With apologies to Wayne and Garth

I have been thinking about how to best pray for the United Methodist Church in this time of trouble an internal dissension.

In the days of the early Methodist movement, John Wesley often had to respond to those who wanted the Methodists to break off from the Church of England. Our movement began within the Church of England and Wesley intended to stay. The American revolution and Wesley’s death defeated his intentions, but during his life he never wavered from his argument that Methodists should remain in the Church of England and attend its worship and receive its sacraments even when the local parish priests were hostile to Methodists and Methodist doctrine.

In the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, Wesley replied to those who thought Methodists should become Dissenters from the Church of England, and thus separate from it. Some even said Methodists already were Dissenters in practice if not in name. Wesley would have none of such talk.

Although we call sinners to repentance in all places of God’s dominion: and although we frequently use extemporary prayer, and unite together in a religious society; yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense that our law acknowledges, namely, those who renounce the service of the Church. We do not, we dare not, separate from it. We are not Seceders, nor do we bear and resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles.

Here is how Wesley contrasted those who sought to break unity with the Church of England from Methodists, who sought to renew it.

The Seceders laid the very foundation of their work in judging and condemning others: We laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They begin everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and Ministers are: We begin everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves…. We will keep the good old way.

Our moment is much different from Wesley’s. This is not the 18th century. Our church is not the Church of England. The particulars of the two situations bear little resemblance, but I do wonder if some of the “good old way” is in order as we let bishops deliberate and commissions study and the General Conference act.

Even as I write this, I sense my own internal push back.

But “they” have done this terrible thing. But they will not stop until they get their way. But someone has to stop the evil being done by those people. If we do not stand firm, they will win.

I don’t deny any of those reactions as valid.

I just wonder, this morning, whether we have more room or more need for the “good old way” of judging and condemning ourselves. I am reminded of the communion liturgy I first encountered in hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the following prayer of humble access:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I wonder how much time we spend in the midst of our church’s struggle reminding ourselves that we are not worthy, that God alone is worthy.

Dig or build

A comment writer asked on a previous post a variation of a question I have gotten from time to time over the years of this blog: “What would Wesley think about all of this?”

It got me to reflect for a few moments on Wesley’s approach to theological error and ethical failings in the church of his day. I’ve not done a systematic study. My impressions come from reading nearly all his collected works, but I did not originally read them with this question in mind, so what I write below may be off base. With that caution, here are my thoughts.

Wesley certainly did not turn a blind eye to theological errors and moral lapses in the church. He wrote and preached about them — often addressing himself to the very people who he deemed to be in the wrong. Despite how much we like to quote his “think and let think,” he had a rather specific list of teachings he opposed and behaviors he found incompatible with sanctification.

And yet, he did not make it his life’s work to dig up or root out these things. Rather than spend his energy trying to force lax bishops into doing their job or remove from pulpits heretical preachers, he poured his energy into preaching sound doctrine and encouraging practices that led to sanctification. He poured his work into building up what was good rather than in rooting out what was bad.

Indeed, this is the source of Wesley’s life-long conviction not to separate from the Church of England. He wanted to reform the church by supporting and encouraging a revival of biblical faith. I’m sure he would have been happy to see many preachers and not a few bishops leave their positions in the church, but that was not where he spent his energy. He spent it building up any who would hear the message he preached.

In this moment of looming schism within the United Methodist Church, I find myself reflecting on his example and wondering what is the best way to tend to the souls who have been placed in my care, especially the ones who do not yet attend the church where I preach every Sunday.

Righteousness as a requirement

Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal:

I then met the society, and explained at large the rise and nature of Methodism; and still aver, I have never read or heard of, either in ancient or modern history, any other church which builds on so broad a foundation as the Methodists do; which requires of its members no conformity either in opinions or modes of worship, but barely this one thing, to fear God, and to work righteousness. (August 26, 1789)

We heirs of the Methodist movement who call ourselves United Methodists stand on the brink of schism because we are deeply divided over whether sex between people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness.

We agree on some things regarding sex. We all agree, so far as I am aware, that adultery and polygamy are contrary to the will of God and righteousness. I am not aware of a significant movement within our denomination to declare fornication — sex outside of marriage — compatible with righteousness. We agree that divorce is contrary to the will of God, but that as sinful and fallen people we do break our relationships to the degree that divorce is the outcome and that divorce does not automatically preclude remarriage. And we agree that all these sexual sins are things for which we can receive forgiveness.

Our schism hangs on a disagreement about how to respond a subset of homosexual sexual activity. I do not hear anyone in the church advocating for celebration of casual, one-night hook ups by anyone. What one party in the church argues is that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness in the confines of a monogamous relationship that the partners intend to be lifelong. The majority of the church — at least as far as the votes of our General Conference indicate — has disagreed with this claim since it was first up for formal consideration in 1972.

I wonder if there would be any room for holding our denomination together if we could all affirm some form of the following statements.

  1. Righteousness before God is incompatible with sexual sin. We affirm biblical and Christian teaching that insists that adultery, polygamy, and fornication are contrary to the will of God and incompatible with Christian salvation.
  2. We recognize that the church has at times in its past held to teaching that it has changed. Guided by the prayerful study of Scripture under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church has in the past concluded that what it once held to be true should be revised. For instance, we believe there is a sound biblical argument in favor of a strict prohibition of slavery, the ordination of women, and the remarriage of divorced Christians. We hold these positions not in spite of what the Bible says, but because we believe the Bible, as the final word on all matters of faith and practice, is compatible with these positions. Arriving at these teachings has not been easy or without dispute.
  3. There are those in the church who believe that our teaching about same-sex sexual activity is in need of a similar revision. Those advocates have not persuaded the church of this position. They should be permitted to argue and attempt to convince the church that their position is consistent with the Bible.
  4. As the church is not persuaded, however, all members of the United Methodist Church should continue to honor and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, especially the clergy who have taken a vow to that end.

I realize this would not satisfy everyone in the church right now. We have reached the point where we can no longer hope to do that. We have arrived at the point where the question is no longer whether people will separate from the church, but what will be the grounds for separation. I believe the four statements above could be affirmed or accepted by the majority of our global denomination.