Sunday, November 23, 2014

Selective Truths, Hard Truths

Wordie by Kathleen Berry of UMNS, based on poll findings
of most important issues facing the United Methodist Church.
While the Methodist Blogosphere continues to crank out new plans to stay united as a United Methodist Church, it occurs to me that we are just finding ways to avoid hard truths and difficult covenantal (i.e., real, substantive) conversations. We certainly shout at each other across walls and in the comfort of tweets and Facebook comments, but rarely at a round table with promises of respect, open ears, and leaving the table with disagreements but love for all.

Regardless of our ideological bent, if we were to come to a round table to discuss these things, we would find that we have our own confessions and inconsistencies to claim. They are inconvenient and they have no easy answers. A "winning the argument" mentality wants to label them as red herrings. Truth telling would have us admitting our inconsistencies and make us vulnerable.

Sexuality and marriage are messy for sure. In what follows, I am going to assume that a prima scriptura view of scripture is something all Methodists would agree upon (yes, probably a broad thing to assume). I will also assume that all UM's know that Albert Outler had great misgivings in coining the term Quadrilateral (in his words to Paul Chilcoate, "There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy."). In short, tradition, experience, and reason are the lenses in which we read scripture, with scripture as a primary source.

  • Under such, Traditionalists claim scripture and history/tradition when it comes to marriage and LGBTQ matters, yet would have a difficult time using the same where divorce/remarriage is concerned. Christian heterosexuals' "dirty little truth" is that, where Scripture is concerned, we rationalize and accept divorce and remarriage very flippantly these days as "acceptable and forgiven sins" but homosexuality is the unacceptable and unforgivable sin. Also, church weddings as recently practiced are a rather new invention historically and clergy involvement in such is nowhere to be found in scripture. Traditionally and historically, a couple simply (1) announced that they were married (with little liturgy and no clergy, with the couple and not a priest serving as the celebrants), and (2) there was a huge feast and party. (Note: the latter is still true, and in less than a month I will be financing such for my daughter's wedding feast...). Traditionalists would also have a very difficult time affirming the ordination of women, although I would uplift Romans 16 and Phoebe serving as a deacon - as opposed to a helper or deaconess - who was certainly doing "ordained work" in Paul's ministry.
  • Progressives lean heavily on sexuality and marriage (or as I've read, some against marriage) as a civil rights matter and rarely discuss the wide berth of opinion in the LGBTQ community, particularly among Queer scholars and activists, on marriage as an institution. While there is growing dissatisfaction in the secular world with marriage in general (heterosexual or otherwise), I have yet to see an LGBTQ ethic of Christian commitment posited. Just as in heterosexual marriage, this question has yet to be addressed in the United Methodist LGBTQ realm: what is a Christian ethic of same-sex marriage and commitment? Addressing such matters is helpful when it comes to ordination, since our leaders are held to a higher standard in modeling and living that which we profess about marriage. 
  • We are kidding ourselves if we think there are only two sides to this (and other) issues. These issues are multifaceted with multiple opinions. As I shared in an article that was printed by, "There are theologically and biblically orthodox folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic, as there are more conservative folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic - and permutations all around. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a United Methodist, is extremely conservative in some things, but he supports people entering "any kind of arrangement they wish" where straight and LGBTQ marriage are concerned." 
  • Our reading and use of scripture with the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience will always create a tension that confounds us all. Steve Harper recently said this on his Facebook page which says it well: "The canon of Scripture is fixed; the interpretation of it is not. It is not an act of disbelief to wrestle with revelation that is always larger than our minds can fully comprehend."
It would be refreshing to come to a round table and discuss these things with these truths claimed, and admit the messiness and frustration rather than sling epithets, accusations, and abusing covenant relationships. God is not smiling on our handling/mishandling of this.

Hard truth. People in the pews are simply not as bent out of shape on this issue as clergy seem to be. The biggest concern to United Methodist laity is (according to a poll done by United Methodist Communications), "creating disciples of Christ." The second biggest concern is "youth involvement." Third is "members' spiritual growth." Fourth is "decline in membership." You have to go to eighth to find "sexual orientation/same-sex marriage" as a concern of those in the pews. A harder truth: 90% of the people in the pews don't think the church should split over issues of human sexuality. Now I certainly don't always put my stock in polls, but our laity aren't asking us to give in to societal pressures or to be popular or even to be less "churchy": they're asking us to make The Great Commission a priority. Quite frankly, we as a UMC suck at discipleship and mission - those things which are supposedly what the people called Methodists claim to champion. I am so thankful for the pockets of hope I am occasionally privileged to see.

It may be that clergy and lay leadership are making human sexuality an idol that its congregants don't want to worship. Practically speaking, people spend very very little time with their sexuality in the course of a day - so why is the Church? Is it to avoid the more difficult work of discipleship and mission? Is it to fight an argument for the sake of fighting? Discipleship and mission are things you can/should do regardless of where you sit in the theological/idelogical spectrum. Neither of these things are being done well. 

What if we spent the majority of our time (at General Conference as well as every day) addressing discipleship, youth involvement, spiritual growth, and membership decline? It seems like the people in the pews are hungry for it. Yet as I am finding, those of us who should be the most passionate about a Christian essential such as discipleship are the ones who have the most trouble defining it, much less teaching and leading it.

We in leadership have a lot to answer for the very apparent disconnect. Perhaps it is time to do something about discipleship and mission and less about "resolving" same-sex marriage and schism, since we are not doing this well, either. Our people in the pews are hungry for the former, and just not as bent out of shape about the latter as we clergy think.