Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pat Summitt was Simply the Best

Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

Pat Summitt passed away on Monday morning. At the age of 64 she died of complications from early onset Alzheimers. 

She was the epitome of excellence.

When I first began to follow women’s basketball, hers was the first name I knew.

And she was the one who changed the game.

Thirty years ago, when women’s basketball was rarely on TV, her teams were worth watching. They played with an intensity that matched her indomitable spirit.

She became the head coach at the University of Tennessee when she was just 22 years old. Thirteen years later, in 1987, when she won her first national championship, she was still a very young coach.

But now, I cannot help seeing Pat Summitt through the lens of the UCONN women. When we were in Connecticut, we lived in the same town as Geno. And we watched as UCONN went from the lowest ranks of the sport to the very pinnacle.

The first meeting between Tennessee and UCONN was in January of 1995, and it was the game that put UCONN on the women’s basketball map. The Huskies won that game and with it they claimed the number one ranking in the country. It was also a huge moment for the women’s game. It was nationally televised and it moved women’s basketball into the national sports consciousness in a new way. It brought a legitimacy to the women’s game that had not previously existed.

Later that spring UCONN and Tennessee met again in the NCAA championship. And that game did not disappoint.

Rebecca Lobo, the UCONN star, was in foul trouble in the first half and the Huskies trailed the Lady Vols by six points at half-time.

In spite of the January win, this seemed a bridge too far and a hill too steep for UCONN. Pat Summitt’s teams already had three national championships. They knew how to win. 

But Rebecca Lobo had an extraordinary second half and Jennifer Rizzotti had an amazing steal that put her on the cover of Sports Illustrated (okay, it was the cover photo only in the CT edition of the magazine, but still), and they won to complete their first perfect season (35-0).

The championship was played at the beginning of Holy Week, and that game became the central illustration in my Easter sermon that year: the first half was Good Friday, but the second half was Easter.

Pat Summitt would win her sixth championship before Geno Auriemma won his second, but from 1995 on UCONN and Tennessee, Pat and Geno, would forever be linked.

UCONN (women’s) basketball became a state religion in Connecticut. 

And Tennessee became the Evil Empire. In the minds of UCONN fans, Pat Summitt got special treatment from the referees. And special treatment in the seeding for the NCAA Tournament. When the pairings were announced, the key question was always about when the girls from Storrs would play Tennessee. 

It was an amazing rivalry.

In 2004 Sports Illustrated commissioned an interactive poll to determine who was the sports “Enemy of the State” for each state. Only one state chose a woman. Connecticut chose Pat Summitt as their number one sports enemy.

But eventually even the most committed UCONN fan had to admit that there was something special about the coach they loved to hate.

Jeff Jacobs, of the Hartford Courant, wrote a great story on the unique relationship between Pat and Geno. He asked Geno what Pat meant to women’s basketball.

"Our sport is synonymous with Pat Summitt, and Pat Summitt is synonymous with women's basketball," said Auriemma.

"We don't have a long history, women's basketball. The history before Tennessee and before Pat Summitt is checkered. There wasn't a lot of media attention. There wasn't a lot of interest in the game. There wasn't a lot of support from universities.

"During our short history, there was one person for a long time. Nobody else was even in that category. There was Pat Summitt. Nobody else. Other people took their turn at getting their 15 minutes of fame, but when people talked about women's basketball in America, it was Pat Summitt and Tennessee. When was the last time a women's team coach got on the cover of Time magazine? It just doesn't happen."

The UCONN-Tennessee rivalry lasted only 12 years. But every game meant something. Jacobs describes it this way:

“Moments after moments after moments. At one end was the Tennessee General. At the other was the rapscallion from Philly. UConn won 13 of the 22, including all four times in the national championship. Summitt got Geno once in the Final Four and another time in the Elite Eight and won their final three meetings before she called an end to the rivalry. Long, unseemly story short: It was Pat Summitt's greatest mistake.”

And then Geno summed it up:

"We had an opportunity to shape the landscape of women's basketball, the two of us. She did her part. I did my part. It didn't necessarily go over well with everybody else. But that's OK. That's how things grow. I knew we made it big, Connecticut and Tennessee, Geno and Pat, when they asked a bunch of coaches one year at the NCAA Tournament, who do you think is going to win the NCAA Tournament?
 "They said, 'I really don't care as long as it's not Tennessee or Connecticut.' That's when I thought we've got something pretty special going. I remember walking up to Pat before one of the national semifinal games. I said, 'You guys need to win. We need to win. We need to play each other because we've got a good thing going here, and we don't need anybody else breaking into this party.' She got a little chuckle out of that."
Every Tennessee player who completed four years of eligibility under Pat Summitt also graduated. 

Every single one. 

And they all loved her because she pushed them to be better than they had ever imagined they could be. 

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.


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


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.