The UMC at the Valley of Elah

During the later stages of the controversy over Donatism in Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo took a major role. It is a long and complicated story and not without controversy still today, but I wanted to share some of Augustine’s words that remain relevant to the church today. While writing in response to an opponent in the controversy, he had these words for his allies in the church.

These things, brethren, I would have you retain as the basis of your action and preaching with untiring gentleness: love men, while you destroy errors; take of the truth without pride; strive for the truth without cruelty. Pray for those whom you refute and convince of error. — Answer to Petilian the Donatist

In my branch of the universal church, United Methodism, we need these words.

We have within our denomination two groups who are convinced of the truth. We stand arrayed like the Israelites and Philistines on the hills surrounding the Valley of Elah. In our struggle, each side believes itself to be the bearer of the banner of truth. Each side has come to this conviction with earnest, thoughtful, and prayerful effort. Neither side holds its convictions loosely, and for most on both sides those convictions are closely tied to a whole network of beliefs and convictions that are central to their entire faith. Neither could easily set aside their convictions on the issue of human sexuality without unraveling many other beliefs. The roots of their convictions are deep and tangled up with much else that defines their faith.

Both sides are tempted to see and portray the other side not just as wrong but as evil, led astray by devil and in the legions of the anti-Christ. Both are tempted to see the other as not just in error but as the enemy of God. Both are tempted to attribute to the other all manner of vices and dark motives.

Standing separate from these two groups, a third group calls for an end to the struggle. They do not appear to see how deeply rooted the convictions that drive the two contending sides are and appear to assume that they can be laid aside as easily as a person takes off a baseball cap and puts on another. They imagine a unity in the church that could only come if the contending sides both admit that what they hold as truth is not truth but mere opinion and not essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Maybe the image I have drawn here is not right, but it is how the situation appears to me. It is not a new moment in the life of the church, which has sadly always been rent asunder by disagreements, heresy, and sin. And this morning I turn to the wisdom of Augustine to help me in this moment.

I do not think either side can or will lay down their banners and return to their homes. And so I pray that we might hear and heed the words of Augustine until the Lord brings our church through this crisis. Act and preach and speak with gentleness. Love those with whom we contend. Set aside both pride and cruelty. Pray for those we believe are in error.

I am not wise enough to see how God will lead us through this. If I am in error, I pray the Lord will break me gently. If I am in the right, I pray my words and speech honor Christ.

Rumblings from the Rockies

A couple days before Christmas, the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church issued an appeal for financial help. The statement announcing the appeal is somewhat vague about the need and purpose of the funding. It is equally vague about the size and scope of the need.

The appeal is linked to the election, consecration, and appointment of Karen Oliveto as bishop over the two conferences. The election of a non-celibate lesbian bishop has caused a lot of turmoil in the wider UMC and, apparently, in the two conferences she serves. The fund-raising appeal, issued Dec. 22, includes the following:

[T]here has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations. Some have lost members. Others have had members withdraw their financial support. We believe theological diversity is critical for the vitality of The United Methodist Church. We seek to help our churches as we live into this new future. All our churches throughout the Mountain Sky Area play a vital role in witnessing to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities. We remain committed to all churches in our area.

That is why the Mountain Sky Area is creating a Mountain Sky Vital Congregations Sustentation Fund to provide churches with short-term financial assistance as we move toward the day when God’s hopeful vision of all being included in The United Methodist Church becomes fully real. This fund is especially needed where a pastor’s compensation is at risk. Allocated funds for equitable compensation support will be exhausted before the need is met. And, importantly, by Discipline, equitable compensation funds cannot be used for part-time pastors in the same situation.

The appeal appears aimed in part at shoring up part-time appointments in the conferences where the loss of members and financial support would be felt the most quickly. At least, the last line of the quoted material above appears to justify the fund because it would permit support of part-time charges. Whether the problem is confined to part-time charges or is more widespread is not clear from the appeal.

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about what is going on in these conferences or try to draw some generalizations about the meaning of all this for the wider UMC, but that seems pretty dangerous given the lack of specific information. If you know more about this or the situation on the ground in those conferences, please share in the comments section.