The inescapable debate

This showed up in my e-mail. I assume it was copied to me because it quotes my blog.

Foundry United Methodist Church agree-to-disagree resolution.

I will not comment on this, but since my blog is somehow connected to it, I wanted to share it here if — for no other reason — to note my own historical role in this debate.

Blackballing Eddie Fox a horrible idea

Someone needs to explain this to me. I really don’t understand.

United Methodists are protesting the decision of Candler School of Theology to honor Eddie Fox as a distinguished alumnus. Here are three blog posts about it: 1, 2, 3.

I understand that people disagree with the UMC’s teaching and law on human sexuality. But do people really believe Fox should be shunned because he supports the Book of Discipline? Are people really standing up with protest signs because he honors his vows of ordination?

By any definition, he is a distinguished United Methodist. You don’t have to embrace everything he believes to acknowledge that. You just have to be willing to be the least bit fair minded.

Blackballing him for being a United Methodist is a horrible idea.

The house will stop burning on its own eventually

I’ve been following the goings on at the Reconciling Ministries ChurchQuake event only sporadically as folks I follow on Twitter have posted things. And even then only off and on.

But this Tweet caught my attention and would not let go.

I’ve been trying to think through the implications of this statement.

On the one hand, I am the last person to defend the Book of Discipline as something that every local church can or should follow to the letter. To enact every program and host every special Sunday and engage in every activity envisioned by the Book of Discipline would be impractical and would undermine the actual mission of local churches. No one is a Book of Discipline purist.

But isn’t it nearly an abrogation of the office of bishop to make it the center of a movement to ignore and void the Book of Discipline? Bishops, after all, exist for the purpose of protecting the doctrine and discipline of the church. That is why you have bishops in the first place.

If bishops really believe the Book of Discipline is perpetrating evil, why did they seek the office in the first place? Bishops don’t get a vote at General Conference — the only body that can change our doctrine and discipline. If you think we are advocating evil, wouldn’t it be better to run for election to General Conference where you can constitutionally do something about it?

For all its faults, the Book of Discipline is our church’s collective statement about what the Lord requires of us. It is produced by humans so is surely flawed in many ways, but having bishops praised for refusing to enforce the Book of Discipline is a bit like praising fire fighters for refusing to put out fires.

Am I ignoring the earthquake?

A woman stood in her ramshackle hut polishing a brass lamp with a rag, working hard as she could to clean it to a brilliant shine. The only odd thing about this was that her house stood in the midst of ruins. An earthquake had shattered the street itself and brought down houses and shops on every side of her. That her little hovel had somehow stood was remarkable, but cleaning the brass missed the greater calamity.

This little parable comes to mind when I read this post by Ron Belgau.

I had an exchange not long ago with Dean Snyder seeking to understand how his arguments about gay marriage are materially different from the arguments of polygamists. We did not really come to a mutual understanding.

But today I am reminded by Belgau’s post that it is not wise to narrow our attention to only the most pressing issue of the day.

We should look around the neighborhood, as well. We should look because the advocates who shed tears and sometimes hurl names at the church have often correctly noticed that our denomination appears to have come to terms with all manner of heterosexual sexual behaviors that Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets did not appear all too happy about.

People who point out these inconsistencies, of course, rarely are advocating that we as a church go back and strive for biblical standards in these areas. The message is more often: “Hey, you are giving the fornicators an easy time. You don’t say much when a man divorces his wife and abandons his kids because he’s gotten tired of being married. Why not treat others the same way?”

For me, at least, this is an important question to deal with. I have more than once asked someone who is advocating for change in the United Methodist Church’s social principles and law to share with me their holistic theology regarding sex. Don’t tell me merely why you think this provision in the Book of Discipline is wrong. Help me understand how your theology speaks to our sex-crazed culture.

It is only fair, of course, to turn that question on myself. Does the status quo of United Methodist teaching on sexuality provide an orthodox and holistic theology about sex? Does it witness to the ills of our world with a gospel answer? Does it speak in a comprehensive way, or is it a divided witness that has already been compromised by accommodation to heterosexual practices that have no basis in Christian holiness? If our only interest was in heterosexual sexual behavior and attitudes, does the current official witness of the church reflect sound Christian theology?

What do you think?

Enforcing Book of Discipline a chargeable offense?

If I read my Twitter feed properly, the Desert Southwest Annual Conference passed a resolution calling on clergy to defy the  United Methodist Church’s laws against conducting same-sex wedding ceremonies.

In the resolution as written but not as passed (I’m not sure as passed) the conference announced that anyone who brings charges against a clergy member for violating the Book of Discipline will themselves be subject to charges.

RESOLVED, that if such charges are brought, that the Desert Southwest Annual Conference and the United Methodist Churches of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference, Clergy and Laity will view this act (of charging another clergy for these reasons) as a Chargeable Offense per Book of Discipline Paragraph 2702 (f) relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor; (j) harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment; or (k) racial or gender discrimination.

To my reading, the resolution is saying not only that it will ignore that Book of Discipline but also that anyone who attempts to invoke the Book of Discipline will be subject to sanctions by the conference, which presumably means a clergy member could be stripped of his or her ordination for seeking to uphold the Book of Discipline.


Rob Rynders told me a tweet that this paragraph was struck by the Annual Conference before it passed. I’m glad to learn that, although the inclusion of this resolution at all seems like a bad omen for the future.

Here is the resolution that was adopted and subsequently sent to the bishop for a ruling of law.

Four corners offense

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has provided the church with an example of theological argumentation using the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. He is a potentially instructive example of how to use the Quad since he helped write the portion of our Book of Discipline that discusses our theological task in the United Methodist Church.

As one who is trying to understand what it means to be a United Methodist, I thought I would follow along with his argument to try to learn his method. (I wrote about the less logic/argument aspects of this issue in a post published yesterday.)

He begins with a nod to John Wesley while making reference to the section of the Book of Discipline that Ogletree helped write.

Drawing upon John Wesley’s teachings, this section emphasizes the priority of biblical authority, and it underscores as well the indispensable roles of tradition, reason, and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness.  These principles are clearly incompatible with attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by “proof texting,” i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts that allegedly provide definitive resolutions of particular issues. he self-conscious inclusion of tradition, reason, and experience in our critical engagements with biblical resources actually deepens our discernment of the profound, life-transforming promises of the gospel message.

Here we see all four parts of the Quad: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Sadly, though, despite his mention of the priority of the biblical witness, he provides no further biblical references in developing his argument. He warns of the hazards of proof-texting and then moves on to tradition. This is a curious way to make something a priority.

In tradition, he finds positive and negative materials. On the negative side, he finds a “tradition” of unjust practices in the Methodist and United Methodist churches.

I am deeply grateful, moreover, for the opening section of The Book of Discipline, which reminds us of serious flaws and shortcomings manifest in the larger history of Methodism.  Shortcomings specifically listed include our previous accommodation of racial segregation by establishing a race-based Central Jurisdiction, and our extended denial of ordination rights and prominent leadership roles for women.   These unjust practices were by no means easily addressed or overcome.  Indeed, the struggles to eliminate them generated serious conflicts within the church, conflicts that were only resolved by persistent efforts to press for more just and inclusive church practices.

On the positive side, he finds statements in the church’s Social Principles that he feels endorse the position he is arguing on behalf of.

Equally important is the Disciplinary discussion of human rights as central to the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church (Part IV).  This text strongly endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with emphasis on respect for the inherent dignity of all persons.  Explicitly cited are the full rights of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; and the rights of children, young people, the aging, women, men, immigrants, and persons with disabilities.  The list concludes by declaring the full human rights of all persons without regard to their sexual orientations, a reference that suggests rational and experiential grounds for endorsing the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

From what I can gather by reading this argument, “tradition” for Ogletree is a form of history. This seems to comport with the discussion of “Tradition” in the Book of Discipline, which says in part:

The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life. Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christians live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.

So, a user of the Quad should be on the look out for stories and histories from the church that have some bearing on the issue at hand. Unfortunately, Olgetree’s goal in the example under consideration is polemical rather than constructive, so he appears not to look for or take into consideration stories or examples from Christian history that do not support his line of argument.

With tradition mined for its resources, he moves on to reason.

Reason dictates that we take account of the evolution of scientific and legal understandings, which now recognize that variations in sexual orientation are a natural feature of human life.  The denial of civil rights, including marriage rights, to gays and lesbians is, therefore, a violation of our Constitution.  While we await the Supreme Court’s ruling on these rights, we should acknowledge as United Methodists that unprecedented numbers of leaders from other religious communities, along with significant portions of our major political parties, and virtually all of the nation’s largest corporations now embrace marriage equality.

I must confess I find his use of secular politics and legal issues confusing in the midst of an argument that is framed as theological. I was not aware that “our Constitution” was a theological resource. Perhaps the mention of the United States Constitution in Article XXIII of our Articles of Religion grants it a place in theological reflection that I had missed before. Neither was it clear to me before that the practices of America’s largest corporations were useful tools in deciphering the meaning of Scripture.

That is an interesting thought. I wonder how widely that move will be invoked by other United Methodists seeking to apply reason to tricky theological issues: General Motors and Wal-Mart as theological guides.

Having given reason its day, Ogletree turns to experience — the most distinctly Wesleyan contribution to the Quad that bears his name.

Experience teachers us, moreover, that people with gay and lesbian orientations are as fully capable of living mature and socially responsible human lives as heterosexuals.

And here we come to the most disarming of all of Ogletree’s moves. If I read him properly, he is equating being a mature and socially responsible person with being a good Christian. So, to extrapolate, are we saying that any behavior that coincides with mature and socially responsible lives must be compatible with Christianity?

What about mature and socially responsible Muslims? Are they good Christians because they are mature and socially responsible? What about atheists who do good works?

Ogletree seems to miss the obvious point that there are millions of nice, decent, responsible people in the world who are not one bit Christian. Ogletree seems to be confusing “being a good person” with “being a Christian,” a mistake that is common among the laity, but surprising in an academic of Ogletree’s stature. His use of experience does not appear terribly subtle or sensitive to the theological issues at play in this case.

In the end, I was disappointed to discover that I did not get a lot of guidance on the proper use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral from Ogletree’s argument. What I come away with is the impression that it is little more than a tool to help you dig up arguments that support positions you already hold, rather than a tool for serious theological inquiry.

Ogletree’s purpose appears to be polemical, though, so it is probably unfair of me to seek careful theological inquiry. Given Ogletree’s standing in the church, I hope it is not wrong to hope for that.

A traditional complaint about the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is people who use it are too prone to use it to dismiss materials and resources that do not support the conclusions they want to reach. Critics say that instead of using the Quad to help interpret, apply, and extend the revelation of Scripture, people use it to confirm their own theology.

This case certainly appears to confirm that criticism.