Divorce in a global church

The Liberia Conference of the United Methodist Church recently upheld a rule prohibiting clergy who are divorced from the office of bishop.

Here is a thoughtful article that raises good questions about the implications of this ruling for the global nature of the United Methodist Church. It has obvious parallels to other debates with in the church.

For my part, I hope the questions raised in the article are addressed by the Judicial Council at some point.

Losing faith in the cure

Here is a question I’ve been wondering about recently: Do we believe that holiness is the key to happiness?

That used to be a bedrock Methodist belief. The reason we wanted to help men and women become holy was because we believed that the secret to true, lasting, and invincible happiness was to be holy, as God created us to be. This was our prescription for the illnesses that weighed down the soul and blighted the world.

Of course, it has always been true that huge numbers of people do not agree with either the diagnosis or the prescription. They stoned the prophets and murdered Jesus, after all. Holiness as the key to happiness and cure for the world have always faced strong opposition and evangelists of rival gods. Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the Pentagon have always promised us other ways.

Here is what we used to say. God created us to live in peace, joy, and happiness with God and each other. We are none of those things because we are slaves to sin and death. The solution cannot be found in our own good works, something we buy, or even by banding together into communities dedicated to righteousness. The solution is God. What we lack, and often do not even seek, is communion with God. The name of the peace and happiness that so eludes us is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now, here is the problem. If you look at the church, it is not often a very good billboard for the life of happiness, peace, and joy that God offers. You cannot blame the world when it doubts that we have discovered the secret of happiness. It is the task of the church to always be an imperfect reflection of the perfect happiness it proclaims.

That we do often fail to embody holiness is a grievous problem, but it is an entirely different problem than no longer believing in holiness itself.

So, I find myself wondering, do we believe in holiness still?

What Heidelberg might teach us?

It would be a wonderful gift to the United Methodist Church if General Conference authorized an official catechism for the denomination.* I think of something along the lines of the Heidelberg Catechism, which I have read with profit for the last year or so.

Yes, this is the catechism that was endorsed by the Synod of Dort, which condemned Arminian doctrine, which was a root from which Wesleyan Methodism drew much nourishment. But in my reading of the catechism, I’ve found little to offend my Methodism, and I hear many echoes of Wesley’s own words in its pages.

The 129 questions of the catechism are traditionally studied over 52 weeks, with a handful of questions being taught and studied each week for a year.

One interesting aspect of the catechism is how directly it flies in the face of American sensibilities. This is not a document written to speak to the felt needs of a society used to having its preferences cultivated and catered to by people who want to sell us things.

Here is Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and death?

Note the word “only” there. In America, we do not believe in the premise of the question. We are a land constantly, ceaselessly in such of new and other comforts than the ones we already know. We are the world’s greatest breeding ground for products and services to satisfy wants we did not even know we had. The notion that we have only one comfort simply does not compute.

And so, neither does the answer we get from Heidelberg:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father heaven not a hair can fall from my head, yea that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

Yes, Methodists and our Reformed brothers and sisters might get into a disagreement over the preservation spoken of in the middle of the answer. A Methodist would say that the Father’s will is that so long as we remain in Christ, we will be preserved. The “so long as” being a part of the Father’s will. But we are getting down to fine — but important — distinctions when we arrive at this disagreement.

What I find more profitable in reading this is the insistence that we are not our own but belong to Christ. This is language that can barely be comprehended, much less affirmed, in 21st century American culture. If there is one thing our politics and education system teach us it is that we are free owners of our own bodies and minds. We are barricaded safely within a host of rights, and the protection and exercise of these rights is the path to human happiness and fulfillment. We can speak words of praise for those who risk their lives for the nation and commend those who sacrifice for others, but always with the clear understanding that what they do is a personal choice entered into freely as one who has total freedom to do what he or she wishes to do with his or her life.

How different are the first words of this catechism: I am not my own.

How different would our conversations within the church be if we started with this affirmation? How different would we live our lives as Christians?

That, in the end, is the value I see in works such as the Heidelberg Catechism. They give us new questions and new ways of understanding ourselves. They call into question what we think we can take for granted. And they glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. What a wonderful thing it would be if United Methodists officially adopted such a book.

(For those who are interested, here’s a digital version of a book examining John Wesley’s revisions of the Westminster shorter catechism.)


*I’m aware that the deadline for making such formal proposals for 2016 has passed.