Webcast on the Unity of the Church in the Midst of Difficult Conversations
September 13, 2014
I love The United Methodist Church. One of my friends tells me that I am a genetic Methodist—it is in my DNA. But I have spent many years studying our history, our doctrine and our polity, and I truly believe that if I had been born into a non-Christian family, I would have become a United Methodist by choice. I love the diversity of our church. I love that we have congregations and conferences on four continents. I believe in the unity of Christianity, and I believe that the best way to live out that unity is in a connectional church. The church needs bishops, and clergy need supervision, and I am a whole-hearted supporter of our appointive system for deploying our clergy. (By the way, I was a supporter of it when I was a local church pastor, too. I decided early on that God works through the bishop and cabinet and I was content to serve where I was appointed. That conviction is quite humbling for me now.)
I am thrilled to be part of a church that is focused on its mission. WE do occupy the extreme center. We are committed to both social justice and evangelism, to both preaching and the sacraments, to corporate worship and small groups for discipling, to both social holiness and personal holiness, to the authority of the bishop and the democracy of conferencing.
Sometimes we forget or undervalue the incredible blessings of our connection.
I believe God has raised up the people called United Methodist to be a means of saving grace for individuals, societies and the world. When we are at our best, we lead non-Christians and nominal Christians to saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We proclaim the classical faith of the church as expressed in our doctrinal standards and statements. We believe God’s grace is at work preveniently in all persons, and the journey of grace through faith is most fully experienced in vibrant contextual worship, spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible Study, baptism and holy communion, disciplined small groups pursuing personal holiness, works of justice and mercy to transform the world pursuing social holiness, and sharing the gospel with others. We are a Church, and recognize that we are only one part of the larger body of Christ. We are focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We do this by holding in tension deep values of the Christian life, such as corporate worship and small groups, social justice and evangelism, preaching and the sacraments, global unity and local discipleship, episcopal authority and democratic discernment. Our goal is obedience to Christ and, by God’s grace, to be a useful instrument for God’s purposes of transforming individuals and the world to become the holy creation God intended.
Yet, we have our issues as a church. We need to reinvent our leadership development system. We need to improve our course of study and our seminaries. We need to rethink our mission shares and our relationships to our mission agencies. As the bishops said in our call to action a few years ago, we need “to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The good news is that all three conferences in Nebraska and Kansas were making significant progress on all of these issues, and the creation of a new conference has allowed us to take giant steps in positive directions. We are becoming more fruitful.
At the same time, in a variety of ways, the future of our church and especially its unity is being brought into question. Most often, the topic of schism or separation, or splitting is mentioned in the context of our disagreements about human sexuality. We United Methodists have been debating abortion, the practice of homosexuality, same-gender marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian persons in a variety of ways for the last forty-two years. Recent changes in the laws of some states and the deliberate disobedience of some ministers and bishops to the discipline of the church have raised question and led several to propose various forms of separation in response.
In this context, it is timely to remind ourselves of who we are. For me, that is to asking about our Wesleyan DNA.
There are some key points from our doctrine that should shape who we are and how we live. The title of this text is “Bearing with One Another in Love”. It is part of Ephesians 4:2 and summarizes a number of key points. First, we need to remember that we are all sinners. Romans 3 makes it clear—all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Second, God’s grace is amazing. God continues to love us despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins. God’s prevenient grace woos us before we are aware, convicts us about our sin and our need for a savior, justifies us by faith, and then continues to shape us toward the goal of being fully sanctified. The powerful, amazing love of God is saving us.
Third, that grace is available to all persons. There is no one outside of the love of God. Charles Wesley put it well in a powerful hymn: “Come sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus guest, yet need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”
Fourth, when we are baptized and then confirmed, we become part of the body of Christ. We belong to each other. As I tried to make clear in my book Staying at the Table: the Gift of Unity for United Methodists” our unity as the body of Christ is a gift of God, one that we can embrace and live into or we can reject and ignore. First Corinthians 12 gives a powerful image of why the diversity of gifts makes the body function well and why we need each other. Sometimes in the current conversations, one group is described as “progressive” and another group is described as “traditionalist.” I believe the vast majority of United Methodists are somewhere between those two groups. I think the UMC would be weakened if either the progressives or the traditionalists decided to leave. We need each other. Yet, Paul is also clear that maintaining that unity is hard and requires the love of Christ to make it work. Hence, the title of this talk. Paul exhorts us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
In the context of current US culture, all of this means that our church is called to be inclusive, engaged in ministry with all kinds of people. On the issue of gay and lesbian persons, our Social Principles are clear in saying “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. . . . We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (¶ 161F) Many of our churches have members and constituents who are self-identified gays and lesbians. This is a good thing.
This diversity is hard, though. We are a diverse, worldwide church united by its doctrine, discipline and mission through our connectional covenant. (¶101) We are old and young, Democrat, Republican, libertarian and tea party, black, white, brown, red, yellow, white, Asian, European, African, North American, progressive, traditionalist, centrist, liberal, conservative and many other descriptions of people. We speak many different languages. 25% of United Methodists live in countries where French is an official language. At General Conference there was simultaneous translation into many languages, and we are printing material in English, French and Portuguese.
All of this diversity bothers some people. They want to be in a church with only people like them—whatever that means. Me, I prefer the diversity. I think most of these people are going to end up in heaven, and I want to get there myself, and so I ought to start preparing myself for it. One way I describe this in the US context is to say that our church is big enough that both Hilary Rodham Clinton and George W. Bush are active, faithful members. Before that the same could have been said of Bob Dole and George McGovern.
We are united, according to the Book of Discipline, by our doctrine, discipline and our mission. Doctrinally, we share the same commitment to the essentials of the faith. When it comes to matters of opinion, we embrace the differences that arise naturally among such a diverse group of people. When it comes to our discipline, there are some areas where we allow for diversity of practice and rules. Think for a minute about the various ways that United Methodists worship worldwide. There are a variety of music styles from the formal hymns with tunes by dead Germans to the American folk tunes of the Cokesbury hymnal to contemporary rock and roll music to the world music we find among indigenous cultures in Africa and the Philippines. Some of our worship is highly liturgical and some is emergent. One church in our conference has five services each weekend, and each one has a different way to praise the Lord and experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, we do insist on uniformity of practice in some areas. While we acknowledge that there are Christians who do not practice infant baptism, we don’t tolerate differences on that issue. If you are a United Methodist, you must acknowledge the validity of infant baptism. The same is true with the ordination of women. Our discipline is clear and we don’t allow variation on that issue. While we embrace diversity on some points, there are others where we insist on uniformity of practice.
Given that these conversations need to take place, how do we have them?
I want you to know that our teaching sessions at annual conference next June will center on the theme of difficult conversations and we have invited Ms. Stephanie Hixon and Bishop Janice Huie to be with us. Between now and then, Rev. Evelyn Fisher our own Director of Congregational Excellence, is leading workshops for clergy about how to talk about difficult subjects in our local churches.
Today I want to summarize some of the spiritual principles that should be guiding us. Throughout, I want to stay rooted in the Word of God. I am reading Ephesians 4 every day, and it begins with these words:
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
This text reminds is of who we are—we are to lead lives worth of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. We are to remain humble—there is not one of us who is so perfect that we are sure we are right on every point. We are all sinners. We are all connected and we need to bear with each other. We need to remember the great commandment of Jesus, that above all we are to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This means listening to each other, respecting each other, acknowledging that the other might be right, and remaining connected to each other even when our emotions start to interfere.
Many of the conflicts in our culture arise because of a lack of love, a lack of communication, a lack of mutual respect, a lack of staying connected to each other, and a lack of unity. That is true in our families, our congregations, our communities and our nation. As technology has changed patterns of conversation, people have migrated to talking only with those who agree with them. Conversations have become less thoughtful and deep and more focused around sound bites and slogans. Our American culture has become more polarized, and those attitudes are infecting our church. We Christians, united by the love of God and our baptism into the body of Christ, can surely do better than this.
One key resource for us Wesleyans is John Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit”. He starts with the text from 2 Kings 10:15 where Jehu meets Jehonadab and asks, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? Jehonadab answers, “It is.” Then Jehu responds, “If it is, give me your hand.” Wesley makes it clear that different people will have different thoughts on matters of opinion. The essentials we are agreed upon. But on other matters, disagreements are inevitable. If you were to make a list of my opinions and they totaled 100, I am certain that I am wrong on at least one of them. I don’t know which one is wrong—if I did I would change it. But I know that somewhere I am mistaken. So if you and I disagree about something, even though I think I am right on that point, I should remember that this may in fact be the place where I am wrong and you are right. That helps me respect you more, and enhances my humility, and keeps me in conversation because I might learn where I am mistaken. This allows for what Wesley calls a catholic spirit. Here is what he says in one of his closing paragraphs:
But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, –his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.
Over the next few years we will be having difficult conversations about many topics, and the most important way to have them is for all of us to embody and practice Catholic Spirit.
Now let’s talk specifically about the controversies around human sexuality. We have been debating the topics of abortion and homosexuality since 1972. There are two sets of questions that are before the church.
The first set concerns our doctrine. One way to pose it is to ask, “What is our doctrine of sanctification regarding human sexuality?” We believe in sanctification as the goal of the Christian life, and we have described that pathway ever since the general rules were first published in 1743. They have evolved over time, but the basic format of doing no harm and avoiding evil of every kind, doing good, being in every kind merciful and doing good every possible sort, and attending upon all of the ordinances of God as the means of grace—these are still binding on United Methodists.
Now same-gender marriage is becoming more widely accepted, and I am assuming it will soon become legal in all 50 US states. Modern scientific views of sexual orientation are changing people’s attitudes, and we routinely talk about LGBTQ as five sexual orientations different from heterosexual monogamous orientations. We find a lot of discussion about premarital sex, cohabitation, polygamy and polyamory in our culture today. Given all of these changes, how should the church respond? What is our doctrine of sanctification? What do we teach as the way of salvation for believers?
The focus of these debates is the wording in our social principles, paragraph 161F. It is the General Conference that speaks for our church and determines our doctrine. The social principles are one of our doctrinal statements, even though they have lesser authority than our doctrinal standards (such as the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith and Wesley’s Sermons). It is obvious that United Methodists are not of one mind on this issue, but the General Conference decides every four years what we officially teach.
As with all doctrinal questions, we are fundamentally talking about how to interpret Scripture. We believe that the Bible is our supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice. On matters of sanctification, we have long distinguished between ceremonial laws which are not binding on Christians and moral laws which are binding on us. I have been informed by reading a number of books on this topic, but two of the most helpful are Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament and Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. Both of these are United Methodist elders, both are people I highly respect, and they offer you different ways of reading Scripture on this issue. Some persons will seek to deploy the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral on this issue, and I have written books about the primacy of Scripture and how we use reason, tradition and experience in our interpretation.
The second set of questions revolves around our discipline. Is homosexuality an issue that all United Methodist clergy and congregations must practice alike? Can we tolerate different practices? What are the roles of bishops and general agencies? How will our mission shares (apportionment dollars) be used?
In the conversations currently going on in the church, several proposals advocate loosening our uniformity of practice on this issue. Some have proposed new jurisdictions, some have proposed local church options, and others have proposed amicable separation.
All of this will be decided by General Conferences every four years. If you are asking what I am doing about it as your bishop, I would remind you that I do not have either voice or vote in the General Conference. Instead, I am called to a different ministry. In my consecration as a bishop, I promised to “guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole church; and to supervise and support the church’s life, work, and mission throughout the world.” I am the bishop of congregations that would describe themselves as being very progressive, very traditionalist, and very centrist on this issue. Since last year, I have been in deep and long conversations about this issue with many persons who hold many different opinions about human sexuality and sanctification and who have different opinions about the best way forward for the UMC. By and large I am disheartened by the low level of the conversation. I find too many people talking past each other in sound bites, making unfounded assumptions about the other’s position, and proposing solutions that deeply violate United Methodist connectionalism. So I have set out to improve the conversation by engaging various persons in conversation and asking them questions that will clarify their proposals. I have published my August 22 draft of this paper on my personal website, www.extremecenter.com.
I am not trying to endorse any one of these proposals. Instead, as the church discerns its future through our system of conferencing, I hope we can maintain a truly catholic spirit of love and faith, and conduct ourselves in ways that truly bring honor and glory to God.
[Questions and Answers]
A number of years ago I took a group of youth on a mission trip. The conversation in the van turned to our favorite movies and they asked me about mine. I was embarrassed but I told them the truth: “The Lion King”. I love it in part because of a scene near the end. Simba is the son of the king of the lions, and he is in exile. He is leading the good life and his watch word is “akuna matata, no worries for the rest of our days.” But back home things have gotten to be very bad, for his uncle Scar is ruining the pride of lions and disrupting the circle of life. So a messenger comes asking that Simba come back home and take his rightful place. He thinks he cannot go back, and wrestles with the decision all night. During the night he has a vision of his dead father who says to him, “Simba, remember who you are.”
My message to United Methodists is that, as we go through these difficult conversations in the next few years, let us remember who we are.
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