My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).
There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.
This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.
I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.
I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.
The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”
Steve Harper continues his reflections on Holy Love by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Hermeneutic as offered by Richard Rohr captures the preference of “Christ Transforming Culture” rather than a “Christ of Culture” (as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested over fifty years ago).
The fourth vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is Christ, the one who reveals the creator (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), the one who made the creation (“ everything came into being through the Word,” John 1:3), and the one who is the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). So, everything we have said thus far comes together in Christ, and it does so through love (John 13:1).
One of the things I have heard people say about the relation between Christ and human sexuality is this, “I wish he had made it clear about sexual identities, orientations, same-sex marriage, etc. I have wished the same. I have thought, “If only I could spend five minutes with Jesus.” I have a list of questions. Human sexuality is one of them.
Scholars are correct in noting Jesus’ silence about homosexuality. And…
My daily morning dyspepsia is, I believe, related to long division problems. I am awake in the early morning, unable to find rest amid puzzles I can’t seem to solve. At about age eight, a teacher taught me “to do long division.” The moment was delicious — I could solve big numbers that before seemed too large. In my early teens, I discovered algebraic long division. Another revelation, a gift, a tool.
Today, my morning dyspepsia, is not so simple. This problem requires an institutional calculus. It is not division I seek: rather, it is the seeking ways to avoid so much dividing — it is greater unity I would like to cipher. Every theological and social instinct within me calls out for linkage, for connection, for common ground rather than a land of separation. Am I simply foolish, nostalgic, tied to some ancient vision of St. Francis bargaining with the wolf or his meeting with the enemies during the Crusades to discover ways of peace?
Why is our nation so tribal, so insistent on becoming a splintering galaxy of spinning ideological enclaves? In ways I suspect most of us don’t fully see, the corollary exists in the divisions of the United Methodist Church. Both nation and church are pursuing long division problems. They are here now, in part because in both nation and church, we have been on a path too long-dividing. Many forces and fractions have brought us to this point: the rise of social media and loss of common language; new cultural and economic ecologies where unemployment and poor community resources persist; much focus on personal and social grievance; churches that avoid their prophetic voice as they fear the loss of market share and numerical decline — all these additives, and more, have brought us to this whirlpool of distrust.
Let’s focus on United Methodism. Maybe if we untangle this a bit, or at least untie some of these knots, it will assist with other riddles. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for a division solution. It often happens like this – I am walking through fellowship hall at church and someone says, “What are we going to do?” I know what is meant but can’t help myself, I reply, “About what?” The answers are: “About the church.” “About the harm being done to LGBTQI persons.” “About damage to the United Methodist brand. ” “About the loss of our children who already think the church is out of touch with their worlds.” Or, I am entering a store downtown, a friend greets me and says, “What do you think is going to happen?” I play out the scene again. “About what?” I respond and I hear the same list of concerns.
Or, I get phone calls from friends around the country. (And, yes, I sometimes call them.) “What’s the latest you have heard?” “Which plan should we support?”
Add this to the daily news about presidential impeachments or government conspiracy and the result is dyspepsia along with a certain emotional and spiritual vertigo — right?
So, here are some thoughts about our long division problem in the church — these are a collection of hunches, perceptions, experiences, frequent early morning musings based on my faith journey and desire to be a follower of Jesus. Please note, these are not a plan, nor the son of a plan — no long division solution here. In fact, the PLANS I have seen are, to my mind, part of the problem. I almost chuckle at the plan of the week unveiled from some official or unofficial grouping of problem-solvers and I weep at the theological vacuity often evidenced.
I wonder if there aren’t several million plans out there among United Methodists around the world — one plan for each of the members of the denomination. Individualism and self-centered privilege lead us to find our corner with the like minded. We can shape things along with our gang and the lines of our personal preference. I think of Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely on June 25, 1819 wrote: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” My memory is that on another occasion Jefferson opined that he “carried his religious denomination under his hat.“
Well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) offer up new plans weekly. Some would divide the church into two groups, some three, some four. I have even heard of a plan for seven new denominations. At the same time I hear little of how these plans correspond with the great ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “they would be one” (John 17) or the message from Paul about the church as a body with many members (I Corinthians 12).
Most of the proposals that are trumpeted seem unaware of the lessons of church history or from Christians of other denominational families who have struggled with divisions in recent years. What might we learn from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that still speaks, five decades later, of “Forming Together” after the splintering of Southern Baptists? What lessons might our Pan Methodist friends teach us as some large congregations have split off from their fellowships? Or, what of the Lutherans, the Seminex story from the Missouri Synod Church, or the merger resulting in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the challenges they have faced? What lessons from the Assembly of God and splintering there? The Wesleyan Church? What might we learn from the United or Uniting Churches around the world (India, Canada, etc.) Or, what of lessons from our older sibling, the Episcopal Church.
Rather than a plan, I would offer some paradoxical thoughts, some ecclesiological assumptions, some prayerful hints for how we might proceed… with or without a plan. Paradoxical, yes, I propose them as cruciform. For they are. One clear assertion I will make is this: there will be no resurrection for us, no renewal apart from the cross. (In the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew there are the words like these “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… you will find it..) Here are seven paradoxes to explore.
I pray that any reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church will be: Centered in the Christ of scripture and Christ alive in our world today; shaped by prayer and a humble mystic spirit; a seeking of unity among all believers even as we resist efforts to harm; focused locally as essential to a global witness; open to the long-haul of history in order to be relevant today; ready for sacrifice in order to find abundance in unexpected places; and, opening our hearts to the story of others within and beyond our daily routines so as to sharpen our Wesleyan distinctives.
When have I seen us at our best? Not when we are arguing or devising our long division plans but rather when we are in mission with others. I see it when the gospel is shared and persons and communities are changed. I see it when bishops pray and invite all, especially those who disagree to a common table. When those who join that table represent the extraordinary array of those from multiple cultures and classes modeling together an invitation to live in our time and place in terms of God’s emerging kin-dom.
I see it in the thousands of places where our actions speak louder than our words. Where the “theology of the hammer” brings people together. I see it when the church works along the Mexican border and says in the name of Jesus, we will welcome these who are in need of sanctuary and we will not bear false witness against them. I see it when the church takes seriously its commitment to care for all creation.
I see it when I meet another United Methodist, from Africa, Zimbabwe. He tells me his name is “Blessing” and we laugh together when we talk about our mutual friends. Yes, he had taken some classes at Africa University. Yes, he was a student there when I visited that campus. We join in conversation about how we might heal a broken church, in order to set about healing a broken world. It is in surprises like this that my dyspepsia finds relief.
Each morning I read the news and think “I’ve seen this play before.” On a smaller stage but with the same general plot and same speeches by the lead actors. I was in the Republic of Panama in 1969 and 1970, teaching at the Methodist school, the Instituto Pan Americano. There, I had a front row seat to watch one of the early reality television stars, General Omar Torrijos Herrera.
Torillos came to power in 1968. It was a “soft” coup d’etat. It came following his involvement in election fraud, the formation of alliances with other dictators, an appeal to campesinos with legitimate grievances and the backing of a major news outlet, La Estrella. Torrijos was ridiculed by the elites as a “tinpot dictator.” He was known for his womanizing even as he posed as the devoted husband and father. He was open to playing all sides against the middle as long as he was the winner. Sound familiar?
“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes” is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain. There are differences between Omar and Donald; however, they play the same games of distraction, bullying and corruption. Watching POTUS every day, I am reminded of Torrijos. The only difference in these daily productions is that Omar was the better actor and did claim some moral minimums beneath which he would not bend. He had no need to claim to be a stable genius — he was smart enough to know that. Torrijos was self confident enough to allow the great novelist Graham Greene to write a book about his time as “ultimate leader.”
As I watch Donald’s tactics of prevarication and distraction I see parallels to Torrijos. (“You’re not really seeing what you are seeing. Look over here, no I meant over there.”) It is all theater of the absurd. It saddens me to watch the Grand Old Party turned into the practitioners of Banana Republicanism. Each day in this nation and time our moral influence is reduced, our constitutional commitments reduced to ashes. What’s next?
In 1970 Torillos felt his power waning, so set up what Latin Americans call an autogolpe — a phony, self designed and manipulated coup d’etat. I remember it well. The general was out of the country in Mexico for the horse races. The alleged take over was dramatically reported, although oddly the “rebels” didn’t plan to take over the television stations or the country’s second busiest airport in the city of David some 300 miles away. Aided by other nations, Torrijos flew back to David. He then made a triumphant journey down the spine of the country. The military was pre-positioned to welcome him as he was cheered in every town back to the capital. There was some gunfire in the capital city and a few arrested — but it was a carefully scripted television event.
I wonder, might our nation be experiencing something similar — an autogolpe in plain sight? Might POTUS, sensing a potential loss in the upcoming 2020 elections, be engaged in his own little deception? Let’s see, he needs an enemy who can be painted as corrupt who is trying to overthrow him. He needs a major news outlet to support his phony allegations. Uhm, let me think?
Torrijos, brutal and venal as he could be, did have some redeeming qualities and left some enduring accomplishments for his nation. I could name several like the agreement with President Carter for the Canal to be turned over to Panama and Torrijos’ commitment to help the underprivileged with universal health care and education. Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1981 at a point where he “seemed” to be moving in support of more democratic institutions.
Donald may leave behind a few accomplishments (I struggle to name many just now)… but at what expense to our moral and constitutional underpinnings? POTUS started with a nation rich in reputation, legacy and a commitment to pursuit of an ever more humane future for its citizens. He has spent many of these moral assets with little to show in return. In this way, the legacy and roles of these two men do not rhyme. One was a dictator who desired, in the end, to be honestly elected in a more democratic state — the other was surprised to be elected and has since evidenced increasing desire for dictatorial powers.