Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Blaming John Wesley

Today is the birthday of John Wesley, June 28, 1703

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I John 4:7-8

When it comes to the prospect of schism in the United Methodist Church, there is more than enough blaming to go around.

The traditionalists blame the progressives.

The progressives blame the traditionalists.

And the centrists blame both the progressives and the traditionalists.

But it’s time to put the blame where it properly belongs. I blame John Wesley.

The Wesleyan motto, taken from the First Letter of John, is that “God is love.” It is at once both simple and complicated.

All of Wesleyan theology and social concern flows from that basic affirmation. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. But the simple affirmation leads to a very complicated question, “How do we live that out in the world?”

Wesley preached and practiced a life of personal and social holiness. And he connected those two seemingly opposite concerns with a wide tolerance for diverse opinions and a deep commitment to that core affirmation that God is love.

The result is a denomination that has historically been open to theological pluralism. We have been comfortable with a focus on the spiritual journey rather than on theological doctrine. 

The cynics will say that our attempted denominational branding of “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” was never anything more than an advertising slogan. Maybe. But for many of us, it felt like a deep insight into our heritage and our calling.

At its best our Wesleyan heritage has produced some very remarkable Christians. Walter Muelder, Paul Deats, Georgia Harkness, E. Stanley Jones, and all of those other great saints that Halford Luccock called an “Endless Line of Splendor.”

But the tension has always been there, between the progressive agenda of social holiness and the traditional constraints of personal holiness.

Life would be easier if we could settle for one or the other. Do we want to embrace the conservative agenda of the Bible belt, or are we more comfortable with the openness of the liberal denominations? 

Earlier this month, at the Iowa Annual Conference, the Rev. Anna Blaedel, the campus minister and director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Iowa asked for a moment of personal privilege to address her “Sisters and brothers in Christ, in covenant, in connection.”


Rev. Anna Blaedel
She began by describing her identity as a United Methodist, “I was baptized, confirmed, called, commissioned, and ordained into this church,” she said. “This has been my place of spiritual belonging, of vocational calling, my faith community, my faith home.”

But then she explained why her “home” no longer held a place for her. “I am a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.  Or, in my language, I am out, queer, partnered clergy.  I know this is not news to most, if any, of you.  But by simply speaking this truth to you, aloud, here, I could be brought up on charges, face a formal complaint.  I could lose my job, lose my clergy credentials, lose my space of spiritual belonging, of vocational calling, my faith community, my faith home.”

And then she went on to talk about her pain and disappointment with the church that nurtured her and loved her into faith.

When LGBTQ persons describe their upbringing in the United Methodist Church and the way in which that spiritual home has turned against them, it sounds like an ecclesiastical variation of the classic “bait and switch.”

This is the actual letter of complaint.
And not long after she made her statement, three clergy colleagues wrote a letter of complaint to the Bishop.

The temptation to play “gotcha” has always been a part of the personal holiness side of our heritage. Once when Wesley was dining with a colleague, there was a young woman at the table who wore more rings than the other preacher could approve. He took hold of her hand and turned to Wesley.

“What do you think of this, Mr. Wesley, for a Methodist hand?”

Wesley smiled at the young woman and answered gracefully, “I think the hand is very beautiful, sir.”

A few decades back, in an earlier attempt at denominational branding, our slogan was, “Grace, Discipline, and a Warm Heart.” It was not a great success, mainly because you had to be a Methodist to understand what it meant. But it did capture something of the Wesleyan ethos.

Now we are arguing about Discipline, when we ought to focus on Grace and a Warm Heart.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Time Is Always Right to Do the Right Thing

Will Green and John Blackadar present the motion to the New England Conference

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:28-29
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

Last week our New England Conference of the United Methodist Church took an important and historic step by overwhelmingly affirming “An Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.”

We declared, as a Conference, that we would no longer “conform or comply with the provisions of the Book of Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.”

By that action, we are deciding to live into the Gospel with integrity and authenticity.

In the lectionary text for this past Sunday, Paul told the churches in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And we would add to that list, “There is no longer gay or straight.”

In his introduction to Galatians, Eugene Peterson says, “When men and women get their hands on religion one, of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting or keeping them ‘in their place.’ The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious.” 

But in his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul declares an end to all of that. And he invites them to embrace the freedom of the Gospel for themselves and for others.

We have decided that Paul was right that we really are “one in Christ" Therefore, we will not be “conformed to this world.”

There is a good chance, some say it is a certainty, that the Judicial Council (especially given its new very conservative composition) will declare our resolution to be out of order.

That’s okay.

In an unjust system, justice is by definition “out of order.” It is always against the rules.

We have lived with injustice for too long.

In his closing remarks, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar told the conference that “our inability to remove the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline divides us and is a source of great pain. How can any child of God be incompatible with Christian teachings? He went on to quote Martin Luther King’s words, that “in the end we will remember, not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“We need to do this,” he said, “because the world is looking for Christ in us.”

Thank you Bishop Devadhar, for your bold and prophetic leadership.

Thank you Will Green for making the motion and working tirelessly for full inclusion.

Thank you to the clergy who gave witness to their pain as gay pastors in the United Methodist Church.

And thank you to all of those who worked so hard in so many ways to make this happen.

As Dr. King said, "The time is always right to do the right thing."

The full text is printed below.


ACTION OF NON-CONFORMITY WITH THE GENERAL CONFERENCE
OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

The New England Annual Conference as a body affirms our commitment to a fully inclusive church.  Therefore: 
 
The NEAC will not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons, including marriage (161.B), the incompatibility clause (161.F), ordination and appointments (304.3), homosexual unions (341.6), AC funding ban (613.19), GCFA funding ban (806.9), chargeable offenses pertaining to being "a self avowed practicing homosexual" or to officiating at weddings for couples regardless of the sex of the partners (2702.1b,d). 
 
The NEAC and its members will not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to the Discipline's prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons. 
 
The NEAC insists that any benefits available to clergy and employees and their families are available to all clergy and employees and their families, regardless of the sexes or genders of the partners, and requires the District Superintendents to inform all clergy under their supervision of this right. 
 
The NEAC will realign its funding to reflect these commitments, using no reserve funds to pay for judicial procedures related to the Discipline's prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons, and instead requests the Connectional table and CCFA develop and fund programs of cultural competency, anti-racism, antiageism, anti-sexism, anti-oppression and anti-homophobia training at the conference and district levels, as well as for advocacy and implementation efforts related to the same.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First, Do No Harm



Words strain, 

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, 
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, 
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, 
Will not stay still.
T.S. Eliot

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, 
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. 
Morning by morning he wakens— 
wakens my ear 
to listen 
as those who are taught.
Isaiah 50:4

Words.

I have taken my time trying to find the right words to respond to the tragedy in Orlando. In college I would often put off writing an essay because I kept hoping that eventually I would have some brilliant inspiration. That seldom happened.

(Okay. By “seldom” I mean never.)

It has not happened here, either. But I will add to the torrent of words already written about this with a small comment on one facet of the tragedy.

Words are all we have to work with. Words are never enough. But they always matter.

Words can heal and words can harm.

Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ must search for healing words in the wake of the worst mass shooting in American history.

But first we must confess that for too long too many of us have been saying things that harm rather than heal. Instead of sustaining the weary, we have oppressed them.

At its best, Christianity subverts the inequality and injustice of the status quo and calls us toward a future that is more just, more peaceful, and more compassionate than the present.

This has been true for all of the great reformers and reform movements, from our Jewish ancestors rebelling against the oppression of Pharaoh, through the witness of the great Hebrew prophets, to the first century Christians. It was true in the Wesleyan reform in England and the Abolitionists in America. It was true in the Social Gospel, in Woman’s Suffrage, in Civil rights, and it is true now in the movement for LGBTQ inclusion and full equality.

At its best, Christianity calls us toward a future, which Jesus proclaimed as “the Kingdom of God;” a place where the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down, where everyone has a seat at the table, where the last come first and the poor have a special place, where everyone has enough and no one has too much.

But at its worst, Christianity has been a prop for inequality, oppression and injustice. 

Within hours of the massacre Christian pastors posted videos declaring that what happened in Orlando was not a tragedy. The only tragedy was that more homosexuals were not killed. If we lived in a righteous country, they said, the government would be arresting people for homosexuality, convicting them in a fair trial, and then executing them. You can see their posts here and here.

Seddique Mir Mateen, the father of Omar Mateen, the gunman who died in a shootout with police after killing 49 people and injuring 50 more in the attack on Sunday morning, took a more moderate view than his “Christian” brothers. 

He said that he was saddened by his son’s actions during the holy month of Ramadan. And then he commented on his son’s motivation. “God will punish those involved in homosexuality,” he said, it’s “not an issue that humans should deal with.”

The elder Mateen is apparently a rather strange person with his own mental health issues, so it may not be surprising that he would use “deal with” as a euphemism for massacre. But the earlier part of his statement is more problematic for both Muslims and Christians. He says that “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.”

And for 44 years the section on Human Sexuality in our United Methodist Book of Discipline has contained a statement saying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Supporters of that statement are quick to point out that the “sin” is not homosexuality, the “sin” is “the practice of homosexuality.” 

Although that qualification is very important to the traditionalists, it does not soften the condemnation for our LGBTQ members and friends. 

John Wesley's First Rule was, "Do No Harm." 

Our first response to the deaths in Orlando should be the confession that for many years we have been doing harm to our LGBTQ neighbors. 

What we now know is that the gunman was apparently conflicted about his own sexuality, that he hated gay people, and that although he swore allegiance to ISIS, his primary motivation was that hatred.

And we know that the self-loathing and the hatred were supported by religious beliefs.

This is a stark reminder for Christians. When we call homosexuality (or the practice of homosexuality) a sin we contribute to a climate which says that LGBTQ people are “less than.” We devalue their lives. 

And that devaluing has real world consequences.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Rape Culture and the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah


But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
Genesis 19:4-8

There are many dark tales in the Bible, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a special place within that collection. 

And within the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the darkest verse is surely the description of Lot going out to the mob and offering up his two virgin daughters: “Look,” he begs them, “I have two daughters who have not yet known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.”

The moral lesson seems to be that the gang rape of women is not nearly as bad as the gang rape of men.

Unless you have been hiding out in a wilderness cave without internet access, you know the story of the Palo Alto judge who handed out a six month sentence in the county jail to Brock Turner, a star athlete at Stanford, for the rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The judge said that although he understood how difficult it was for the young woman, he feared that a longer sentence would have a severe impact on the young man.

In her powerful and moving statement to the court on the sentencing of Mr. Turner, the young woman described how she learned what had happened to her when she was lying unconscious, passed out from drinking too much:

"One day, I was at work, scrolling through the news on my phone, and came across an article. In it, I read and learned for the first time about how I was found unconscious, with my hair disheveled, long necklace wrapped around my neck, bra pulled out of my dress, dress pulled off over my shoulders and pulled up above my waist, that I was butt naked all the way down to my boots, legs spread apart, and had been penetrated by a foreign object by someone I did not recognize. This was how I learned what happened to me, sitting at my desk reading the news at work. I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. That’s when the pine needles in my hair made sense, they didn’t fall from a tree. He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me.
“This can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this online. I kept reading. In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that according to him, I liked it. I liked it. Again, I do not have words for these feelings.
“At the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming. Throw in my mile time if that’s what we’re doing. I’m good at cooking, put that in there, I think the end is where you list your extra-curriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened.
They listed his swimming times because. Well, because he was an important and talented guy at Stanford, for crying out loud. 

She was saved by two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles and saw the young man assaulting her (the description is more graphic than that.) They chased the guy and caught him. They pinned him to the ground and called the police. And when the police arrived one of the rescuers had his head in his hands sobbing uncontrollably because he could not unsee what had happened.

In her statement, she thanked them and said that she sleeps with pictures of two bicycles taped above her bed to remind her that there are heroes in her story.

At the end of her remarks, she addressed all the other young women, who often live in fear that something like this might happen to them:

"And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.”

What makes this story newsworthy is that the folks at Buzzfeed picked up the young woman’s statement and it went viral.

Her story is not unusual.

In recent weeks we have had a national debate about the imagined threat of transgender women (who were classified as male at birth) using the women’s rest room.

How bizarre is it that public officials are worried about the imagined threat of a transgender woman (who was born male) sharing a restroom with your daughter, and those same folks seem to show very little concern for the rape of young women by young cisgender heterosexual men?

The Palo Alto incident is just the one at the top of your newsfeed. In the Baylor sexual assault scandal, both football coach Art Briles and University President Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) were forced to resign after the university repeatedly covered up sexual assaults by members of the football team.

Sports Illustrated’s online journal recently published a Question and Answer interview with columnist Tim Cowlishaw.

It starts this way.


Question: “Is there any way for Baylor football to recover from all this? . . . how can Baylor stop this bad momentum?”
Cowlishaw: “A new sales job, different recruits. It probably won't be as bleak on the field as it might seem. Won't really be bleak at all this season, they could easily contend. There will be a drop off, but if there are no NCAA sanctions and no lost scholarships, Bears might recover quickly. But do they get back to top 10 level? I don't know about that. I would bet against that for some time.”

Okay, we get it. It’s a sports magazine. And I understand that the whole interview was about the football team. But is it not indicative of our profound insensitivity (to put it mildly) that we are talking about the impact on the Football Team, rather than the impact on the young women who were assaulted?

Is it hyperbole to say that we live in a “rape culture?”

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah would seem to bear witness that we have always lived in a rape culture. And that is probably true. It says something profoundly troubling about the way that males have treated females throughout human history.

But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a surprising and overlooked lesson within it.

Students of the Bible already know that the original sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, which caused God to plan destruction for those cities, had nothing to do with sexual violence. Ezekiel declares that their sin was that they “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

What most people miss is that the crisis in Lot’s home is resolved non-violently. No one gets raped. Just as the mob is about to break down the door, the strangers (angels) pull Lot back inside the house. Then the men outside are struck with blindness so that they cannot find the door, and everyone escapes.

The mob wants to gang rape the strangers, and Lot offers to let them rape his daughters instead, but God has a better idea: nobody gets raped. It all ends without violence.

That is a lesson we have yet to learn.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Georgia on My Mind

Dr. Georgia E. Harkness

“Religion is perhaps its own worst enemy. For religion, masquerading under the guise of archaic creeds, and impossible literalisms, and ecclesiasticism indifferent to human needs, has brought about an inevitable and in many respects wholesome revulsion.”
Georgia Harkness

I think I first heard the name of Georgia Harkness when I was in elementary Sunday School. Maybe it came up because we were singing her hymn, “Hope of the World.” Maybe we were looking at contemporary Methodism. Maybe I saw a book that my mother was reading. I knew about Georgia Harkness before I knew anything about Tillich or Barth or Bonhoeffer or the Niebuhrs.

But the truth is that her name was almost all I knew, and across the years I did not pay much attention. She was one of the lesser lights of twentieth century theology and I was focused on the stars.

She is on my mind now because I referenced her in a blog post about covenant. I listed her as a part of the church I was joining when I was ordained. In truth, I listed her because she was the only female Methodist theologian I could think of.

Georgia Harkness.

Just saying her name brings me a certain comfort.

In our current precipitous and disastrous tilt toward literalism, doctrinal Puritanism, and worship of the Book of Discipline, I find it comforting to remember a time when we were not like that.

Georgia Harkness reminds me of my Methodist home, a place of openness, hope and grace. She reminds me of the family, the faith, and the church in which I grew up.

In her 1957 book, “Understanding the Christian Faith,” her chapter on “Understanding the Bible” lays out the perspective I grew up with, that the Bible is a sacred book, written over a period of about a thousand years. It is “heavenly treasure in earthen vessels.” It was not written for scientific or historical accuracy, but to convey the timeless message of God’s love and care. Some of it is time bound by the culture in which it was written, but at its heart it holds timeless truths about God and humanity. It is up to us, as we read the Bible, to separate the heavenly treasure from the earthen vessels.

Writing about “Jesus Christ Our Lord,” she states, “The question as to whether Jesus was born of a virgin is one on which the opinion of Christians differ, and the biblical accounts do not throw clear light upon it.” And on the resurrection, she declares, “We cannot be sure of the details of what happened that first Easter morning, but the central fact is certain. To the disciples . . . their Leader was not dead but present with them.” 

If she were alive today, we might call her a Progressive Christian. But in her own time, for a Methodist, her theology was predictably orthodox.

After forty years of relentless attacks by the IRD (Institute on Religion and Democracy) and Good News, and their allies, the United Methodist Church has become an institution that Georgia Harkness would barely recognize. We have become “our own worst enemy.” Although she passed away more than forty years ago, her description of the direction in which we are heading is prophetic in the biblical sense of that word. 

"Under the guise of following archaic creeds and impossible literalisms," we have engaged in an "ecclesiasticism" that is "indifferent to human needs." And there are consequences. This has brought about “an inevitable and in many respects wholesome revulsion.”

We have replaced the hope of the world with a rigid religiosity that values creeds over human beings. And on the fundamental issue that divides us as a church, the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, we have chosen ecclesiasticism over human needs.

Though I believe that the church today needs to hear her voice, her time was hardly a golden age. It is important to recognize that she grew up in an age of intense racial and gender discrimination. 

After graduating from Cornell in 1912 she was not able to attend seminary and train for the ministry. She taught high school for six years but that was not her calling. She wanted to pursue a theological education and enrolled at Boston University. She was denied entrance to the School of Theology because she was a woman, but she was accepted in the School of Religious Education and eventually in Department of Religion of the Graduate School, where she studied with Edgar Brightman and earned a Ph.D.

She taught religion and philosophy at Elmira College (which was a women’s college at the time) and then was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke. In 1940 she was appointed Professor of Applied Theology at what is now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, becoming the first woman to teach theology at any seminary in the U.S. Today Garrett honors her with the Georgia Harkness Chair of Applied Theology. She retired in 1960 from The Pacific School of Religion.

In 1948 she attended a meeting of the World Council of Churches where she had an iconic interchange with Karl Barth.

Barth, along with a few other men, participated in a section on the “Life and Work of Women in Churches.” Just before the discussion began, the chairperson surprised Harkness by asking her to state the theological basis for the work. She recalls, “I said briefly that in the Old Testament it is stated that both male and female are created in the image of God; in the New Testament Jesus assumed always that men and women were equal before God, and in our Christian faith is the chief foundation of sex equality.”

She reports that as soon as she finished, Barth addressed the group and said that she was “completely wrong, that the Old Testament conception of woman is that she was made from Adam’s rib and the New Testament that of Ephesians 5, that as Christ is the head of the Church, so man is the head of woman.”

After that they had a lively interchange in which, as she recalls, “I did little more than quote Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”) Her judgment was that “Barth convinced nobody.” And she concludes her recollection of the event this way: “A year later when a friend of mine asked him if he recalled meeting a woman theologian from America, his cryptic reply was, ‘Remember me not of that woman.’”

Barth did not want to remember her, but I do. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

We Shall Still Be Joined in Heart


Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Genesis 12:1-3

When Dr. Harrell Beck, my Old Testament professor, said, “Covenant,” he always clearly enunciated all three syllables. “Cov-e-nant.”

Holding the lectern with both hands, he would rise up on tiptoe to emphasize the importance of the word.

I don’t know whether I would love that passage in Genesis as well if it were not for Dr. Beck.

The LORD calls to Abram.

“Go.”

“Leave” everything that is familiar and comfortable and safe, and go.

But where?

“To the land that I will show you.”

With Harrell Beck, a lecture was also a sermon.

God always calls us into the future. It is always unknown. It is always both terrifying and full of possibility.

Just before our United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon, Bishop Scott J. Jones, who presides over the Great Plains Annual Conference, published an essay in the online journal, Ministry Matters, about the importance of keeping our clergy covenant.

He begins by saying that during the last few months he has had “multiple invitations to break my vows.” And then he explains that, “Many people have suggested that, in the name of protesting against perceived injustice, I should disobey the discipline of The United Methodist Church and violate the sacred promises I have made at two key points in my life — ordination as an elder and consecration as a bishop.”

“I decline those invitations,” says the bishop, “I will keep my promises. I will be faithful to God’s calling on my life as a leader in our church.”

He is talking about his refusal to officiate at a same sex wedding, or to condone clergy who do. And he speaks of the treatment of LGBTQ persons in the church as a “perceived injustice.” 

This is not surprising. Two years ago Bishop Scott told the clergy of the Great Plains Conference that he had been asked what he would do if 100 clergy were to conduct same gender weddings, he said that he would first suspend all 100 clergy and then there would be 100 clergy trials. And he said that he would do this even though he knew that each trial would cost $100,000.

If a bishop is willing to spend ten million dollars ($10,000,000!) on trials you can assume that he or she is pretty serious about maintaining discipline.

I do not doubt that the bishop sincerely believes what he is saying. And I commend him for the way he speaks about those on the other side of this issue. “I deeply respect and love many people who disagree about key issues in the life of our church” he writes. “They are friends and colleagues.”

Apart from my disagreement with him in terms of this issue. I also disagree with him about the nature of the covenant we share. 

His final paragraph illustrates our differences:

“When people justify their actions as ‘civil disobedience,’ they are misusing language. It is not disobedience against the government. It is ecclesial disobedience. They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling. If I ever get to the point where I cannot in good conscience obey the key aspects of our discipline — and I pray such a day never happens — it will be time to surrender my credentials as a United Methodist bishop and elder and find some other way to follow Christ.”

We agree that it’s not civil disobedience. I’m not sure who is using that language. And yes, it is ecclesial disobedience. 

The next sentence is where we part ways: “They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling.”

Yes, it is “a church they have freely joined.”

And that is precisely the point. In my ordination (and earlier, in my confirmation) I freely joined a church.

I joined a church. I did not join the Book of Discipline.

I freely professed my general agreement with and affirmation of our United Methodist doctrine and polity. And I agreed to uphold the discipline (not the same as the Book of Discipline) of the church. But as the children’s hymn says, “the church is a people.” That’s what I joined.

I joined Harrell Beck, and Paul Deats, and Walter Muelder. G. Bromley Oxnam and Henry Hitt Crane. Harold Bosley, E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness, and Ralph Sockman. And in our corner of the world, I joined Dale White and Gil Caldwell, and Bill Ziegler, Evelyn Burns, Jane Cary Peck,  and Bobby McClain, and so many others. When I was ordained the pastors were almost all men, but I joined a church made up of wonderful human beings. The great Methodist preacher Halford Luccock called that church an “Endless Line of Splendor.” 

Our covenant, like Abraham’s covenant, is with God. But it is lived out with real people here and now. And across time with that great “cloud of witnesses.”

A church is more than the people who have joined it. We need order and we need discipline, and we need a common theology. We need a common covenant.

But in our current situation, the covenant has been reduced to the Book of Discipline, and the Discipline has been reduced to a rule book.

And the rule book has been reduced to the rules that exclude LGBTQ folks.

That’s not my idea of a covenant. Or a church.

Friday, May 27, 2016

You Can't Pick and Choose Which Scriptures You Will Follow


If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 
Leviticus 20:13

In the ongoing debate about homosexuality one of the common arguments made by traditionalists is that “You can’t pick and choose which scriptures you will follow and which you will ignore.” The Bible, they argue, clearly condemns same sex relationships and we cannot ignore the biblical judgment.

The argument sounds good, even if you know that in order to read the Bible faithfully we have to make judgments. Very few of the most hardened biblical literalists, while arguing vociferously for the condemnation of same sex relationships believe that the penalty for such relationships should be death. As Adam Hamilton pointed out, we already agree that the second part of the verse is not to be taken literally, what makes the traditionalists think that the first part is still sacred?

But the flaw in that argument runs much deeper than that internal inconsistency.

I believe the first person to point out this deeper and more fundamental problem was the late (great) Walter Muelder.

Dr. Muelder was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology from 1945 to 1972. He was an influential theologian and ecumenist, and a major force in the development of Christian Social Ethics as a discipline. 

He was a brilliant thinker and a dedicated scholar.

Beyond that, he was in so many ways the quintessential Methodist, the embodiment of all the virtues of personal and social holiness.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Boston University to pursue a Ph.D., Muelder was Dean of the School of Theology and a Professor of Christian Social Ethics. He was one of Dr. King’s teachers, and Muelder’s ethics made a deep impact on King.

Dr. Muelder was passionate about peace and justice, and civil rights until the end of his life.

He died at the age of 97, on June 12, 2004, from a sudden heart attack. He had not been ill. Like Moses, his mind was “unimpaired.” and “his vigor had not abated.”

On June 9, 2004, just three days before he died, after an earlier General Conference failed to advance the cause of LGBTQ inclusion, Dean Muelder addressed the retired pastors of our United Methodist Conference with this challenge:

“We retired ministers have an ongoing role to play in the conflicts, such as those on homosexuality, which threatened to split the church at the last General Conference. We are in constant dialogue with clergy and laity who are rightfully troubled by these issues. We can help hold the church together by reminding people to think comprehensively and holistically about these questions. The positions taken by militant opponents are often narrowly based by appeals to the authority of single verses of Scripture as decisively conclusive.

“We need to remind the whole church that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.

“As retired ministers we are constantly in contact with members of the contemporary church and hence we are part of its ongoing dialogue to maintain the unity of the church.”

There is enormous wisdom and insight in those brief remarks.

His first point may be the most important. Those who militantly oppose the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the United Methodist Church are basing their arguments on a narrow reading of isolated texts. Those few texts can NEVER be decisive.

His second point is a reminder of our United Methodist heritage. We have “a fourfold basis” for making authoritative decisions, “namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.” 

In 1972 when the Book of Discipline first declared the “practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” Dean Muelder was basically in agreement. Over the years, his judgment shifted. Those condemnatory biblical texts did not disappear, but there was new scholarship. Evaluating that new scholarship in the context of the whole Bible caused him to rethink his assumptions. Reason, experience, a changing tradition, and new biblical scholarship came together in a convincing way. 

A third point is the very essence of Walter Muelder’s genius, and anyone who took even a single class with him will be able to hear this as if he were speaking it out loud as you read it: “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” The Dean never jumped to conclusions and consequently he did not often change his mind. But the thoroughness of a decision never closed his mind to the possibility of change.

The idea is not to explore scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as if they were unrelated areas of inquiry and then string them together as if that constituted an authoritative result. We must search for a coherent understanding. And it is that coherence which is authoritative.

We can’t pick and choose our scriptures. “We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.”

Within the biblical word, we have to use the whole Bible. Isolated texts can never be decisive. In the tradition of John Wesley, we have a fourfold basis for arriving at ethical and theological insights: scripture, reason, tradition and experience. And then that wonderful sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.” 

Dean Muelder was convinced that a faithful study of scripture in the context of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, would lead us to the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbian persons in the United Methodist Church. 

After three more failed General Conferences, one wonders whether we can get there as a united church.