No one knows what these words mean anymore – we choose one and if people are not like us, then they must be the other and they are bad.
Be forewarned. This is a rant.
Take worship. I think we ought to celebrate Eucharist weekly or actually follow the order of worship as proscribed in the Hymnal and Book of Worship, and when I advocate it, someone envariably tells me, “Some professor espoused that liberal stuff in seminary.” When I point out that our liturgy basically follows the same form as the liturgy of Justin Martyr (ca 155 A.D.), I get a blank stare. And if I am feeling particularly impish, I might even start singing, “Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” So really, to NOT worship in this manner is quite liberal, since the Church basically worshiped this way for nearly 1700 years.
And if I get the, “Well, it certainly isn’t Methodist,” I will quickly quote John Wesley from his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion:
Let every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord's day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint's day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament. What opinion they had of any who turned his back upon it, we may learn from that ancient canon: "If any believer join in the prayers of the faithful, and go away without receiving the Lord's Supper, let him be excommunicated, as bringing confusion into the church of God."Receiving communion regularly (i.e., weekly or more) has always been the norm in Christianity. To receive it once a month is quite a liberal notion, historically and theologically!
It’s funny that the folks crying “liberal” in church the most are actually the ones who are the most liberal (in the real sense of the word, anyway). So that’s why these words really aren’t that helpful, much less accurate. The words have been bastardized and politicized into labels.
It also makes Christian orthodoxy more difficult to explain. In United Methodism, we have a Book of Discipline that continues to grow larger and larger and also continues to be ignored more and more. To overgeneralize: “Liberals” often don’t follow the covenant of what the UMC says about homosexuality. “Conservatives” often don’t follow the liturgy and worship resources that all ordained ministers vowed to accept. Neither takes the phrase to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” very seriously – we pick and choose what we follow and what we won’t. Our covenant is qualified, not bonafide.
It seems that neither liberals nor conservatives like the Creeds – liberals don’t want to say “born of the Virgin Mary” and conservatives don’t want to say “Catholic Church.” Liberals want to wake us up with United Methodism at Risk in condescending tone and Mark Tooley leads the conservatives with Taking Back the United Methodist Church in a Christian’s-Guide-to-Voting kind of way. The only differences in the books are in ideology; their tones are the same and, in my opinion, unacceptable. So are the results: zilch. In fact, less than zilch – despite the effort, money, and diatribe of both sides, the UMC is still losing members, infrastructure, and witness.
As a pastor for 22 years, my read about people in the pews is this: the fights of the conservatives and the liberals, at least in United Methodism, is a fight that the extremes created to “take control.” It was not the fight of the average Joe and Jane. But they do have a dog in the hunt: while the extremes are fighting over homosexuality and political bent, people in the pews are starving, being abused from neglect, and dying of thirst. The shepherds, both clergy and lay leaders of our denomination, are fighting amongst themselves and allowing the flock to wither. Spiritual maturity has been co-opted by power plays and renewal groups in order that the correct “side” might prevail and finally be in charge. I wonder if there will be a flock left to shepherd when the smoke clears.
We don’t need “conservatives” and “liberals” - and Christ certainly doesn't. We don’t need folks fighting for power. We need radicals in the image of Christ who are willing to yield rather than control. I’m tired of the fighting over homosexuality (for it or against it) under the guise of family values when we haven’t even mastered the basics of living in community yet much less in making disciples; it’s akin to holding an A.A. meeting in a pub. I’m weary over fighting about equality and diversity and tolerance and the value of each human being and what they hold dear, yet we can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer because it might offend someone. We have become so generic in our language in our attempts to be “inclusive” and in the process have rendered ourselves impotent to make change and foster relationships with God our Father and His children (and yes, I said Father rather than some generic and modalistic Creator – I’d rather risk offending someone than risk calling God nothing).
As I’ve said before, Methodism has done a 360° instead of a 180°. We're right back where Wesley started, I think. The Method is great, and I think we tried to improve it instead of follow it. It may be that making things simple makes faith easier to embrace and follow and live, thus giving it strength and power and propheticness.
At a small group study at our church, the question was asked, “How does God redeem all Creation?” One great answer came from a wise older woman, “That’s all on us.” It's such a good statement: it is on us: We either surrender to God or we don’t. We either seek a relationship with Christ AND our brothers and sisters or remain self-serving and individualistic. If we DO seek a relationship with God, we need to be ready to embrace the costs – and the rewards. The question is: are we willing to risk enough to love God as God loves us?
That’s pretty radical, isn’t it?