A statement from African bishops

Here’s a statement issued by a meeting of 11 of 12 active United Methodist bishops from conferences in Africa.

(Someone out there help me out by tallying how many United Methodists these bishops shepherd.)

Thanks to Creed Pogue for helping with the following. These bishops lead “4,392,638 professing members in 2013 or about half again as much as the Northeastern, North Central and Western Jurisdictions combined.”

Read the whole statement at the link, but here is a passage that spoke strongly to me:

One of the functions of the Bishops of the church is to “maintain the unity of the church”.  As leaders of the church, we believe that there are far more important issues that unite us than issues of sexual orientation. As a church, we are called to be in solidarity with people who suffer as a result of unjust political systems, wars, famine, poverty, natural disasters, diseases, illiteracy , etc. We believe that we can be united around these issues rather than allow ourselves to be ripped apart by issues of sexual orientation.

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.

To what are clergy vowing faithfulness?

How do you remain faithful to vows when your partner keeps changing?

Ever since I began down this road toward full-time ministry, I’ve wondered how I will navigate the fact that at one point I will be asked to take vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church, and yet that doctrine and discipline can change substantially over time. What is the vow really about? Is it a vow to a specific formulation of doctrine and discipline that was in place when you took the vow? Or is it a vow to remain faithful to a community even when that community changes?

These questions come up when United Methodists talk about sex, but that is not the only topic that raises such issues.

It emerged for me today while reading Bill Arnold’s proposal to revise portions of “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. Arnold has submitted this proposal for consideration by the Faith and Order Committee at General Conference in 2016. I find his proposal an improvement on our current language and would support it — if I had either a vote or say in any of this (such if the life of a local pastor.)

But as I am reading this proposal, I am also working on the final draft of my commissioning paperwork due in November. One of those questions asks for my interpretation of our theological task as United Methodists. One of the reviewers of my draft documents wrote recently that as long as my answer matches what the Book of Discipline says, I’m good.

So what happens if General Conference changes the text in meaningful ways in May? Or what does this mean for people who were ordained under the pre-1988 text, which I’ve never read but have heard a great deal about. (For those interested, a helpful brief commentary on changes changes in UMC doctrine can be found here, see especially page 2.)

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are questions I have wondered about since I began writing this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.