Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Divisions in Christ's Body and The UMC

I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I've always held up hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I don't think I'm particularly naive, I've watched the coverage of every General Conference from 1996 to the present pretty clearly, attended a United Methodist seminary, and experienced all sorts of tension--but I've always wanted to believe that we could learn from each other how to follow Jesus better. I don't know anymore. The truth is, the last year has left me unsure about the future of this particular segment of Christ's Church. I've seen the tensions rise around issues regarding homosexuality, mostly, and that's a part of it. I believe that underneath our disagreements about homosexuality lie our differences on the proper place of sexual ethics in the overarching schema of being Christian, and different theological anthropologies (specifically around the place, power, and role of passions for Christians). We can't seem to get beyond the surface issue to the deeper issues, and I'm not sure if we can (in my opinion, no other mainline Christian body in North America has, so we'd be unique if we succeeded).

 I've always held out hope, though, that God might do something different with United Methodists. I've wanted us to offer a better model of Jesus' vision for his people (the Church) from John 13:35 "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Now, I'm not Greek scholar, but the "love" here is no mere affection, no familial presence, but a deep care for the Other we learn from God--it's not erotic, familial, filial or anything of the sort, it's AGAPE. As long as we let each other be who we are, and love each other enough not to directly impinge on one another's deep convictions, while working on how to be united in living out Christian faith, there's hope we can agape in the same house. Once that mutuality reaches a point where it's gone, then we need to consider if the only way to maintain agape is in separate denominations.

While my level of mutual accountability to other United Methodists is greater than my Congregationalist, Baptist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic friends, my agape for them isn't. Some of us live together, some apart, but our agape ought to be the same in the Church of Jesus Christ, whether we share in one communion or not. In fact, it's easier to live out agape across those bounds at times than within one part of the Body of Christ, in part because the decisions of another part of the Body are less likely to impinge on my deep convictions directly--we can focus on a common identity as Christians without being constantly and directly impacted by our differences.

We've argued, we've wept, we've disagreed--but I had believed that all sides acted out of mutual agape at least most of the time until now. I have Conservative, Moderate and Progressive friends (and many who would prefer other labels or none), and most (if not all) genuinely seemed to love Jesus and want to follow where he leads. The United Methodist Church might not be united in all the finer points of Christian living, but at least all clergy are asked if we've studied the Church's Doctrine and if we will uphold and teach it, so at least we're all good with our Doctrinal Standards, right? We're far from in complete agreement, but at least we have common ground!

I'm not pretending I've never heard either side malign the other--I've heard Conservatives call Progressives apostate and Progressives call Conservatives hatemongers and homophobes. I've never wanted to believe either was true, and I've seen much evidence to the contrary over time. Sadly, I began to wonder during Annual Conference last year. 

I'm theologically orthodox, a thoroughly Nicene Christian in the company of the Wesleys (as I've heard Eddie Fox say). During the entirety of Annual Conference we had the text of The Lord's Prayer placed before us, but it was never the prayer Jesus taught the Disciples based on any Bible I'd ever seen. Apparently, the words he gave us weren't good enough--we had to learn a new (presumably better) way to pray. As we were encouraged to pray in our own languages, I prayed the prayer that has shaped me, that continues to shape me, and went on with the work of Annual Conference. Only during the actual Laying on of Hands in Ordination did anyone ever use the Trinitarian Name of God from the "pulpit" during the entirety of our Conference together--we heard many names used, but here and here alone the God named in Article I of both the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. 

Perhaps I was being oversensitive--these are challenging things for me, but our metaphors describe the God revealed in Scripture and the Incarnation, and there was at least some reference to the God I know. Perhaps there's room for worship that speaks obliquely of Scriptural Truth, especially at Annual Conference--we assume all of these leaders of the Church ought to be converted already, right? Yes, this is MY church, the place of my membership, but it's a shared space with all the others present as well. Sure, I there were some prayers I couldn't pray authentically, so I stopped, and prayed silently that God would be with me and all of us. I'm open to letting church be church for all of us! 

This was a first for me, that most of worship at Annual Conference felt more like a political show than worship of the Triune God, but I was open to this being my own false-perception. That broke down during the hymns in the ordination service. At that point, I experienced real hate from some of the Body in a way that nearly drove me to leave the service--hate and vitriol that has stuck with me ever since. The thing is, it was directed at me and those who needed the heart-song we were singing, telling us just how unwanted we really were. While singing "Victory in Jesus," some voices among the clergy began screaming over the text every time we sang of Jesus' redeeming blood. Even now it moves me almost to tears. Something that to me is an essential affirmation, that Christ died for us, ALL OF US while we were yet sinners, was desecrated. This was no disagreement over gay marriage or sexual ethics, no divide over secular politics or even theological minutiae--no, for me this was an assault on the CORE of the Gospel (how are we freed from the power of sin but by the blood of Jesus? I can't find another way--and at least my reading of Hebrews 9:11-10:18 seems to indicate the same). 

I don't know what the intent was--but the message I received was clear: we're done with Jesus' blood, and you probably should be too. I'm glad we didn't sing "And Can it Be?" I think I might have been driven to walk out, or perhaps cried out to the Bishop to stop the singing had the Methodist Hymn of Hymns been treated in that manner. 

 I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I want to hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I'm finding that harder and harder these days.


Evan Rohrs-Dodge said...

David, that service at Annual Conference was when I was commissioned. I share the same despair and sadness over that particular incident regarding "Victory in Jesus." If these church trials were occurring over doctrinal issues, if we were talking about splitting over fundamental, deep theological non-negotiables (like Jesus' salvific work), I'd feel much different. I don't believe one can be a United Methodist and deny such a fundamental tenet of our faith that is clearly elucidated in our doctrinal standards.. I'd be willing to fight for that. But the current criteria for schism is saddening. Seems those that disagree over this issue can't even speak to each other anymore.

David Nicol said...

Evan, I remember (and thank God for the prayer over your ministry). I had believed we were a big tent socially, but united on core doctrine. I trusted that the Board and DCOMs would weed out the kind of thinking I'd read in some "progressive" circles. I guess this just suggests to me that some have Benn willing to accept heresy if the social positions are "right." While I experienced this from the "progressive" side, I can imagine something similar could occur from the other side add well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, David. I too worry about how we focus so much on what are minutiae compared to the deposit of faith once and for all handed down to the apostles. The event you describe is disturbing. Peace to you.

JohnHaslam said...

When I read this, David, I felt a profound sadness. I know the feeling even if I'm not United Methodist. It puzzles me that some of those who proclaim to be the most inclusive seek to exclude voices contrary to their own. And you're right...we seem to be seeing the core of the gospel slip away throughout the Western church. There are places where the Gospel remains unchanged but as you said, "it gets harder and harder." Yet, ignoring those who disagree with me doesn't seem to be a faithful response either.

Pastor Vaughan said...

Unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials liberty, and love in all things. This paraphrase of a familiar quote would do well to be considered as part of the Annual Conference Rules, and to be read before each session. It is saddening even more than embarrassing that clergy would be so vitriolic and utterly selfish as to ruin a service of commissioning and ordination for those who are new to their ranks. Where is the the love? I would rather say where is the unity, but we know that the dis-unity of The United Methodist Church runs far deeper than social agendas. It goes to the base of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, where Scripture has been supplanted as the foundation, trumped by experience. If Scripture can agree with the common human experience, then it is found useful. Otherwise it is deemed expendable, or a relic of ancient culture. But if Jesus is left out of salvation, then we are truly without hope.
Any number of community organizations that wish to do good social work can exist and people may choose to do their good works within those ranks, but to dismiss the name of Jesus in the work of the clergy is to deny the foundation of the church, not simply the denomination.
I am hopeful, though, not because I believe in The United Methodist Church of which I am a part, but because I believe in the unending power of Jesus Christ to transform the hearts of humanity. Even our beloved John and Charles Wesley served their church for years before finding salvation in Jesus Christ which gave their ministry power and purpose. Perhaps our denomination is failing because we have too many clergy who have the form of godliness but not the power therein. I cannot judge. It is not my place. But I can inspect fruit and condition of the tree. And when the tree continues to wither and die, their must be something wrong with it. Perhaps we need the gardener to prune quite a few branches if we are going to grow again.
He may just decide to cut off a few saplings and plant a new tree.

Peter K. said...

Checking the feeds I was glad to see word from you after lo these many years. But then saddened at the situation that drove you to post.

I've heard a lot about various branches of the Church being divided over social issues in recent years. But this is ...weird.