The Season of Splintering

The Season of Splintering

Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341.  The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law.  Somewhere.  Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.”  Somewhere.

There was nothing fixed by this.  This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist.  Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces.  And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something. 

It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people.  Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.”  This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church.  And, somewhere there is celebration.

The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status.  A fair process based on whose assessment?  Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place?  Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group?  Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?

Somewhere there is joy.  Somewhere hearts are light.  It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty.  They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen.  Is that it?

Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place?  Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences?  Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks?  Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.

I know something of the south and value so much of what I know.  My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary.  There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission.  At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown. 

Chapel was required at Asbury College.  My seat mate was Patty.  Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination.   If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.”  She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.”  Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.”  Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.

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Front of Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University

Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued.  Still Patty had it right, I think.  She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her.  Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.”  Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me.  Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.

In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago.  It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles.  Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.

The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism.  It arrives now in real and troubling ways.  In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins. 

I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father.  He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination.  As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education.  Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay.  I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.”  It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south.  I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?

I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations.  Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me.  It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth.  And I still think of Patty.

During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay.  And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay.  Somewhere there is celebration.   Not among these good folks.  We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.

Somewhere there is celebration.  I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.

Some may celebrate.  I weep, I grieve.  The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter. 

ReCentering Methodism

ReCentering Methodism

These are days of discontent and disruption (even despair) in United Methodism in the United States. Earlier this week, my friend Professor Ted Campbell speaking to a gathering of World Methodists said the following about the United Methodist denomination: “The question at this point is not whether we divide or not,” said Campbell, standing under a “One” sign that signified the unity theme of the conference. “That I fear is a given now.”[United Methodist News, 9-1-16

As a “cradle Methodist,” one who has lived and loved this Wesleyan expression of the church for more than seven decades, I have watched our common story as it is shattered apart.  As it unfolds I watch with the horrid fascination of someone who fears she is seeing a train wreck about to occur.   “A given?”  So says my friend.  I pray and hope Ted is WRONG.  Really, are we to divide over this?  This? 

Still, Professor Campbell’s comment has caused me to do much thinking about our denomination.  If we are going to speak of “givens,” I have a few to add.   Here are a few “givens” that have been firmly in place for too long and I would suggest have led to my friend’s stark assessment of our situation.

In his fine book Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe reflects on the cultural battles in our nation.  He notes James Davison Hunter’s statement that culture wars consist of “competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory.”  Wolfe continues regretfully, “The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase ‘culture wars’ is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”

Gregory Wolfe summarizes further: “Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.” Borrowing from Wolfe, I would adapt his statement to read that somewhere in our denomination’s history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than theology –especially our understanding of the church.  We stopped caring for the health of our institution and began to seek total victory through our politics.  Humility took a back seat to triumph.  Years ago, it became a given — raw politics replaced more generous theological discourse.  Outside forces played a role.  If “culture wars” are an oxymoron, shouldn’t theological wars be equally onerous?  (More on this in future.)

So, there is the previous “given” of politics being more salient than respectful theological discourse.  I would suggest two other “givens” that underpin this. 

It is increasingly scientifically clear that there are biological, hereditary contributors to  a person’s sexual orientation.  Year by year, the science keeps mounting — this research is a “given.”  It is not that United Methodists have been unaware.  In the 1980s and 1990s biological scientists like Sally Geiss were encouraging a more scientifically based view of human genetics.  However, by narrow majorities, the General Conference chose to ignore this work.  This, my friends, is another “given” that should be set along side the one Professor Campbell mentions.  We have been MADE by our creator to have differing sexual proclivities and desires.  I believe this is a “given” that should inform our theological reflection and transcend the political and the theological divisiveness we face.  I fear on this issue our denomination continues to operate with the ignorance of those who once believed the earth was flat, even in the face of solid scientific evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I suggest it is a “given” that the true disagreement among us, the issue that divides, isn’t primarily human sexuality but how we interpret scripture.  For years I have asked my friends, who wish to exclude homosexual persons from full participation in the church, to share with me their hermeneutic of scripture.  I ask on what basis they interpret the five or six passages of all of scripture that MIGHT refer to what we understand today as homosexuality?  How is it that my colleagues, with whom I disagree on this one matter, find more space to interpret scripture in less literal ways when it comes to divorce, the role of women in the church, support for slavery, polygamy, the eating of pork or even being left-handed?   How is there this latitude in interpretation on some important matters like divorce, slavery, the role of women and at the same time a restrictive interpretation of passages on homosexuality? 

I believe it is a “given” that until we can sit down respectfully and reason together about our interpretive approaches and differences, we will live more by political strategies than by theological respect.  As one wag recently confided in me, “I wonder if this increasingly openness to schism, to the dividing of the body of Christ first rests in an openness to divorce, even though Jesus spoke against it?  Perhaps once you accept divorce as normal, you are more open to a dividing of the church!”  Interesting and troubling thought, this — even as I find it slightly off key.

Another friend has said that there can be grace-filled endings of marriages, but there seem never to be grace-filled divisions of a congregation or denomination.  In this I fully agree.  Over the years I have watched the damage done by the exclusionary practices, theologies and splintering activities of the Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist denominations.  It is clear that the seeking of some mythical purity has left both groups less focused on mission and imaginative ministry.

It is my belief that United Methodism has been shaped by too many “givens” already, without our easily accepting another, even if it is proposed by the good Professor Campbell.  What if we worked on some other prior givens like: politics being more highly valued than theology, the scientific evidence we have at hand, or the inability to speak constructively about differing hermeneutical interpretations.  What if folks in the emerging Wesley Covenant Association were to include all of these givens in their upcoming deliberations?  What then?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Predictions – United Methodism Summer 2016

Ten Predictions – United Methodism Summer 2016

[July 10, 2016 — First, an apology — many of you are not United Methodists and care little about the ecclesial wars underway in the denomination of my birth and my ordination.  Forgive my need to offer this set of predictions at this time.  More importantly, what is happening in our nation now, following the tragic murders and wounding of police officers in Dallas, along with the police shootings of African American men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge (and beyond), only places in sharp relief the relative insignificant meanderings, bigoted and contradictory activities of United Methodism these days. We UM’s are in search of our true identity.  Would that we might find again ways to speak to the nation of the power of love to overcome fear.  So, I write this perspective, these predictions on United Methodism 2016.  We are a denomination in search of our soul.  Pray for us.]

Ten Predictions about United Methodism — summer of 2016:

United Methodism’s structure is akin to the old cosmological suggestion that the world rested on the back of a turtle.  And what is beneath that turtle?  The answer comes, of course, it is said, “it’s turtles all the way down!”  In United Methodism it is conferences all the way down!

This spring and summer, in the United States, there are conferences on top of conferences (General Conference was in Portland in May), on top of this are Annual Conferences (56 in the U.S) and this week we will have five Jurisdictional Conferences where bishops will be elected.  I will spare the reader my perspectives on each of these, except as they lead to the ten predictions outlined below:

Prediction #1. For the next decade at least, the word “omnishambled,” a new word to recent editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, will describe the denomination.  There will be very little that can be said to be “United.”  I recall the wedding bulletin nicely printed for a ceremony many years ago.  It read that the wedding was being held at the First Untied Methodist Church.  Spell check missed it — UNTIED rather than UNITED.  Well, we are headed into a decade of Untied Methodism.


Prediction #2:  More and more annual conferences will be acting independently.  They will be rejecting the bigoted constraints adopted by the recent and future General Conferences.  This is already well underway.  This summer several annual conferences voted to act in ways that are contrary to the “official stances” of the church.  These conferences will refuse to act against pastors performing same-sex weddings, they will support the ordination of GLBTQ persons, they will act in support of reproductive rights organizations and they will seek a more just way forward in the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Prediction #3: The 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences held in five regions of the U.S. this week will be an “inflection point” for leadership change in the church.  The theological and leadership commitments of the fifteen new bishops will shift the church to a more centrist and left-of-center place in the U.S.  While the power of right-wing groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Good News Movement and the Confessing Movement were evident in Portland at General Conference, the reality is that such locked-down opposition to alternative perspectives will not carry over to these Jurisdictional gatherings.  Look for several, perhaps a majority, of courageous centrists and progressives to be elected.
Predication #4:  The Western Jurisdiction will elect the first openly gay bishop in the denomination.  There are currently two strong candidates.  This will produce widely spreading ripples across the denomination both of approval and dissent.
Predication #5: In reaction to these developments (annual conferences challenging the official stances of the church and the election of the first openly gay bishop), a small group of U.S. United Methodist bishops will seek to hold punitive church trials against pastors who perform same-sex ceremonies.  One such trial is already underway in Kansas at the urging of Bishop Scott Jones. 
Prediction #6: Increasingly these clergy trials will become more problematic and counterproductive for the traditionalists.   They will be opposed and dismissed as foolish by a majority of folks in the pew, younger clergy and Christian friends outside the denomination.  Instead, in most U.S. annual conferences, so-called “just resolutions” will be worked out with clergy who disobey the strictures of the church.
Prediction #7:  There will be ever more organized efforts to hold the denomination together, with the hope of keeping as many at the table as possible.  One such group is the United Methodist Centrist Movement that is growing in strength especially in the North Central Jurisdiction (see: UMCM).  They speak clearly of the need to welcome a broader range of voices, against church trials and for support of local congregations.
Predication #8:  The old and sadly familiar pattern of scapegoating the Western Jurisdiction as a place of rebellion will increase in many quarters.  However, there will be growing appreciation of the way the Western Jurisdiction has remained steadfast in its witness to an alternative vision for the church.  One compelling and insightful voice from the West is the Rev. Jeremy Smith.  His recent reflections on the role of the Western Jurisdiction are, to my mind, prescient (see: Jeremy Smith’s Hacking Christianity)
Prediction #9: The cost of doing general church business for boards, agencies, council of bishops (travel, staff, meetings, programming) will become ever more burdensome, even overwhelming.  Attempts to do institutional work out of the same ‘global church’ paradigm as in the past, will cause the 2020 General Conference to make dramatic cuts in budget, program design and staffing.
Prediction #10:  Slowly, over the next decade, the United Methodist church in the U.S., at least the church that remains (there will no doubt be some splintering) will focus more on relationship and less on programs, more on conversation and less on spectacle, less on top down decision-making and more in the building of communities of support, and more on finding a third way forward.
Yes, these predictions do project an omnishambled future for United Methodism; still they are in the end hopeful.  The move to a place where relationships are valued over program and conversations over spectacle will require new leaders — like those I pray will be elected bishops this next week.  Conferences of the future will be less about performers on stage and more about those who gather around tables to share, listen and learn. 
We have reached the limits of the strategies by those who would seek to impose corporate systems and lockstep programs for growth on the church and her clergy.  There has been too much “talking down to” and too little listening to the genuine articles, the clergy and laity who carry out ministry in local settings. We will discover the value of what some social scientists call “positive deviance.”  It will require a looking for and listening for different perspectives on the church and ministry.
At one recent annual conference as hundreds of the clergy gathered for what is called the “clergy session,” there came a need for conversation among those gathered.  (Such conversation is, by the way, the basic idea behind a “conference.”  It is, in United Methodist-speak, “watching over one another in love.”)  However, as it became painfully clear, in this session clergy couldn’t converse — there were no microphones available in large hall of the convention center.  Clergy colleagues wishing to raise a question or make a suggestion couldn’t hear one another.  The bishop seemed surprised that there would be a question or a conversation needed.  He simply said, “We didn’t anticipate this.”
We shall see which of these ten predictions come true — I would bet on most of them — but I am especially clear that conversation, genuine and respectful conversation, will make a return in the next decade if there is any hope for renewal.

 

Harvesting Weeds

Harvesting Weeds

 

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Allium in Bloom, Walstead Farm 2016

Early June – daffodils and tulips have dropped their blooms.  Now the purple allium flowers, gorgeous, stand proudly over the “weeds.”

Funny how I can miss the beauty by seeing only the weeds.  Beauty — this year I saw it all around our home in the flower or vegetable beds.  The allium amidst the weeds remind me of wisdom of a friend long ago — the Rev. Esther Angel.

I first met Esther in 1992 in Louisville.  We were both clergy delegates to the United Methodist General Conference working in the same legislative group.  That year Esther’s quiet and deeply spiritual presence made a difference.  During a break in our legislative group, Esther, speaking softly, asked if she should say something to the entire group.  Several of us encouraged her and then she said something that has lingered with me since.  She simply and calmly said, “I fear the United Methodist Church is in a time of self-loathing.  It is diminishing and replacing the joy of our work.”  She went on “we are forgetting to celebrate the harvest, focusing too much on the weeds.

That day, in the next hour, Esther rose and moved to the middle of the circle in which our legislative group was sitting.  The topic was the denomination’s support for a woman’s right to have a choice when facing the tragedy of abortion.  Up to this point, it was mainly men who had spoken.  Raising her hand, moving to the center, turning and continuing to slowing circle, she began, “I would sing you my heart…” 

She spoke of the women she had counseled facing difficult, almost impossible pregnancies and life situations.  Saying she had never counseled a woman or her partner to proceed with an abortion — she could still understand how in some cases this would be a tragic yet appropriate choice.  Esther spoke in a beautiful way of other ways we sought to be a denomination that brought healing and hope.   She rehearsed the ways United Methodists had led over the years in civil rights struggles.  She spoke on the behalf of a woman’s right to choose and wondering why none of the men, who had spoken with such strong views that week, had asked to hear from women in the room. 

I thought of Esther this year when the 2016 General Conference voted to abandon our denomination’s long term support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.   In 1992, Esther spoke about the importance of welcoming gay and lesbian persons in our churches.  She ended her solilloquy, her word-dance with the words, “Let’s stop harvesting the weeds.”  In 1992, Esther’s quiet, yet prophetic, spirit made a difference.  We missed her in 2016 — but her spirit remains.

The 2016 General Conference of the church “spent a lot of time harvesting weeds.”  Esther, who died, too young several years ago, had a capacity for quiet communication. In 1992 Esther passed out a poem printed on a 4 X 6 note card.  Here is a link to a copy: Re-Imagining — Esther Angel, 1992.

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To my mind she captured something in speaking of our “denominational self-loathing.” She perceived then that we were forgetting to celebrate the good harvest related to who we are as Wesleyans as United Methodists.  In too many places we forget our great legacy and are literally getting lost in the weeds. 

Often when I hear of congreations who try to hide their United Methodist identity on signage or websites, I think of Esther.  When I learn of congregations who ignore our theology of baptism or communion, who offer meager financial support to the denomination and prefer to identify themselves “post-denominational” or “community” churches rather than United Methodists, I think of Esther’s witness.  When I see the stong waves of the so called New Room Calvinism seeking to capture the future theological direction of our denomination, I think of Esther.

In her poem Esther spoke of the energy expended on attacking and defending and then wrote:  “Meanwhile, The poor hear bad news, Captives stay in prisons, The blind remain unsighted.  Satan laughs.  Wouldn’t you in his/her shoes?  “Left”; “Right, both the same, in tactics and in what remains — Undone.”

At our house we are now harvesting vegetables.  What joy!  Still, it’s difficult not to focus on the weeds, no matter our best intentions.  The same is true, I fear, in the church. 

My own bishop writes compellingly that United Methodists are about so much more than dealing with issues of sexuality.  Sadly, he then spends nearly every communication, every month, talking about the church and homosexuality.  He may be trying to do penance for the years he has quietly aided and abetted our bigotry.  Perhaps.  Still, until we hear of the beauty of faithful, loving homosexual relationships or about the gift of the witness of congregations that are courageously focusing on welcome and reconciliation and rituals of support for all people, it all stays in the weeds.

We all have a responsibility.  Will we speak of the beauty all around?  Will we speak of the delights of the harvest?  Will we speak about our denomination’s commitments to addressing poverty?  Addressing racism?  Our ongoing commitments to threatened immigrants in our nation and world?  Will we have a constructive word about addressing the dilemmas of climate change?  Will we hear about the ways the lives of persons in our communities are being changed through the love of Christ?

Esther had it right, let’s stop harvesting weeds!

Phil A