Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Covenant and Order vs. Liberty and Chaos

A few days ago Bishop Ken Carter wrote a most excellent blog, "Serving as a Denominational Bishop in a Post-
Denominational Culture." In it he writes:

[W]hile I have promised to seek the unity of the church, the energy in our denomination and many others is often in the polarities. It is at the extremes, where advocacy groups communicate and organize with clarity, even in opposition to each other.

And upholding the necessity of a disciplined life for the sake of the whole church? How am I to do that in a culture where individual desires and discernment are valued while institutional deliberation is often considered suspect, questioned or even sabotaged?

He also quotes leadership guru Edwin Friedman about the positions of those who would disrupt leadership versus those who are in leadership - hence the title of this article. How do we navigate these things?

If you don't think this will affect the local church anywhere in the Paducah District, I would advise you to think again. We are slowly becoming a hot item in the news; the Washington Post picked up Bishop Johnson's press release HERE. And you should be aware that intentional efforts are being made to disrupt the UMC at the local, conference, and General Conference level through LovePrevails, in which people are being urged disrupt gatherings, as well as divest their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness from the UMC. On the other extreme, the IRD and Good News are also launching their strategies which are also less covenant-oriented and more of the "by any means necessary" modus operandi.

Pastors are going to be put in the middle. More than ever.

When I get a phone call asking why a pastor can't rebaptize a church member, or why their former pastor won't come back to do a wedding or funeral, or why a lay person can't preside at a communion service, I point to the UMC's doctrine, polity, and covenant. It is not always an easy conversation, particularly with those who are marginally Christian. Being in a heavily Calvinist area as we are, many don't understand why we don't rebaptize, or celebrate infant dedications, or why we use a specific liturgy for Eucharist and Baptism. Add our present reality of living in a time and culture where an individual's thoughts and opinions trump an institution's, and the reality that the UMC is a global Church and not just an American one, people have a hard time understanding congregational covenants, clergy covenants, and a Book of Discipline.

People like the Book of Discipline and our covenant... when it suits their needs. When we disagree with it, we don't like it. Yet the nature of covenant is not to be selective, but to be faithful to it. Even when we disagree with it. Should we disagree, we fight to change it. Sometimes we win those fights. Sometimes we lose. That's when our trust in God is tested. When we decide to pick and choose, the covenant falls apart. There is no glue left.

The matter of same-gender marriage is one all people do not agree upon. Some believe the UMC's stance on the matter is discriminatory. Others believe that it is faithful. Those who strive to have it changed are convinced it is a civil rights matter. Those who adhere to the present stance believe it is an ecclesial matter about how God's will and Word is lived out.

There is no easy fix for this. Neither side will be able to compromise without feeling like they are compromising on basic matters of faith and understandings of Church doctrine. Unfortunately, name calling has begun - on both sides - fueled by hate and mirroring our political parties in their open disdain for each other.  I've been called anti-gay, a homophobe, and a redneck for keeping my covenant with the church. And I know that those who would like to change our church's stance have been called similar, derisive names.

This is not Christian covenant behavior; this is mirroring our political system in the U.S. We are supposed to be modeling for them, not the other way around, about a more excellent way. It has NO place in the Church, regardless of what "side" one takes.

My advice? Do some serious soul searching. Pray. Discern. Listen. My hunch is that the next General Conference won't change this issue by a vote: our UMC is still composed of a majority of people who take a traditional/orthodox approach to this matter, and the face of the UMC is reflected more and more in the Global South - which is even more traditional in its beliefs about marriage.

Soul searching may lead us to these kinds of questions: "Is the United Methodist Church the best place for me to live out my faith? Can I live in covenant with others who took the same membership and ordination vows? Can I still honor them even if I disagree with some of them?" Those are important questions before us. We must also ask, "Is 'by any means necessary' an appropriate behavior within a covenant community?"

One of my best friends disagrees with me, and he believes the Church is clearly wrong on this matter. Yet we not only continue to be best friends, we continue to live in the UMC covenant together. I'm sure some folks - on both sides - would give him grief about his stance; some because he's not in your face enough, others because he doesn't believe "rightly" Yet, as Reinhold Neibuhr reminds us, Christians must learn to live in the tension of having and not having the truth. That keeps us, just like Jesus on Calvary, in the middle. It's messy.

The reality is, when you invite Jesus to show up somewhere, it's going to be messy. Anyone might show up! He
asks us to live in the tension of  "let the children come to me" and "go and sin no more." In a covenant community, our personal opinions are trumped by the covenant community we choose to live in. Until we choose to be autonomous congregations (or conferences, or jurisdictions), we have to agree to a covenant and honor it. If we want personal liberty to rule, we need to quit being a connectional and covenant church - and we have several models to choose from already.

What do we want? That is one question. But the better question is, What does God want, and how do we get there the way GOD wants?