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.

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6 thoughts on “A commitment to holy advocacy

  1. The Benedictine Vow of Stability comes to mind.

    http://blog.adw.org/2012/07/a-reflection-on-the-benedictine-vow-of-stability/

    I know in my own local Methodist Church there are lots of conservative folks who would be appalled at my social and political views, but I’m confident of their love, and I pray I return it.
    If there can’t be a truce, peace and love in church, where can there be one?

    Differences, but a family. We know it would be wrong to turn our backs on one another.

  2. Are we now saying we are willing to ignore what is actually happening? The solemn actions of the General Conference are being subverted through both disobedience and deceitful coordination. We should call this out. Let’s not paint ourselves into a corner by declaring our loyalty to a temporal “United Methodist Church” to be above reconsideration. In my conference they beat the drum for unity and quote Wesley tendentiously; but meanwhile they subvert the very church they claim to support.

    1. That is not what I’m trying to say, Gary. Sorry if it comes across that way. I don’t think we ignore anything, but the end state I am aiming at is one that actually preserves what God has created by raising up the UMC. I think to speak as if the UMC is a purely human construction is to ignore the work of God in raising up this church in the first place.

      Now, if God decides to put us down, he can do that. But so long as God sees fit to keep us around, I want us to be the church we are. So, no, I don’t want to ignore people ignoring and breaching our polity. I want — in fact — the opposite. But I don’t think we’ll ever get that if the default argument is “he hit me” and “he hit me first.”

      1. John, not being combative here but pushing a little…because I wonder what your tipping point might be. Do you not agree with Billy that we have reached our own crisis of coherence as church in continuity with the Great Tradition?

        1. I don’t take it as combative at all. I think I’m with Billy of Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia. We have the resources we need if we will reaffirm them. I think his critique of where we are is probably much better informed than my vantage point, but I still believe the God raised up our church and God can sustain it if we will be faithful to him. That may be naive given the people who don’t have any desire to remain faithful, but it is my hope.

  3. “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.”

    Clearly a flawed assumption since we have members who are unwilling to support our doctrine and are encouraging outright disobedience. If this is what Methodism rest upon then we have built our house on sand. If our doctrine changes to something I do not like I will have to decide if I should live with it, stay and work to change it, or leave. I see these as my only ethical choices. If Methodism deconstructs to a Congregationalist model I might be able to live with that since I could probably find a local church that I feel comfortable in. I will most likely modify my pledge to local only activities.

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