Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

UMC Next - MichaelHere are a few first impressions from the UMC Next gathering last week and implications as we move towards the election of delegates this week.  I will assume that you have read the inspired key principles and heard about the two-fold strategy to “Stay, Resist, and Reform,” while engaging in “Negotiations for Dissolution” if this is deemed to be the most faithful option.

Impression 1.  I felt the tension in my own heart between these two strategies.  I was moved by pain caused by the actions of General Conference and empathized with calls for some form of separation.  And then, I heard powerful statements from African Americans and women who have stayed and struggled for justice and inclusion for generations.  To leave too quickly could dishonor those who have stayed and made such a difference by being prophets among us.  I was moved, for example, by the story of how one Conference elected women to go to General Conference, knowing that these women would be turned away because “laymen” meant “male.”  I am so glad that these women continued the struggle.  Perhaps, they can serve as inspiration.  Whether we ultimately schism or not, we need those committed to the cause and those willing to work together. There is strength in numbers.

Impression 2. We must find ways to model the church that we want to become. That means we must be intentional about inclusivity and honoring all voices at the table.  In this light, I stand convicted as one who is responsible for scheduling our Uniting Dinner on Wednesday Night at the same time as the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) dinner.  My first response was that it was “unintentional,” motivated by wanting to meet before the elections on Wednesday night.  It was Maxine Allen, a true prophet among us, who agreed that it was unintentional and pointed out that we need to be intentional if we are to live up to the values we claim.  Yes, faithfulness to the vision given at UMC Next calls for much more intentionality.

Impression 3.   I am thankful that our leadership group, first for Uniting Methodists and then for UMC Next, has been open about our participation.  There were many at UMC Next who were reluctant to be open about their advocacy.  In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with Lynn Kilbourne as we were planning a rally for the One Church Plan at Annual Conference last year (that seems so long ago).  I expressed my thankfulness to be in a place, in terms of age and appointment, where I could be a vocal advocate without as much fear of consequences.  I asked Lynn if she was sure about taking a public stance knowing that some heat would come.  She confessed some concern, but then said, “It’s the right thing to do.” We need that kind of leadership as we work for a church that cultivates unity in love rather than uniformity by law and goes back to a biblical vision of making room for all, not just back to a time when discrimination was justified.

You are invited to join this holy work. As a step this week, please join us in electing a delegation that will represent the emerging vision that God is giving.  If you want to be a part of a more organized effort, let me, or any involved, know. There is a plan. We need to work together, or we risk a delegation that wants to perfect the punitive/exclusionary plan with little influence for an alternative vision. For one more impression from the gathering, I no longer want to use the term “traditional plan” because I do not believe it honors the living tradition of the church.  When it comes to honoring our tradition, we can do so much better.

Naming Our Values in a New Reality

IMG_4576At a recent gathering of around 80 of us, under the title of “Uniting Methodists,” we spent time naming our values in a new reality after GC2019. If you were at this meeting you will recognize much of what was said.  The hope of the conveners is that these values will serve as a light to guide us into a faithful way forward. We invite you to prayerfully use them for guidance and for holy conversation. We value…  

Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law

The plan passed at General Conference establishes strict mandatory penalties around only one concern, requires oaths to be taken to serve in certain leadership positions. and takes accountability away from resident bishops and peers.  Parts of this plan have been likened by our Judicial Council as establishing an “inquisitional court.” There are many with traditional, progressive, and centrist perspectives who do not believe this represents the calling of Christ. We are called to come together at the holy table where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of blessed diversity. We will continue to have many theological and social issues to discuss.  It is through our struggles together that we learn how to love.

Making Room for All

The value of inclusiveness has been expressed with a variety of constituencies in mind. At the holy table, we value those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives. In the light of our current conversation, we want to affirm our LGBTQ+ siblings, and honor the gifts they bring into the community of faith.  We want to encourage young persons to be leaders among us, and we continue our commitment to be more inclusive in terms of ethnicity.  As United Methodist Christians, we want to reclaim the “big tent,” practice hospitality, avoid “us and them” language, be transparent, and cultivate ministries that are attentive to contexts. We believe that diversity, within the Body of Christ, is a great strength and helps us give witness to the kingdom of God in our midst.  

A High(er) View of Scripture

As the inspired Word of God, the scriptures come to life in holy conversations and relationships.  In these conversations, we often do not get easy answers but must struggle with the tensions and different perspectives found within the scriptures themselves.  Faithfulness moves us beyond proof-texting and using scriptures to affirm our prejudices and opinions.  In community, we honor the whole, notice the context, and seek God’s intended message for us in our time and place. With Wesley as our guide, we look to key texts to help us interpret all of scripture, with the summary of the law and prophets offered by Jesus as the master key, where love is described as the royal law.  We read scripture through the lens of the risen Christ and through his will for us and for all.   

Wesleyan Holiness

In defining holiness, Wesley consistently used the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness. He also talked about the opposite of holiness with words like pride, passion, judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness. True holiness is rooted in the love God has planted in our hearts.

A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity

While we affirm unity rather than uniformity, faithfulness does demand some agreement.  In humility, we acknowledge that we do not fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity. At the same time, we affirm a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.  We affirm pastors and congregations who want the freedom to respond in contextual ways to all who desire to grow in God’s love and live in relationships where they can practice these life-giving values. We want to adopt a denominational policy built on a shared ethic around calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity.

Being Hopeful and Realistic

We affirm our calling to bear with one another in love and to seek unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  After General Conference, we have concluded that this calling may not manifest itself as “unity of structure.” At the same time, we do not believe we should retreat into another “like-minded camp” where the virtues of our calling – humility, patience, and kindness – are not really needed.  We want to cultivate a community where all are welcomed at the table and where we can truly learn how to love. 

We also trust that politics, defined as the art of making good decisions for the whole, can be consistent with the call of the Holy Spirit.  In this light, we ask you to help elect persons who will be active and vocal advocates for the values we have named above.  We do not believe that this is a time for neutrality or to elect those who might approach General Conference with a desire to perfect the Traditional Plan.   

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.

A Way Forward through Psalm 85:10

IMG_4577To build upon a Jewish Midrash (an art form that Jesus regularly used through parables) there is a story that tries to make sense of the verse saying, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10). In the story, the angels of heaven are debating about whether or not humans should ever have been created. This debate quickly broke into two general camps.  Those on the side of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness to the law argued that humans should never have been created because all they do is pervert God’s law, engaged in self-justification, and turn God’s truth into lies.  In contrast, those on the side of mercy and peace said, “But they are so beautiful. They sing lullabies to their children; they care for one another with such compassion. We are glad they were created because we want to see how the stories they tell are going to end.”  Both sides were adamant, so God got involved. God tells them that one of the reasons for the creation of humans was to bring them together.  Since both sides truly loved God and wanted to do God’s will, they met in the middle, embraced, and kissed.

Maybe that’s a parable for us today.   God’s desire is for righteousness and peace to kiss, and mercy and faithfulness to embrace, but nobody – especially God – discounts the tension that comes with this uniting.  Israel was born in this struggle.  The name Israel means to wrestle and struggle and this carries over to the church as well.  It is only in the struggle, and in the commitment to work together, that we are able to find a faithful way forward.  These two sides, joined together, provide the energy needed to light the way.  And if this is true then withdrawing into like-minded camps only produces spiritual darkness.

In our church today, leaders from multiple perspectives are looking for a solution.  The options are not really new.  One option is schism – to leave and form a new denomination.  In my opinion, this option will not make the issues go away but will only multiply the pain. This is not a viable option in the 21st century.  Another option from the past is to “play nice” at church, to stay together but keep our interactions (and maybe our faith) at a nominal and surface level.  There is evidence of this old option going back to Constantine.  Another option, perhaps, is found in this verse.  In the midst of our struggle, could God be calling us to meet in the middle and embraced, to work together to forge a higher sense of unity, to cultivate a community where we can truly learn how to love one another and practice the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility (virtues not really needed in likeminded camps),  where righteousness and peace kiss one another, or in Wesleyan language where grace and holiness meet, where we honor knowledge and vital piety, head and heart, evangelism and social justice, traditional and progressive perspectives…where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of diversity of opinions, in discerning core doctrines together rather than dividing over things that do not “strike at the root of Christianity.”  Who is up for this kind of embrace, this wholeness?  What if this were our witness to the world?

 

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.