was the popular “slippery slope.”  “If we allow this,” he said, “what’s next? – polygamy, bestiality? Sex with animals, is that where this is leading?” He did not seem to be aware of the pain caused around the common table. Since then I have heard this talking point many times and have tried to think through it more deeply.

To start with, it is good to realize that actions have consequences; it is wise to think through possible outcomes.  This, however, is very different from the “slippery slope” argument, where harmful consequences are assumed.   In thinking through outcomes, it is helpful to reflect on the lens through which the issue is framed.  If seen through a “libertarian” agenda, promoting individual freedom with no interference from any outside entity, then a case can be made for the slippery slope.  If we give one freedom, then that might slip to giving another.  There are those who are promoting an agenda through the lens of individualism, but that is not the lens of the church.  It is an act of deception to lump me, and a multitude within the church, into this perspective.  The faithful church does not frame this issue through the lens of individual freedom but through the lens of wanting to cultivate life-giving relationships with God and others, relationship built upon the values we all hold dear – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, and opportunities to grow in the biblical virtues of patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, among others. This is the biblical language, by the way, that supports the one plan that would make it possible for some in the church to focus on these virtues over base sexuality.  Through the lens of promoting life-giving relationships, the concern becomes what we say to anyone who says, “I want to give my life to Christ and live in a relationship where I can grow in the love of Christ.”  In working with anyone, wherever they are, to respond to this desire, the “slip” is more likely to be into something that will truly glorify God.  If we focused our energy here, there might be a lot more people wanting to know more about the love we preach.

Because of sin in the world, harm may come within relationships — there is no doubt — but this harm is not a direct result of people wanting to be treated with respect and to be able to love others with the blessing of the church.  Granted, this blessing cannot be cheapened.  The blessing includes the cultivation of the virtues meant to under-gird all life-giving relationships.   When we fail to cultivate these virtues then we indeed water down the gospel – but perhaps not as much as those who are using this harmful argument.

This slippery slope argument is an official fallacy.  In other words, it promotes falsehood. It causes harm.  It vilifies others to create fear and doubt. It assumes negative outcomes without any thought to other possibilities. That’s where the argument itself “slips.” I do wonder – are the spiritual consequences worth the desired end?  What if we came together to discern a higher “end” or “purpose” and worked together from there?  That, I trust, would truly glorify God.

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.