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Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

Responding to a Constitutional Crisis

A Faltering Polity

In my previous post, I tried to make the case that what General Conference 2019 is facing is nothing less than a constitutional crisis–for quite some time, our legislation has been at odds with our practice. Those who disagree with the legislation have been unable to secure the votes to change it; the legislation has proven to be impotent in altering practice.  

For traditionalists, the breakdown in our polity is obvious: pastors and bishops are openly rejecting the discipline that is supposed to order our connectional life. For progressives, the rejection of our polity is less obvious, but equally strong: General Conference has consistently implemented policies that are discriminatory and harmful and the resultant legislation should be transgressed in the name of more foundational baptismal vows “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Performing a same-sex wedding for reasons of conscience is not only a violation of church law, it is a rejection of the church’s discernment on the matter and an undermining of the structures that have done that discernment.  

In other words, even though traditionalists and progressives would define the problem(s) very differently, both are recognizing, participating in, and perpetuating a fundamental failure of our church’s governance, a failure that amounts to a constitutional crisis.  

Rejecting the Cheap Fix

Over the past several months, it has become largely accepted (with Chris Ritter as a notable exception) that a plan requiring constitutional amendments is dead on arrival. The supermajority will be too hard to build at General Conference and in Annual Conferences and the implementation will be too slow.  As a result, the Connectional Conference Plan has been summarily dismissed while attention has gone to debating the relative merits and demerits of the plans that are more easily passed, and therefore viewed as more practical. One need only look at the paltry support the CCP received in yesterday’s up-down vote to see the effect of the pessimism.

If, however, what the church faces is not simply a matter of disagreement, but a breakdown of our polity that creates a constitutional crisis, it is a fool’s errand to try to find a quick and cheap fix.  Putty and paint will not shore up a crumbling foundation, even if it will temporarily make things look nice from the inside.  

The plans that do not require constitutional amendments provide only temporary fixes to long standing problems. The plans that dissolve our connection too quickly throw away the legitimate goods that come through our shared ministry.  

A Case for Amending the Constitution: General Thoughts

A constitutional crisis requires constitutional repair. The votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment—a supermajority of GC delegates and a supermajority of the aggregate votes of annual conference delegates–-has been roundly rejected as a bar too high to clear. To shamelessly riff on G.K. Chesterton, amending the constitution to solve this issue has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. If our connection is worth saving, it is worth the effort of correcting the problem at its source—in the constitution.  

An Appeal to Supporters of the Traditional Plan(s)

As sundry iterations of accountability measures in Traditional Plans have been struck down by the Judicial Council, there has been some murmurs of embracing constitutional amendments. One wonders whether a Traditional Plan that fails to provides functional accountability measures would be sufficient to keep many traditionalists from departing the connection.  Adding one or more constitutional amendments to a/the Traditional Plan would provide more durable change than other types of legislation, and would also enable less siloed accountability. 

But if constitutional amendments are in play, maybe the Connectional Conference Plan deserves more attention than it has received to date (apart from the wilderness cries of Chris Ritter).  

The Connectional Conference Plan

From my reading and conversations about the CCP, most have written it off because of the time and effort required—it’s seen as too hard. Beyond this previously addressed concern, however, lies another: Can traditionalists in good faith and with a clear conscience remain connected to progressives? Would doing so be an endorsement of the other’s views on sexuality or, at least, a concession that different answers can be faithful in varied contexts? 

Identity, Discipline, and Shared Mission

To frame the question in this manner assumes that continued institutional connection includes personal endorsement, and proves to be its own slippery slope–in a church full of sinful humans, from which contemptible behaviors and beliefs must I sever myself? This way of thinking is the worst impulse of Protestantism and leads to infinite division, forsaking the way of peace and the ministry of reconciliation begun by Jesus who ate with sinners and washed the feet of Judas on the night Judas betrayed him.

Instead, it might be more fruitful to ask, “How can we continue to be connected to, and even share ministry with, brothers and sisters with whom we vehemently disagree?” This question makes space for real, painful divisions to exist without having to declare one another apostate. It’s this kind of principled division in the midst of connection that is modeled for us by Paul and Barnabas in the middle of Acts.

It’s in thinking about our connection this way that the Connectional Conference plan emerges in ways that bring together the strengths of the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan(s), avoids some of their major shortcomings, and adds some benefits of its own.

If, in the midst of our disagreement––disagreement that does touch on central tenets of our faith and which might have only one right answer—we can still identify one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are, by necessity already connected as members of the same body. Though they may be wrong; though we may be wrong, we remain connected. Until or unless we are willing to deny that those who disagree with us are in Christ, we must be concerned with how we can faithfully embody the connection and join together in Christ’s mission.

We have categories for how to do this with other denominations. With some, we are able to worship and pray together. With others, we are able to share sacraments and even pastors across denominational lines. The things that divide us from other denominations are significant and reach to the heart of our faith, but we know that we have some responsibility to think about our connection and shared witness.

The things that separate us about sexuality should not be minimized. If ordaining persons in same-sex intimate relationships is a promotion of sin and an endorsement of those whose behavior disqualifies them for ministry, can I remain in covenant relationship with them and the annual conferences that elect to ordain them? If refusal to preside at same-sex weddings is unjust and an act of oppression, can I be in a clergy covenant with them without without seeking some kind of accountability? The answers to these questions might painfully be “no.” 

But, what if our connection (which we presently acknowledge as members of the body of Christ) could extend beyond communion sharing agreements or ecumenical statements? What if we could join in accountable, covenantal ministry with those that share our understanding of faithfulness and begin (re)building relationships of trust by conferencing with them, while continuing to share mission and theological witness with others inasmuch as it is possible?

Despite our differences on sexuality, the United Methodist Church’s shared work throughout the globe has eternal impact. Our efforts in evangelism, in disaster relief, in education, in publishing, and in advocacy are all strengthened by the resources that we share and deploy; resources that enable us to participate in and testify to the kingdom of God in the world. Nearly all of us believe in UMCOR.

Conclusion

If we are facing a consitutional crisis, we need a constitutional solution. If we’re going to go to the effort of changing the constitution, the Connectional Conference Plan needs more robust consideration. It is an effort to discern and embody the real connection that remains despite our significant disagreements while also separating us enough to create space that allows for the kind of accountable, disciplined relationships that are essential to our Wesleyan witness.  It allows for the freedom of conscience and shared mission championed by the One Church Plan and for the appropriate differentiation and discipline that is longed for by traditionalists. And beyond the effort and time it will take to implement, it does significantly less harm than either.  

Appendix I: Splitting the Inheritance (An Analogy)

Imagine a wealthy family with three children who all work for the family business. Each of the children has dramatically different personalities, values, and preferences. But when the parents die, they leave all of their real property to all three—the family business, the lake house, the mountain house, the private jet, and the yacht. 

The three children could try to fully integrate their lives, living by the same rules, vacationing at the same time, living in the same house.  Or they could do their best to split the property and the business equally three ways and go their separate ways with no need to ever speak to one another again.  

But there is a third option. They could maintain their separate households, with their separate rules and preferences while also sharing the business and the other assets, working together in the ways that they can but without having to go on vacation at the same time to the same places every time.

Such a solution might not work forever—at some point, they might reach irreconcilable differences over remodeling the lake house or dispute who broke the china on the jet. If they’re successful, they benefit from the rich variety of their family assets and are able to work together to help the family business grow. If it doesn’t work, it was worth the effort because the risk was minimal. It might not work, but if it does, it is worth the extra effort.  

If this is the tough row that we must hoe, let’s do it in a way that maximizes our ability to pursue our mission together and maintains connection in all of the ways that we can.  

Appendix II: Additional Strengths of the CCP

(a) Availability for appointment across connectional conferences: In my native Mississippi, it’s nearly a certainty that annual conference (and most of its churches) would affiliate with the most conservative of the Connectional Conferences. Not all of our clergy, however, are as conservative as our churches. Rather than creating an impermeable division between the progressives and the traditionalists, the CCP would allow for a pastor to align themselves with the most fitting conference, but make themselves available for appointment in other conferences provided the pastor is willing to abide by the conference’s standards.

(b) Ongoing opportunity to effect change in hearts and lives of others: Traditionalists need to listen to the faithful pastoral concerns of progressives, and reckon with the profound pain that has been endured by the LGBT community. Progressives need to reckon with both traditionalists’ insistence that Christian identity stands at odds with the self-determination of the (post)modern moment and their deep biblical and theological reservations about the increasing sexual permissiveness of our culture. If we separate from one another, we greatly diminish our ability to learn from one another and to allow the Holy Spirit to perfect us as we discern together.

(c) Benefits the church even if it isn’t a long term success: Such an effort at shared mission might not work long term for any number of reasons; there might be less overlap in missional work than has been assumed.  Even if that is the case, pastors, churches, and conferences will have aligned (without high stakes property disputes) in a way that allows for a more orderly separation down the road in a manner that is much less likely to devolve into congregationalism.  

A Constitutional Crisis: Background and Context for GC2019

A Constitutional Crisis: Background and Context for GC2019

From Portland to St. Louis

United Methodists from all over the world are beginning to gather in St. Louis, as they prepare for General Conference 2019, which has been called by the Council of Bishops specifically to address questions of human sexuality.  In order to understand what’s happening in St. Louis over the next few days, it will be helpful to understand a bit of what has precipitated this global gathering. 

Our last General Conference was held in Portland in 2016, and there it looked like the church was on the edge of hasty division, which would have led to chaos and litigation in civil courts related to property and pensions and no clear ways to define our ongoing connection to one another. 

In a last ditch effort for unity, the General Conference in Portland approved a motion that requested the Bishops seek to provide a way forward for our global denomination. After General Conference, the bishops assembled the Commission on a Way Forward in an effort to discern next steps. 

The CoaWF was comprised of 32 members, including 8 bishops, 13 other clergy, and 11 laity. The bishops expended great effort to ensure that this group was representative of the entire connection geographically and theologically. They met 9 times in 17 months to conduct their work. Their work produced three plans that, along with other proposals submitted from across the connection related to sexuality, will be before the 2019 General Conference as potential ways forward. 


Above, I have provided a brief window into the preparations made for this coming General Conference, but that information provides little insight into why a special called General Conference is necessary at all. The short answer is that, for quite some time, there has been divergence in the legislation passed by General Conference and the practice of Methodists on the ground. 


To understand this, we must first consider a bit of polity (structures of church governance).  The General Conference is the only group that can speak for the entire United Methodist Church.  Since 1972 (the first time the General Conference addressed homosexuality), General Conference has been consistent in its stance on same-sex relationships, though clarifying legislation has been added over time. 

The Legislation

Statement on Sexuality:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. (¶161.h)

This statement attempts to draw a line between practice and identity – all people are of sacred worth; the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The statement insists that all people should be welcomed into the life of the church and the redemption offered by Christ and engaged by its ministries. 

Regarding Ordination and the Practice of Ministry:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (¶304.3)

Regarding UM pastors presiding at Same-Sex Weddings:

Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (¶ 341.6)

Inconsistent Practice

There are many United Methodists who believe that the legislation about the practice of homosexuality is internally inconsistent. To refuse to marry same-sex couples, to deny the possibility of ordination to people in same-sex sexual relationships, and to insist that same-sex intimacy is incompatible with Christian teaching is perceived as closing doors to full-participation in the life of the church. There are a vast range of theological and biblical arguments that have been proffered against the UMC’s legislation, but none have carried the day at General Conference.

While legislation has, on the whole, remained consistent over the last 47 years, there has been increasing resistance to the expectations established by General Conference and an accompanying decrease in punitive action in response to such resistance. While there are scores of cases that could be mentioned here, we will consider only a few that indicate the escalation over the last few years. 

2011-Amy Delong

Amy Delong was out to her community as a lesbian and informed her conference that she had presided at a same-sex wedding, which precipitated charges being brought against her for: (1) presiding at a same sex wedding and (2) being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. After declining to answer questions about her “sexual practice,” she was acquitted for the second charge, but found guilty of the first. Rather than being defrocked, as had been the practice in all previous similar cases, DeLong was given a 20 day suspension. 

2013-Melvin Talbert

Bishop Talbert travelled to Alabama and presided at a same-sex wedding against the wishes of the resident bishop.  The Council of Bishops filed a complaint with the result that he was required to apologize, but he has continued to preside over same-sex weddings. 

2014

In New York, Bishop McLee issues a just resolution to a pastor for presiding at the pastor’s son’s same-sex wedding. The terms of the Just resolution are that he must hold a public forum to discuss same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Bishop McLee announces his decision to end trials for pastors who conduct same-sex weddings

In the Pacific Northwest, two different pastors receive 24-hour suspensions for conducting same sex weddings. 

Spring 2016

Just before the General Conference in Portland, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Baltimore-Washing Annual Conference approves a woman in a same-sex marriage as a provisional deacon. The New York Annual Conference announces that it will no longer consider sexual orientation in evaluating candidates for ministry. 

A Constitutional Crisis

When delegates arrive in Portland for the 2016 General Conference, traditionalists are frustrated that the legislation of General Conference is being defied in ways that obviously violate the plain meaning of the United Methodist Church’s practice. 

This has exposed a constitutional crisis—General Conference can pass legislation, but the siloed nature of our structure prevents consistent practice. Bishops in one jurisdiction are not accountable to other Jurisdictions, and annual conferences are the sole decision makers when it comes to interpreting who can be ordained and what qualifies as a just resolution.

This reality has been further illuminated by the New York annual conference’s decision to ordain 4 self-avowed, practicing homosexuals in June of 2016 and the election of Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian to the episcopacy in the Western Jurisdiction. Despite a Judicial Council ruling that administrative/judicial action was required in her case, there has been no response from the Western Jurisdiction’s college of bishops. 

This exposes the fundamental constitutional crisis facing the United Methodist Church – the General Conference is the only group that can speak on behalf of the whole church, but it has no power to carry out its legislation if bishops, conferences, or jurisdictions choose to ignore its decisions.  Each of the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward is an effort to address this fundamental problem. 

The Three Plans

The One Church Plan

The OCP is, fundamentally an effort to embrace our current reality by changing our legislation to match our practice. It solves the problem by moving decisions to the place where accountability does already exist—standards of ordination and pastoral conduct will be set by the annual conference; discernment about where weddings can be conducted and who can perform them is done by churches and individual pastors.  It ensures that bishops are paid by their jurisdiction (those who elected them) rather than the general church, and makes provisions to protect bishops in matters of ordination.  In short, the One Church Plan attempts to honor everyone’s conscience while also allowing for the maximum freedom possible. 

The Traditional Plan

Whereas the OCP embraces our current practice by modifying our legislation, the Traditional plan embraces our current legislation by trying to bring practice in line with what has already been legislated. In short, it tries to make the discernment of General Conference actionable.  In doing so, it maintains and expands current prohibitions on sexuality for those seeking ordination and those presiding at same-sex weddings. It expands the definition of “self-avowed practicing” from the current narrow definition, and it mandates that just resolutions include a commitment not to repeat the offense. Furthermore, it requires Annual Conferences and Bishops to certify their intention to uphold church teachings on sexuality; those who cannot are encourage to form or join autonomous/affiliate/concordat conferences. Clergy who perform same-sex weddings would be required to surrender their credentials. 

The Connectional Conference Plan

The CCP attempts to maintain unity at the level of core doctrine and shared global ministry, while restructuring the church along theological rather than geographical lines for the sake of discipline.  It proposes three overlapping “connectional” conferences (traditional, contextual/unity, progressive) in an effort to allow the church to continue to share in what it largely agrees on while providing different mechanisms of accountability for people who are like-minded related to sexuality. Each connectional conference would be responsible for setting and implementing its own standards of conduct, and could establish its own judicial council to help with their work. International conferences would be invited to become their own connectional conference or to align with one of the three US connectional conferences. 

In this plan, jurisdictions would vote on which CC to join. Annual Conferences could decide to go in a different direction, and local churches could decide to part ways with their annual conference and join a different connectional conference. Pastors would hold membership in one Connectional Conference, but could make themselves available for appointment in the other Connectional Conferences, provided they were willing to abide by the standards in that conference. 

This plan is significantly more complex than the others. Its lengthy constitutional amendments make it more difficult to pass, and its long implementation period make it unappealing to many. 

Conclusion

If we are, indeed, in a constitutional crisis as I have tried to argue here—one in which our legislation and our practices are obviously disordered and dysfunctional, it is foolhardy to think that any solutions that do not include constitutional amendments are real solutions.  Both the Traditionalist Plan and the One Church Plan seek to provide solutions by changing our legislation or our practices to be in line with the other in terms of same-sex intimacy, but they do nothing to address the inability of our polity to ensure that the legislation of the General Conference is actionable on a host of other issues. They are duct-tape and WD-40 solutions, rather than the robust overhaul that is needed to enable unity and disciple-making over the long haul.

Transforming Our Conversation, or We’ve Been Doing this Wrong

Transforming Our Conversation, or We’ve Been Doing this Wrong

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!

I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

 

Ah, the question of sexual immorality. Is same-sex sex this immorality? Or is it immoral to not correct the oppression of those who have been created LGBTQ+ by God and placed in the body of Christ to live together in fully loving relationships? As people who follow and try to live like Jesus Christ this is a conversation we should be having well.

 

But, we don’t. Notice the other actions produced by selfish motives: hate, fighting, losing your temper, conflict, group rivalry, and my favorite in our present circumstance, competitive opposition (I really do like the CEB translation here). We are in, and have been for some time, competitive opposition. We as United Methodists have dug ourselves into quite a hole. I know many on both sides say how much they have talked to each other, but in all my experience that is exactly what has happened: people have talked to each other, not with each other. We have talked to, and in talking to have created camps, and groups, and country clubs, and competitive opposition.

 

So how do we start digging out of this hole? I think we need to start where Paul asks us to start – by living out the fruits of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and gentleness have not been a frequent aspect of General Conference, or many Annual Conferences that are not monolithic in their thought and practice. And frankly, the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness practiced in those Annual Conferences is often a false one, created by not realizing those in their midst who do not agree as opposed to being the Church in agreement.

So how do we live into this different, odd looking world where we don’t competitively oppose one another? Dr. Douglas Campbell, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, talks about the love commandment in the Johannine writings and how those writings compare the world of Christ in contrast to the world outside of Christ. In talking about how we love one another, John points toward using interpretive charity toward one another – the goal is to hear one another in the best possible light. The world, on the other hand, lives through interpretive hostility – trying to find the worst possible intention and meaning of what a person has said. In my experience, we in the United Methodist Church tend toward interpretive hostility in our debates with one another. I have seen interpretive hostility rear its head in nearly any kind of discussion as we look for the opposition to try to sneak something by us on the issue of human sexuality.

 

It is natural to fall into interpretive opposition when people have been hurt as much as they have. Susan Pennock gives an incredible poverty workshop where she talks about the differences between people who have been raised with a middle-class mindset and those raised in generational poverty. Often the decisions made by those in poverty seem foolish to those raised with a middle-class mindset. Mrs. Pennock points out over and over that “you only know what you know.” We do not always know what others think we should know. People say and do incredibly hurtful things more often than not because they just don’t know better. Scathing replies never help. It is difficult, but this is something we must confront.

 

This story will not approach the level of hurt and frustration experienced by many in the debates about human sexuality, but I think it underscores a valuable lesson. My grandparents farmed until they could no longer physically do so. In the late 1940’s my grandfather had just put up a new hog shed. It had an enclosed shelter for bad weather and a concrete, fenced in, outdoor area for nice weather and feeding (concrete to keep the hogs from digging out). This concrete slab was slanted downhill so when it rained everything would flow away from the shelter. This, as with all hog buildings of the time, created a pool of what we will call ‘slurry’ on the outside of the fence opposite the shelter.

 

Grandpa was going to clean out the hog building for the first time. The hogs, as always, were not cooperating. He could not even start to get on the tractor after opening the gate before the hogs would start to escape, so he went to get Grandma to help him out. Grandma was about to go to town, and this was when going to town meant something. She was dressed up in her town clothes (she had one town outfit, which ranked just below her one Sunday outfit. Everything else she wore were what we called ‘everyday clothes’ that could get dirty). Grandpa told her it would be fine. She would drive the tractor onto the concrete pad and he would carry her out over the fence, so Grandma agreed to help.

 

Grandma got up on the Farmall H with a loader on it. Here is where the problems started. The gate was opposite the shelter where all the slurry was. The big puddle there had created a lip between the ground and the concrete slab. The front tires of the tractor would hit the slab and not move. The back wheels would start to spin, and that was bad because it would start to send slurry toward Grandma and her good clothes. Grandpa told her to back up and come in full throttle. She could hang on as the tractor bounced up onto the concrete slab and all would be fine.

 

So, Grandma did what Grandpa suggested and came in full throttle. Only, instead of the front tires bouncing up onto the slab, they both blew out with a bunch of slurry around them. This shot the slurry up in the air and into the fan, which was also running as fast as possible. The fan then shot the slurry right into my Grandma sitting on the seat. It literally hit the fan.

 

Grandpa tried to ask if she was OK, but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get the words out. Grandma just got off the tractor and walked through the slurry to the house. Grandpa slept on the couch for two weeks.

 

My grandparents lived together happily for 71 years until Grandpa died last December. Grandma still gets mad if that story comes up, and until his death Grandpa would still try to keep from laughing. They were able to get through it, but one of the biggest lessons is they were both doing their best. Grandpa was trying to support his family. For every one dollar’s worth of corn he fed the hogs he got three dollars back when he sold them. He was doing his best to expand the hog operation and keep the farm on solid footing. Grandma was doing what she could to help. She could drive tractors and do as much work as anyone else and was helping her husband and the farm. In doing their best, Grandma ended up washing manure out of herself and her good clothes, upset at Grandpa’s reaction, while Grandpa was sleeping on the couch with his tractor with two flat tires sitting in a foot of runny manure. This is where doing their best got them.

 

The vast majority of people on all sides of our fight over LGBTQ+ issues have been doing their best. In the process of doing their best, people have been hurt, have left the denomination, and have seen it hit the fan so many times we are covered in metaphorical manure and looking for ways to escape and clean up.

 

We can clean up without having to leave each other, however. We can talk about LGBTQ+ issues without shoveling slurry into fans. This is not our end. We are washed in the blood, and that is more powerful than even my Grandma’s ability to clean clothes.

 

So let us follow the Spirit! Let us go with each other to be washed clean and keep from going down the path toward schism. This is the first of several posts where I detail what we can do. I invite you to both get dirty with me as we take this difficult journey, and try to live out the fruit of the spirit with me, as we figure out how to move forward together.

 

This post if by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.

 

 

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

United Methodism is in schism. It’s not that schism is coming; it’s already here. It’s not something for us to work to avoid, it’s an evil that we must address.

Andrew Thompson did an excellent job illuminating this distinction in his post about covenant and schism last week. In “Sermon 75: On Schism,” John Wesley exegetes 1 Corinthians 12 in the following way: “Can anything be more plain than that the schisms here spoken of, were not separations from, but divisions in, the Church of Corinth (I.2, emphasis original)?”

Schism, according to father John’s reading of Paul is, “a disunion in mind and judgment, (perhaps also affection) among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before.”[1] What we have seen in recent years is not only a deeper rift of mind and judgment in our beloved church, but also an erosion of affection.

We are deeply in schism, and this is “evil,” a “grievous breach of the law of love.” 

If we do not take time in prayer and conversation to grieve the schism in our connection, then we are participating and perpetuating our failure to love.

We must not stop with lament, and diagnosis.  We must press further into Sermon 75 to find even more fertile ground to know what we ought to do.

In II.7 of “On Schism,” Wesley permits only one reason for breaking fellowship: that the fellowship is forcing one to sin by omission or commission. In all other cases, he offers this judgment: “Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

This is not an abstract question for Mr. Wesley. He chose, throughout his life, to continue in fellowship in the church of his birth, despite his questions of its faithfulness because there remained space for him to be faithful.

For traditionalists who would like to depart, this is a hard word.  If they are not themselves being compelled to sin disapproves, they are to stay.[2] It leaves traditionalists with an exhortation to keep their vow to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries.”

If we are to follow the logic of “On Schism,” it is the prerogative of the progressives (from their own perspective) and not the traditionalists to break fellowship, due to their sense of the injustice of our current position. This, in fact, is the position espoused clearly by William Abraham in both Atlanta and Memphis. He says that “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.”

The problem for traditionalists is that progressives aren’t sliding out the back door and joining different denominations that share their understanding of same-sex marriage. Rather than quietly departing from the UMC, they are breaking the rules set by General Conference. In most cases, they do so fully prepared to face the consequences. And traditionalists are frustrated with the paucity of suitable consequences.  The issue is not simply progressives are blessing same-sex practice, it’s that progressives are blessing same-sex practice as United Methodists.

Progressives’ decision to defy the rules rather than recant their faith and relinquish their membership,  is no new thing in the church catholic. There are manifold examples of dissenters in the church who did not leave willingly, but were instead excommunicated from the church for their incompatible views, leaving future theologians and traditions to judge the church’s decision.

Our current crisis is not primarily about Biblical authority or the movement of the spirit. Those things are a significant (but not the only) component of the theological argument for the question: “Is same-sex marriage in keeping with Christian/United Methodist teaching?” But that’s not the primary question in this moment.

At this point, the primary point of tension relates to the authority of the institutional church.

 

It’s not that covenants should be kept, it’s that the church should be able to offer correction when they are not.

 

Authority (i.e. the possibility of providing accountability to members) is essential to ecclesial coherence. If the church can do nothing to ensure that it is Methodism, and not something else, being proclaimed we have no raison d’être, we have no identity.  About this, traditionalists are right.  Authority is, in fact, the intent of the Trust Clause, to ensure that Methodist Churches have faithful pastors leading them.  About this, traditionalists are right.

Therefore, if we want a healthy institution with an established identity, we must ask: (a) Can the church determine that some beliefs/actions are wrong, and (b) how, if at all, should the church respond when its standards are violated? Furthermore, where should that authority be held?  Furthermore, is the church capable of distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and if so, where does fit among those categories?

In summary, the crisis that we are facing is not about the authority of the Bible or about covenant, it’s about who gets to determine what is authoritative for the people called Methodists, and who can enforce the lines once they are drawn. To say it more firmly, it’s about who has the power to discipline (up to excommunication) and who gets to discern what demands such an action. It’s about establishing the essentials of our faith and then abiding in the connection formed by our shared faith.

Such statements are questions of polity that may not be able to be addressed in our current quagmire.  That’s why the #NextMethodism conversation is very important, even if traditionalists upset about Karen Oliveto can’t quote Wesley to justify their departure.

 

This post is by Chad Bowen, an elder in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  

 

[1] This is a topic for another day, but “disunion of mind” hearkens back to the 2012 General Conference proposal GC2012 acknowledge that we “are not of one mind” about sexuality.  That proposal, combined with the outcry that emerged when it failed to pass, exposed not only the explicit frustration with the UMC’s schism over sexuality, but was also a (likely unconscious attempt) to subvert our polity. Per our constitution, he majority of General Conference delegates as the legislative authority of the connection. One needs only to consult the voting history of General Conference resolutions to know that we are not entirely of one mind on nearly anything.

[2] This criteria is simply not being met with something like the election of Karen Oliveto. One could attempt an argument that asserts complicity through mission shares, but it would be a stretch. One would have to make an argument that it is sin to give to the church if one penny of your tithe is going support what one deems to be a sin. This would make it nearly impossible for anyone to give to a global church.

Life Saving Stations

Life Saving Stations

 

Romans 12

People in the United Methodist Church, especially people who have been very involved in the debates and battles over sexuality, are frustrated, tired, hurt, and mad. Open Facebook or read a few blogs and you will find a yearning on both sides for “the split” to finally happen so folks can be done with pain and in a place where everybody thinks like them, they don’t have to argue, and they feel comfortable. Two churches in Mississippi just took this route.

I understand this yearning to be done, to feel free, to be with those with whom you have a lot in common, speak the same language, around whom you feel comfortable and welcome. You get to be in a place where people are no longer either disregarding The Book of Discipline or are no longer using the same book to try to kick people you love and respect out of the church. Where we don’t wait on pins and needles for Judicial Council decisions. To stop the arguments, the pain, the constant explanations and dealing with people who are so wrong.

The problem is, to follow through on this yearning is to leave the Church and create a country club. A country club is a place that exists for the comfort and good feelings of its members. But the Church is all about following Jesus Christ, which according to Scripture is not about being comfortable (Jesus says take up your cross (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23), Jesus predicts pain and problems for his followers (Matt 10:34-39; Luke 9:57-62; John 15:18-25), Paul’s list of degradations in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28, and many more examples). Following Jesus, instead of promising peace and tranquility, is something to which we give our lives for God’s purpose.

A place where we are comfortable is a place that is all about us. Rather, God has created us to be part of the Body of Christ – a bunch of different people working together with Christ as our head. When we are living together as the body what holds us together is not feeling comfortable around other people, not having the same experiences or having gone to the same seminary. What holds us together is the One, the Head, Jesus Christ. When we go to other bonds we turn to idols. What seems like comfort, even in the face of our pain, hurt, and anger, can be such an idol.

Living as the body of Christ is a challenge because we are so very different, and therefore we really, really need Jesus. We come from disparate parts of the world (even, or especially, within the United States). A person who was raised in Boston is going to be different than a person from West Texas, who will be different than someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Korea. These differences are to be expected, not surprising.

There is an immense, yet very understandable, misunderstanding that the church is a place where everyone becomes the same. The opposite is the case. We are a body, with different gifts and different functions. Only in one place in the book of Acts does the church have peace. The rest of the New Testament is people figuring out how to deal with each other.

These differences are God given. We have been created to have different gifts as a part of Christ which we bring together as the body. As Paul has said, the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). God made us all to be a We. We, as United Methodists, are Arminian. We believe God did not create anyone for the purpose of being rejected. Instead, we are all created to be a part of the Kingdom of God (The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made, Psalm 145:9). Our purpose (which we are free to reject) is to be with Christ and each other. None of us are exactly like Jesus, but God made us with parts necessary for the Body. We need each other to function as the Body. We need each other’s personalities, each other’s experiences, each other as a part of Christ, so that we can function as the life-saving community of Jesus Christ. When we reject each other for the comfort and stability of the country club we are rejecting the Body of Christ.

Some of our differences are theological. There are people in the United Methodist Church who have very different understandings of Scripture. The easiest thing would be to create different country clubs where we can comfortably be with those who think the same as ourselves. However, as the body, we are called to come together and figure out our differences. This is difficult, but we are following Jesus Christ, not a call to comfort.

There is an old story some of you know about a Life Saving Station. A community bands together to save those on ships who have wrecked nearby. However, as the Life Saving Station expands and gets better at what it does, the drive for comfort shifts the focus of the station from the people needing to be saved to the comfort of those called to do the work. The Life Saving Station is then transformed into a country club. I know both sides feel that if they do not win the life-saving work of the Church will not be done. However, if we split so each side can finally get around to doing the work only with those with whom they are comfortable, we have created two country clubs, rejecting the body.

Instead, God calls us to figure out how to be the body. To figure out how to be reconciled to each other as Christ has reconciled us to God. To figure out how to work with each other even when the other drives us nuts or causes us pain. Jesus never gave up on us, even when we crucified him. He came back after his torture and death to continue the work of reconciliation and building the body. Let us continue that work in our present circumstance, instead of opting for the broad road and becoming comfortable country clubs.

This post is by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.  

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

A photo by Hide Obara. unsplash.com/photos/2p1HOcpi14UMany have expressed disbelief at the characterization of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) by Bishop Ough’s statement following the July meeting of the Council of Bishops. In the statement, the WCA was included with annual conferences who have made declarations of non-compliance with The Book of Discipline and the election of Karen Oliveto as realities that have “opened deep wounds and fissures within the United Methodist Church and fanned the fears of schism.”

Critiques have also been lodged more broadly as other commentators have laid out their cases for perceived problems with the WCA:

  • that the issue of homosexuality is THE issue of the WCA (Jack Harnish, Jeremy Smith),
  • questions about their views on scripture (David Livingston, pt.2, Jeremy Smith)
  • a perceived precarious future of women clergy (David Livingston, pt.3)
  • that the WCA is doing harm to the UMC by creating a proto-denomination with its own publishing house, membership standards, and membership dues, and will likely cause increased fragmentation of the church (Jason Valendy, Jeremy Smith)

Responses to these criticisms by Kevin Watson and David Watson emphasize the WCA’s desire to be faithful to current, established United Methodist (UM) beliefs. Posts by Shane Bishop, Bob Kaylor, and Chris Ritter express their anticipation that the WCA could come alongside the UMC in the same manner that the people called Methodists once sparked a revival in the Church of England. The WCA has also posted on their official website in response to some of these developments.

These posts share a desire to defend the intent of the WCA, stating that its purpose is to maintain current Methodist teaching while renewing it with some of the best of the practices that got us started in the first place. There is a strong, consistent effort to say, “We’re not working towards division, we want to gather, covenant, and labor with others who want to be faithful and are working with a similar definition of fidelity.”

Nevertheless, there is a powerful sense that something new and different is happening. Bob Kaylor says that his conference and jurisdiction chose the “nuclear option, rendering moot the work of the commission” by electing Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop.  He likewise quotes Billy Abraham, who argues that the stated goals of the Bishop’s commission to (a) revise the disciplinary language concerning human sexuality and (b) maintain the unity are at odds with one another.  Shane Bishop says, “the storm is not going to pass. I am jumping right.”

The official channels of the WCA are reiterating that they have no intentions to divide the church. Meanwhile, one of their primary leaders denies that there is any discernible way forward for our denomination while others use terms like “nuclear options” and “storms” to describe our current state.  This may seem at first like double-speak, but there is more going on.

There is a tension between the WCA’s desire for unity, that’s no secret. But the nature of that tension has yet to be clearly named.

Those attracted to the WCA are ready for doctrine and discipleship to be the primary foundation of their covenantal community.  (For a powerful articulation of this idea, see Carolyn Moore’s post this week in which Carolyn Moore shares Don Haynes’s thoughts on emphasizing “doctrine and discipline.”) These are the things which they can adamantly affirm about the UMC and its Discipline.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the foundation of UMC unity is not doctrine and discipline, but on property and process. We have standards for belief and behavior, but they are functionally insignificant when viewed in light of our policies and procedures.

Bill Arnold states the case quite bluntly:

“The accountability of our polity is broken.”

The brokenness of our polity is the best tenable explanation for the existence of the WCA.  Why else would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?  Jack Harnish is right that the catalyst for the WCA is the issue of same-sex practice. But the WCA hopes to be much more than a one issue community; it desires to be a source of renewal for the people called Methodists.

Even as the WCA emphasizes its alignment with UM doctrine and practice, it needs to honestly assess whether it cannot affirm UM polity in its current iteration. Broken polity should not be affirmed, it should be repaired. The tension about division emerges when one considers whether our polity is beyond repair, and what members of the WCA might do if such corrections cannot be implemented.

The reality for  traditionalists[1] is that affirming the central teachings of the UMC and following the rules no longer assures one that they will be “at home” in the UMC. The General conference speaks for the whole church. But what we say at General Conference and what we do as jurisdictional and annual conferences, are no longer in accord.

Traditionalists have had the votes. They’ve successfully maintained disciplinary language about sexuality quadrennium after quadrennium. They’ve won elections for any number of boards, agencies, and councils. Our standards are clear, but there is no means of accountability.  In terms of polity, The Book of Discipline is not a friend to traditionalists. As long as due process is followed, there is no way to question the judgement of the conference.  Our polity has proven incapable of ensuring fidelity to the standards established by the General Conference. That means we don’t have standards; we have guidelines or suggestions.

At this point, we’re experiencing multiple systems failure: boards of ordained ministry, annual conferences, and the Western Jurisdiction have all disregarded standards set forth in The Book of Discipline. And that is possible because the standards are subordinate to the discernment of those groups.

This applies not only to standards related to sexuality, but all standards of discipline and doctrine.

Our polity puts us into silos of annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences.  And if an entire conference goes astray, we are learning that there is no means for the general church to correct the course. Annual conferences own the property and are responsible for maintaining clergy ministry standards. When they choose to interpret those standards loosely (or disregard them entirely) in matters of ordination, investigating charges, or seeking a “just resolution,” nothing can be done.[2] Representatives of the conference can decide nearly whatever they please, so long as they follow due process.  Similar things are true for bishops and jurisdictional conferences.

The Judicial Council’s hands are tied, rendering them unable to rectify the problem because it is the prerogative of the annual conference to interpret the standards set forth by General Conference. While traditionalists assert that such ordinations are against the discipline, the Judicial Council has repeatedly directed their attention to questions of due process instead of investigating the faithful application of standards. They have rightly refused to insert themselves into the processes of discernment that are explicitly given to other groups by the General Conference.

Efforts such as the one to establish minimum penalties for performing same sex weddings at GC2016 would have proven to be merely a Band-Aid for our deeper issues of polity.

There is no mechanism by which any body (individual or corporate) in the United Methodist Church can say authoritatively regarding essential teaching and doctrine[3]: That conference is no longer aligned with our theology. Their actions are not representative of what we believe. They have wandered too far afield. Their teachings are heretical. They are not United Methodist.

 

The issue is no longer only about unfaithful individuals or conferences, it is about the viability of the entire connection. And solutions cannot be directed only towards contingency planning for disobedience related to same-sex marriages.

The WCA is seen as a threat to the unity of the UMC because it is a gathering of people who are deeply dissatisfied with our polity.  Traditionalists have pursued and effectively utilized every avenue available to them to establish and maintain standards for ministry. And they still don’t feel at home in their own denomination.  Therefore, they are creating a group that shares the values that the UMC says it has, but cannot ensure.

In this way, Kevin Watson is correct when he says, “The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is.”

If the WCA wants its witness to be coherent, if it wants its efforts to be successful, it must recognize our broken polity and find a way to articulate clear solutions. And it must not get distracted by efforts to maintain its “support of the Discipline,” because the unity currently provided by the Discipline is founded upon property, policies, procedures and pensions, not doctrine and discipleship.

It has proven easy, however, to revert to this cliché of supporting the discipline. Even Bill Arnold, upon declaring our polity broken midway through his article, concludes the same piece by saying, “Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.”

If our polity is broken, no one should not want to maintain it. And if a formal, institutional schism occurs, those who end up chartering new denominations would be wise to avoid codifying the same problems a second time around.

The WCA is gaining steam because our polity is broken. Our doctrine is sound. Our standards for ministry are clearly established.  While we can set and maintain standards for due process, we have proven incapable of doing the same for standards of faithfulness.  That failure dilutes our identity and corrodes our connection, leaving faithful Methodists craving a covenantal community of like-minded people.

There are two logical solutions for our current predicament.

We can alter our language so that we are what we say. We can embrace and acknowledge that we are functionally a confederation of conferences that unite to support our boards and agencies while maintaining local standards of theology and ethics.

Or, we can become who we say we are: we can establish and utilize mechanisms for accountability across the silos of our connection.  The latter would be hard work; it would be an uphill battle of constitutional amendments.

Traditionalists have remained intent on condemning progressives’ actions that ignore the Book of Discipline. In an attempt to avoid being hypocrites, they’ve tried to unequivocally affirm their allegiance to The Book of Discipline. It’s time, however, to make the case that The Book of Discipline is wrong. Discipleship and doctrine should be more constitutive of our identity than property and procedures.

Our polity is broken, and it needs to be mended rather than affirmed.

____________

[1] I use this term as a simple gloss for “those who believe that sex is never faithful outside of the context of heterosexual marriage.” I use this term because there are some who would self-identify as “orthodox” or “evangelical” who have different understandings of sexual practice (e.g., Jack Harnish), and because “conservative” is decidedly imprecise.  “Traditionalist” isn’t perfect either, but we must choose a word to communicate the idea.  If you have recommendations for another, I’d be happy to hear it.

[2] For more on Just Resolutions, see Drew McIntyre’s piece “Just Resolution,” or Just Bullshit.

[3] We also have not, to this point, had a satisfactory conversation about whether or not (dis)approval of same-sex marriage should/shouldn’t be determinative for orthodoxy, an essential of United Methodism. There’s no way to say if it would be adequate reason for something as extreme excommunication.

This post was written by Chad Bowen, the pastor of the Shannon Brewer Charge in the MS Conference.  You can reach him directly on Twitter @chad_bowen.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty...Yesterday, news began to trickle out that Petition 60980-FO-104-G, a petition to add the Nicene Creed to our doctrinal standards, had been voted down in the GA subcommittee (It is still up for consideration by Faith and Order).  As someone who had helped to pen an open letter in support of the petition, this was naturally a frustrating turn of events.  In the course of discussing this petition, many of the same objections have been raised.  I would like to take time this blog post to address some of these objections.  It is my belief that, ironically enough, many of the common objections to the Nicene Creed are actually reasons in favor of including it among our doctrinal standards.First, there is the objection that Methodists have historically stayed away from creeds, that we are not a creedal church.  Why, one might ask, did John Wesley not include the Nicene Creed in our standards from the beginning?  Well, the answer is complicated.  The Apostles’ Creed has always been part of Methodism.  Protestants like the Wesleys preferred the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene creed because it was believed at the time to be simpler and more primitive.  From the vantage of modern scholarship this is harder to maintain.  The earliest citation of the Apostles Creed comes from the late 4th century, about the same time as the version of the Nicene Creed which is in our hymnal.  We know for sure, however, that earlier versions of the Nicene Creed go back to the third century (Eusebius states that the creed adopted by the Council of Nicaea was based on the creed of his church in Caesarea, Palestine, which had been around at least since he had been baptized in the later third century).  If the early Methodists had been working from the findings of more recent scholarship, they might have preferred to use the Nicene Creed from the beginning!

Second, many object that the Nicene Creed is tainted because of its connection with imperial projects from Constantine through the middle ages to the present.  For many, the very existence of a Creed evokes the kind of Christianity that excludes dissenters by force and uses violent anathemas to police the boundaries of the Church.  Certainly, this history cannot be denied (just as it cannot be denied with the Articles of Religion, which are in our current standards).  It is important to note, however, that the actual Creed, as used in our hymnals and by many Christian bodies throughout the world, does not contain any anathemas.  When the Church took up the Creed, it took up something that was universal and spoke to the heart of our beliefs about God and salvation–and it set aside the more particular anathemas which had been approved alongside it at the actual councils that composed it.  The Creed, as a creed, is a positive statement about who God is and what God has done, not an instrument of exclusion.

Third, some believe that approving the Nicene Creed would limit the range of theology within the United Methodist Church.  They feel it would compromise our treasured ‘catholic spirit,’ which practices unity in essentials and in all things charity.  The Nicene Creed, however, is not as precise and sectarian as our existing doctrinal standards, which are all specifically Methodist.  The Nicene Creed is adhered to by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Christians of all sorts of persuasions.  The Nicene Creed was composed by Christian bishops from all over the world and has presided over all the theological diversity of the last seventeen centuries of Christianity; our current doctrinal standards were composed by men from England and North America in the last few hundred years.

Finally, some object that approving the Nicene Creed as one of our doctrinal standards could seem to relativize the authority of Scripture by subordinating it to a Creed.   This was something the first framers of the Creed were themselves very concerned about.  At the Council of Nicaea the most controversial word in the whole thing was homoousios, “consubstantial” (the Son being “consubstantial with the Father).  This word was controversial because it was basically the only word in the creed that didn’t come straight from Scripture.  The Nicene Creed is soaked in the Scriptures:  its basic structure comes from 1 Corinthians 8:6, and, outside of homoousios, nearly the whole thing is made of up quotations from Scripture.  In this it is different from later creedal statements like the Chalcedonian Definition.  Perhaps more importantly, this also makes it different from our current standards, such as the Articles of Religion, which use technical theological terminology (such as “three persons, one substance” in Article 1) instead of plain Biblical language.  In terms of showing the ultimate deference of our doctrinal standards to the authority of Scripture, the addition of the Nicene Creed would be an improvement.

In short, many of the reasons which have been given for opposing the inclusion of the Nicene Creed among our doctrinal standards are actually reasons to favor it.  It fits more neatly with the Wesleyan desire to imitate the earliest practices of the Church.  It is a document which acknowledges the entanglement of Christianity with worldly power and strives to transcend it.  It is an ecumenical document, which has proven capable of uniting Christian of the most divergent viewpoints imaginable.  Finally, it is a document which reaffirms and illustrates the supreme authority of Scripture for our faith and practice.

This post was written by Austin Rivera, a provisional elder in the Great Plains Conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Holy Conferencing

Holy Conferencing

What would it look like for us to have charitable conversations about the essentials of our faith?

Remember Me

Remember Me

Remember Me

Tuesday, on the opening day of General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, Love Prevails coordinated an unofficial ordination service for Sue Laurie, who has been denied entry into the candidacy process for 20 years by her annual conference because she is a self-avowed, practicing lesbian.

A statement published by Love Prevails tells of what followed the ordination: “After her ordination, the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated. As an act of radical hospitality, we offer to the General Conference the bread and cup consecrated at that service.”

Under signs that read “Remember Me,” the bread and cup from the ordination service were offered simultaneously with the bread and cup consecrated at the altar at which Bishop Bruce Ough presided during the opening worship service of General Conference.

In doing this, Love Prevails has divided the table of the UMC, providing alternative elements with which to commune with Christ around an alternative table they described as “Queer Communion.” It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a division of the church.

It does not seem that this was their intent.  Their stated intent was to draw attention to the LGBTQ+ people who are already serving in the UMC and to bring attention to the ways in which LGBTQ+ people do not always experience the UMC as a safe place.  For Love Prevails, the offer of an unofficial communion service and alternate table reflects deeply held convictions about justice for and the call of LGBTQ+ people.  They intended, so it seems, to provoke change within a communion with which they find their relationship impaired.

But though Love Prevails’ intent was not schism, its effect was.  Separate ordinations and separate tables are exactly the things that constitute a separate church.

At the end of their statement, Love Prevails says, “We encourage you to take communion at the ‘Remember Me’ stations as an act of resistance to our church’s ongoing discrimination of God’s LGBTQ people and to work for the day when Love Prevails.” But this act of resistance against the church’s discrimination, as Love Prevails sees it, in fact created resistance to the church itself in its oneness gathered around the table.  For Paul, the oneness of the bread and body is essential to the church’s gathered participation in Christ:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17 ESV)

It is insufficient to say that this was to serve as a sign-act of the brokenness already present in our communion, for communion is not only a sign of what we are, but a participation in what we are to become. In a sermon addressed to catechumens on Pentecost, Augustine provides some commentary on Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 10, saying,

“One bread,” [Paul] says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. (Emphasis added.)

Augustine goes on to speak of the cup as well, explaining how the individual grapes in the bunch are all mingled to form one wine.  One bread and one cup, these are the source and the sign of our communion. At the table, we are not called to try to signify our present brokenness. We have already done that and sought peace in the midst of that through confession and reconciliation.

When we offer different breads—that is bread that has been blessed at a different table and offered as an alternative to that which is offered by the one presiding with the gathered body—we are no longer operating as one body that has been united by the water and the Spirit. The sign-act offered by Love Prevails communicates this. To have two different tables is to have two different ekklesia, to have two different communions, to have variant offerings of Christ.

This separate communion is made all the more troublesome by the fact that the UMC has no bar on members of the LGBTQ+ community receiving or serving communion.  In our theology and liturgy, we confess that all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another are welcome at the table.  And though our church has failed in manifold ways to be faithful to this call in practice, to create a separate “queer communion” entrenches a division that need not be maintained.

With banners that read “Remember Me,” Love Prevails called upon the conference to “remember the people who have been lost to our denomination as a result of the church’s categorical discrimination against queer people,” to “remember all who have been marginalized and violated by the church’s many acts of oppression,” and to “commit to Re-Membering the Body of Christ—to making whole that which has been broken and torn apart.”  But we can only remember and rightly see each other in communion if first we remember Christ himself.  Jesus’ call to “remember me” is about Jesus himself, who in giving himself for us offers us reconciliation and enables us to see the image of God in each other.  Love Prevails’ “queer communion,” however, substitutes LGBTQ+ people for Jesus as the antecedent of “me” and, therefore, as the object of our memories.  We ought to remember all of God’s church, LGBTQ people included, when we gather to be reconciled at the table, but we can only do so by rememberingJesus himself.  By offering a separate communion and undermining the primacy of Jesus in our memory, Love Prevails has further dismembered, rather than re-membered, the body of Christ.

If we are to be one body—if we together are to be transformed by the love of Christ—if we are to be reconciled to each other—then the place where we experience that possibility is when we gather around the Lord’s table, in which we participate as one body with one bread and one cup.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” May we as Christ’s church share in one loaf even when we share so little else.

 

Editorial notes:

  • This post is not, in itself, a criticism of all of the work of Love Prevails or all work towards more faithful inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. It is a criticism of these two activities.
  • The writers of this article do not take issue with LGBTQ+ persons serving the elements or for any persons authorized by their Board of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conference presiding at the table in the UMC. The objection here is to the fact of alternate offerings, not the people who are offering or receiving.
  • On Wednesday, during the Episcopal Address, Bishop Palmer said, “[O]ur relationships are so superficial, especially in the church, that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to apologize for.” This is our attempt to speak boldly, trusting that we can speak the truth in love in the UMC. We humbly acknowledge that we may be wrong in our assessment of these actions, and want this to be a beginning of conversation, not an end.

This article was written by Chad Bowen and Smith Lilley, pastors in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  We can be reached on Twitter at @chad_bowen and @fel_jr respectively.