Vickers: O For A Thousand Dollars to Save

United Theological Seminary professor Jason Vickers, who has written a wonderful little book on church renewal called Minding the Good Ground, sent me the following guest blog post about what is on his mind on the eve of General Conference.

Here it is:

O For a Thousand Dollars to Save: A Lament on the Eve of General Conference

I have no illusions. I get that the United Methodist Church has money problems. Moreover, I get that money problems need money solutions. Nor am I reluctant to talk openly with friends and strangers about money. If anything, I am convinced that we have a money problem in America and in United Methodism in part because, along with sex, we have made money a taboo topic for polite conversation. So let’s talk about money. And let’s talk about sex. I’m game.

I am more troubled by what United Methodists will not be talking about at General Conference. For example, what are the odds that United Methodists at General Conference will have a lively conversation about the Holy Trinity or about the need to recover a more prominent role for Mary in United Methodist beliefs and practices? And what are the chances that we will have an animated conversation about the nature of holiness or about whether two sacraments are really sufficient?

What troubles me most, however, is that we don’t seem to realize that these things are related to one another – that our money problems and even our sex problems are largely a function of the utter staleness of our theological life together. Just now, the world around us is awakening from its dogmatic slumbers, which is to say, from the long sleep of Enlightenment. People everywhere are increasingly curious about God. Even Hollywood is once again making movies with plots driven by theological questions (see the Oscar-nominated Tree of Life). At such a time as this, I have yet to hear one good theological question set for debate at General Conference.

So what questions would I set before General Conference? Before taking up (again) the matter of whether two people of the same sex can be married, I would like to see us (just once) take up the more theologically profound question of whether we should add marriage to the list of sacraments. Similarly, before taking up (again) the matter of whether gays and lesbians can be ordained, I would like to see us (just once) entertain the theologically tantalizing questions of whether ordination itself is a sacrament and whether Mary might be a better model for the ordained life than Peter. And before we decide whether to downsize or to restructure, I would love to see us tackle the question of what it would mean to think about church polity and organization in a decidedly Trinitarian way.

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13 thoughts on “Vickers: O For A Thousand Dollars to Save

  1. If theology mattered to the GC of the UMC, it would not have “improved” Jesus’ mission statement to the church in 2008. Until then, the mission of the UMC was “to make disciples.” At 2008, the GC changed it to read “to make disciples for the transformation of the world.”

    That means that discipleship is not the first objective at all, it’s simply a means to another end – and be clear about this: “transformation of the world” is a political objective. It is oriented exclusively on the here and now and ejects the church’s historical and apostolic concern with participation in and striving for God’s eternal kingdom. One presumes that if the world can’t be adequately transformed by making disciples, then some other means will serve as well or better.

    “If we have Christ in this life only,” wrote Paul, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

    And that’s exactly where the UMC is now. We are, properly understood, no longer a religious organization at all, we are a political action group that likes to use Christic language to pretend otherwise.

    BTW, I am an elder in the UMC.

    • Thanks for your comment, Donald. I agree that the “for the transformation of the world” part opens up all kinds of problems when it comes to having a clear mission.

      I’m not clear on whether you are using hyperbole at the end there or not. I know the little I church serve does not look much like political action group. We often struggle to look like a church, too, but not for the reasons you cite.

      • In reference to politics, I was referring much less to local congregations (although I do know a few of them) than to the thrust of the pronunciations of the Council of Bishops and especially the GBCS, which has basically become the religious arm of the Democrat National Committee.

  2. John, I’ll keep reading your blog while longer, but please give us some grist for our mental and spiritual mill that’s not quite as far in in the stratosphere “O For a Thousand Dollars to Save.” More sacraments? Mary a better model? There’s always the Catholic option. I don’t know that Wesley was THAT irenic.

    • John, I’m happy to have you keep reading. I do think Dr. Vickers poses some theological questions worthy of conversation. I don’t know his full argument on behalf of what he is advancing, so I don’t know if I could be persuaded to add more sacraments. I find the Protestant orthodoxy on the standard for sacraments pretty solid.

      But, I do think our conversations about marriage and ordination should be based on theology more than politics, sociology, psychology, or medical science.

    • I think Dr. Vickers is trying to get us to think about why we do so little theology at General Conference, not necessarily trying to advance a higher Mariology in United Methodism. Mariology is a very lively theological subject with a long history of debate in Christianity (far before the Medieval period), so is an example of something we might actually consider as worthy of theological debate.

      He rightly points out that we will have little theological substance to talk about at General Conference and instead will be dealing with almost entirely temporal affairs. For example, a minor tweak to our ordination process is being proposed, but we won’t actually address the major theological issue of unordained presidency in a theological manner, and we certainly won’t try to figure out what we believe happens at ordination. Does it impart an indelible status, or is it just a public affirmation of the church? We don’t have a clear answer in our understanding, and I doubt our theology of ordination will be the main subject of debate when the ordination process is up for debate; rather, the practical implications will be the center. And that’s our problem – we never take time to theologically reflect on our polity and practice since we only have 2 weeks to get everything done.

    • It seems to me that the examples Jason selects are all pertinent theological considerations derived directly from issues that will be center stage at General Conference: marriage, ordination, and restructuring. Otherwise, would Trinity be too Roman Catholic?

    • I worry that your comments here are dismissive without substance. Dr. Vickers’ suggestions all have merit to them, and a General Conference discussion around any of them would likely be more fruitful (and redemptive, possibly) than the kinds of discussions that are likely to go on in Tampa. I would also suggest that delving deeply into the Wesleyan tradition (particularly around the sacraments and other means of grace) might lead you to think differently about our sacramental doctrine. And I mean that last comment in a real way; please also do not think I am trying to be antagonistic in saying it.

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