Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hope: A Passion for the Possible

So his brothers approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Genesis 50:16-21

In my childhood, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors held a special place. The idea that his jealous brothers would throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery was terrifying. But in the end, Joseph came out on top. He rose from slavery to be a trusted advisor to Pharaoh and a powerful leader in Egypt. He warned of a coming famine and insisted that the country should store up grain to get them through the shortfall. He saved Egypt from catastrophe, and because Egypt was able to help other nations, he basically saved the world.

Much later I learned that his “coat of many colors” was a mistranslation. What his parents really gave him was a coat “with sleeves.” The sleeves were a big deal, but a coat with sleeves is not nearly as evocative as a coat of many colors, which sounds like a rainbow flag made into a coat.

But it is still a great story. Even after we look closely and realize that Joseph did plenty to annoy his brothers, and make allowances for the unfairness of his parents’ favoritism.

The best part of the story is the ending, when his brothers come to Egypt in the midst of famine looking for food. They find out that Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery, is in charge of the disposition of the grain they need and they are terrified. They beg forgiveness and fear the worst, but Joseph is more than ready to forgive.

He has his own interpretation of what happened. His brothers intended to do him harm, but God intended that good should come out of it. “So have no fear,” says Joseph, “I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” It is a wonderful moment of grace.

I have been meditating on this story as I think about the church trial this week in Pennsylvania. Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy brothers and sisters did not sell him into slavery for celebrating the same sex wedding of his son, but they did throw him into a (metaphorical) pit. Bishop Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania seemed intent on making sure the pit was a deep one with a letter which seemed to clearly indicate her intent to uphold the actions of the trial court.

But that was not the last word.

Joseph’s gracious declaration that by God’s grace an evil intent had led to a good result came back to me as I read a pastoral letter from Bishop Sally Dyck of Illinois. It is an impassioned plea for love and inclusion.

A colleague called it too little and too late, but I don’t think so.

The trial has been a public relations disaster. We don’t need secular critics to show the world that Christians (United Methodist Christians) can be petty, judgmental, and toxic, we are eager to do it ourselves. Our Wesleyan theology, which has always been more about grace than judgment, was turned upside down. And our claims of “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”, look foolish and hypocritical.

But I see hope.

I see hope in the outrage of folks who were once silent and can no longer keep still about a policy that is self-destructive, anti-Christian and just plain hateful in its implementation. I see hope in the bishops who have been silent for so long, and are now speaking out.

At the end of his autobiography, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. writes:

"I am hopeful. By this, I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life. Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Majoring in the Minors

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

I John 4:16-21

As soon as we hear the words, “Church Trial,” we know we are in a strange place. It echoes of the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. In a time when our culture is increasingly secular, this is one more piece of evidence that the church is irrelevant at best and toxic at worst.

As United Methodists, we tend to think of ourselves as fairly modern folk. We are practical and pragmatic and down to earth. We’re not strong on doctrine, but we are big on tolerance. The John Wesley theme verse is “God is love.” We believe in grace over judgment. We build hospitals and universities. Our slogan is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” We like to think that we are inclusive.

So the very idea of a church trial sounds wrong to us.

But here we are. The Rev. Frank Schaefer was convicted this week of officiating at the wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts in 2007. We are in the news all over the place. And that’s not a good thing.

I won’t go into the odd structure of church polity and unlikely coalitions that has led us to this sad spot, but this is where we are and we need to find a way out.

Few of us were surprised when the jury of thirteen clergy from Eastern Pennsylvania found Rev. Schaefer guilty of violating the Discipline by officiating at the wedding. But most of us were shocked by the penalty. He will be suspended for thirty days. That in itself is not a big deal. But this is how Bishop Peggy Johnson states what happens after the suspension:

“If at the end of 30 days, Rev. Schaefer has determined that he cannot uphold the Church’s Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials.”

If it were not so serious, it would really be quite amusing. If you have read even part of the Book of Discipline, then you already know that there is no one who “uphold(s) the Church’s Discipline it its entirety.” There is a lot in there. The Discipline supports gun control, unions and collective bargaining, a woman’s right to an abortion, and the United Nations. It is against war, gambling, torture, and the death penalty. Beyond the big and controversial issues, there are hundreds of rules about how we do our business. Most of us can find something in there that we do not want to “uphold.”

But of course they don’t care whether he supports the Discipline in its entirety. They only care about one thing. Will he promise not to celebrate another same sex wedding?

The great Methodist preacher of the mid-twentieth century Henry Hitt Crane used to call this “majoring in the minors.”

Do we really believe excluding gay people is the big issue of our time? Is this where Christian faith rises or falls?

I often get smiles and snickers when I explain the United Methodist position on gambling. And it is hard to see the connection between the social harm of gambling addictions and a church raffle. But at least we don’t conduct any church trials over raffles.

I used to think that maybe in the not too distant future we would look back on all of this foolishness and have a good laugh. But that’s not going to happen. When we look back we will be in tears. We will weep for the lives we have damaged, the people we have hurt, and the incalculable damage we have done to our Christian witness.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Equal Rights, Equal Marriage and the United Methodist Church

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Luke 18:7-8

In October of 1960 Melvin Talbert was a seminary student in Atlanta, Georgia, and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Atlanta to participate with the students in the first sit-in demonstrations in the city, and he was arrested with them. They spent three days and three nights together in a jail cell. Talbert said that event was one of the formative experiences of his life.

This past October, Bishop Talbert traveled from his home in Nashville to Center Point, Alabama, near Birmingham, to celebrate the wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. The two men were legally married in Washington, D.C., but they wanted a Christian wedding. And they asked Bishop Talbert to officiate because of his support for the rights of LGBT persons, especially within the United Methodist Church.

For Bishop Talbert, the sit-in and the wedding are related. In both cases it is about civil rights.

Before he went to Alabama to preside at the wedding, Bishop Talbert notified Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his plans. She responded by requesting that he not perform the ceremony in the area where she serves. She consulted with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wenner convened the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. The Executive Committee issued a statement requesting that Bishop Talbert not officiate at the wedding. They reminded Bishop Talbert that, “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline.” They also pointed out that, "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).

There are deep ironies in this.

It is not that long ago that this same Book of Discipline, to which Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett give allegiance, prevented women from being ordained, let alone becoming bishops in the church.

The Discipline is an imperfect evolving document. It did not condemn slavery until 1844, when what was then the “Methodist Episcopal Church” split and the “Methodist Episcopal Church South” became a separate denomination, which tolerated the institution of slavery. When the two denominations reunited in 1939, provision was made for a separate “Central Conference,” where African-American churches were segregated from white churches. And that segregation was approved until 1968.

The Discipline is revised every four years at what we call a “General Conference” that brings together representatives from United Methodist conferences around the world. The language on homosexuality will change soon. Maybe in 2016. Probably no later than 2020.

As the Council of Bishops likes to remind us, we are a world wide church. On this issue the African bishops stand against any change because they fear that if they do not maintain a strong opposition to homosexuality it will put them at a disadvantage in their cultural struggles with Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. If the church is to hold together there will have to be some sort of compromise that allows for the different cultural realities in Africa and North America while still affirming basic human rights.

In the meantime, the Council of Bishops, after meeting this week, called on Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett to file charges against Bishop Talbert.

In explaining their actions, the bishops said that, “The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Did anyone laugh at the irony of that statement? How can we transform the world if we cannot transform the church? It would be more accurate to say that their purpose is to lead the church in maintaining the status quo. And let’s be honest, making disciples of Jesus Christ and maintaining the status quo are mutually exclusive.

The bishops did take a step forward by publicly acknowledging that the church is not of one mind on this issue, and that the Council of Bishops is not of one mind. They go on to note that “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.” What they fail to say is that the pain is not equal. The pain felt by those who are excluded is not the same as the pain felt by those who want to do the excluding and feel like their ability to exclude is being eroded.

After telling the parable of the widow who pleads for justice from an unjust judge, Jesus asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Bishop Talbert lived out that parable when he was arrested with Dr. King, and he has lived it out again more than fifty years later in confronting his colleagues on the Council of Bishops. The good news is that ultimately, he knows how the story will end.

The complete statement from the Council of Bishops is printed below:


On October 26, 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same-gender couple in Center Point, Alabama. Prior to October 26, 2013 Bishop Talbert advised Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his intention. Bishop Wallace-Padgett requested that Bishop Talbert not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves. After conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, engaged the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a discussion about the proposed action. On October 21, 2013, the Executive Committee issued a statement requesting Bishop Talbert not to perform the ceremony in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area.

They said, in part,

“The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).

The actions of Bishop Talbert raise considerable concerns and have stimulated much conversation, reflection, and prayer among the members of the Council of Bishops. The Council recognizes the deep divisions and pain in our church over these issues. United Methodists are not of one mind, and followers of Christ and people of conscience hold conflicting views. These issues require continuing honest and respectful conversation as well as prayer throughout the church.

The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To that end, bishops are also required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church…..and to share with other bishops in the oversight of the whole church.” (Para 403.1.f) When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required. However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable. Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy. (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f)

Therefore, the Council of Bishops, after much prayer and conversation, takes the following actions:

We acknowledge that we, the Council of Bishops, and the Church are not of one mind in matters of human sexuality; pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them. We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.

We affirm the October 21, 2013 action of the Executive Committee which requested that Bishop Talbert not conduct a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple in the North Alabama area.

We respectfully request that Bishop Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Resident Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, address the action of Bishop Talbert and file a complaint under the provisions of Paragraph 413 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.

We recommend that the Executive Committee initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.

As a Council of Bishops, we affirm the theological task articulated in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 105, page 87). “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel. In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God. Our task is to articulate a vision in a way that will draw us together as a people in Mission….. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”