What’s after the crossroads?

What happens when the Council of Bishops does not act?

That was my first question upon reading the Methodist Crossroads web site with its call for for the following actions at and after the Council of Bishops’ fall meeting:

  • The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
  •  A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
  •  A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
  •  A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
  •  A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.

Given the membership of the Council of Bishops, I cannot imagine the body will satisfy the desires of those who wrote and endorse the Integrity and Unity statement.

In the FAQ on the website, the authors propose the following if the Council of Bishops fails to act on its request:

If the Council is not able to restore unity with integrity, then we believe the healthy and mature response is to admit we are so deeply divided we are no longer one church. And the church would do well to seriously explore the option of amicable separation. Again, we hope it does not come to this. But no one believes it would be productive to continue an unresolvable debate that hurts feelings, damages persons made in the image of God, and fosters cynicism throughout the church. It would be better for us to honestly admit we are no longer united. Remaining together would only sow confusion and undermine our witness and ministry to the world.

Lambrecht: We have seen the future

Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.

Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality.  Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.

In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members.  Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%.  The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years.  So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.

Worship attendance was even worse.  In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance.  Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%.  In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop!  The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.

This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.

Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We already have a local option

One of the things that rang most true to me in reading Adam Hamilton’s explanation of the document he helped draft, A Way Forward, was his observation that we already do many of the things the document calls for.

Cabinets already make appointments to churches based on the fit between congregations and pastors on theological issues. We already ordain clergy regardless of whether they observe the standards of sexual practice we set for them. We already have clergy conducting wedding services that violate the language of the Book of Discipline. Depending on who you are, where you live, and who your cabinet is we have different sets of rules, norms, and practices that more and more turn a blind eye to the words of our Discipline.

This truth was underscored for me this week when I read of the appointment of Amy DeLong to a church in Wisconsin and the upcoming celebration at the church to welcome Rev. DeLong and her partner Val Zellmer to their new parsonage home.

We already have a local option.

The question is whether we want to endorse and ratify it as Hamilton suggests or try to roll it back. Given those to options, I understand why some are talking about leaving.


On proposals to split the denomination

Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right. But it must also be understood, I think, that the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.

– Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage”

I’ve been waiting for Ben Witherinton III to finish his four-part response to retired Bishop Richard Sano’s call for what he and others in the United Methodist Church call biblical obedience.

Here are Witherington’s responses.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

In the last part, Witherington makes his case for a split in the UMC. He ends his final post this way:

So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In the piece, Witherington uses the analogy of marriage and divorce, and in all these controversies I do find myself reflecting on the nature of marriage vows. I ask myself in grief how people can break their vows of covenant while presiding over the vows of marriage.

But I also hear myself talking about the way marriage is treated in our country and culture. Marriage, we are told by the courts of law, is a contract entered into for mutual benefit and terminated at the whim of those who entered into it. That may be the secular meaning of marriage, but that definition of marriage has nothing to do with God.

Christian marriage is a lifelong bond that is not intended to be ever broken. The vow to love until death does not include small print that says “unless we get sick of each other.” Yes, Christians divorce, but only because we are fallen and hard-hearted people. It is always a tragedy. Divorce, Wendell Berry wrote, is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its possible outcomes.

And so, I find myself unable to suggest divorce as a solution to our crisis in the United Methodist Church. Not over this question. Even though we’ve had — and likely will have — some fights that damage the walls and break lamps.

I am sick of the fighting. I am outraged by the politics of it all. I am heart sick over the name calling and the distrust that runs deep in our connection. I believe some of my brothers and sisters are teaching doctrines that imperil the happiness and salvation of souls. That for many is a reason to break fellowship. I understand why people feel this way, and I worry that perhaps there is some hypocrisy in me that I am not ready to join the ones calling for a split.

I don’t have a good response to that charge. I guess, in the end, I hope and trust that God will overcome the mistakes of human beings. In end, I am too aware of my own flaws and failures to eliminate the possibility that I am wrong. In the end, I am holding out hope that there is a coherent, biblical response that neither denigrates scripture nor forgets that mercy triumphs over judgement.

I pray that God makes right what I have done wrong in my ministry and has mercy on my mistakes and my failures. If I pray that God will do that for me, then I feel I must pray he will do the same for those with whom I disagree on these questions.

There are lines I could not cross. There are matters that amount to theological adultery. If the UMC became Unitarian Universalist, I would leave. But when I read Witherington’s call for a split, I find I am not ready to go where he summons. Maybe that is cowardice. Maybe it is hope. I cannot say. All I can report is this:

I’m not ready for divorce.

Are we queering the Body of Christ?

Dialogue and conversation about sexual ethics is the order of the day, according to United Methodist Bishop Martin McLee.

So, please help me understand a couple things I’ve been reading in recent weeks. And I am asking this as a legitimate question. Imagine, for a moment, that I’m a member of your congregation who came in after reading some of this online. I am confused by it and want your pastoral help in understanding how it fits with the things I’m hearing in United Methodist publications, web sites, and blogs.

To give you a sense of the challenge here, I grew up at a time when the word “queer” was considered offensive and certainly not one you would use to describe someone else. So consider me one of those ancient members of the congregation who does not understand why we can’t read Psalm 23 in the King James translation.

I’ve come into your office. I’ve shared some things I’ve read. I don’t understand them and want to know if the church is teaching these things now.

Here are the tattered pages I pull out of the folder I brought with me.

First, there was this exchange in Tony Jones’ blog comment section.

Jones wrote a blog post praising the decision of his local newspaper to run a picture of two men kissing on its front page. His post centered on his 9-year-old son’s response to the picture as no big deal. He declared it a sign of progress as a new normal emerges in our culture.

One of his commenters was not so enthusiastic. (I’ve inserted links to some of the meanings of the terms for those who are not familiar with them.)

Queer sexuality is far, far from culturally normative. It remains heavily marginalised while a sanitized homonormativity is both pushed by advocacy groups controlled by the privileged within the queer community (primarily white cis gay men but, to a lesser extent, white cis lesbians) and appropriated (not to mention exploited) by non-queer media (like this newspaper, using a ‘provocative’ image of two white men kissing to sell papers). Queers who cannot or will not conform to homonormativity, such as bisexuals, queers of colours, and trans* individuals, continue to be marginalised and oppressed, the nonchalance of 9-year-olds at homonormativity notwithstanding. Homonormativity being all-but-synonymous with assimilationism, its victory is a victory for queers whose bodies and lifestyles conforms to heterosexist norms. Your sons response represents progress for the queer community, not the end of our structural marginalisation and not cultural normativity for the lived experience of the majority of queers.

The person who wrote the comment on Tony Jones’ blog appears to be arguing that no line can be drawn when it comes to sexual ethics. To argue on behalf of lifelong, committed relationships between two men is — in this eyes of this commenter and apparently some others — to advocate for an oppressive homonormativity that is little better than the Christian doctrine that people are trying to dismantle.

Jones for his part sought to reassure his commenter that more progress would be made:

Matthew, of course I’m not saying that all is now well for the progressive vision of our cultural future, nor am I saying that no one is marginalized, nor am I saying that all of our problems are solved, nor am I saying that we should stop fighting for equality. I am simply saying that we’ve come a long way, and this newpaper is a cultural touchstone.

To which, the commenter replied:

I’m not denying the progress, just seeking to add that it’s relative. There’s been more progress for those whose queerness can conform to homonormative norms, white, cisgender gay men and women in monogamous, two-persons, (upper) middle class relationships, than those who queerness does or cannot. For those of us in the latter category, seeing acceptance of homonormativity touted as victories for us all reinforces our own peripheral or even outsider status in the mainstream LGBT movement and community.

So, this leaves me confused.

What I hear argued in our denomination is that we should not discriminate against loving, committed, monogamous relationships. So is that the final point in this process of evolving doctrine, or do we go to the next step demanded by this person on Jones’ blog? If not, why not?

These questions continued yesterday when I started getting posts on my Twitter feed out of a Progressive Youth Ministry conference. I went searching the hashtag #pym14 and found some of the following tweets from conference attendees. (Please note: I am not offering these as a representative sample, but as ones that confused me or raised questions that I do not know how to answer.)

Since I do not understand what queer theology is, I did what every 21st century person does. I Googled it. Here are the top responses: Wikipedia, a dedicated web site complete with queer lectionary reflections, what looks like an undergraduate paper on the topic, a book called Radical Love, and a Huffington Post article tag.

I did not buy the book, but did read much of the other material. I have a better understanding of what queer theology is, but I am not clear whether it is informing our debates in the UMC.

So, again, help me out. In this process of dialogue in our denomination, are people trying to move us toward a “queering” of the body of Christ? Or is there some other end point? And what does it mean to queer the Body of Christ? Specifically what are people arguing on behalf of? And if they are not arguing for that, why not? What are the doctrinal and theological resources that argue for some movement in this direction but not total movement? Or is what people are arguing for not indebted to queer theology? What is the shape of our teaching on sexual ethics that advocates for change envision? And what is the basis for that revised doctrine?

I’ve e-mailed Bishop Talbert and others about these questions in the past. So far, I’ve gotten little help in understanding these things that confuse me.

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.