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?

For the love of the game

I’ve often thought that our trust issues in United Methodism would be helped with more public thinking by the men and women charged with leading our denomination.

This is why I have always valued Sky McCraken’s blog.

His latest post is a spot on example: A Pastor By Any Other Name — Revisited

The question that emerges for me after reading his post goes something like this: Would I be a pastor if there was no salary, no insurance, and no retirement plan? Would I do it because I was called and for no other reason?

If the answer is yes, then what would that look like?

The answer to my first two questions is “yes.” But I’m not sure what the answer to the third question would could be.

I wonder how you would answer.

Five things United Methodists say about the Bible

David Watson discusses the mainline Protestant tendency to say more about what we don’t believe about the Bible than what we do believe.

He ends his post with five statements he drew from the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church:

1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.

2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.

3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.

4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.

4. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.

5. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.

My postmodern friends, I suspect, will object to some of these statements because they suggest that scripture has a meaning independent of the community of interpretation.

To address those kinds of objections, I find I need to talk about revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we ground those statements — or at least I try to — on scripture. So, there is a certain circularity in my argument that I do not see how I can avoid.

In the end, I find that I adopt the attitude that scripture is something we receive as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and in light of that attitude of reception I embrace the five statements that Watson offers above.

At the local crossroads of connectional quandry

I’ve been engaged on a low-level for a while with the choices offered United Methodism by two groups within the church.

On the one hand we have a group offering a local option that would allow churches and conferences decide whether to ordain people who engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex and whether to perform weddings for couples of the same sex.

On the other hand are a group calling for an assertion of church discipline and laying the groundwork for an orderly or disorderly separation within United Methodism. That is probably not how that group would describe their goals, but that is the only endgame I see.

There are other plans and suggestions out there, of course. The dean of my seminary is co-author of one plan. My bishop is author of another idea. There are others I am not listing and do not know about.

All of these plans fill me with a sense of hope and despair. I am hopeful because so many people with such passion, experience, and wisdom are trying as hard as they can to find a way forward for United Methodism that does not shatter the church. I despair, though, because this entire crisis exposes the weakness of our polity and perhaps even our model of being the church. Perhaps we would be better off to sell off everything and start over from scratch.

I have not worked out for myself where I would fall if given supreme power to decide a solution for this crisis. But I do have some thoughts and observations that I fully admit are not well formed or even non-contradictory.

1) In a speech to evangelical leaders in Atlanta, theologian Billy Abraham distanced himself from the label “politician,” while hanging that name on the leaders of the local option. The unwillingness to understand the issues before the church as deeply political is a mistake. It is also ironic for Abraham to disclaim the title politician while giving a political speech at a political gathering. I think it is mistake for we in the church to treat politics like some kind of unclean activity we must shun. Forming a kingdom people is political to the core and shying away from that truth is to cede the contest to those who understand this.

2) I wonder if evangelical churches, which have often have tried to keep the larger connection at arms length, are handicapped by their focus on the local. The very energy that has made them effective also cuts them off from influence and networks of good-will across the connection. These have to be built outside the connection rather than through it. I wonder if some evangelical leaders have done such a good job of insulating their congregations from the influence of the larger connection that they now find it hard to create leverage within it. (This is really more a question than an observation, as I am not that well informed on this topic.)

3) The local option plan bears a heavy imprint from Adam Hamilton’s writing style. I don’t know the drafting process, but I’ve read enough of his books to recognize many of his turns of phrase and points of emphasis. I with only half-seriousness suggested a few years ago that we elect Hamilton as a bishop. I wonder if he is demonstrating in practical ways that he is a bishop of the church, just without the purple cloth.

4) The local option plan puts a lot of emphasis on the church being intellectually credible. It turns to this kind of concern multiple times. I’m wary of this as a major point of emphasis because in it appears to me to often work against obedience to Christ. What goes under the name of concern with being credible to “thinking Christians” often ends up being nothing more than rationalization for disobedience. In this vein, I think the way the local option plan describes the General Rules in our Book of Discipline is illuminating:

We find helpful those guidelines we call the General Rules: Refrain from evil, do all the good you can, and do those things which help you grow in love for God.

Notice here how the “Rules” are relabeled “guidelines” and praised because they are “helpful.” The third general rule — practice the ordinances of God — is reframed as doing those things that help us. My observation is that we are often poor judges of what will help us. I’m not arguing for fundamentalism here. I believe God gave us brains for a reason. But I do worry about being too enamored with being credible to the intellectual prejudices of our culture. It seems such concern often substitutes what we call “reason” — but often just seems like current popular opinion — for revelation.

5) In all this turmoil, I am constantly reminded of General Conference 2012. I remember all the lead up to the conference and all the talk about vast changes that would be implemented. I remember many of the same players working hard for the years leading up and a sense — at least on my part — that something significant would happen. Then the meat-grinder of General Conference happened and the Judicial Council vetoed what was approved. I want to believe the conference process in 2016 will be the start of a resolution to this crisis. But I find it hard to be hopeful that it will.

As I say, none of this is very organized. It is merely where I am as I wrestle with the issues and developments.

I recall in the midst of all this something John Wesley once wrote. He said we should gauge every action we contemplate by the twin questions of what will allow us to do the most good and to be the most holy.

I am trying to figure out the answer to those questions in the midst of the current connectional crisis. As I do, I notice that neither Wesley nor Jesus included “be the most comfortable” in their guide to action.