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. 



Anonymous said...

If you think people in the pews need General Conference in order to focus on discipleship or youth or church membership you are mistaken.

Anonymous said...

When a straight person says we need to focus on other things and not focus on sexuality, how can they be taken seriously? Saying we do little with our sexuality throughout the day is like saying we don't think about air to get through the day.

It seems to me, to downplay sexuality would lead to "Let's let the churches that want to put gays into leadership or marry them do so!" Obviously sexuality is important, or the traditionalists would not be putting so much energy into stopping these things. There are a whole lot of ways clergy do not follow the Discipline, and they are never brought up on trial. Marry two people of the same gender and it's war.

Sky McCracken said...

Anonymous (1) - I don't think anyone NEEDS General Conference in order to focus on ANYTHING. What I said and intended was it would be nice IF we spent the majority of our time (at General Conference as well as every day) addressing discipleship, youth involvement, etc.

Sorry that came across differently.

Sky McCracken said...

Anonymous (2) - I would include straight and GLBTQ folk in our focus. We are much more than our sexuality. I don't want to downplay it - but I certainly don't want to elevate it either. And yes, there are indeed lots of ways clergy do not follow the Discipline - and my point was in the hypocrisy of elevating some things while downplaying others. Sexuality is important, but not near as important as discipleship and mission.

Christy Thomas said...

I wrote this definition of the process of making disciples for my ordination paperwork and have never seen a reason to change it.

What is a Disciple?

Since the primary task of the church is making disciples of Jesus Christ, we must also ask, “What is a disciple?” Answering this question also answers the question: “What is the mission and ministry of the church?” Who are disciples? Those who love the Lord God with all their heart, mind, soul, and body and who love their neighbor as they do themselves.

Becoming a disciple is a life-long process. No one can honestly say he/she has “arrived.” The journey continues until we pass from this world to the next and probably after that as well.

So, how does one make a disciple?
First, by being one. As disciple-makers, we engage in the frequent observance of the Sacraments, consistent prayer, humble service, rigorous self-examination, frequent confession, generous giving, radical hospitality and healthy living. Furthermore, as disciple-makers our own lives must be integrated as those who operate fully out of love for God and love for neighbor. Hypocrisy, lying, asking others to live faithfully when we privately cut ourselves huge amounts of slack simply must end.

Second, we recognize that we ourselves are incapable of “making” disciples in the sense that we can control the outcome. We throw ourselves and our ministries onto the grace of God and seek to live with faithfulness. That may mean being huge risk-takers at times which could launch us into the public spotlight and bring about ministries with unusual growth. It may mean quiet and unnoticed ministry with the voiceless of society, living in poverty and finding contentment in obscurity.

We trust that the Spirit of God is working in the lives of those around us and recognize that ultimately, each of us must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We cannot decide for others specifically how his/her own journey to full love for God and neighbor will look. We can only model our own faithfulness and invite others into a similar commitment.

Third, we invite those who do seek to love God and neighbor most fully into the spiritual disciplines that we ourselves seek to master. We teach them to observe the Sacraments, to pray, to serve, to examine the self, to confess, to give, to offer hospitality and to live healthily by inviting them to work alongside us in transparency and vulnerability. We discover the power of the necessary committees of organizational life to be means of disciple-making. We learn that in raising money and setting budgets and repairing broken toilets and deciding on the color of the carpet in the Narthex and changing dirty diapers in the nursery that we are being the hands and feet and mind of Christ in all we do. We eliminate the sacred/secular division and bring all things into obedience to Christ.

Fourth, we lay down our lives for our enemies. We go to the cross for them and offer forgiveness to them at the moments of our most extreme agony. Here, we model for all what the love of God is all about.

Anonymous said...

Gary Bebop: It's a categorical mistake to assume that the matter of sexuality can be ignored or trivialized while we evangelize or make disciples. United Methodist leaders who know better from their theological training keep talking this way even as the church rolls on toward the abyss. More mindful theologians are telling us to wake up!

John JP Patterson said...

Hmmm... On May 22, a group of 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians in a press release suggested an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable... But nearly 90 percent of respondents to the new poll said The United Methodist Church should not split over issues related to human sexuality.

"I think one of the key points in this research is that the people surveyed don't see the issue of human sexuality as the sole driver for the mission of the church. It's one issue but not the sole driver that should determine whether we split or not. They are saying there are many important expressions of mission and ministry that also require attention. Foremost among these is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
-- Rev. Larry Hollon, United Methodist Communications

Anonymous said...

And so according to this survey we should do away with all emphasis toward women/racial/immigration issues. Which are three large areas that the UMC and leaders spend an incredible amount of time/energy/$$$. The laity (those who pay the bills) according to this survey would say to stop doing this at a national level. Yet just like this will not change I am sure the continue strive over "selective truths and hard truths" will continue and even become louder as we approach Portland 2016.

Unknown said...

There is so much to appreciate in this post. I agree with much here.

But we do need to address the disagreement over homosexuality if we are going succeed in youth involvement and growth in discipleship.

And I must object to your saying: "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?" Have you not seen reviews of the most cited, well-written and best read books of 2014 addressing this very topic from an LGBTQ or ally perspective? I refer to the books by Janes V Brownson, Matthew Vines and James Gushee? Each from an affirming evangelical perspective. Each advocates a Bible-based ethic of chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.

I'm quite active in RMN circles as well as in the on-going cross-spectrum dialog that has been ramping up. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of Methodists affirming of LGBTQ inclusion in the church and same-sex marriage and ordination support a single standard of Christian sexual ethics. It is the same one the BoD gives for straight members and straight candidates, except we support that same standard applied to equally to straight and gay relationships.

My opinion as a happily 26-year married straight man and parent (of two 20-something's, one queer and one straight) is that all of us individually and as a society are best served by chastity in singleness and faithfulness in lifelong marriage. Obviously the church has a more nuanced view of singleness (for straight kids anyway) and it's beyond this comment to address it all; but consistency is essential. The church should see its mission and witness is not just undermined by alienating gay folk, but indeed our witness is compromised among straight youth too who are turned off by heterosexism and hypocrisy.

As a southerner now living in the north, and as a lifelong Methodist, I greatly value members from all across our theological spectrum and feel this diversity also contributes to the strength of our connexion. I don't think we can or should just sweep this controversy under the rug. We must not exclude those whom God includes. But we can get past it by getting rid of discriminatory man-made rules and/or stopping coercive complaints and trials.

James W Lung said...

I was not aware Dick Cheney has carefully considered what the Bible says on any issue. Political conservatives are all over the place on lgbqt issues; orthodox Christians are not.

The average UM member is not highly concerned with gay issues for the same reason Jesus most likely did not express his view on homosexual sodomy. That same-sex sex is sin is so intuitively obvious that only the very blind or the perverse argue to the contrary. Authorize gay marriages in UM churches and see how “bent out of shape” the masses suddenly become.

If we really want to do a round table on this issue, we ought to include the underlying claims of those who would capitulate to the homosexual lobby. The UMC has never had a healthy discussion of the claims of the pro-gay lobby that 1) homosexuality is innate and 2) “homosexuals” (so-called) cannot change.

We’ve never had this discussion because the Social Principles as originally drafted assumed without argument what Paul Ramsey called the “avant guard” position of the sexual liberation movement on every issue it could, and especially on homosexuality.

We will never have the difficult covenantal discussion we need because our leaders — the Bishops and most clergy — have no concept of what a biblical anthropology entails and are far more interested in preserving pensions than shepherding the flock.

Ordination of women is a red herring. You correctly point out that there is much in scripture specifically supporting ordination of women.

In the same way, our accommodation of the current divorce culture is also a red herring. We don’t have serial fornicators and adulterers demanding that the Church stop calling fornication and adultery sin.

James Lung

Dennis Sanders said...

I just wanted to say thanks for the blog post. I'm a Disciples of Christ pastor that married my partner in 2007 and was legally married in Minnesota where we live in 2013. When it comes to same sex marriage, a lot has been talked about in the context of rights, but not about covenant. Thanks for bringing it up.