Inclusion at the Core of the UMC Constitution and Tradition

IMG_4576With another General Conference quickly approaching, and as a delegate, I have spent some time re-reading our constitution in the Book of Discipline (BOD).  Interestingly, it is all about unity! We see this theme in almost every paragraph.  It is clearly stated that “dividedness” is a hindrance to our witness.  We are called to confess, in humility, our brokenness and seek opportunities for reunion, “in the confident assurance that this act is an expression of the oneness of Christ’s people.”  We are then to “strive towards unity…at all levels of church life.” I wonder how we could have strayed so far?

As a matter of constitutional proclamation, we are also called to work towards inclusion, “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition.”  Scriptural Unity is not to be found by dividing into like-minded camps or by excluding others.  It is not found in our agreement over things that do not “strike at the root of faith,” but in our coming together in environments where we can practice our calling to love with patience, kindness, humility, and without insisting on our own way. That glorifies God!

The BOD gives us powerful guiding principles for how we can strive for this unity of spirit. Later in the BOD, we are challenged to seek unity in the midst of both continuing “historic tensions” and as “new issues continually arise and summon us to fresh theological inquiry.” In this light, we affirm our rich diversity of perspectives and see this as a sign of health within the Body of Christ.  We affirm that “our faith is enriched by indigenous experiences and manners of expression.” As a guiding principle, in this diversity, we believe that “we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.” I wonder what conferencing would look like if we were more faithful to this charge?

By taking a small leap, we can also say that inclusion is at the heart of our tradition, defined as the living faith that honors those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.  With this definition, I do not think we should use the word “traditional” to describe the policy (It is no longer a plan) that is before us.  This policy is built on a mandate to exclude, punish, and strengthen stances that cause harm.  Even the Judicial Council has likened this policy to an “inquisitional court.”   This policy does not honor our living tradition. I would love to re-claim this important word for all of us rather than letting it be co-opted to describe one segment of the church and for the only purpose of judging some among us as incompatible. That seems so unconstitutional to me – not to mention unchristian.

The abuse of the Book of Discipline (BOD) in times of contention is similar to the abuse we see with scripture – proof-texting, selective literalism, and focusing on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  It is used too often to announce the speck in the eye of some while ignoring the ways that others do not follow our discipline and doctrine.  That list is long for all of us.  We hear cries against disobedience when we could acknowledge that principled resistance is a legitimate approach within our covenant and our democratic process of discernment.  Where some practice this kind of resistance by pushing through a plan known to be unconstitutional, others resist rules and language believed to be exclusionary and incompatible with both the spirit of the BOD and the living tradition of the church,  Our covenant can honor this tension as we continuously strive for unity around the values of faithfulness and love.

Rather than using the BOD against one another, we could see it as a resource to help us build a church that truly glorifies God.  As we approach another General Conference, I would encourage us all to prayerfully read the constitution before we get too involved in all the legislation that will come our way.  There is something to be said about putting first things first.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

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

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

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

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

Is There Grace in Gracious Exits?

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

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

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

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

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

Way Forward Bible Study Notes – Session 3

For the next two weeks we are going to address some of the more controversial passages that get used frequently in the midst of this struggle.  Sometimes these passages are called “clobber texts,” because they are used to “clobber” people – to judge them or call them to true righteousness as we see it.  And then, there are those who interpret these passages differently and use them to “clobber” back – and back and forth it goes.  I am absolutely convinced (and convicted) that there is a more faithful and fruitful way to read these passages. These words are not weapons. So, we are going to see if we can read them to help us build up rather than tear down, unite rather than divide, and heal rather than harm – as God intends.

We will start with Romans 1:18-2:1. I’m going to read the whole passage, then make a few comments about how this passage is used and sometimes abused, and then invite you into a conversation.

Commentary: 

This passage is part of a larger discourse, where Paul argues that we are all guilty, none are righteous, “not even one,” he says.  Here is a key verse: “Since we all fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  (Rom 3:23). And then Paul goes on to reveal this grace.  He makes the case that to grasp God’s life-giving amazing grace, we first must see our need for it. We can’t measure up to God’s love by our own work; we cannot justify or save ourselves.  To try is to only bring God down to ourselves.  If it is up to us to align ourselves to God, then our only option is to bring God down to our level…

In these verses, the clear backdrop is some kind of idolatrous worship practices. Idolatry (or the worship of idols) is defined as the worshiping of the creature or creation rather than the creator.  It is exchanging the truth for lies.  Perhaps one way to explain Idolatry is to note that it starts with “I.” Idolatry is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.  That’s what Paul is talking about here.

Idolatry is an “abomination.”  And that’s an important biblical word here.  An abomination is something that is unnatural – like the abominable snowman.  An abomination is something unnatural and offensive.  And this brings us to the verses that are most often used in the struggle to discern matters of human sexuality.

Our exchanging truth for lies and devotion to God for devotion to the world is as unnatural for us as exchanging what is natural for us when it comes to sexual attraction with what would be unnatural, and yet, because of sin, we do this so easily.

It is an illustration, not the point.  But many make it the point.  They stop here and say, “See, same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of God’s purpose and design for us.  It is an abomination.  End of story.”  And then, others will say “See. Paul didn’t understand same-sex attraction in the way we do today.  It is not a choice, and Paul is right, none of us should exchange what is natural for us and engage in behaviors that are unnatural for us.  That would be wrong.”  On this side, it is pointed out that the assumption here is that heterosexuals are exchanging what is natural for them for something unnatural, and that the context is probably some kind of pagan ritual to appease the gods.  So, we have two sides focused on these few verses to make a point, or to “clobber” the other side.

Paul’s whole point is that this is not the point. We can’t stop here. Paul gives a long list of “unnatural” acts (abominations) that are against the will of God — envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence (or being disrespectful), boastfulness (arrogance where we build ourselves up by putting others down), foolishness, disobedience, and “all manner of wickedness” or “etc” (v.28-31). All of these acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and lead us into lies.  The big point is that no one has escaped the reality of sin.  We are all in need of grace.  And so, Paul concludes this section by saying, “Therefore you (earlier he said “they;” now we know that we are included in the “they”) have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

For our purposes here, we must conclude that using this passage to judge others is to totally pervert God’s word.  This is an example of exchanging truth for a lie.  This is an example of us creating God in our image and using God to justify our own prejudices and desires.  We are all called into a bigger reality where we can all be transformed by grace.

Holy Conversation

So, now I want to read it again, and then have you discuss around the tables, with these questions to spark your conversation.  Where do we see ourselves in this passage? What are we really not supposed to do?  And how might we turn that into a statement about what we should do as people of faith and as the church? (If you need help re-read Eph 4:1-6, or Romans 12:9-18, or Gal 5:22-23, or Col 3:12-14, for starters).

A Report of Conversations

As a report, there were rich conversations around the tables and then in the larger group.  One of our youth asked about free-will, referencing how God allows all this to happen.  I responded with an affirmation that God does allow us to try out forms of idolatry, but never abandoned us and is able to use even our sinfulness to bring us back into grace.

One table turned to Colossians 3 to help answer the questions.  Here we see back to back lists of what not to do and what to do.  The list of “don’t” is similar to the list in Romans – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying.  We are then invited to “clothe ourselves,” as God’s beloved, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  Note how similar this is to the list we used from Ephesians 4.  Our calling is to behave in holy ways, more than it is to believe certain things about how others should live.

Many have used this passage to define sin for others in an effort to uphold God’s standard and combat immorality in the world.  I would agree that this passage helps us in this effort, but only as we look at the whole and at ourselves as well.  It does not serve the cause of Christ well – to pick out verses to use as weapons in defense or condemnation of an “agenda” or “lifestyle” of others.  Our concern is how to respond faithfully to anyone who comes and says, “I want to live in relationship with Christ, and practice faithfulness and commitment even when sacrifice is required. I want to live in a relationship where I can cultivate the love of Christ. Will the church help me do that?”  That’s our “agenda.” Perhaps if we focused more on promoting this life-giving way of relating to one another, we might get a lot more interest from people who are searching for something more.   I believe that would glorify God.

Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.