Am I like him?

Rob Renfroe of Good News has a video that is both a statement of what it means to be an evangelical United Methodist and a call to action and call to battle for the soul of the church.

Renfroe uses the question throughout the video “I wonder if you are like me?” As I watched I found the question pressing on me. The deeper he went and the more combative his tone became, the less comfortable I was with that question.

It is not that I disagree with anything he says about what it means to be a evangelical Wesleyan orthodox Christian. But the call to conflict does unsettle me.

That does not mean it is wrong. It does not mean it is right. It merely observes my own reaction.

I wonder about you. How do you hear this message?

A commitment to holy advocacy

The president of my seminary, Wendy Deichmann, has written her thoughts about the way of holy advocacy in the United Methodist tradition. In the piece, she offers her take on both what holy advocacy is not and what it should be in the midst of what she calls our “sex wars.”

The entire post is worthy of a few minutes of your time. I hope it gets wide readership among the people called United Methodist.

Perhaps because I am introducing my students to the meaning of team work this week, I wanted to lift up for a moment a few thoughts in reaction to her discussion of our polity.

Roman Catholics have a pope to pontificate, yes, imperialistically, over the denomination’s official position on social matters. Congregationalists (independent churches) take a vote to decide things on a congregational basis. Fundamentalists of various stripes (including many Baptists) rely on selective literal biblicist interpretations as determinative for their own respective judicatory. Some Anglicans, Lutherans, and others discern social questions in regional or continental contexts. United Methodists, by comparison, long ago agreed to define, defend, and/or change our official, denominational social positions and principles on the basis of General Conference vote. In the USA, with its cafeteria-style freedom of religion, any member objecting to a particular aspect of United Methodism or his or her own denomination is free either to use the provisions of the respective polity to try to change the denomination, or to leave it and take their preferences elsewhere.

Deciding things as important as social issues that affect people’s lives by General Conference vote has always meant that United Methodists (and those in our predecessor denominations) have had to live with differences of opinion, disappointment, and abundant, sanctifying grace to labor faithfully in ministry together despite personal, social, and political disagreements. Historically, we have had to do our best, God helping us, to continue to love, respect, and work alongside others in a denomination in which toleration of different opinions was fully expected, except when it came to the core doctrines of the church. United Methodist polity rests on an assumption not that there will be winners and losers in a vote, but that even when a vote does not go our way, God’s grace will equip us to exercise holy respect and tolerance for differences, even while we continue to work together for the larger mission of the denomination.

In my classes, I teach team work by using a book by Patrick Lencioni called Five Dysfunctions of a Team. As a denomination, you could easily say United Methodism displays all five. But the one that comes to mind while reading Deichmann’s piece is called Lack of Commitment. This is the tendency of people to hold back their support or fail to move forward because people will not commit to a plan of action. As Lencioni writes in his book, the problem is that in a team — sooner or later — people have to be willing to say that they will support the team’s decisions and plans even if they are not the ones they would have adopted themselves. If we all insist on always getting our way, then the team will always be mired in the mud.

United Methodism’s polity calls for this kind of commitment. Our process of decision-making is predicated on the idea that we will buy in to the process by which decisions were made and support them even if we would have preferred a different outcome.

For some reason, when I think this way, I always think of Al Gore at the end of the election in 2000. When the divided Supreme Court ruled narrowly against him and handed the White House to George Bush, Gore came out immediately and conceded the race. He surely did not support the outcome, but he endorsed the process.

For better or worse, United Methodism is built on the assumption that we will do the same.

United Methodism rests on the assumption that the Holy Spirit can empower us to both work for change in the parts of our doctrine and law with which we disagree while supporting and acting under the doctrine and law as it now is. This is a challenging discipline. It certainly challenges me. I am challenged both by the ways in which I currently do not live up to this call and by the ways our polity would call me to act if the 2016 General Conference brings radical change. When I hear people saying they would leave the UMC if our social positions changed, I understand their reasons, but it feels to me that I would be inconsistent with myself to suggest people who disagree with present doctrine should respect the process while saying I’ll leave if the process leads to changes.

It may be that our process has broken down so much — and our trust of the process and each other as eroded so far — that we no longer can abide by our own polity. But I am not beyond hope that we, or more properly the Holy Spirit, can repair what has been broken.

Cicero and the fall of the UMC

“Every subject which contains in itself any controversy existing either in language or in disputation, contains a question either about a fact, or about a name, or about a class, or about an action.”

– Cicero, On Invention

Adam Hamilton wrote recently about a meeting he had with other leaders across the United Methodist Church to discuss face-to-face the crisis over sexual morality. His post about the meetings and his reflection are interesting, but I was struck by the comments as well. In them, Hamilton was taken to task by a couple of people for reducing “people” to “issues” because he wrote about the way disagreement over sexual morality has become an issue in the church.

The comments highlight the basic incoherence of all our “conversations” regarding the morality of same-sex sex.We cannot even agree what it is that we are talking about.

Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote that every controversy could be thought of as centering around one of four questions. (His analysis may be flawed, but for the moment I am using it as a tool to help me think through our recurrent failures to communicate.)

The first is a question of fact. What, in fact, has happened or is happening or will happen. I do not see this much in dispute among us. To take the ordination debate as the point of conversation, no one disagrees with the fact that the United Methodist Church has written law that says certain actions disqualify a person for ordained ministry or appointment. In particular cases, establishing the facts of those actions has become difficult and contentious, as the Amy DeLong trial demonstrated.

Where we agree on the facts, we might instead have a question of proper naming. Cicero uses the example of someone who steals sacred objects from a temple. Is that person merely a thief or should we call them sacrilegious?

In our disputes, this question of naming appears to come up quite a bit. Is what we are discussing a matter of discipline or a case of bigotry? Is it about love or about holiness? If about love, what do we mean by that word? And on and on. The problem here, of course, is that we never actually engage in actual conversation to settle this question or at least try to test it. Instead, we use whatever name each side finds most useful or apt. The name we use becomes a flag to rally support rather than a point of honest inquiry and debate among us.

If our dispute is over naming, then responsible rhetoric would require us to make the case for the name we wish to use. Bishop Talbert says it is bigotry for the church to say those who engage in anal sex are not fit for ordination. Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the meaning of bigotry. Let’s talk about the meaning of ordination and the standards that the church should use in determining who is and who is not fit to be ordained or appointed. Let’s talk about what God desires that we do with our bodies and how those desires shape our understanding of ordination. Let us seek to determine if “bigotry” really is the proper name for what the church has decided. As history has shown, the church has done unholy things and called them holy before. Let’s examine this and see what it should be properly called. Let’s do this at General Conference.

Or, if we want to construct the question from the other side, let those of us who argue that ordination and anal sex are incompatible put forth this argument in a careful and rational way. To do so, we would have to articulate a theology of ordination that I am not certain we can claim to possess at the moment. As a licensed local pastor myself, I am aware that our practice makes our theologizing about ordination a risky proposition. But if we would be both devout and reasonable, perhaps we should be prepared to face these difficulties.

However we set the question, not everyone will be persuaded at first, but right now we are leap-frogging the conversation and resorting to sloganism rather than rational and deliberative and — I would argue — loving inquiry. We do not trust that men and women can be rational, so we resort to the tools of unreason, passion, and naked power. And, of course, in doing so accuse each other of being interested in nothing but unreason, passion, and naked power.

Cicero’s third distinction are disputes about a class or kind. The question here is not over what happened or what to name it but over the importance of the thing itself. In our current debates, some argue on this ground. Their characteristic argument goes like this: “We have more important things to be giving our attention to.”

Most who argue this are not actually following Cicero (not that any of them claim to), because they have not actually stopped to settle the question of naming. They go to the issue of importance to try to side step the raging controversy over the naming of what it is that unsettles us.

Cicero’s fourth distinction — action — has to do with legal standing and whether an issue or debate if properly under consideration. I do not see clear application here to our discussions.

Again, I do not mean to argue that Cicero is binding on us in any way or that his own thoughts — which evolved over time — are the only way to describe the challenge of practical rationality. I merely wish to use his thought to help me reflect on the pathetic state of our own discourse.

Of course, Cicero’s analysis does not get past the fact that some folks find little use for this kind of reasoned discourse. Some are suspicious of the entire enterprise of reasoned debate. It is just power masking itself behind privilege, they say. Others find the time for reasoned discussion past. We have talked about these things for 40 years, they say. Further debate — no matter how reasonable — will change nothing.

It is worth noting that Cicero’s life was lived in the midst of the Roman Republic’s death throes as men intent on seizing power resorted to demagoguery and violence to take what they wanted. Cicero was eventually  branded an enemy of the state and killed. Cicero’s reflections on proper practical reasoning had little influence when armies were on the march.

The United Methodist Church — for better or worse — is a small “r” republican form of polity. It is quite correct to note that our polity owes a huge debt to the republicanism at the heart of the American revolution and the best ideals of the American form of government. The founders of the American experiment in governance were admirers of Cicero, too, and suspicious of both anarchy and tyrants. Some of us — in our times of chaos — are calling for a Caesar to set right what has gone so wrong. We read and hear open admiration of a polity with a Pope who can rule and judge alone. Or conversely, we read and hear open admiration for a disintegration of the denomination into individual congregations, in which every church is its own polity. By and large, we have lost faith in the very form of our polity and the notion of rationality that informs it.

Our republic is dysfunctional. There is no doubt about that. Perhaps it is too late to hope that a commitment to rational and practical discourse among us would restore the legitimacy of our polity. Perhaps the Rubicon has been passed and the die has been cast.

The size of the church

Taking his lead from the official doctrine of the Church of England, John Wesley wrote that the visible Church includes three essentials:

Living faith – “without which, indeed, there can be no Church at all, neither visible nor invisible.”

Preaching and hearing the pure word of God — “else that faith would languish and die.”

Due administration of the sacraments — “the ordinary means whereby God increasetth faith.”

Of course, these ideas are nothing new to United Methodists. Our Articles of Religion say the same thing, which is no coincidence as they are adapted from the Church of England.

But what is this faith that is essential to the presence of the church?

Quoting the Homilies of the Church of England, Wesley reminded his readers that the living faith is “a sure trust and confidence in God, that through the merits of Christ my sins are forgiven, and I reconciled to the favour of God.”

We like to count warm bodies and buildings. Even now, there are men and women gearing up for a possible fight over those buildings and trying to hold on to as many of those warm bodies as possible. We round our numbers up and say that in the United States we have 8 million members.

But how many do we really have?

What is the actual size of the United Methodist CHURCH if we use these standards?

What is the size of the congregations that I serve?

Is my preaching the kind of preaching that preserves and fosters living faith?

Does my administration of the sacraments — and I’m fully aware here that as a licensed local preacher Wesley would not have permitted me to serve at the table — does my administration of the sacraments and my teaching about them ensure that people approach them and experience them as true means of grace?

Methodism as option 3

I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.

People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)

In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.

Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.

The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”

Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.

The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”

Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”

Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”

Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.

I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.

Living up to the General Rules

At the end of his explanation of the General Rules of the United Societies — rules which we still hold as binding on ourselves — John Wesley wrote this:

These are the General Rules of our societies; all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

I notice several things here.

First, Wesley takes very seriously the notion that pastors and lay leaders are on the hook if they do not actively look to the salvation and preservation of souls. I was in a class once in which another pastor told me that his job was not to be anyone’s sin police. That got a lot of nods of agreement, and I was right there with the others. But Wesley would not have agreed. He would not have used the phrase “sin police,” not least of which because it is cute rather than instructive, but he would have reminded us that those who watch over the souls of others will be held to account by Jesus for what we do and what we fail to do.

Second, I notice again the rock solid commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to guide our faith and practice. Such an idea would not get even a moment of indulgence from many pastors and most seminary professors today.

Finally, just imagine that last portion being read at Annual Conference. Indeed, I wonder what would happen at General Conference if the text of the General Rules were up for a vote. Perhaps that is why it wise that the General Rules are protected by our Constitution.

As a church that protects and preserves these rules, though, I wonder how we live them. How do we — within local congregational settings — get to the point where such a text could be read and embraced? How do we be the church in light of what we hold as our general rules?