Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Good Samaritan and the Syrian

The Good Samaritan...

It is one of the most beloved and misunderstood parables in the Bible. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..." and you probably know the rest of the story. But you probably don't know the whole story.

The assumption that Jesus' audience would make is that the man in the story is Jewish like they were - remember that Jesus was teaching and preaching among Jewish people. There were no Christians yet! The man is mugged and left for dead. Two people pass by. For our purposes, you could think of those two as a pastor of a nearby church and a member of the church's leadership team. If you were mugged and needed someone to help you these are the people that you would want to have walk by. But, surprisingly, they don't help. Then the Samaritan stops by and is the one who helps.

That much you are most likely familiar with. But what we often do when we teach this story is to say, "Just like the Good Samaritan, we should help a stranger in need." That's NOT what the story is about.

There is a reason why Jesus made the hero a Samaritan. Hundreds of years earlier, the United Kingdom split into a northern and southern kingdom as a result of a power struggle. Those two kingdoms remained at odds for 200 years until the northern kingdom, whose capital was Samaria, was defeated by Assyria. 150 years later, the southern kingdom (there capital was Jerusalem) was defeated by the Babylonians. But the defeat of both kingdoms didn't end the rivalry between people. All the way to Jesus' time Samaritans were at odds with Jews. In other words, this Samaritan was the opposite of the two people who did not stop to help.

I explained the parable to my daughters by having them imagining themselves hurt at recess and their best friends walked by them without a second thought while the person they like least in class stopped to help them. If you are a child of the Cold War, it would be like a Russian stopping to help an American. The point is not that the Samaritan helped a stranger; the point is that the Samaritan helped a potential enemy. The Samaritan helped someone who by societal norms he would not be expected to help.

...and the Syrian

Should we be expected to help Syrian refugees? No. It is possible (but highly unlikely) that ISIS will try to sneak fighters into the refugees that are fleeing. We have plenty of other people already in the United States that need help. It will be hard for a Syrian refugee to make a new life in a culture so different from there own. There are countries in Syria's backyard that are not helping like they should. In short, We are the Samaritan to the Syrian refugee left for dead at the side of the road. We should not be expected to help. The world should assume that we will walk on by. But that's not how the story Jesus told ends.

I Corinthians 12:27 "Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Is the Tie that Binds

In a post on another blog several years ago I asked the question "What if the United Methodist Church (or any denomination for that matter) saw itself as a massive multi-site church?" What if we could see ourselves not as separate local churches, but truly as one Church. I still think it's a good question. I still think that's what we really are, even though if this is the case we are a church mired in dysfunction. So a related but distinct question: "If we are a massive multi-site church, what is it that binds us together?"

This question comes from one of the lessons we have learned from large churches. Small churches tend to be homogeneous. The pianist of the first church I served after finishing seminary introduced herself to me as "the only person in the church not related to every other person in the church." Another church I served was in a town with several other denominational churches, all of which were part of the "conservative" wing of the family tree - the Baptist church was Sourthern, the Lutheran church was Missouri Synod. In that town, if you were protestant and moderate to liberal theologically then you were probably United Methodist. There was a degree of theological homogeneity. But in the larger church there is more that potentially divides people than unites people. The large church is not held together by its sameness, but by a common cause.

The church I serve now (St. Paul's in Lenexa) would be classified as a smaller large church - a professional sized church to use Susan Beaumont's helpful language. It is considered by most in the Great Plains Conference, indeed by many church members, as a very "progressive" church. I was told when I arrived in 2010 that this was a church where one would find far more Obama than McCain bumper stickers, which makes for an unusual parking lot in this part of Kansas City. Over the last five years I have discovered what probably most of the church members already knew - we are not all the same. We are old and young, extraverts and introverts, gay and straight, Democrats and Republicans (and even some Libertarians!), fiscal conservatives and liberals, wealthy and not as wealthy, and while we have a long ways to go we have a slowly increasing racial diversity. But, and this is important, when we did a congregational survey three years ago we found that 98% of respondents agreed with our Welcome Statement. A year later when we adopted a new mission statement it was approved unanimously by the Church Conference (there are some churches where everything is approved unanimously - this is most definitely not one of those churches!). These statements, and our commitment to take action on the basis of these statements, define St. Paul's. We are bound together by the belief that our welcome and mission statements faithfully represents the Great Commandment to fully love God and one another.

So, as a denomination, what binds us together? We know what separates us, but what unites us? What defines us? Is it our mission statement "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?" Is it our doctrinal standards (defined by the Book of Discipline as the Articles of Faith, the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, the General Rules of the Methodist Church, and Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament - which, interestingly - are out of print)? I don't see our current debate on same-sex marriage as necessarily contradicting either of these. Are we bound together by a particular mode of interpreting Scripture or by a particular understanding of what we mean by Scripture being authoritative? Then, whether it is a more traditional or more progressive approach, perhaps we have an unequal yoke and need to be separated from each other.

The bottom line is I agree with Jesus in Mark 3:25: a house divided against itself cannot stand. We are certainly not bound by our sameness. Are we bound by our division or by a common cause? The answer to that question tells us the direction we need to move.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Marriage - What If We Really Took Paul Seriously?

The Purpose of Marriage for Paul

In the debate about same-sex marriage, one of the more popular arguments is that the definition of marriage has remained unchanged for thousands of years as evidenced in the Bible. Of course, what people really mean by "Biblical marriage" is "New Testament marriage" because there is no one standard for marriage in the Bible. But that point aside, if we want to follow a strict New Testament model for marriage then it seems to me we should turn to the source to see what marriage was really all about. Jesus certainly makes reference to marriage, but our clearest reference to the purpose of marriage comes from the same author who gives us so much red-meat for anti-gay rhetoric - Paul. Paul gives us the purpose of marriage very clearly in 1 Cor. 7.

The text is long, so I'm going to pull pieces instead of reprinting all of it here. In a nutshell, it all has to do with sex. Paul starts by quoting an apparent letter to him that said, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" and clarifies that it is OK in the context of marriage. Importantly, though, Paul's justification for marriage is "since sexual immorality is occurring..." (7:2)  In other words, people are already having sex. Since that's happening regardless, we should sanction sex in a restricted, morally acceptable marriage. The purpose of marriage for Paul is as a vehicle for safe, morally acceptable sex.

In case we missed this, he says the same thing in different ways in verse 5 ("Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent for a time") and 9 ("If the y cannot control themselves, they should marry..." and 38 (So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.") Because marriage is intended only as a means to control what would otherwise be sin, Paul advises those who are not married to stay unmarried.

If you agree that the sole, or even primary, purpose of marriage is to have sex - please note that Paul says nothing about procreation here, he is simply talking about avoiding sexual sin - then you can stop reading right now. You agree with Paul and will have issues reading and obeying what he says. But if it occurs to you that there may be other reasons to marry - procreation, love, stability, building of community, etc. - then I hope you read on.

The Context for Paul

Now you might ask yourself "with so many other reasons for marriage, including many reasons that the Bible itself gives, why would Paul advocate that we only marry if we feel like it's the only way to avoid sin?" That's a good question! And there is an answer! It's all about context.

Paul is clearly writing at a time when he believed that Jesus would be returning soon (see especially 7:26, 29). Read in that context, Paul's words make complete sense. Just think of the traditional line of conversion-by-fear "If today was the last day of your life would you be ready to meet Jesus?" If Jesus is returning any day my first priority is to get my house in order. My second priority is to let others know. My third priority is details like whether or not I'm married.

That is not the same context that we live in today. Admitting this does not need to diminish the authority of Paul's teaching. For example, Paul's lessons on sex outside of marriage, mutuality within marriage, and caution of priorities of those who are married may all still be completely appropriate. But we are living in a different time today. To refer back to the previous section, procreation, love, stability, building of community, etc. are all valid purposes of marriage. In other words, we should take Paul seriously when he speaks of marriage, but we need not apply what he says word for word to our current context.  And, in fact, we don't apply what he says word for word. If we did then you would have stopped reading after the first section of this post.

So What's that Have to Do with Same-Sex Marriage?

I'm glad you asked! In short, when we look at the "gotcha" passages in the New Testament, we find Paul. And when we find Paul, or any other writer, we have to think of the context in exactly the same way that we just have with marriage more generally. What is Paul really saying to first century Greek speaking readers of his letters? Given that context how does what he says still speak to us today? (Note the question is not whether it speaks to us, but how it speaks to us. Scripture is still authoritative.) Sarah Ruden, Matthew Vines, and James Brownson have been especially helpful for me in answering those questions.

There is one reference in the Bible to Paul's writings. In one of the last books written (we know this because, well, it refers to Paul!) 2 Peter 3:16 says, "...[Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." It's certainly possible that I'm one of those distorting Paul's words. If I am I will humbly ask for forgiveness when the time comes. But I'm glad for Peter's admission that Paul's words can be hard to understand. That means we can't just simply read them at face value. We have to discern with prayer and humility. Whether you agree or disagree with this post, I hope we can at least agree on that.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Good Rhetoric, Bad Logic: Correcting Rob Renfroe

So I'm on vacation right now, but when I saw a link to Rob Renfroes's latest column on Facebook I had to take a brief hiatus to respond. Rev. Renfroe is woefully off base in his conclusions about the Connectional Table and Adam Hamilton's proposals to address human sexuality. In fact, he's wrong on virtually every point. I'm familiar with both since I authored a similar plan that was approved earlier this month by the Great Plains Annual Conference. Let me go point by point following Renfroe.

1. "Neither plan is a compromise"
The "no compromise" approach from the progressives would be to propose adding human sexuality to the list of protected statuses in the Book of Discipline (BOD). That would ensure that no annual conference could choose to deny ordination and no pastor could deny marriage based solely on sexual orientation. It would be a reversal of the current position we hold. That is not what is being proposed. Renfroe says it is no compromise becks it would give progressives the "ability to ratify their position wherever they have sufficient votes. Yes, but it would also give precisely that same authority to traditionalists who have sufficient votes. And if a progressive or traditionalist couldn't serve in good conscious in the conference where he or she is a member then transferring to another conference would be a reasonable alternative. Having that alternative makes it more unreasonable that a pastor could perform a same-gender wedding and not be charged. Standards could actually be better enforced. Every pastor could have part of what they want but not all of what they want. That's pretty much the definition of a compromise.

Renfroe further says that all this assures for traditionalists is that they'll have to keep fighting the same fights (my paraphrase). I'm wondering which plan has been proposed that would ensure that our debate is over. I haven't seen that plan yet.

2. "Both plans would make many pastoral appointments difficult if not impossible." 
I have not spoken with the bishops that Rev. Renfroe has. They have a remarkable insight to be able to make a statement like only three churches in an episcopal area would accept a pastor who would perform a same sex marriage. Perhaps I have more esteem for my clergy colleagues than Rev. Renfroe. The old maxim "you stop being prophetic when the people stop listening" should surely help a number of pastors opt not to perform same-gender marriages. Given that, the statistic that only somewhere around 3% of the population is gay, and the reality that same-gender marriage is already a reality for those who most desire it,  it seems unlikely that there will be a huge rash of pastors performing same-gender weddings if our denomination allows them to be done.

3. "Both plans would bring the heightened tension of General Conference into our annual conferences and into our local churches."
I was at General Conference 8 and 20 years ago, but not 4 years ago. My experience was like Rev. Renfroe's - divisive is a good word. Have church trials reduced that tension in annual conferences? Have bishops' pronouncements? Are our annual conferences immune right now to this debate? And now that the Supreme Court has ruled and public opinion has swayed do we really believe the debate will stay out of the local church? There is, I think, some truth to this charge on the Hamilton/Slaughter plan. I think that plan has some other technical issues that will prevent it from being approved. But the Connectional Table plan would result only in "lobbying" of pastors, not church members. Again, I trust that my clergy colleagues have the integrity to make the correct pastoral and theological stand regardless of the lobbying of members.

4. "Both plans will cause many of our traditional members to leave our congregations and the UM Church.
Let me grab a couple specific quotes:
"Many pastors will feel forced to leave the denomination and will do all they can to take their congregations with them." I encourage Rev. Renfroe to use his position and persuasion to urge schismatic pastors to allow the congregations they serve to make their own decisions. 
Citing the huge sums of money lost by Episcopal Church lawsuits, both plans "will guarantee that the same costly litigation will take place among United Methodists." We're not Calvinists. That future hasn't been determined yet. I believe that the numbers that would leave are exaggerated. Regardless, I would hope that we could find a way for those who cannot live within this voluntary organization to leave. Lawsuits are unnecessary. 

5. "Even if traditionalists accepted either plan, it would not end the battles regarding marriage and sexuality."
This is likely true - and pretty strong evidence that even Rev. Renfroe recognizes deep inside that the proposals actually are compromises. If they were not compromises then there would be nothing left for the progressives to battle over. And if Rev. Renfroe is right on point 4 then there wouldn't be enough traditionalists left to battle. These are self-contradicting points. You have to pick which one to argue. Because this is a kind of compromise proposal, I suggest that point 5 is true. The debate will not be over because the large majority of our membership will remain intact when they realize that they are in conferences that will not agree to having pastors who are gay and their pastors choose not to perform same-gender weddings.

6. "Our African brothers and sisters would be disenfranchised."
This statement is embarrassing. 1) African UMs have 30% of the vote at General Conference. How can a group with 1/3 of the vote be disenfranchised? 2) Central Conferences have the ability to choose portions of the BOD to modify but the US conferences and jurisdictions do not have that same power. So, in fact, a unanimous Africa and a minority of U.S. delegates could bind the entire United States to a decision that African churches could then ignore. (A unanimous Africa would need at most 40% of US delegates to have a voting majority). It is Africa who could actually disenfranchise the US, not the other way around. 

7. "Both plans require a change in our UM polity."
No. Our polity is clear that pastors have sole authority in who to marry - unless they are asked to marry two people of the same gender. Our polity is clear that Boards of Ordained Ministry and the clergy session of annual conference have the authority to determine who is qualified and called to ordained ministry - unless they are gay. Our current statements on sexuality are an anomaly to our otherwise consistent polity. The political conservative in me knows that centralizing authority tends to cause problems. We have centralized a decision that should be left to the annual conferences and local pastors as our polity dictates in virtually every other case.

8. Both plans give homosexuality a preferred status in comparison to other issues that divide us."
It is interesting, once again, that Rev. Renfroe has move away from his stance that this is not a compromise position. "Agree to disagree" language would precisely be a compromise. And, as such point 8 is valid in the case of a substantial change to paragraph 161F in the BOD. It is not true in matters of marriage and ordination. He compares the acceptance of homosexuality to ordination of women and infant baptism. What Rev. Renfroe has missed is yet another critical distinction. Both women in ministry and infant baptism are part of our doctrinal standards. There is absolutely nothing - and I mean nothing - in our doctrinal standards that directly speaks to our stance on homosexuality. Zero. 

This is why the CT proposal, or the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal, or my own proposal are all better ways forward than the status quo. All three plans 
1) Return the authority to the annual conference and local pastor that our polity intends
2) Allows standards to be better enforced, not less enforced, by helping pastors move to regions that are a better fit.
3) Allows African and other central conferences to self-determine as they currently do AND allowing U.S. conferences that same ability.
4) Returns human sexuality to its proper place in our conversations - an important conversation, but NOT a doctrinal conversation. 

And this is perhaps the one place that Rev. Renfroe and I agree - but it is an important one. We would both like to serve God in the church "to transform broken lives, heal wounded souls and save those who are drowning in a sea of confusion and sin." We have more than 40 years of experience that the approach we are taking is not working. I hope we are willing to try something new in 2016.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Can We Agree to Agree?

Just in case you didn't hear yet, the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church took a significant step on Saturday towards becoming more of the church that I believe God wants us to be. Obviously a lot of people disagree with me. That was to be expected. But something interesting happened to me as I listened to the speeches against the petition - I agreed with most of what they said. It made me wonder if it would be helpful for us to take a look at what the large (almost unanimous?) majority of United Methodists, indeed the majority of all Christians, agree about.

"I believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit"

The first speaker was the one who, regrettably, chose to leave the denomination said this. I agree. Completely. Isn't that why we are in the Church? The church I serve is filled with stories of transformation. We have new people coming to faith. In a denomination where less than half of congregations have professions of faith other than confirmation, St. Paul's has had at least two every year for the last 17 years. This coming Sunday alone three adults will be baptized. I don't just believe in transformation, I've been transformed! By the grace of God I am not who I once was and I will not always be who I am now.

"Christians should not be conformed to the world."

Absolutely! I've argued elsewhere that even on same-sex marriage conservative and progressive alike tend to follow the local community norms, but the community's norms are not necessarily God's will. We would all (I hope) agree that when our communities advocated segregation they were wrong. We would all agree that Christian ethics are not identical with the laws of the land. Christians have a higher calling. We are supposed to act different. I will continue to maintain that when we allow ourselves to be polarized we have become conformed to the world.

"We shouldn't give in to sin"

Of course we shouldn't! Sin and evil are real and opposed to God's will. We all agree with this. We differ on what we consider to be sin.

"Scripture is Authoritative"

Not only do I agree that Scripture is authoritative, I agree that Scripture is the primary authority for Christians. Every pastor I know bases their sermons on Scripture. Almost every person I know who argues for the acceptance of homosexuality will contend that it is compatible with Scripture, not that we should ignore Scripture. We do not disagree about whether Scripture is authoritative; we disagree about how it is authoritative.

"The Church can change"

OK, nobody actually said this one, but they could have. We are the product of a changed church. If that were not the case we would all be Catholic. The Church changed even in Scripture. Pentecost represented a huge change at the very beginning. The Jerusalem Council was another huge change. The early ecumenical councils all represented change by solidifying the boundaries of faith. John Wesley believed the Church of England needed to change. Not all change is positive (which is one reason I hesitate to embrace the label "progressive"), but some change most certainly is positive.

Why this discussion matters

We know we disagree. We will always disagree on some topics. But if the United Methodist Church is going to survive this moment in time we need to at least be able to talk with each other about where the disagreements really are. I'm convinced that much of our conversation is one person talking past the other and the other returning the favor. It's a tennis game where both people are serving and no one is returning the volley. It's not a dialogue, just a series of disconnected monologues. We need to do better than that. In doing so, we may model the church Paul hopes for in Ephesians 4:1-6.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Five Rules for an Undulating UMC

Chris Ritter recently shared some interesting thoughts about a flatter UMC structure that might help our debates on sexuality. Besides the title being a misnomer, I think he has some helpful ideas.

It's important to say at the outset that Chris' five rules don't actually make the structure flatter. The only way to truly make it flatter is to eliminate some of our structure. But I think he's correct that it would feel flatter, which may be even more important than whether or not it actually is flatter. So I'm using the word "undulating" instead. Undulating means wavy - it's not flat, but it's not too hard to manage. It allows movement, but it still has form.

But let's look at his rules.

RULE # 1:  Annual Conferences may overlap geographically.

Chris points out that there are isolated examples where this already happens, but of all Chris' suggestions this is the one that concerns me. I can't see how if would be helpful to have 1st UMC of the Missouri Annual Conference across the street from 1st UMC of the Great Plains Annual Conference, for example. Opening up a geographical mission field to multiple conferences would become competitive rather than cooperative, But there may be a way of nuancing the disciplinary language to allow for the second rule, which I would support.

RULE #2:  Local churches may join whatever annual conference is willing to service their location and may reconsider their conference affiliation once every four years.  

The Book of Discipline acknowledges that the primary work of ministry happens in the local church. If the ministry of the local church is being hampered rather than helped by the Annual Conference that they are a member of I see no reason not to empower them to make a change. This should not be a decision taken lightly. Chris' recommendation of a four year minimum makes sense. I'd suggest some additional safeguards like requiring a two-thirds vote of the congregation rather than a simple majority so that we can minimize the likelihood of changes in affiliation every four years.

RULE #3:  Annual conference may join any jurisdiction they wish, and this decision may be revisited every four years.

This is already allowed in our Book of Discipline, but the current process requires approval by the annual conference seeking the change and a majority vote of the annual conferences in each affected jurisdiction. The current requirements make this really an eight year decision, not a four year decision. I think this is probably healthy, but I could support a move to simplify switching jurisdictions.

RULE #4:  General church standards related to ministry and chargeable offenses may be adapted by our jurisdictional upon a 2/3 vote of their jurisdictional conference.

I'm all for this. As it stands today, this would be a more limited version of what Central Conferences are already able to do. If we can acknowledge that Central Conferences have different cultures that may require different rules then it seems we should be able to acknowledge that different regions in the United States also may require different rules. There is no monolithic U.S. culture (here's a good example). Let's acknowledge the truth of it. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters will bring recommendations to the 2016 General Conference regarding just how much of the Book of Discipline should be adaptable. Whatever they are allowed to change, jurisdictions should be allowed to change also.

RULE #5:  If a jurisdiction falls below five constituent episcopal areas, it must disband and its annual conferences must each join another jurisdiction.

Seems reasonable to me.

Chris correctly says that his Jurisdictional Solution proposals (moving us to two or six jurisdictions) meet these standards. I'm not sure if that's true about Rule #1. But I'd like to suggest something more modest. I think these rules can work with the current five jurisdictions. Both versions of the Jurisdictional Solution work by creating a place where those who lean left can find a home. That already exists. It is widely acknowledged that the Western Jurisdiction is largely (but not 100%) "liberal", the Southeastern Jurisdiction is largely (but not 100%) conservative, and the remaining three jurisdictions fall somewhere in between. If local churches and annual conferences have the right to switch from one jurisdiction to another then we already have the structure we need. Adopting rules 2, 4, and 5, and perhaps a modified version of rules 1 and 3 would accomplish the same thing.

I'm still opposed to the Jurisdictional Solution, but I think Chris may have helped us move toward a workable middle ground with these guidelines.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Response to a Response

We are exactly one year away from General Conference. If you're reading this, you probably know the elephant in the room will be the UMC's position on all the issues surrounding human sexuality. Jeremy Smith gave a nice summary of eight options back in February. To that list we can now add the Connectional Table's proposal (legislation not yet released), which sounds similar to A Way Forward from Hamilton and Slaughter. It's also important to acknowledge that keeping the status quo is also a very possible outcome. A lot can change over the next 12 months, but at this point I'm hearing three possibilities mentioned most often:

1. No change in policy and possibly "mandatory sentences" for offenders. This seems to me the most likely outcome given our history of not accomplishing much.

2. Christopher Ritter's Jurisdictional Solution. There are two different versions of this. Several on the right have either publicly or privately endorsed it. You can read my critique here. Bottom line: I appreciate Christopher's commitment to keeping the denomination together. He and others have put a tremendous amount of work into this. But it feels very much like a separation before the divorce.

3. A Way Forward, recently restated by Adam Hamilton. The more I have thought about Adam's proposal the more similar I think it is to what the Connectional Table reportedly will be releasing and to my own proposed legislation, which the Great Plains Conference will be voting on.

Christopher Ritter has released a new critique of the third option. So I guess this is a critique of a critique. Below I've pulled quotes from his post that I want to specifically address.

"Because of the authority granted to clergy at ordination, it is doubtful that a simple local church wedding policy could prevent a pastor from conducting same-sex weddings at the altar of a church to whom she/he was duly appointed by the bishop."

A Way Forward would make same gender weddings a matter of local church approval. At a surface level, Chris is correct. But let's go a little deeper. A congregation may not approve of two people living together being married in the building. A pastor has the authority to choose to marry those people. A congregation may not approve of a couple with a child born out of wedlock being married. A pastor has the authority to choose whether to marry them. In fact, a pastor currently has the right to marry a couple who are admittedly and unrepentently involved in serial affairs whether the congregation approves or not. Chris says this plan "severely dis-empowers" the laity. This is incorrect. It gives the laity the same rights that they have as it relates to any other wedding, and it gives the pastor the same rights as it relates to any other wedding.

"Hamilton’s plan also fails to touch upon the issue of open itineracy.  If a practicing homosexual is a clergy in good standing, they are entitled to an appointment by the bishop and appoint-able, at least in principle, anywhere in the conference."

We don't have truly open itineracy now. If Adam Hamilton, a member of the Conference I'm in, were to resign today I am under no illusion that I could successfully be appointed to COR. In principle, I could be appointed there. In practice I can't. But that's OK because there are other people who can be. Having "practicing homosexual" clergy (or, more accurately, having lgbt clergy who are able to be open about their sexuality) and having clergy willing to perform same gender marriage will make appointments more difficult. But bishops already have to screen clergy for theological and other issues prior to appointment.

"Pastors that agree with church teaching would like to serve knowing they will be followed by someone who likewise will uphold UM positions."

There are more significant theological issues than this one that my predecessors or successors have disagreed with me about.

"Many of my concerns about “the local option”, however, are centered on concerns of a pastoral nature.  Pastoral relationships are at risk if it is known by a couple that a pastor could perform a ceremony but will not.  Pastors would lose the option of saying, “I am not allowed to do that because of the covenant under which I live, but I would still love to be your pastor.”  When a clergy says “no”, it would seem like personal rejection."

I appreciate this perspective. Interestingly, though, it is in part a pastoral concern that has moved me further to the left on this. I pastor a church where people have left (left the local church, left the denomination, and left Christianity) because I can't perform a wedding. I have to defend why I won't do a wedding right now or leave the denomination so that I can. Let me say it this way. I had an opportunity to perform a same gender wedding and felt compelled to follow the Book of Discipline and say no. If I had yes I probably would have suffered some consequence. But I know that I would have had a sanctuary filled with people, many of whom know only that the church says there is something wrong with them. I would have had an opportunity to be a pastor for an amazing number of people. I, and the church I serve, didn't get that opportunity.

"Imagine the emotion of a couple coming to a church-wide meeting where a group of Christians is voting whether to allow their wedding in the church."

We do this every 4 years at General Conference and it is the lived experience of our lgbt sisters and brothers every day.

"I am concerned that Adam’s plan would be a set of hastily enacted changes that would only serve to destructively take our denominational battles from General Conference to the local and annual conference levels."

Surprisingly, Chris' own proposal would have the same effect. Annual Conferences would have to vote on which Jurisdiction to join and local churches could vote to make a different choice, leaving their current Annual Conference.

"If a conference can vote to allow openly gay pastors, they can vote to disallow this, too.  There might be narrow permissive votes in moderate annual conferences that are later overturned once the controversial decisions are publicized."

True. There is a risk here. I would be willing to take the risk.

"Perhaps Hamilton’s biggest omission is failing to make even passing reference to how these changes might affect our growing central conferences internationally.  His proposals would be in effect globally."

Not true. Paragraph 543.7 gives Central Conferences tremendous leeway in adjusting the Book of Discipline "provided that no action shall be taken that is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of the United Methodist Church, and provided that the spirit of connectional relationship is kept between the local and the general church." For example, Liberia recently reaffirmed their commitment to not elect a divorced person as bishop. But the BoD is binding on those of us in the U.S. The reality is central conferences can vote at General Conference to bind the United States conferences to decisions that in many cases the central conferences don't have to follow themselves.

"Before we concede that Hamilton’s solution is simple, we need to see his proposed legislation."

I'm confident his legislation would be similar to mine, which you can see referenced above. It is simple, 6 paragraphs are amended. Adam's proposal may add one paragraph (2533) and remove one (613.9) to my list. Compare that to the Jurisdictional Solution (Three Constitutional Amendments and three other changes, including one full new paragraph). Constitutional Amendments simply won't pass.

Finally, I think there are a couple things that Christopher and I can agree on. As more people agree to these principles I think more progress can be made.

1. Faithfulness can be messy. We're all after a faithful response to where we are as a church. We disagree about what the most faithful response is, but that is what we're aiming for nevertheless. If the solution was clean and simple then we wouldn't have this level of disagreement now. That doesn't mean we should back away from trying to do the right thing, whatever that is.

2. We can disagree agreeably. Christopher has modeled well what dialogue should look like. He has put his ideas forward on a regular basis, invited conversation and critique and (occasionally) changed some of his content to have a better crafted plan. I appreciate that and I think he appreciates the same from Adam and others.

3. General Conference actually can do something constructive. If we're willing to work together and talk together then something positive can come out of our time together in Portland.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A resolution for General Conference

Acknowledgment of Diverse Beliefs Regarding Homosexuality

Rationale: Since 1972 the United Methodist Church has taken increasingly firmer positions opposing non-heterosexual orientations. Attempting to make all United Methodists conform to traditional beliefs has not decreased denominational tension. This petition attempts to relocate decision making to the appropriate level, i.e. Annual Conference and Pastors, and ease tension.

Whereas the United Methodist Church has been gradually centralizing control in matters of ordination, candidacy, and pastoral authority as regards “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” and
Whereas the 2012 Book of Discipline(BoD) asserts that pastors have the authority to determine who to marry (¶340.2a3) and Annual Conferences have the authority to determine who is qualified for ordination (¶330, ¶335), and

Whereas our Doctrinal Standards are silent on sexuality but explicit in quoting John Wesley that “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think,” (BoD, ¶102) and

Whereas scholars in the United Methodist and other Christian traditions have made coherent cases that loving, monogamous relationships including same-sex relationships can be affirmed without jeopardizing the authority of Scripture or “strik[ing] at the root of Christianity.”

Therefore, be it resolved that the Great Plains Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference to amend the Book of Discipline as follows:

1. Paragraph 161F: “…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. A significant majority of United Methodists continue to hold the long-standing belief that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. While we acknowledge and respect differences in opinion on human sexuality, this remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. 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.”

2. Paragraph 304.3: “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 homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

3. Paragraph 310.2d footnote 3: delete paragraphs 1-3, (ending with “…affirms its high standards) and 8-9 (from “The General Conference has made it  clear…” and ending with “…against persons because they are single.”). The remaining footnote references Wesley’s Questions and the final two paragraphs.

4. paragraph 341.6: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.

5. paragraph 613.9: To ensure that no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of the UMC “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” (¶161.F). The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. This restriction shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic, nor shall it preclude funding for dialogs or educational events where the Church’s official position is fairly and equally represented.”

6. Paragraph 2702.1: “1 A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference (¶370), local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute of limitations in ¶2702.4) with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage; (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies; (c) crime; (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor; (g) child abuse; (h) sexual abuse;(i) sexual misconduct or (j) harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment; or (k) racial or gender discrimination.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A True Middle Way for the UMC

What if there was a solution to the division in the United Methodist Church that could allow each annual conference to choose their path on human sexuality like the Jurisdictional Solution without creating all of the problems? There is. The starting point is to take seriously the words in the preamble of the Social Principles, "[W]e pledge to continue to be in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons, and to tell the truth about our divisions as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things." With that in mind, let's look paragraph by paragraph at each place in the Book of Discipline where homosexuality is mentioned. For dramatic effect we'll go in reverse order.

Paragraph 2702.1 

Includes "immorality including but not limited to..." as a chargeable offense. The immorality clause includes "being celibate in singleness or not faithful in heterosexual marriage...being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies..." and about a dozen other items. The key phrase here is "including but not limited to." What if the statements about homosexuality were not included (and they were only added in 2004)? I suspect not much would change. A pastor could still be charged with immorality for any of the above language if the person bringing charges interprets homosexuality as immoral. A jury would find the person guilty or not guilty based on their view, likely shaped by the Annual Conference that they are part of. It is clear that this is how we are already functioning. Bishops and juries are already finding ways around the language. In fact, the Jurisdictional Solution does this very thing, only for just one jurisdiction. In other words, as regards 2702.1, the effect of simply removing the language quoted above would be identical to the effect of the Jurisdictional Solution.

Paragraph 806.9

This paragraph charges GCFA with ensuring that funds aren't used to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality." As this pertains to a general agency I don't think the Jurisdictional Solution would affect it. Although I disagree with this paragraph for the sake of the church as a whole would not advocate for changing it.

Paragraph 613.19 

Essentially, this is the same as 806.9 but applies to the Conference Council on Finance and Administration. This would be one of the areas that the Jurisdictional Solution would allow flexibility. But what would happen if we just remove the paragraph from the BoD right now? Conferences that are opposed to homosexuality are not going to begin funding gay rights. A Conference that would support a move to the progressive jurisdiction may be willing to give financially to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality" and a conference in the traditionalist jurisdiction would not. As with 2702.1 above, simply eliminating the language would have the same practical effect as creating two jurisdictions.

Paragraph 341.6 

This is the paragraph that prohibits "homosexual unions" from taking place on United Methodist property. Again, this paragraph could be adjusted by a progressive jurisdiction. If it were eliminated completely right now I suppose some would be concerned that a pastor or church could then be forced to allow "homosexual unions." As a religious ceremony, however, a pastor has the responsibility for the integrity of a marriage ceremony (paragraph 340.2). So, in fact, as the BoD is currently worded I could marry a couple who freely admits to serial adultery...as long as they aren't gay. I would never do that because I am obligated to protect the sanctity of marriage, but if I chose to I could. Removing the language here would restore the full rights and responsibilities of pastors. However, since one could still argue that it would violate the morality clause in 2702, a pastor in a traditionalist conference would most likely not take the chance. Thus removing the language in 341.6 would have the same affect as the Jurisdictional Solution. Pastors in progressive areas would be able to perform weddings on church property and pastors in traditional areas would not take the chance.

Paragraph 310.2d 

Prohibits candidates for ministry from "the practice of homosexuality" as part of a footnote that is four pages long. Yes, the footnote covers portions of four pages. It's the same footnote, by the way, that says "the burden of proof would be upon all users [of tobacco and alcohol] to show that their action is consistent with the ideals of excellence of mind, purity of body, and responsible social behavior." In my years on the Board of Ordained Ministry I never remember that coming up. What if we deleted most of the footnote except for the line that currently reads "We affirm our trust in the covenant community and the process by which we ordain ministers."? Like we've seen before, a given conference would set its own rules for what qualifies as moral behavior. No conference would be forced to ordain "practicing homosexuals" and the rules for transferring from one conference to another would allow a bishop opposed to homosexuality from allowing a pastor to transfer to the conference he/she serves. The stakes in episcopal assignment would be higher than they currently are, but if a conference has a like-minded bishop there would be no issue. The difference between eliminating language and creating two jurisdictions would be minimal.

Paragraph 304.3

Does the same thing as the footnote above without going into the same ridiculous length. I would treat it the same way as the footnote - allow the conferences to fulfill their responsibility as they see fit.

Paragraph 161F

This is the Social Principles paragraph that calls homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." And this is where I may lose my audience on the left. Here's the thing - as the preamble to the Social Principles says, I think we should be honest. The honest truth is we are divided. It is also honest to say that those of us working towards change are working at something different than the large majority of Christians today and a larger majority of Christians historically would affirm. I'm OK with acknowledging that truth. I also understand that, hypothetically, if the suggestions above were to come to fruition we would be asking our friends on the right to move beyond their comfort zone. I think those of us on the left can do the same thing. There is one important difference between what I have suggested so far and the Jurisdictional Solution. The Jurisdictional Solution leaves our anti-gay position as the normative position. The progressive jurisdiction could change that normative position, but officially the UMC would still be opposed to homosexuality. Deleting all or most language on sexuality would mean we would take no official position and the media and average church goer would understand that change to be a de facto change to support of homosexuality. I understand the fear from some delegates overseas that they may even be physically in danger if our position changes and from some regions of the U.S. there is concern about a mass exodus.

Considering all of this, I would advocate to change the relevant portion of 161F to "A significant majority of United Methodists continue to hold to the long-standing belief that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. While we acknowledge differences in opinion on sexuality, this remains the official position of the UMC."

Summing Up

Reaffirming our official position prevents those of us on the progressive side from gloating about a victory. It would acknowledge all that many of us want - that we are divided - while also assuring traditionalists that they are the majority opinion. Changing the other paragraphs would restore pastoral and annual conference authority in ways that are consistent and appropriate but we would not be accepting the wholesale change of position that has caused such turmoil in other denominations. Finally, specifically for those who endorse the Jurisdictional Solution, it upholds every point that the Jurisdictional Solution hopes to address without any of the shortcomings.

This proposal would require no constitutional amendments. It would require only a majority vote at General Conference. In other words, it could pass. And, I believe, it could bring us back together.

The Jurisdictional Solution Isn't

I want it to work. I want to have a clean solution to the division in the United Methodist Church that already has some momentum behind it. The Jurisdiction Solution has some of those aspects to it. But it can't work.

For those unfamiliar with it, the basic approach of the Jurisdictional Solution is to divide the United States into two Jurisdictions, each with the ability to adapt the Book of Discipline. There would be one "traditional' jurisdiction and one "progressive" jurisdiction and each annual conference would take a one time vote to decide which jurisdiction to be part of. The proponents have put in a tremendous amount of work and should be commended for that work. You can read the full treatment of the proposal at jurisdictionalsolution.org.

But for all of its positive attributes, and there are many, it just won't work. Here's why:

It Can't Pass

The Jurisdictional Solution requires constitutional amendments. That means it would take a 2/3 vote at General Conference and a majority of United Methodists voting at annual conferences the following year to actually pass. As contentious as the debate around human sexuality has been it's difficult to believe that any proposal will get agreement from 2/3 of General Conference. If it did pass then we would have a full year of politicking to get a majority vote in annual conferences. We tried this in 2008 when a series of constitutional amendments were passed at General Conference and failed at the annual conferences. Those proposals failed largely because it was feared that they would be used to accomplish what the Jurisdictional Solution is now trying to implement - a more localized decision on sexuality.

The timing is unhelpful

If approved by General Conference and annual conferences the constitutional amendments would still not be ratified by the Council of Bishops until 2018. That means we have two more years after General Conference before we would even know if we're going to have new jurisdictions. Then more politicking in conferences where the debate will be a close one. If everything runs perfectly it would be 2019 before the new jurisdictions are at all functional. That's a long time to argue with high stakes before having a final decision.

It will lead to radicalization

The Jurisdictional Solution neatly divides us in half with one liberal and one conservative jurisdiction...and one significant group is left out. The entire middle. Human sexuality has become a litmus test that unfairly divides us. A person's stance on human sexuality does not define that person's view on the authority of Scripture, sin, and any number of social issues. It just doesn't. But if those of us caught in the theological middle are divided between two jurisdictions...we'll be divided. The fringe in both jurisdictions will become more dominant. I don't want to be in a jurisdiction that questions the divinity of Christ. I also don't want to be part of a jurisdiction that questions the practice of infant baptism. Both of these issues and many more may well be up for debate if the middle becomes a minority voting block in either jurisdiction.

It's a prelude to schism

Because of the radicalization that will occur we will simply grow further apart until in the near future it simply makes no sense to stay one church. The logistics of schism will also become much more straightforward when we can simply excise a single jurisdiction from the denomination.

There is another way

If there was a way of achieving the benefits of the Jurisdictional Solution without these significant problems I'd be all for it. I want a plan that can be passed, that can give freedom to annual conferences to make the decisions they feel appropriate, and that holds us together instead of threatens to divide us further. I think there is such a solution; it just hasn't been seriously explored yet. In my next post you'll see a proposal that stacks up very favorably to the Jurisdictional Solution.