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.

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?

That Wesley guy wasn’t kidding around

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”

– John Wesley, The Marks of the New Birth

It was one of the first things that hit me between the eyes when reading John Wesley’s works the first time: The man was not playing around. His faith was not a nice little thing he kept off to the side. It was all consuming and it was serious. He also was not out to win friends.

It made me say ‘whoa’

From John Wesley’s journal August 10, 1788:

I was engaged in a very unpleasing work, the discharge of an old servant. She had been my housekeeper at West-Street for many years, and was one of the best housekeepers I had had there; but her husband was so notorious a drunkard, that I could not keep them in the house any longer. She received her dismission in an excellent spirit, praying God to bless us all.

Of all the things I’ve read in Wesley’s journals and other works, this is one of the hardest ones for me to swallow. To put this woman and her husband out of his house must surely have meant she would soon be near starvation. Her notorious drunkard husband surely would not be caring for her or earning money to buy them food. I infer from the wording that Wesley had tried to avoid taking this step for a time.

This summer, I’ve seen up close in CPE the carnage inflicted on families by drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen families forced to say to their sons and daughters that they cannot come home if they can’t get clean. So, I understand this aspect of it.

The short entry in Wesley’s journal reminds me that discipleship in the flesh is often not nearly so sanitary as the intellectual exercises in which bloggers, authors, and scholars so often engage.

The key question we can’t answer

Simon Sinek’s talk and book about the importance of starting with the question “why?” has a lot of fans and followers.

At the heart of his argument is the claim that very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. They don’t know their purpose or their reasoning for being.

Here’s the video if want more than my brief summary:

If Sinek is correct, it helps explain why the United Methodist Church’s mission and marketing slogans seem so uninspiring.

“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This operates more of less on the level of what we do and how we do it, perhaps getting to why at the end. The why, it turns out, is to transform this world, although we hide that part at the end.

Or how about: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

That is a “how” statement, if I understand Sinek’s categories properly. Maybe it is a “what” statement. What I know for sure is that it does not tell us “why” we do what we do.

Here is my understanding of how John Wesley thought about and talked about what he was doing.

His purpose was to show people the way to happiness in eternity. Everything he did was motivated by the belief that each one of us is hanging over a great gulf and we will either fall into an eternity of pain and suffering and darkness or land on a happy shore of joy, peace, and light.

If you want to know the way to that shore, Wesley said, I can show you the way that the Bible teaches to arrive there. And here is the best news. It is not only something you arrive at after you die. You can taste it right now. You can see, feel, and experience today. It starts in this life.

Do you want to know how?

I don’t think I could point to any single place where Wesley put it precisely this way, but I don’t think this is an unfair example of how Wesley would explain the “why” of what he did. And — to Sinek’s point — I believe the “why” was always forefront in Wesley’s mind and actions.

I don’t think we today in United Methodism can begin to answer the why question — why do we do what we do — in any coherent or uniform way. And I don’t believe we really are aware of that. We can talk a good game about what we do. We have lots of support for how to be a United Methodist. All our metrics about “vital congregations” tell us what thriving churches do and offer some theories about how those actions create vitality, but we rarely talk about why any of that matters to anyone else. How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?”

Do you see an answer to this “why” question in United Methodism today that I am missing?

O Captain! My Wesley!

On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.

The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*

As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.

I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.

Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.

For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.

As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.


*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.