Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part III

As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I've had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate. In Part II, I shared observations about General Conference. In this blog, I'll share my observations about our denominational struggles.

Sexuality, Schism... Or Is It All About Power?

I lament over the fractioning that occurs over issues of sexuality. To be sure: Sexuality is important. People are important. Standards of leadership are important. But on the list of biblical priorities, sexuality seems to be fairly low. Taking the scriptures literally, money is mentioned more than any other topic - by leaps and bounds. It's amazing to me how some will cheer you on when you're preaching, writing, and taking action about matters sexual, being conservative or progressive, but will castigate and call you meddling and manipulative if you dare to talk to people about money and their use/misuse of it. We are - at best - guilty of inconsistency in our interpretation of scripture.

Where sexuality in the UMC is concerned, more specifically in the United States, the bottom line is this: we are in an intradenominational squabble that most folks outside of the denomination (1) don't know about, and more to the point, (2) don't care about. Even more damning, this is an issue that is, at least publicly, dominated by clergy. Our stance and our current conflict on sexuality - in general - isn't bringing people in or driving people away; if a stance mattered, the Episcopal Church and the Southern Baptist Church would be growing in the U.S. But neither are. Again, people do matter, and we are not reaching people - regardless of how they feel about sexuality. That's a failure to make disciples. That's a ROOT cause of denominational decline. Should we be concerned solely about numbers? Well, I'd say principles will get you only so far - anyone know how many Shakers are left?

Failure to make disciples, more than anything else, has us in the state we presently find ourselves, and until we take that seriously, we are going to be in trouble - and more importantly, we are going to fail at our stated mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can't transform the world if we aren't generative enough to carry on the mission.

So forgive my pragmatism, but to let this bring us down as a denomination means that we really suck, and are just plain self-centered and individualistic... the original American sin. Is it about interpretation or biblical hermeneutic? I am dubious: we Americans and American churches are as selective about our biblical interpretation as we are about where we shop. While many will bark about lust (one of the "seven deadly sins,"), few bark about gluttony (another one of the Deadly Seven). When is the last time someone wanted to file a complaint on all the pot-luck dinner participants for eating too much, or being obese? We seem to be selective about what sins we want prosecuted and which other sins are "acceptable." There's also that little incident about Jesus turning the water into wine, AFTER the party had been well underway. What was Jesus thinking?

Progressive-minded churches can and should minister to and make progressive-minded disciples. Conservative-minded churches can and should minister to and make conservative-minded disciples. As well as everyone in between. Such has been the case throughout Christian history, and no one communion or denomination has always found unity in attitude and belief. The point is, we should be making disciples, not intradenominational war. The Reformation is turning out to be an experiment that continues to fail. Rarely will a community of faith agree on EVERYTHING.

Catholics and Southern Baptists have among them those who think women should be ordained - but they remain Catholic or Southern Baptist. United Methodists have those among them who think rebaptism is okay or infant baptism shouldn't be practiced - but they remain United Methodist. John Wesley ("The Arminian") and George Whitefield ("The Calvinist") fought like a cat and a dog: "The great day will discover why the Lord permits dear Mr. Wesley and me to be of a different way of thinking," Whitefield once said.

On the other hand, Luther wanted to ditch indulgences but keep confession, yet Lutherans ditched both. Wesley didn't intend to start a denomination, but here we are... even though we are (in my opinion) back to what Wesley tried to reform. We Christians can be a fickle and argumentative bunch.

Yet Wesley and Whitefield still managed to be rebel Anglicans together. Isn't that what we Methodists really are? Rebels? Rebels can still keep the faith and stay in love with each other - IF that outweighs the need to live in a binary existence where "we" are right and "they" are wrong. Progressives and conservatives have some atoning to do in our denomination for their behaviors. So do folks in the middle.

Unfortunately, what we DO seem to be able to do well is: schism, split, or have a Reformation... or two or three (hence Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and -gasp- even Wesley). From Wesley's sermon, On Schism:
That there might be no schism in the body. - 1 Corinthians 12:25 
1. If there be any word in the English tongue as ambiguous and indeterminate in its meaning as the word Church, it is one that is nearly allied to it, -- the word Schism. it has been the subject of innumerable disputes for several hundred years; and almost innumerable books have been written concerning it in every part of the Christian world. A very large share of these have been published in our country; particularly during the last century, and the beginning of the present: And persons of the strongest understanding, and the most consummate learning, have exhausted all their strength upon the question, both in conversation and writing. This has appeared to be more necessary than ever, since the grand separation of the Reformed from the Romish Church. This is a charge which the members of that Church never fail to bring against all that separate from her; and which, consequently, has employed the thought and pens of the most able disputants on both sides. And Those of each side have generally, when they entered into the field, been secured of victory; supposing the strength of their arguments was so great, that it was impossible for reasonable men to resist them. 
2. But it is observable, that exceeding little good has been done by all these controversies. Very few of the warmest and ablest disputants have been able to convince their opponents. After all that could be said, the Papists are Papists, and the Protestants are Protestants still. And the same success has attended those who have so vehemently disputed about separation from the Church of England. Those who separated from her were eagerly charged with schism; they as eagerly denied the charge; and scarce any were able to convince their opponents either on one side or the other. 
3. One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives' end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out. 
4. Yet it must be a point of considerable importance, or St. Paul would not have spoken so seriously of it. It is, therefore, highly needful that we should consider, 
I. The nature, and , 
II. The evil of it.
The wrap-up of his sermon is the most inspiring:
11. Happy is he that attains the character of a peace-maker in the Church of God. Why should not you labor after this? Be not content, not to stir up strife; but do all that in you lies, to prevent or quench the very first spark of it. Indeed it is far easier to prevent the flame from breaking out, than to quench it afterwards. However, be not afraid to attempt even this: The God of peace is on your side. He will give you acceptable words, and will send them to the heart of the hearers. Noli diffidere: Noli discedere, says a pious man: Fac quod in te est; et Deus aderit bonce tuce voluntuti: "Do not distrust Him that has all power, that has the hearts of all men in his hand. Do what in thee lies, and Good will be present, and bring thy good desires to good effect." Never be weary of well-doing. In due time thou shalt reap if thou faint not.
It may be that power in the Kingdom of God isn't being on the "correct" side, but in being a peace-maker that serves under the King who has all power. I will gladly place myself in the middle of the fray, and the Kingdom, to serve the King. To be sure: there's nothing easy about the middle.

(And no, that doesn't mean you have to go join an association, movement, or caucus).

Pax,
Sky+

Comments

Christy Thomas said…
So wise, so powerful. I have enormous appreciate for what you write and how you think about what you write.