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.


13 thoughts on “Cicero and the fall of the UMC

  1. John,

    Thank you for providing helpful framing for the rhetorical challenges we are facing, as well as the rhetorical obstacles we are placing in each other’s way.

    Let me suggest that as General Conference is currently constituted, it is incapable of carrying on the conversation/debate which you indicate it truly must– at least it is incapable of doing so without others having actually traversed that ground first and having reached a fairly firm consensus.

    This is because the very rhetorical (and political) structure of General Conference as a deliberative body has shifted from conferencing– which is the sort of thing that would actually be required– to legislating. This means the very frame of the conversation possible at General Conference is about the exercise of power and influence to determine the outcomes on any particular position that may be up for legislative decision. General Conference is thus understood to accomplish nothing apart from the legislation it enacts.

    It is no simple matter to change this. When a given GC is expected to take some kind of action on over 1000 legislative items in ten days of meetings, GC is given little time to do much of anything else. A meeting with this sort of pressure to take legislative action simply cannot undertake the kind of conferencing you rightly suggest is actually needed. There is no time nor tolerance to creating time for such an endeavor. And the mindsets of those who attend are so thoroughly committed to the legislative work (the exercise of naked power, we might say) that they cannot easily be diverted to this very different kind of work, nor are there any rewards of any kind to incentivize that.

    What is needed is a different kind of General Conference gathering altogether– one entirely dedicated to conferencing, and not at all to legislating in the first place. I’ve suggested on more than one occasion to members of the General Conference Commission that we introduce legislation to alter the way we do General Conferences into two distinct types of gatherings. One quadrennium would be legislative, as it is now. The next would be focused on actual conferencing over a similar period of time, and to conferencing on perhaps only 3-4 issues of significance facing the church as a whole over those days. The Conferencing GCs would not issue any legislation, but only a report about common ground reached on the significant issues under consideration, with indications of further work to be done legislatively or by other means on those particular issues at the succeeding Legislative GC or through other channels.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  2. Excellent thoughts, John. I appreciate the questions that you identify needing to be discussed. I would say that we at Good News have tried to enter into rational discourse over the question of the church’s ministry with homosexuals. Some in the debate (aided at times by UM and other media) disqualify rational discourse in favor of “testimonies” of personal “experience.” Experience is important, but it is only one leg of the stool upon which our understanding of Scripture rests. Thanks for reemphasizing the role of reason in attempting to arrive at a resolution of this question.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I know I am prone to over-intellectualize things — while at the same time being an amateur theologian — but it is part of what I have to contribute to the life of the church. So I try to offer it just as others try to bring their particular gifts.

  3. a view from the pew: David Watson went at it from a little bit different angle:

    ” If I’m correct that we need sound Christian doctrine to go about the work of developing sound Christian ethics, then it is no wonder that we in the UMC find ourselves in a multi-car pileup that has stopped traffic for miles around. For decades we have touted the virtues of theological diversity without stipulating clearly the limits of such diversity. Are UMC pastors allowed to reject the doctrine of the Trinity? Are we allowed to preach in our churches that Jesus was a good teacher, but not in the incarnate God? Are we allowed to teach some form of biblical inerrancy? May we adopt in our teaching and preaching the neo-Calvinistic teachings of people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll? We have tacitly embraced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has resulted in not only doctrinal relativism, but in our inability to make informed ethical decisions as a body…
    I know that some will say that we just need to read the Bible more closely, pay attention to its words, and be obedient to its teaching. Yes, we need to do all of these things, but doing so will not solve our theological and ethical disputes. We can be utterly committed to scripture, but still have different interpretive presuppositions and methods that will result in divergent conclusions about what scripture says and how we should follow its teachings. To provide a historical example, Arius wasn’t saying the Bible was wrong about Jesus. He was saying that his opponents interpreted scripture incorrectly. The witness of scripture is broad and often variegated. Scripture is complex. The Reformation notions of the perspicuity of scripture (its clarity) and its autopistic nature (that it is self-authenticating) have proven over time to be wrong. For the life of the church, we must read scripture in dialogue with a body of doctrine handed on to us through the Great Tradition of Christianity.” David F. Watson, “Getting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart”, David Watson: Musings and Whatnots, June 13, 2014; Response to Timothy Tennent’s “Orthodoxy vs Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in The United Methodist Church”, May 5, 2014

    As for as needing a special GC to help settle the matter, maybe I am being too simplistic, but why does nobody ask if the matter has already been settled. It is not unusual for humans to uses specified processes (the apostles rolling the dice to determine Judas’ replacement) to determine God’s will in a matter. Out of the bedlam and mayhem of GC a single answer has continually surfaced, not once, but TEN times over FORTY years. How is this not meaningful? How would coming up with the opposite answer once all of a sudden make that the right answer? What I see is a church who does not trust God to work through its processes.

    1. David, I appreciate your thoughts. How is United working to change this multi-car pile up? How is the school uniquely teaching UM Theology, History, Polity etc? How are the faculty and staff working to set things right?
      On your closing thought has the matter already been settled? I would ask how does one then lead a new understanding? Must any thing new be agreed upon to be right? How is one to be open to the Creator God who is never changing/ever changing?

      grace and peace, Duane

  4. Part of the problem is that too often all of the aspects of the issue are mixed together. It is one part to talk about “contrary to Christian teaching.” Unfortunately, I know that I do more than one thing every day that is “contrary to Christian teaching.” But, the debate over the Social Principles is very destructive.

    Another aspect is same-sex marriage ceremonies. We do not allow for a second baptism. We set those rules at General Conference. Raucous demonstrations is not the same as “reasoning together.”

    The final aspect is gay ordination. We have a number of ordained clergy who are gay and wish to serve openly without sacrificing any of their privileges and benefits including guaranteed appointment. This is the one that has the potential to split the denomination wide open. There is no “middle way” that is going to work. One of the reasons for that is that there are more clergy on “Side A” than there are churches with a pulpit available for “Side A” clergy. How does that get resolved while we have guaranteed appointment other than bishops telling the church that they have to accept it?

    Additionally, we have the occurrences where “tolerance” only goes in one direction. So, the New England Annual Conference is looking for a different conference site since the college wanted a religious exemption.

    1. What’s truly amazing about the New England Annual Conference looking for another site is that the college that’s been hosting them hasn’t actually asked to be exempted from anything. Rather, the college was one of many signatories to a letter requesting that executive orders issued by the Obama Administration would exempt from anti-discrimination provisions those faith-based institutions that receive federal social-service funding when those provisions conflict with doctrinal teachings or matters of religious conscience, as stipulated in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Instead of celebrating the college’s stand against the continual intrusion of the State into matters of religious conscience, many New England clergy and lay members seem to be so supportive of current Administration policies that they’ll gladly turn over such power and authority to the State that may haunt them in the future.

  5. The time for temporizing has past. Most of us have chosen whom we will serve. It’s too late for illusions of agreement that compromises the traditional biblical morality we have all vowed to teach and defend. And renaming sin just won’t do.

    1. I hope my argument did not come across as advocating renaming sin. What I want is to do is vindicate or hold on to our polity in the midst of trying to work through this crisis. I want us to hold on to our doctrine, be able to defend it rationally, and strengthen rather than undermine our polity in doing so.

      1. I truly appreciate the tension between putting across reasoned arguments while maintaining the tradition we have been credentialed to teach and defend. You remind us this can be done well. Some have not mastered Billy’s argument, however, that our conciliar moment has arrived. They still argue for a special General Conference to iron out differences that will not flatten out. (You are not one of them.) Sadly, our generation may die in the wilderness.

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