Monday, March 20, 2017

May Unity in Diversity Be Our Witnesss

In a commentary titled Misunderstandings and Mischaracterizations first published by Good News and later by, Walter Fenton attempted to "clarify what United Methodists in the renewal and reform groups [like Good News and WCA] regard as misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of their positions." The commentary lists a series of "claims" that "centrists and progressives" make about "renewal and reform leaders" and then shows in turn how each of these claims is false.

Occasionally I'll hear someone who was raised in a church from the theological far right or left speak of why they no longer believe in God. Almost always I will reply, "I don't believe in that God either. Let me tell you about the God I do believe in." In the same way, I will not contend with Rev. Fenton's assessment of how the reform and renewal groups believe their positions are mischaracterized. As someone who travels with both centrist and progressive groups, I will contend that for many the mischaracterizations that Rev. Fenton sees are not ones that I am hearing. Indeed, the groups that I am familiar with are suggesting a very different future for the UMC than what Rev. Fenton seems to think they are looking for. Perhaps instead of Rev. Fenton telling us what the progressives and centrists believe to be the case it would be profitable to speak with them directly.

Instead of engaging in the mischaracterizations that, whether true or not, distract from the conversation (the God I don't believe in) let me tell you what I and many other centrists and progressives do believe.

We believe that theological diversity, including a variety of ways of interpreting the Bible, is good. There are limits to that diversity, both on the left and the right. For example, the Trinity is an essential belief in Methodism, as is made clear in our doctrinal standards. If a potential pastor denies the Trinity then that person should not be allowed to be a pastor. On the other hand, Christians have had rich debates about the exact nature of the Trinity. There is room for conversation and disagreement about the precise nature of the three-in-one God. Similarly, unlike some denominations like the Anglican Church of North America, the United Methodist Church does not restrict which version of the Bible can be used in worship. Every version is, in part, and interpretation and we recognize that a variety of interpretations helps us on our faith journeys rather than hinders us.

We believe the Bible is True. We also believe that there are various ways of understanding that truth. I believe the creation story in Genesis is beautiful poetry that describes the incredible truth that a loving God, out of love, created all. With God, we should celebrate that in creation God did something miraculous and "It was very good." Another pastor in our tradition (and in fact a pastor that I know who used to serve in the same conference as me) might argue that the creation story teaches us that everything was created in a step-by-step process over the course of seven days. We disagree about how Genesis 1-2 is true, but we agree that it is true.

We believe that the Church should not cave in to cultural norms. I have yet to talk to a person who has said "we should change our position on homosexuality because everyone else has changed their mind, too." In fact, the early proponents of change in our policy began their work at a time when concepts like same-sex marriage would be laughable. According to Pew, a majority of Americans remained opposed to same-sex marriage until 2013. Instead, I would offer that we are engaged in the common cultural practice, and unbiblical practice, of polarization. Jesus said that our unity would be a witness to the world. We are caving to the cultural notion that those with differing perspectives can't work together for the common good. Just as the Methodist church split over slavery at roughly the same time the country split, we find ourselves at General Conference as unable to work together "across the aisle" as our current Congress.

Because of this, we believe that there is room in the United Methodist Church for a variety of views and practices regarding same-sex marriage and "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" as pastors. Personally, I think there will come a time when we will look back on this in the same way that we do previous issues of equality with race and gender - we will celebrate the progress that has been made toward equality and note that there are ways in which we still fall short. However, I acknowledge that I could be wrong. In the meantime, I am more than willing to work in a denomination with those who disagree with me. Will I hope that they change their mind? Absolutely! Will I advocate forcing them to change their mind or leave the denomination? Absolutely not! In fact, there is no serious proposal to require any pastor to perform same-sex marriages or any conference to ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." This is why I expect that if the denomination changes it's position there will be some on both the theological left and right who choose to leave. The choices at this time are very straightforward. We can continue something resembling our current arrangement, dig in our heals, and ultimately go our separate ways. Or, we can change our position to one that does not coerce pastors or conferences into practices that they disagree with.

Let's be clear. The Way Forward Commission and the next General Conference will not be choosing between whether our denomination is "pro-gay" or "anti-gay." They will be choosing whether or not we are willing to work together even as we disagree on particular positions and whether we will defy culture by staying united at a time when the world says we should divide.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Yes, WCA, God Is Good

You don't need to read much of my work to know that I have concerns about the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). So when I received an email from them asking me to watch a short video, of course I did. You can watch it too.

As is their habit, the WCA is creating a false narrative of what is happening in the United Methodist Church. In the video, Madeline Carrasco Henners shares three phrases that the WCA holds on to. God is Good. The Bible is True. Promises Should be Kept.

Amen and amen. But that doesn't mean that the WCA's narrative is true. To begin with, Rev. Henners makes the near libelous claim that, "There are those in the UMC who don't agree with all or even part of those three simple statements." I invite Rev. Henners to name those in the UMC who would refute the idea that God is Good. Even the most radical of our members left and right would not deny that God is Good. Do we have different understandings of exactly how God's goodness is lived? Of course. But we should be above playing games with each other in the serious times that we live in.

Rev. Henners then goes point by point, and so will I. That only gets us half way through her video but it's all I can stomach for the moment.

God is Good. 

The last sentence that Henners shares here gets to the crux of the matter. "If God tells us to refrain from something then it is good for us to obey Him." We all know that the WCA's primary concern is the "practice of homosexuality." They never use the words in the video, but everybody knows that this is the issue at hand. This sentence is code for 'If God tells us to refrain from [homosexuality] then it is good for us to obey." And I agree. But we aren't arguing about whether or not we should obey God; we are arguing about what God's will is.

The Bible Is True

Something else we can agree on. Rev. Henners quotes 2 Timothy on the authority of Scripture, which most likely originally referenced the Old Testament, but that's fine. We'll move on to the contention that some don't agree that the Bible is true. I have yet to find a pastor who doesn't start a sermon with Scripture. Or read Scripture regularly. Or seek to follow Scripture. Rev. Henners says, "The Bible provides us with authoritative teaching on what we should believe and how we should live." Yes! And yet we all agree that there are places where the Bible teaches things that on the surface appear contradictory and that must be sorted out by other means. We don't stone insolent children. We don't practice the Year of Jubilee. We don't attack those with lustful eyes as adulterers. We don't share all we have in common. The Bible is true AND we will sometimes disagree on how it is rightfully interpreted.

Promises Should Be Kept

Now we get to it. "Every ordained clergyperson...promised to God and each other to be accountable to the United Methodist Church, it's authority, it's Doctrinal Standards, and our Book of Discipline. This promise is absolute. It is without exception. That's what makes it a covenant." And so I'll go to my favorite part of the Book of Discipline, the footnote on Paragraph 310 (2012 BOD. This footnote reminds us that candidates for ordination should not be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." But the history of the footnote goes back at least to 1976 and spoke only of tobacco and alcohol use - language that still remains as it was then. "...the burden of proof would be upon users [of tobacco and beverage alcohol] to show that their use of it is consistent with the highest ideals of the Christian life." I don't know about you, but I've never heard that question asked in a Board of Ordained Ministry interview. But promises should be kept! If you have ever had the wrong number of people on a church committee, if you have ever gone a year without receiving all of the special offerings, if you have ever served a church that does not have a United Methodist Women's chapter, then you have failed to keep the promise!

Is that what Rev. Henners really means? Of course not. And we know this because another vow we make in the Book of Discipline is to pay our apportionments. At least one WCA board member pastors a church that has not paid its apportionments in full even though it has found money to pay its WCA dues.

WCA members, if you are serious about keeping promises, then back it up with your words. And come up with some better lines to differentiate yourselves from the rest of us. We are all doing our best to stay faithful to God's call within the United Methodist Church.