British Methodists Take Steps Toward Progressive Sexual Ethic

Methodist Central Hall in London

In an action taken July 3, the British Methodist Conference voted 247-48 to approve a report titled God in Love Unites Us. The report marks a “watershed moment in the life of the Methodist Church in Britain,” according to Methodist Evangelicals Together, the British Methodist renewal group.

The report includes these proposals:

  • Allow same-sex couples to marry in British Methodist churches, changing the definition of marriage to “two people” from “one man and one woman”
  • Celebrate civil partnerships of the same sex or opposite sex with church liturgies and prayers
  • Profess understanding for couples who cohabit without marriage, providing prayers for blessing their relationships, thereby abandoning Christian teaching that the sexual relationship is to be reserved only for marriage

Regional district conferences will now discuss these proposals and the full report before final approval would be enacted at the 2020 British Methodist conference. Anticipating that final approval, a task group is already at work developing the requisite prayers and liturgies.

The conference’s action is not a surprise, given that the report notes, “the Conference has already decided that there is no reason why any member, ordained or lay, may not enter into a (same-sex) civil partnership or same-sex marriage.” So married or partnered lesbians or gays can already serve as clergy in British Methodism.

How this action creates a “watershed” is in its change of the definition of marriage and its change in the formal understanding of human sexuality no longer being reserved for marriage. These changes have caused the Anglican Church of Britain to slow down plans for mutual recognition of ministry and eventual reunion between the Anglicans and Methodists in Britain.

The British Methodist proposal also envisions the possibility of “hold[ing] together in practice as a Christ-centred community of equal persons who hold differing convictions about relationships and marriage.” This idea is very similar to the One Church Plan approach rejected by the 2019 United Methodist General Conference.

The evangelical critique of the British Methodist proposal calls the report “unbalanced” and faults it for:

  • Failing to fully account for Scriptural teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to recognize two millennia of consistent Church teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to attend to the voices of Methodists and other Christians around the world today, placing the British proposal outside the mainstream of global Christian teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who choose a life of celibacy in obedience to the church’s teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who “have entered into traditional marriages and found God’s call to them there”
  • Ignoring the experience of Jesus, a single, celibate Jewish rabbi, and of the apostle Paul, who also lived a single, celibate life

The evangelical critique responds, “The notion that sexual ethics can be an area of legitimate disagreement within the Church is one that needs to be challenged. For Paul, as for all the early Christians, the call to holiness involves the call to sexual purity. Indeed, ‘sexual immorality’ – sex outside the bond of marriage – is consistently included within the lists of sins from which Christians need to flee.”

The critique echoes the same objections that Good News leveled against the One Church Plan. “Even if they would not be required to marry same-sex couples, Methodist ministers will be asked to commit to a new teaching on marriage that contradicts their convictions. Many will find it impossible to do so. Methodist local preachers and other lay people will also find it difficult to teach the biblical view of marriage, and their desire to appoint ministers who continue to hold the traditional view could be dismissed as homophobic. The Church would adopt a teaching on marriage that many would deem is unfaithful.”

The critique continues, “If the Methodist Church adopts a centrally authorised liturgy that offers marriage to same-sex couples or affirms God’s blessing on cohabiting partners, then it is difficult to deny that this is what the Church believes and affirms. Even if individual members dissent from using this liturgy, they will be part of a church that has significantly changed its teaching on sexuality and relationships, and ultimately on holiness. A ‘mixed economy’ model will not work. The Church is not called to accommodate two different approaches to holiness in its midst, but must rather remain faithful to the biblical teaching on marriage.”

“Far from offering a way forward for the Church, God In Love Unites Us threatens to separate Methodism from its biblical foundations. The report fails to help Methodists live more faithfully before God, and hinders the calling of the Church to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.'”

The critique concludes, “Any move away from the [current church teaching] will deliberately fracture the unity of the Church and place a number of those who have entered, in good faith, into a covenant relationship with the Church in an untenable position. It is inevitable that changes within society will pose new questions which the Church must seek to answer. However, rather than changing its teaching to fit those developments, the task of the Church is to interpret the developments in the light of its historic, biblical teaching, and thus preserve its unity.”

Our British Methodist cousins are engaged in the same struggle in which we United Methodists are currently involved. The changes proposed by their conference are even more far-reaching than those proposed in our church. We continue to pray for our British cousins as they work through the next year of discernment. We encourage them to know they are not alone in wrestling with these difficult issues. It remains to be seen how the Brits will move forward, but they may find themselves with the same fracturing we are currently experiencing.

Our trust is in God, and our hope and prayer is that out of the fracturing will come more robust and effective expressions of global Methodism.

 

 

 

The Consent of the Governed

It is a concept entrenched in modern Western culture that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, United States). To be governed without our consent is the definition of what the Declaration calls tyranny, or in modern terms we would call dictatorship (by either an individual or a powerful group).

While the church is a completely unique entity compared to a national government, this understanding applies to our denomination, as well. Clergy voluntarily assent to submit to the government of the church by taking vows of ordination. Laity voluntarily submit to the government of the church by affirming the vows of baptism and church membership.

It has become strikingly evident over the past several months that a significant part of The United Methodist Church no longer gives its consent to be governed by the church, despite those vows. German and Scandinavian church leaders have declared they will investigate becoming autonomous churches rather than submit to the decisions of the St. Louis General Conference. Several bishops in the U.S. have announced that they will ignore what the General Conference enacted and operate their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed. Up to a half-dozen practicing homosexuals have been ordained or commissioned in U.S. annual conferences in defiance of the longstanding prohibition in our Book of Discipline. Over a dozen U.S. annual conferences have passed resolutions rejecting the decisions made by the St. Louis General Conference.

Influential mega-church pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, has stated, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” How exactly does that play out when thousands of local United Methodist congregations say the exact same thing, withholding apportionments and resisting pastoral appointments?

How can The United Methodist Church continue without the consent of its bishops, annual conferences, clergy, and members?

In the colonial era, the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that, when a form of government no longer has the consent of the governed or becomes destructive to the purposes for which that government was established, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the justification for the American Revolution.

This spring, in response to the General Conference decisions, the moderate and progressive wings of the church in the U.S. and parts of Europe have decided to revolt against the government of the church and to establish a different foundation on principles amenable to the majority of church members in those parts of the church. We see this in the examples of disobedience cited above and calls to “resist.” In addition, those favoring same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons are determined to reverse the outcome of St. Louis through the perfectly acceptable means of electing more progressive General Conference delegates in some annual conferences.

Yet were the progressive/moderate coalition able to undo what General Conference decided, either explicitly or implicitly allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, the traditional wing of the church in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Europe would no longer be able to grant the church their consent to be governed by a policy that they see as a direct contradiction of Scripture. The current situation would simply be reversed, with a different group withholding consent.

Even if the 2020 General Conference continues to affirm the traditional definition of marriage and sexual ethics, progressives have stated they will refuse to abide by the church’s policies. Based on apparent success in electing progressive and moderate delegates to the Jurisdictional Conferences, they believe they will have the votes to elect at least a dozen bishops who will refuse to enforce the church’s standards and will carry on the revolution.

Our church is now unquestionably in a constitutional crisis, where our ecclesiastical framework appears to be unable to resolve the conflict. We have two irreconcilable positions, and one faction is willfully choosing to violate the constitutionally established processes of the church. “Resist” is the mantra of the moment, but this will lead to long-term ecclesiastical paralysis, loss of legitimacy, and eventual collapse.

We have one part of the church government (some bishops and annual conferences) choosing to willfully violate church law established by another part of the church government (General Conference) operating under its constitutional authority. This after the law was affirmed by a third part of church government (Judicial Council). So we have different parts of church government operating against each other. What makes this a crisis is that there appears to be no mechanism for resolving the dispute, since some no longer accept the authority of General Conference and see it as “illegitimate.”

There is a safety valve for the church to deal with irreconcilable conflict, in that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded people. When people are no longer of like mind, they can choose not to associate (or can disassociate). Many tens of thousands of United Methodist lay members have chosen over the past 25 years to disassociate from a church they no longer agree with. Many have left because the church has become too progressive, while others have left because the church has remained committed to a traditional reading of Scripture.

Since the current church government has lost the consent of a large group in the church, it cannot continue the way it is. One group will not consent to a church government that does not allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Another group will not consent to a church government that does allow those things. So that means at least two new church governments will need to be established – one for progressives and one for conservatives. Whether either group will need to split into more factions is yet to be determined.

It is difficult for many to accept that we have reached this point. However, by their actions and statements, many progressives and moderates have established that they can no longer bear with the traditional position that has been consistently affirmed by our General Conference for 47 years. They are unwilling to allow the church to insist that its bishops and clergy function according to the General Conference’s reading of Scripture and under the General Conference’s authority.

There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.

 

 

Traditionalists Secure General Conference Majority

General Conference 2020 will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis.

With nearly all the annual conferences in the U.S. having voted, it appears that a sufficient number of traditional-minded delegates have been elected to assure a narrow but clear traditionalist majority at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. These delegates will be able to prevent the overturning of parts of the Traditional Plan that were enacted in St. Louis, will seek to enact revised versions of the parts of the Traditional Plan that were not enacted or ruled unconstitutional, and will press forward with other reforms to position The United Methodist Church as a more vital church capable of fruitful and growing ministry in this 21st century.

One of the goals of caucus groups such as Uniting Methodists, Mainstream UMC, UMC Next, and other moderate and progressive groups was to elect enough moderate and progressive delegates to the 2020 General Conference to reverse the decisions made in St. Louis to begin implementing the Traditional Plan. At this point in the annual conference election cycle, our analysis concludes they have failed to achieve that goal.

Enough U.S. traditionalist delegates have been elected that, together with conservative delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, the traditional position should have the majority in Minneapolis. Four of the 55 annual conferences have yet to finish their meetings. Two of them (Virginia and Western North Carolina) have the potential to elect additional conservative delegates. At this point, 432 of the 482 U.S. delegates to General Conference have been elected.

Some annual conferences gained traditionalist delegates, while others lost traditionalists. At this point, the traditionalist delegate count is down 15 percent from the St. Louis General Conference. That still leaves enough traditionalist U.S. delegates to assure a majority. This calculation is based on the reporting of reliable analysts in each annual conference. It also takes into account the possibility of up to 10 percent of the central conference delegates being unable to participate due to inability to obtain a visa. Should all the central conference delegates be able to attend General Conference, the traditionalist margin would be even larger.

Both sides of the debate organized to promote like-minded candidates for election as delegates. Lists of candidates were recommended and shared via email, text, message group, and old-fashioned paper. People on both sides solicited support via phone calls, emails, and personal conversations. The unprecedented level of organization fostered a much more overtly political flavor to the elections. What in the past had been mostly hidden in behind-the-scenes maneuvering became publicly transparent, as groups worked to get their candidates elected.

It became clear in the elections that most moderate clergy voted with the progressives and against the Traditional Plan approach to the definition of marriage and sexuality. As noted in a previous Perspective, all of the loss of traditionalist delegates fell on the clergy side.

We have heard anecdotally that a substantial number of the delegates elected were not part of the 2016-2019 delegation. If true, this shift may bring a number of inexperienced delegates into the process. If it results in fresh ideas and new resolve to end the conflict in our church, it could provide momentum toward a resolution. However, it is also possible that inexperience could handicap the delegates’ ability to accomplish what they want. Future analysis should give us greater insight into this dynamic.

Another lesson from the elections is that our “winner-take-all” system of democracy does not give adequate representation to minority viewpoints. If the majority vote together as a block, they can elect 100 percent of the delegates, even if as many as 49 percent of the annual conference holds a different view. Fully one-half of the annual conferences that have voted elected a delegation that is either all-traditional or all-progressive/moderate. Since most of these one-sided conferences elected a progressive/moderate slate, it means that many evangelicals will not be represented at General Conference. In the same way, the annual conferences voting an all-traditionalist slate will leave moderates and progressives in those few annual conferences unrepresented. One wonders if a more proportional representation from the annual conferences (similar to the parliamentary system of government) might have led to even greater evangelical representation.

While there are sometimes benefits to a “winner-take-all” system in terms of helping the body reach a clearer decision, it comes at the expense of leaving groups of people unrepresented. The end result is probably a more polarized delegation and one less inclined to compromise in general. One hopes that the 2020 delegation will be willing to compromise on non-essential issues in order to reach a definitive solution to our conflict.

Now that the election results are becoming clear, it seems apparent that U.S. moderates and progressives will be unable to reverse the decision by the global United Methodist Church in St. Louis to maintain the biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman, continue to prohibit same-sex weddings, and increase accountability to the covenant freely promised by all of our church’s clergy. That fact should give pause to those unwilling to live by that decision. Rather than continue a fruitless battle, delegates from all perspectives should coalesce around a negotiated plan that will provide space between the groups and multiply the options for Wesleyan Methodist ministry. Such an approach is the healthiest and most Christ-like way forward for our church.

 

 

What Loving LGBTQ Ministry Could Look Like

At the St. Louis General Conference and since, conservatives have often been accused of being hateful, bigoted, and punitive toward LGBTQ persons. We frequently hear quoted “Do no harm!” and “Love your neighbor!” These statements are aimed at the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and that the practice of homosexuality (as well as any other sexual relationship outside marriage) is contrary to God’s will.

The statements imply that the traditional view is unloving, but that is because we have different understandings of what love looks like. Perhaps it would be helpful to flesh out how traditionalists might engage in loving ministry with LGBTQ persons. (Obviously, in a blog post I will only be able to hit the high spots, rather than delving into the details of each person’s situation.)

From a traditional perspective, love seeks the best for the other person. The problem becomes discerning what the “best” is. We know that we have trouble understanding what is best for ourselves. In the same way, it is also risky to accept another person’s discernment about what is best for them as always being right. The way out of this dilemma is to trust that God knows and has revealed what is best for us. The Bible teaches us the way of righteousness and holiness, leading to living at our best. As Psalm 19 explains, the precepts of the Lord are “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is much reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Loving God and seeking God’s ways (not our own) is the first and greatest commandment for a reason. We too often impose our human judgment in replacement of what God has revealed to us.

To love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer persons as our neighbor means to treat each one with love, respect, and kindness as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Therefore, there is no room for insults, put-downs, joking comments at their expense, foul language directed at them, or violence of any kind. On a human level, LGBTQ persons should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule.

As Christians and out of love for others, we are compelled to share the love of Christ with our friends and neighbors so that they may come to know him as Savior and Lord of their lives. That includes our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. We will never help move a person closer to Jesus by harshly condemning them, insulting them, or mistreating them in any way. Rather, in a winsome and invitational way, we seek to introduce people to Jesus because we know and love him ourselves. We know that apart from him — gay, straight, or questioning — we are all lost and separated from God, so we seek to bring others closer to God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).

In our conversations, we should not insist that gay people become straight before they can come to God, just as we do not insist that others of us have our lives all together in order to come to God. Rather, we come as we are, with only “the desire to flee the wrath to come,” as John Wesley put it. As we respond to God’s grace expressed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to change from the inside out. We journey with Christ toward becoming the person he created us to be.

To love LGBTQ persons is to fully embrace and support them in their journey of discipleship. None of us is meant to walk that journey alone. We are assigned the task of “watching over one another in love,” as Wesley put it. We stand not in judgment over one another, but as fellow pilgrims traveling toward the common destination of becoming perfect in God’s love. For many lesbians and gays, it will mean a life of celibacy, meaning that we the church will need to help form that supportive community and provide a family relationship as the embodiment of God’s love.

To love LGBTQ persons is to teach clearly, lovingly, and sensitively what God requires of us — gay, straight, or questioning — in all aspects of life. In this era of “designer religion” where we are each tempted to create our own belief system, it is imperative that we begin to learn and understand the truth from God’s perspective. We do so in humility, knowing that none of us can perfectly understand that truth, nor do we always live up to what we know. Instead, we seek together to grow in our understanding of the truth, faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God’s intent for the exercise of his good gift of human sexuality has become clear in Scripture, as interpreted and understood by over 1,200 years of Jewish history and the additional 2,000 years of the Christian church. Some who propose to change the definition of marriage to include persons of the same gender may not fully appreciate what it means to say that every single biblical scholar of the church, bishop, and defender of the faith for 2,000 years has been wrong in their understanding of God’s word. The heavy weight of that much accumulated wisdom and piety is not to be lightly cast aside by a majority vote of a General Conference.

It is not my task here to argue the biblical case for one man-one woman marriage. I would refer the reader to Richard Hays’ masterful chapter in his volume, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (chapter 16). Ambitious scholars desiring a more thorough examination of the biblical and cultural evidence may turn to The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon.

To love LGBTQ persons is to not set ourselves above them, as if we were somehow superior. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we, too, stand in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation. No one’s sin is worse than another’s. Heterosexuals, no less than LGBTQ persons, need to learn God’s ways and discipline ourselves to keep them by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

We may never lose the attraction toward sin, whether it is greed, same-sex desires, the desire for that next drink, or whatever it might be. The gay person may never completely lose same-sex attractions. The alcoholic may never be able to safely take a drink. The greedy person may always want more than they have. But by the grace of God, the desire can weaken and lessen, until it has no more control over us. We can have the ability to say “no” to sin, despite whatever temptations we face.

On the other hand, some do experience deliverance from sin and a restoration to wholeness that allows them to no longer be tempted by sin. Some lesbians and gays have been healed and delivered to the point where they can enter into healthy opposite-sex marriages. We must not foreclose on God’s ability to supernaturally work in our lives.

We may never become “perfect in love” or without sin until we get to heaven. But we keep “attending upon all the ordinances of God” – those means of grace that strengthen our faith. We keep “consider[ing] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The ministry of love for all people, including LGBTQ persons, is the ministry of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit through a supportive Christian community. All of us are in equal need of that transformation, gay or straight. God will do what he promises, no matter what challenges we face in life, as we respond to the leading of his Holy Spirit. “And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).

 

 

 

Progress Report on Annual Conference Actions

We are halfway through the U.S. annual conference season. Annual conferences represent local churches and clergy in regional areas of the country. There are currently 55 annual conferences in the U.S. As of Friday, 29 of those annual conferences have met.

Several of the annual conferences have passed resolutions opposing the 2019 General Conference enactment of the Traditional Plan. Some of these have been challenged by a question of law because they commit the annual conference to not enforcing the Book of Discipline. Other resolutions are legal because they merely register an opinion. Some other annual conferences have defeated or refused to consider such resolutions opposing what the General Conference did.

In addition, Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and North Texas have ordained or commissioned openly gay clergy. The woman ordained in North Texas is living in celibacy, so she qualifies for ordination under our standards. The two clergy in Baltimore-Washington and one in Northern Illinois are living in same-sex marriages, so they definitely do not qualify. One of the two gay persons commissioned in Michigan is living in a same-sex marriage and thus does not qualify, while the other is not and so apparently does qualify.

This effort on the part of some annual conferences to explicitly defy the Discipline is part of the “resist” campaign fostered by progressives and moderates. Because they do not agree with what the church has decided, they are refusing to go along with it.

The “resist” effort is best summarized by a statement made by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, convener of the UMCNext Conference, at the close of that conference. “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” A number of U.S. bishops have publicly stated that they are going to run their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed, regardless of what General Conference actually enacted. Such an approach demonstrates even more vividly the division that exists in our denomination. The divide has been deepened and moderates have generally moved in the direction of the progressives.

Nowhere has this shift been illustrated more than in the election of delegates to General Conference. Part of the agenda of the moderate and progressive coalition is to switch enough votes among the U.S. delegates to overturn the actions of the 2019 General Conference in 2020. The passion and anger among those opposed to the church’s position has motivated them to unprecedented efforts to elect sympathetic delegates. We have heard there has been a concerted effort to get many more retired clergy are attending annual conferences in order to vote for progressive candidates. We have also received reports of voter suppression in some annual conferences, where Licensed Local Pastors who meet the qualifications of the church Constitution have been denied the ability to vote for clergy delegates or have been required to provide extra paperwork, such as seminary transcripts.

So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.

Interestingly, all of the traditional delegate losses have come among clergy. Overall, traditional lay delegates have actually gained slightly in numbers. This result points to the fact that the clergy and the laity in our denomination are generally headed in different directions.

In the delegation in St. Louis, 46 percent of the traditional delegates were clergy. So far in the 2020 delegation, only 30 percent are clergy.

There are several possible reasons why the clergy vote has shifted dramatically to the left.

A Northern Illinois Conference ordained two deacons and seven elders, including an openly transgender deacon. Four were commissioned as provisional deacons, including two openly LGBTQ candidates. Video image from Northern Illinois Conference livestream.

Most obviously, many moderate clergy who in the past would have been “swing” voters, voting for both progressive and conservative candidates, have decided to cast their lot entirely with the progressives. This illustrates that there is no “middle” or “center” in the church anymore (if there ever was). All United Methodists are committed to the belief that all individuals are persons of “sacred worth.” There can be no compromise about that tenet.

At the same time, we have argued for a long time that one either supports the practice of homosexuality or one does not. There is no compromise or middle ground between those two positions. One either favors same-sex marriage in the church or one does not. One either approves of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as clergy or one does not. The decisions in St. Louis have sharpened the question for many who previously were trying to sit on the fence, and they have generally come down on the side of supporting the practice of homosexuality. One working definition of a “moderate” that has been floating around is that a moderate is a progressive who wants the change in the church to go slower.

In the clergy shift, we also see the influence of our United Methodist seminaries, nearly all of whom explicitly support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians as clergy. Many UM seminary presidents and deans signed statements before and after the special General Conference calling on the church to change its position. Many faculty at these institutions come from a progressive viewpoint-some very forcefully so. Many of our UM seminaries are taking steps to explicitly welcome and encourage LGBTQ persons to attend. Many UM seminaries emphasize social justice coursework and deemphasize biblical study. For many of them, the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written is optional. This approach to theology and the advocacy for LGBTQ equality deeply influences students at a formative time in their lives, leading to a clergy that is substantially more liberal than the laity who make up the people in the pews.

Clergy also tend to be institutionalists. We naturally gravitate toward protecting the institution of the church, since it is our livelihood and career. Many moderates believe the best way to protect the institution is to make it more relevant to the culture in which we live. They have bought into the mistaken assumption that a progressive Gospel will attract more members than a traditional one – a false premise that has yet to materialize into reality within any of our progressive mainline sister denominations.

Furthermore, when clergy hear a consistent progressive message from their bishop and other conference leaders, who also tend to be disproportionately progressive, they bow to that pressure. After all, if “getting ahead” or receiving a good appointment depends upon upholding the “party line” of the bishop and leadership, that is the direction many clergy will go.

Ironically, in a quest for diversity, the church is becoming less diverse. We are hearing that more and more of the delegates are coming from metropolitan areas, rather than rural churches. Support for traditional theological approaches is waning. Other mainline denominations have found that growing more progressive means growing older, whiter, and smaller. That may be where the moderate and progressive wing of the church is headed.

As we argued in the lead-up to St. Louis, many moderates would be willing to tolerate the presence of evangelicals in the church, as long as the moderates and progressives get to do ministry the way they want. Now that the church is trying to get serious about seeing that clergy live by its policies, however, they are singing a different tune. Many moderates cannot be in a church that does not allow progressives to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing gay and lesbian clergy. So they have cast their lot with the progressives.

The result of this approach would be to jettison most of the global church and adapt United Methodism to current American culture. That is the direction being chosen by many in these important delegate elections. That is the opposite direction from where most evangelical United Methodists would like to see the church move.

Since different parts of the church are headed in different directions, it would make more sense to allow the different parts to separate and move unencumbered in the direction they believe their ministry should go. It remains to be seen whether that is the approach moderate and progressive leaders are willing to take.

 

 

Rejoinder to Rebekah Miles

The Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles recently invited her readers to join her going down the “rabbit hole” into the “Alice in Wonderland” that is currently The United Methodist Church. The point of her post is to critique elements of the Traditional Plan and encourage her readers to worry about what it might mean if the rest of the Traditional Plan is enacted at General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.

Although I would not use her over-the-top rhetoric, I do see truth in her short-term prognosis for United Methodism. “Conservative groups will keep pushing for legislative accountability, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. Progressives will keep pushing the limits of that accountability through increasing ecclesial disobedience, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. And many moderates, horrified by the draconian extremes of the So-Called-Traditional Plan, are finally ready to join them. Nobody will back down. And as far as I can tell, all of us believe we are acting according to conscience and in loyalty to the people with whom we are in ministry.”

In Miles’ mind, the solution is “to find a way either to amicable separation or a profoundly new form of unity.” She refers interested readers to her chapter in a recently published anthology. “I make a more sustained case for separation or significant restructure in my article, ‘When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the United Methodist Church,’ in Where do We Go From Here? Honest Responses from 24 United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed. (Market Square Publishing, 2019)”

Although we come at this solution from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, Miles and I ultimately arrive at the same place. The only healthy way forward for The United Methodist Church is some form of separation. (So far, proposals to resurrect the Connectional Conference Plan or some other “significant restructure” into a “new form of unity” have failed to attract concrete ideas or substantial support.) I think we would both agree that finding our way to that reality in an amicable way that is generous of spirit would be a significant witness to our faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. Where I part ways with Miles is over her caustic characterization of the Traditional Plan as containing “draconian extremes” that “horrify” many moderates.

The way Miles describes the Traditional Plan, it sounds like the provisions of the Traditional Plan were dreamed up by some mad church scientist having a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a description ignores the context and history of our church and how we got to this point. As a colleague portrayed it to me, this would be similar to being late to attend a play. Walking in during intermission and starting the story with the second act of the play, one would have missed the first act. The reason why the characters are acting the way they are would make no sense because the foundations for their actions in the first act were missed.

Act One of the United Methodist drama is a 30-year-long story of increasing disregard for the teachings and standards of the church and for the ability of General Conference to make decisions on behalf of the whole church. This act included a number of high points such as incidents involving the “Sacramento 68,” Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Karen Dammen, Beth Stroud, and resolutions passed by up to a dozen annual conferences repudiating the teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality, including innovative legislative strategies aimed at circumventing church requirements. The list could go on.

The climax of Act One, however, was the series of events beginning in 2011, when hundreds of UM clergy signed statements indicating their willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Bishop Melvin Talbert twice invaded another bishop’s territory for the purpose of performing high-profile same-sex weddings, while calling for increased disobedience. Some bishops began settling complaints against clergy performing such weddings by first a 24-hour suspension, then no consequences at all, and finally even giving these clergy a platform to promote disobedience in their annual conferences. About a dozen annual conferences officially declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline and boards of ordained ministry openly recommended self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

This growing bishop and clergy rebellion in some parts of the U.S. led to the realization at the 2016 General Conference that the situation in our church was untenable. A group of respected leaders asked the bishops to create a commission to develop a plan for amicable separation of the denomination. Instead the Council of Bishops recommended a Commission on a Way Forward to try to keep the denomination together.

Act Two began with the work of the Commission, which resulted in three alternative “ways forward” that would preserve some amount of unity in the church. The Connectional Conference Plan was a “significant restructuring” of the church, for which Miles recognized the need. However, neither end of the theological spectrum (nor the moderate institutionalists) embraced the restructure option. This left two “winner-take-all” options.

The One Church Plan would dramatically change the church’s teachings and allow same-sex weddings and ordination, at which change conservatives indicated they would have to withdraw from the denomination. (Tellingly, many moderate institutionalists were dead-set against allowing anyone to leave and refused to consider any kind of exit path. They wanted to force unity, even at the cost of people’s consciences and the prospect of a multitude of lawsuits.)

The Traditional Plan was an attempt to restore accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the General Conference, while providing a gracious exit for those who could not live with the current standards of the church. Here again, it is important to note that many moderate institutionalists refused to allow for a gracious exit, even for themselves. Instead, they did all they could to obstruct the Traditional Plan and attempt to prevent the General Conference from making any decision at all.

The key to this narrative is that the Traditional Plan would not have been necessary at all, except that the instruments of unity – primarily some bishops and annual conferences – failed to maintain the unity of the church by enforcing the Discipline’s requirements. Over the past 30 years, it has been the escalating disobedience that has forced the General Conference to take repeated actions to close loopholes and adopt punitive measures to ensure compliance. Without such compliance, the church would experience chaos and a constitutional crisis. Ironically, that is where we are now, at the end of Act Two, in chaos and constitutional crisis.

For Dr. Miles to write as if the Traditional Plan were developed in a vacuum is unhelpful as various factions discuss the future in good faith before we arrive in Minneapolis. Her comments in this instance can be seen as both disingenuous and misleading. Nitpicking individual provisions of the Traditional Plan with scaremongering rhetoric misses the bigger picture described above.

Moderates such as Miles had a chance to help the church move into a healthier place in 2016 by either ending the disobedience or helping the church to consider a plan of separation. They did neither. Instead, they attempted to force an artificial unity on the church that is belied by the differing foundational theological commitments held by progressives and conservatives. Failing in that attempt, they are now engaging in the very same divisive and schismatic actions they have accused conservatives of contemplating over the years, but magnified ten-fold. When the shoe is on the other foot, the standards for behavior and expectations change radically.

What will Act Three hold? Will the confrontation simply escalate until the church explodes? (Think of the movie, War of the Roses.) Or will there be partners across the theological spectrum willing to work together to formulate a fair and reasonable plan of separation that allows the groups with contradictory theological commitments to walk apart, while retaining the possibility of cooperation in areas of agreement? One hopes that the public relations battle being waged by some on the left to demonize and misrepresent the Traditional Plan and its supporters does not make such cooperation impossible.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe (Part II)

A recent survey by United Methodist Communications indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

In a previous blog, I examined the implications of this finding. Last week I delved more deeply into specific beliefs United Methodists hold about Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith. Today, I want to look at some other Christian doctrines and what United Methodists believe about them.

The Bible

What do United Methodists believe about the Bible? The survey posed a number of statements about the Bible, from which respondents had to choose one. Three of the statements emphasized the divine origin of Scripture, with different levels of trust in the specifics:

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, some verses symbolic.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual or historic errors.”

Traditionalists were nearly equally divided between these three statements (30, 28, and 30 percent). Moderates decisively preferred the third statement (47 percent), while 15 percent approved the first statement and 26 percent the second. Liberals also preferred the third statement (37 percent), while distancing themselves from the first statement (4 percent) and moderately supporting the second (22 percent).

Strikingly, 88 percent of both traditionalists and moderates affirmed the inspiration of Scripture (approving one of the above three statements), while only 63 percent of liberals did.

One-third (34 percent) of progressives supported the human origins of the Bible by affirming one of these two statements:

  • “The Bible is not inspired. It tells how writers understood the ways and principles of God.”
  • “The Bible is just another book of teachings written by men.”

Less than ten percent of moderates and conservatives agreed with either of these statements.

The significant minority of progressives holding a low view of Scripture’s inspiration fits with the finding that only six percent of progressives chose Scripture as their most authoritative source in personal theology.

Encouragingly, only one percent across the board of all United Methodists thought that “the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.”

What is salvation?

As expected, 89 percent of traditionalists believe that “salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God,” while 80 percent of moderates and only 69 percent of liberals agreed. Fully 31 percent of liberals (and 20 percent of moderates) believe that “all people will die saved.” This strain of universalism is not consistent with our Wesleyan theology and acts as another brake on evangelism. (If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency to proclaim the Gospel.)

Disturbingly, only 33 percent of conservatives and 15 percent of liberals believe that “salvation is through faith alone,” while 67 percent of conservatives and 85 percent of liberals believe “salvation is a combination of faith and what we do in this world.” Salvation by faith alone is a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, of which we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary. As Protestants, we believe that good works follow from faith, but they do not contribute to our salvation. That depends upon faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his death and resurrection.

The influence of American evangelicalism on United Methodism is seen in the fact that 41 percent of conservatives believe that “once you are saved, you are always saved.” One-third of liberals and 37 percent of moderates agreed with this statement. One of the primary distinctives of Wesleyan theology (in contrast to today’s more common Calvinist theology) is that “a person can fall away and lose their salvation.” “Backsliders” (as they were once called) can return to faith through repentance and once again be in right standing with God. But it seems on this question many of our members are more Calvinist than Wesleyan.

Another cardinal Wesleyan doctrine is that “God’s grace is available to every person.” Our people have gotten that message, as it is affirmed by over 95 percent across the board. Mystifyingly, while 97 to 99 percent of moderates and conservatives believe in God as “creator of heaven and earth,” only 87 percent of progressives affirmed that statement.

Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of conservatives believe in a literal heaven, in contrast to 73 percent of progressives and 80 percent of moderates. At the same time, 82 percent of conservatives believe in a literal hell, in contrast to only 50 percent of progressives and 67 percent of moderates.

These beliefs about salvation do influence how effectively local churches proclaim and live out the Gospel. If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency or even any point in trying to get non-believers to believe in Jesus. The belief by supermajorities that “what we do in this world” impacts our salvation plays into the American emphasis on doing, rather than being, and upon the idea that we in some sense earn our own salvation. The prevalence of “once saved, always saved” thinking minimizes the need to authentically live out our faith and continue growing in our faith. Yet, even these three beliefs are contradictory, meaning that we have not helped our members think through a coherent and consistent theology of salvation.

Conclusion

The survey questions were not worded as carefully as I would have liked. Multiple interpretations of some of the questions could easily have somewhat distorted the results. However, taken together, I think the survey results show a clear theological difference between conservatives and liberals in general. Sometimes, moderates fall in the middle, but on many questions, moderates are closer to traditionalists in their views. It is this underlying theological difference that accounts for the depth of disagreement in our denomination. One might almost say that different groups in our church are operating according to different theological worldviews or different doctrinal systems. There are very few of the questions on which there is theological agreement.

Where there is much agreement and a small number of areas of disagreement, it is easier to preserve an overall unity and “agree to disagree” on those few issues of disagreement. However, where the disagreement seems clear and widespread over many issues, it is much more difficult to preserve unity. That is the situation that faces our church today.

The survey also makes it clear that systematic, clear teaching of United Methodist doctrine and theology is sorely needed in our churches. Perhaps we tend to focus so much on preaching and teaching that hits the “felt needs” of our people that we forget about the importance of laying the theological foundation on which the more practical teachings of the faith are based. And we have forgotten how practically relevant those foundational teachings really are. Our church’s ministry needs more theological depth.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part I)

A previous “Perspective” blog called attention to a survey conducted by United Methodist Communications that indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

This finding runs counter to the narrative that the “vast majority” of American United Methodists are moving in a more progressive direction, particularly on issues like marriage and sexual ethics. While the survey did not include questions specifically related to the denomination’s current controversy, the results pointed to a substantially conservative theological foundation for United Methodism in the U.S. Even when there is a clear difference between conservatives and liberals, a majority of liberals often affirm a traditional theological perspective. (Of course, one wonders if people might be using the same words, yet defining them differently based on different doctrinal perspectives.)

The online survey was aimed at laity who were members or regular attendees of United Methodist churches in the United States, but who do not serve as local church leaders. As such, the survey attempted to reach the ultimate “grass roots” of the church in order to gauge their beliefs on a number of theological points. Previous surveys have found that the farther up the “ladder” from the grass roots membership into the leadership of the church one ascends, the more theologically liberal are the beliefs people hold.

Who Is Jesus?

The most important aspect of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christian doctrine answers the questions Who is Jesus and What did Jesus do? Over 92 percent of United Methodists of all theological stripes believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.”

When asked if Jesus was “the son of God?” 98 percent of conservatives believed so, compared to 82 percent of liberals (moderates were at 92 percent). At the same time, nine percent of both conservatives and moderates said “Jesus was only human and not the son of God.” (The numbers do not add up properly here, so the results may not have been accurately reported. Alternatively, some may have answered both “yes” and “no” to the son of God question.) Notably, 16 percent of progressives asserted that Jesus was only human. This is a small percentage and reflects a relatively high view of Jesus Christ even among United Methodist progressives.

More than 35 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was only a religious or spiritual leader.” While 21 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of moderates agreed, 25 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was a great man and teacher but not divine,” compared with 20 percent of moderates and 15 percent of traditionalists. These answers do not fit well with the answers to the previous question “Was Jesus the son of God.” One can only assume that many members have only a fuzzy idea of what it means to call Jesus “the son of God.”

Strikingly, 48 percent of progressives thought “Jesus committed sins like other people.” One-third of conservatives and 38 percent of moderates agreed.

Fully 82 percent of conservatives believe “Jesus will return to earth someday.” Only 66 percent of liberals agreed, as well as 76 percent of moderates.

Finally, 94 percent of conservatives believe Jesus was conceived by a virgin. Only 68 percent of liberals agree, along with 82 percent of moderates.

The inconsistent answers to these questions about Jesus indicate we may not have done a very good job as a church of teaching our doctrines. Our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith teach that Jesus was indeed the son of God, that he is divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and that he will return again to earth. And the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not sin (II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, I Peter 2:22).

What did Jesus do?

Nearly all (98 percent) conservatives believe that “Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God,” while 96 percent of moderates agreed. By contrast, 84 percent of progressives affirmed that statement. The overwhelming majority of conservatives (95 percent) affirmed that “Jesus died so we could have eternal life” – 90 percent of moderates agreed, while 82 percent of liberals agreed. Disappointingly, 18 percent of liberals affirmed, “Jesus’ death has no impact on my eternal life.”

Not surprisingly, 86 percent of traditionalists believe “the only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Only 64 percent of moderates and 54 percent of liberals agreed. More than 35 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals believe “there are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.”

In accordance with an orthodox perspective, 98 percent of conservatives “believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Meanwhile, 90 percent of moderates and 81 percent of progressives believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Here again, the official teachings of our church affirm that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God, so that we could have eternal life. Our teachings hold that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. The divergence indicated by the survey answers pinpoints a need for clearer teaching of the main essentials of our faith.

The fact that so many moderates and progressives believe in multiple ways of salvation is a key factor in the decline of evangelism in the church. Why focus so much on Jesus if he is not essential to our salvation?

Conclusion

There is nothing more at the heart of our Christian faith than our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. It is encouraging that super-majorities of United Methodists hold to orthodox, traditional theological understandings.

Still, significant minorities of our members believe that Jesus is not God, calling into question the Trinitarian heart of our faith. This includes a significant number of progressives denying the virgin birth of Christ (one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed). Large numbers think that Jesus committed sins, just like the rest of humanity. And significant percentages do not believe Jesus will return to earth someday (another article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Next week, we will look at other beliefs of grass-roots United Methodists.

Why Traditionalists Are Not Leaving

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey observes the results from a Feb. 26 vote for the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

In a recent blog post, the Rev. Adam Hamilton outlined the results of two leadership meetings held to identify options for a way forward for The United Methodist Church from the perspective of moderates and progressives. He identified two options his groups are considering:

  1. Leave to form a new United Methodism
  2. Stay, resist, give the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century

Is Option 2 a realistic one? Will traditionalists really leave? Let’s take a closer look.

Traditionalists have not been eager to leave the denomination. It is a mistake to think traditionalists have “been looking for” a gracious exit. For over 50 years, Good News has enthusiastically encouraged evangelicals to remain in The United Methodist Church and help reform it. We have heard from hundreds of clergy and laity that they would have left United Methodism long ago, if it were not for Good News. Our ministry’s whole reason for existence is to help bring reform and spiritual renewal to The United Methodist Church, not to lead evangelicals out of the church. There have been multiple times over the past 25 years when leaving might have seemed like a good idea, if that were the direction Good News wanted to take. Yet we have steadfastly committed to staying and helping make the church better.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has consistently said that its goal is to reform United Methodism. It has stated that, if the church were to change its position in order to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, only then would the WCA seek an exit for those wanting to maintain the current, biblically-based teachings on marriage and sexuality. When it looked like the One Church Plan might pass the special General Conference, the WCA engaged in extensive contingency planning in order to be ready for such an exit, should it be needed. But exiting the denomination was never the first priority of the WCA.

To fair-minded observers in the broad center of United Methodism, it would be more than a little befuddling to ask traditionalists to leave after the General Conference adopted a Traditional Plan. It would not make sense for traditionalists to abandon the denomination when it affirms traditional standards on marriage and sexuality.

Readers of the proposal at General Conference knew that the gracious exit that was part of the Traditional Plan was primarily for those who could not live with the current requirements of the church. We acknowledged that there might be a few traditionalist congregations that might desire to leave because of their unique local circumstances, perhaps feeling isolated in an overwhelmingly progressive annual conference. But in an attempt to implement the Golden Rule of treating others as we would want to be treated, we sought to implement as generous an exit path as possible for progressives who could no longer live under the church’s Discipline. Ironically, it was the moderates and progressives who opposed an exit path and blocked our attempts to ensure it was constitutional. The very ones that it was for, rejected it.

Traditionalists believe that we stand in the line of the Wesleys and Asbury, Otterbein, Boehm, and Albright. We see ourselves as purveyors of the same doctrine, the same disciplined way of discipleship, and the same spirit that prompted the founding of Methodism in England and America. Justifiably, traditionalists would be reluctant to depart from that inheritance.

United Methodism’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics stand in continuity with 2,000 years of Church teaching and 135 years of Methodist teaching. It is those who want to jettison our teachings on marriage and sexuality who should be unencumbered to launch into a new direction with a new vision and a new denomination (Option 1 in Hamilton’s scheme).

Traditionalists are unwilling to abandon our brother and sister United Methodists outside the United States. Generally, United Methodists in Africa, most of the Philippines, and Eastern Europe and Eurasia hold to the same traditional perspective on marriage and sexual ethics as traditionalists in the U.S. They make up the vast majority of United Methodist members outside the U.S. Devoid of evangelicals and traditionalists in the U.S., our international brothers and sisters would have few partners left whom they could trust to share their theological perspective. It would set up a dynamic of conflict between U.S. United Methodists and those outside the U.S. Such a conflict would probably spell the end of a global United Methodist Church. Persistent attempts to create a U.S. central conference demonstrate the move away from global Methodism to national Methodism on the part of some. The hostile reaction of some moderates and progressives toward African and Russian United Methodists who spoke out for the traditional perspective at General Conference are harbingers of the coming conflict, should U.S. traditionalists leave the church.

Traditionalists believe we have the votes to fully pass and implement the rest of the Traditional Plan at General Conference 2020. With Africa gaining votes and the U.S. losing votes, and with the full ten-day time frame available, revised versions of the provisions that failed to pass in St. Louis or are declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council can be passed and implemented. The denomination can continue to move in a more traditional direction, opening the way for other reforms that can make the church more effective for 21st century ministry. Why would traditionalists leave when their prospects for further success in reforming the church are growing increasingly brighter?

There are many reasons why traditionalists are reluctant to leave The United Methodist Church. But traditionalists would be open to a mutually agreed separation that multiplies Methodism into two or three new denominations. In that case, no one would be “leaving” the UM Church, but everyone would be on the equal footing of deciding on a new affiliation with a new denomination.

A scenario of multiplying Methodism would seek to treat everyone fairly and equally. There would be no winners or losers. All annual conferences and local churches would be able to make an informed choice about which new Methodist expression they want to be part of. The consciences and convictions of all would be respected because all could belong to an expression that embodies their convictions.

The contingency planning that the WCA has done could provide the foundation for a new evangelical Methodist denomination. The current Discipline altered to include the Simple Plan or the One Church Plan could provide the foundation for a new progressive Methodist denomination. Both groups could modify and reform their church structures in a way each believes would best position the church to engage in 21st century ministry.

Unhindered by the theological conflicts over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexual ethics, each expression could focus more intently on its vision for mission and ministry. The possibility for two new vital expressions of Methodism could spark the turnaround that our denomination needs after 52 years of decline.

Multiplication/separation is a lot different than “leaving.” And Good News has maintained for a number of years that some form of separation, allowing different groups to follow their own path in ministry, is the only reasonable way to resolve our theological conflict.

Interestingly, this multiplying Methodism scenario is not included among the progressive/moderate options, based on Hamilton’s published report. It appears that some progressives and moderates may still be stuck in binary win/lose, leave/stay models that ensure continuing conflict, rather than leading to peaceful resolution. One hopes that they will be willing to entertain other options. If they are banking on traditionalists leaving The United Methodist Church, they are simply setting us all up for another hurtful and divisive General Conference.

 

 

 

The Church’s Foundation

After Notre Dame fire, a GoFundMe ensured black churches burned in Louisiana also got funds

Watching the fire consuming the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the evening news aroused a feeling of horror and helplessness. Would the whole building be consumed? Would priceless treasures from 850 years of history be lost? Would beautiful works of art and sculpture be destroyed? News in the aftermath provided hope that at least some elements could be preserved or restored.

More personal for many was the awareness that this cathedral was a working church, a place where children were baptized, marriages celebrated, departed loved ones remembered. And it was a cathedral not just of a particular parish, but of the nation of France, holding the place of sacred space for the crowning of monarchs, the celebrating of deliverance in war, and the mourning of national leaders. The loss of this place as it was threatens the precious memories of what was celebrated and remembered there.

These thoughts and feelings captured on a grander scale what other congregations have gone through, even recently, as three African-American churches were burned down in southern Louisiana, allegedly set afire by a young white man. The sanctuaries were St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre, as well as Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas.

These three churches each carried over 100 years of memories. One parishioner, Monica Harris, said, “Seeing the church in the condition it is now, it’s almost like losing a family member.”

The fact that the Notre Dame fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week added to the tragedy. This is the high point of the church year, when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, stretching from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring the trials and torture, his crucifixion, burial, and finally, triumphantly, his resurrection from the dead. There would have been services of worship scheduled for every day, with hours-long remembrances on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Now, where will the people worship?

In the midst of the tragedy, in the providence of God, perhaps we are to focus on the oft-repeated cliché that the church is not the building, but the people. As the Rev. Harry J. Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, put it, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.” The building is destructible, but the people of God is eternal. In fact, Jesus said the very gates of hell could not prevail against the Church.

On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus gave his body to be put to death for all of humanity, to reconcile us to God. We cannot fathom the immensity of the gift. Yet his spirit remained, and was endowed with a new, resurrection body for a new, eternal existence as the ever-embodied Son of God and Savior of the World. Church buildings can suffer destruction, but the Spirit of Christ can remain in the community of God’s people in that place, ready to be embodied in a new structure that can serve as the ongoing launching place for worship and ministry.

The most essential point of focus for Holy Week, however, is Jesus Christ himself. This week is all about him – what he did, what he said, what he allowed to be done to him. If it were not for the events of this week, there would be no Church, there would be no people of God. In instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), with the washing of the disciples’ feet, and even with his last words on the cross, Jesus was creating a new family – the family of God. We are joined together by him and because of him. (See the sermon by Fleming Rutledge posted on the Good News website.)

That is why my favorite hymn about the Church is The Church’s One Foundation written by a Church of England clergyman in 1866. It realistically describes the Church in all her glory and in all her fallenness. Through it all, Christ is the single foundation of the Church, for

She is his new creation by water and the Word.

From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Far from being narrow or parochial, the Church is

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.

This universal reach was seen in the outpouring of faith and sorrow by the internationally diverse crowds in Paris and condolences from around the world. The Church is a global community of faith encompassing every nation, race, gender, and language.

At the same time, the hymn is realistic in seeing the struggles of the Church.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,

Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

We long for things to be set right according to God’s perspective, and we grow weary of the struggle and impatient for God to act. But S. J. Stone, the hymn writer, encourages us that after the night of weeping comes the morn of song. On Good Friday, we remember that Easter Sunday is coming. God will make all things right once again.

She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;

Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,

And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

We press on to one hope, “with every grace endued.” In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of what seems like death, the Father pours his abundant grace out upon his children. We are sure, not of what we have, but of what we hope for. We are certain, not of what we see, but of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

We walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7), trusting that after death comes resurrection, believing God’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, whether the denomination divides, the church building burns down, or whatever in life we might experience. It is this hope, this faith, this certainty, that gives us confidence to face each day, not standing on our own powers and abilities, but built together by faith on the one foundation that can withstand all – Jesus Christ, our loving Lord.