Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

What is the gospel?

John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.

Our peculiar doctrine

From John Wesley’s journal of February 1789:

Friday, 6, being the Quarterly Day for meeting the Local Preachers, between twenty and thirty of them met at West-Street, and opened their hearts to each other. Taking the opportunity of having them all together, at the watch-night, I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust;” particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.

That doctrine, expounded upon in detail in Wesley’s great sermon “Christian Perfection,” teaches that while humans prior to the Second Coming will never be free from ignorance, mistakes, weakness of the flesh, or temptation, the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts does give Christians power to resist all sin — in thought and deed. By an act of grace God will sanctify in this life those whom he has justified.

Wesley preached this for nearly his entire post-Aldersgate ministry. And he was resisted all along the way by those within and outside Methodism who objected on scriptural or experiential grounds. After his death, this doctrine would give rise to splits as groups that held firm to Christian Perfection — or as Wesley also called it in his sermon, holiness — broke off from the moderating masses of Methodists.

We United Methodists still hold to this doctrine formally. It is still committed to our trust. But it is a relic that we keep in the attic.

I wonder what it would be like if in the upcoming Annual Conference season every bishop in United Methodism followed Wesley’s example in 1789 and pressed on the gathered preachers to affirm, embrace, and proclaim again this peculiar doctrine and all it entails.

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.

Does British Methodism have a point?

A look at the history and contemporary significance of Methodism in Britain.

A podcast from the BBC.

Part of the problem might be that the contemporary Methodist interviewed in the podcast reframes “you are saved” as “you count.”

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.