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.

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