Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On Church: Episode 18, Why We Worship

In this episode of the podcast, Matt and Dalton talk about why--and how--we worship: not alone, but corporately.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Church: Episode 17, The Fringe and Me

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about fringe groups, especially Westboro Baptist Church, and how the church is called to respond to these groups.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Church: Episode 16, The Power of Storytelling

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about the power of story in the life of the church.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

On Church: Episode 15, How We Got to Where We Are on LGBTQ issues

In this episode, and in the wake of General Conference, Dalton and Matt talk about the history of LGBTQ issues in the United Methodist Church. They also speak to the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, who shares her story of being brought up on charges for being an ordained United Methodist pastor who is openly gay.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Who controls orthodoxy?

If there's one word that gets thrown around more than any other in the church's ongoing debate about full inclusion of LGBTQ people, it's "orthodoxy." Those who oppose full inclusion (or, less pejoratively, those who argue that the Bible does not allow for same-sex weddings or LGBTQ clergy) argue that their position is the orthodox one. Implicit in this argument, and sometimes said aloud, is the idea that those in favor of full inclusion stand against orthodoxy. You can see more of this kind of thing here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here. In far too many of our conversations about sexuality, orthodoxy means nothing more than standing against full inclusion.

It's a shame that we have so narrowed the word "orthodoxy" in this way, for orthodoxy is a gift from God to the church. Orthodoxy, broadly defined and broadly understood, holds us together as believers in the triune God, such that we celebrate one church, one Lord, one baptism. Orthodoxy ties us to the early church creeds, so that more than simply being on the same page, as it were, we may be in mystical communion with one another, and with God. In the Nicene Creed (part of our doctrinal heritage as Christians, and printed in the United Methodist Hymnal), we declare:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen

Orthodoxy, then, is about connecting us in one church, not about dividing us. It is certainly not about picking one issue to be the plumb line of faithfulness: particularly an issue not mentioned in the Creeds.

It has been absolutely remarkable, then, to watch the speed at which we've seen the term "orthodoxy" turn into something it has not traditionally meant. This narrow funneling of the term does not do justice to the wideness of God's mercy, nor is it faithful to the rich witness of the Bible. I will acknowledge the necessity of using Biblical interpretation to arrive at a position of full inclusion (more about this in a bit) but I will not cede that I am unorthodox. Never mind the fact that the ancient creeds don't actually mention the Bible; I see nowhere in the ancient beliefs about the Triune God where an argument about full inclusion of LGBTQ people stands in opposition to what the great councils of the church discerned to be good and true about Christianity.

I do not want to put words in the mouths of those who use the term "orthodoxy" to describe an opposition to full inclusion, but when I hear this term in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, if it were true, the Holy Spirit would have told the original writers of scripture. Since the Holy Spirit did not do this, anything that stands outside the knowledge base of the original writers of scripture is unorthodox.

The problem with this argument is that this is never what orthodoxy has meant! Orthodoxy, throughout history, has meant a devotion to first principles of Christianity, in particular the creeds. Even G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian apologist, noted that "when the word 'orthodoxy' is used [in his book of the same name] it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed."

Nor is orthodoxy, understood in a Wesleyan context, anything resembling what we have warped it into, in the context of our debates over sexuality. We certainly believe scripture to be primary--in this way, I am an unabashed evangelical!--but nowhere in our founding documents do we pretend that God only speaks through scripture. Those who conflate "orthodoxy" with opposition to full inclusion sometimes point to the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scripture for Salvation," as guiding their understanding that no truth exists outside scripture. But read the article for yourself:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Not only does the fifth Article of Religion not say that scripture contains all that is true about God, but it implicitly acknowledges that new truth may be discovered outside the scope of scripture, even as it declares that nothing necessary for salvation is found outside of scripture.

Relatedly, those who argue that orthodoxy stands in opposition to full inclusion say that the Biblical witness is clear, and that those of us who argue for the acceptance of the practice of homosexuality within married, partnered relationships are privileging experience above scripture. The argument goes that the problem with the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is that we misunderstand the role of experience within it. Experience, then, is not about saying "I experience something else to be true, so the Bible must be wrong," but rather, "I live out the Biblical witness in my experience." Let me be clear: I have no problem with this critique of the quadrilateral! So often, in this individualistic culture, the only thing that matters is my own experience. Church, I believe, calls us to understand experience much more broadly.

And yet experience does play into my understanding of scripture, and our communal understanding, because each of us reads scripture through the lens of our personal experience. Far from being about my experience subverting or overwriting scripture, my experience colors the way I read the words on the page and the understanding I have therein. I can no more remove my own experience from the equation than I can give up my own name! I read scripture as a human--we read scripture, together, as humans--and my social location necessarily colors my reading.

Thus, I must necessarily interpret scripture when I read it. There is no other way for me to be faithful, as scripture cannot simply be implanted into my brain. It must pass from the ink on the page, through the air, into my eyes, through my optic nerves, into my brain, where it co-mingles with everything else lodged in there. You read scripture the same way. I pray that I may discern God's will through the scripture, but the very existence of the step between the writing of scripture and its presence in my brain--namely, my reading and comprehending it--means that scripture must be interpreted. To pretend that there is no interpretation necessary, as many fundamentalists do, is to miss the fact that those of us who read it tend to be human.

It is simply impossible to not interpret the Bible! We may disagree over the interpretation, but interpretation is a necessary part of following Christ, honoring scripture as primary, and expressing faithfulness to the historic creeds of the church. These are necessary practices in the service of maintaining orthodoxy, and they can lead to disagreements about how God is calling us to live in the modern world, but those disagreements do not necessarily mean that one side is faithful and the other is willingly otherwise. In other words, when people conflate orthodoxy with belief about a single issue not mentioned in the Creeds, what they seem to be doing is subverting the historic meaning of orthodoxy so that they may control what it means.

I cannot speak for all who believe in full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church, nor do I mean to put words in the mouths of those who cry "orthodoxy!" in these conflicts. If I am demonstrating unorthodoxy in terms of what "orthodoxy" has always meant (that is, being in agreement with the historic creeds of the church), I am open to being called out.

But if we are going to have this discussion--and it is time to have this discussion, Church--let us at least be fair with one another and refrain for assuming that everyone who disagrees with my position  or my side is, by definition, a heretic. That kind of argument has not exactly been good for the church throughout the centuries.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

General Conference: What now? #umcgc #umc

General Conference is over, thank God. The United Methodist Church is still, technically, United. We arrived as one church, and we leave as one church.

I am trying to decide how I feel about the last eleven days. I am having trouble describing this feeling. I'm sure I will have more to say in the coming days, but I leave General Conference with renewed love of the local church, renewed hope for the work of God, and utter confusion about what in Heaven's name just happened.

I have read a number of recaps about General Conference today. You can follow up here, or here, or here, or any number of places across the Methoblogosphere. There seems to be a sense of relief that General Conference is over. I certainly feel that relief, as General Conference has felt from the beginning like it was just something to survive. At a cost of $10,500,000 ($1,500 a minute, as Bishop Coyner reminded us), you'd think I would have had higher hopes than this. But for reasons that Darryl Stephens describes here, we're seeing a situation play out that had, in its genesis, no planning or preparation, nor did it give any thought to contextual structures for ministry.

So I'm leaving General Conference without any clarity about what the future holds, as we prepare to hear from the Bishops as to the make-up of their Commission on Human Sexuality and as we wait to learn if the scope of this commission will move beyond a theology of sex (something we desperately need) to discussing ways we may structure ourselves to continue our shared mission and ministry. We don't even know when we will gather next, as there exists a significant possibility for a called General Conference before 2020.

I do know that God desires a united church, but not a church that becomes so bitter that it can talk about nothing more than its divisions. I remain hopeful that the church may be unified, as I continue to believe that we are better when we are together, but this unity must be deeper than just our name, more significant than something we talk about to make ourselves feel better. And we must face the fact that we are deeply divided over matters of sexuality.

I also know that this issue of sexuality is not going to resolve itself. Rob Renfroe, the head of Good News, shared a very interesting video to wrap up General Conference. I do not appreciate the "battle" language he used, as it contributes to the idea that doing church is more like war than, you know, loving your neighbor or whatever, but he does acknowledge that those who oppose full inclusion of LGBT people are realizing that the full-inclusion folks are not going to leave. There was a petition offered at General Conference that would have allowed those who disagreed with the Discipline's stance on sexuality to leave the denomination; though it barely passed committee, it did not make the floor. If it had, I would have voted against it. I'm not going anywhere.

We don't need separate churches. We do need more flexibility in our church structures to allow for missional disciple-making. This flexibility is not going to come without the bishops' leading. If I am convinced about one thing as to our predicament as a church, it is that nobody within the voting bar can lead us out of the morass. Our bishops need to lead the way. If they don't, we're going to fall into a million pieces, as if someone took a hammer to a glass bowl. That's not a schism; it's a shattering.

This was a strange week, for sure. I leave with a certain amount of disgust, at the inability of good Methodist people to work out their differences, instead falling into childish name-calling or declaring war on the other "side," as if the only way for us to live is to banish everybody else.

But as someone who has worked for church unity, and who prays for it regularly, I also leave with a certain amount of hope. For when things seemed the most knotted up, God made a way. Perhaps it is but a stay of execution. Maybe it's a waste of time and money. But even if the crack in the wall is thin, and jagged, it's a crack, and it's enough to let in some light.

Friday, May 20, 2016

General Conference Day 11 #umcgc #umc

We arrive at our last day, and it is welcome. I am ready to go home, as is just about everybody here. This has been a much longer two weeks than I expected it would be. General Conference is hard.

Having tried, over the last ten days, to offer some explanation of what we have been doing--I hope this has been helpful to you--I want to share some thoughts as to the mood here as we enter the last, crazy day.

And let me first say that it is hard for one person to gague the mood. The thing that moves me might make you despair. The thing that worries me might excite you. So know that I'm speaking for myself here, but I'm not alone.

It is an interesting thing to be here, on the floor and in the stands, to follow along with what is happening on Twitter while having actual, face-to-face conversations with people involved in decision-making. Twitter certainly has a  feel to it, and it is (can be) complementary to what is happening on the floor, but there's a mood in the room that is viscous, that impacts everybody in one way or another. It's a weight that acknowledges that "if we don't get this right, with God's help, there's nothing that can be done."

That mood is why I believe so strongly in the ability of the Holy Spirit to move at General Conference. Yes, nearly everybody made up their minds months or years before stepping into the voting bar. But with such feelings stitching us together, unexpected things can show up. Possibility can arrive.

That said, there has been the sense, the entirety of the two weeks we've been here, that there's a shoe about to drop. I don't have enough experience at General Conference to know why this is the case. My strong suspicion is that the legacy of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa--when at the last minute,  the Judicial Council essentially negated all of the work that had been done for ten days--is that if you are not constantly on edge, you're going to lose. Of course, this makes everyone miserable and turns the General Conference into a hot mess. It's no wonder several delegates have passed out or ended up in the hospital (I am not kidding about this).

More than Tampa hangs over this assembly, though. There is a feeling among many delegates that while we have been spinning our wheels for the last two weeks, machinations have been happening behind the scenes to push shadowy agendas. If it all sounds very House of Cards, that's because it is. And if it sounds conspiratorial, well, it's a feeling that is born of General Conferences past, where behind-the-scenes action, brought to the floor on the last day, is passed by a General Conference that just wants to feel like it has done something. Anything.

We'll see. While I am sure we'll have the typical parliamentary attempts to undo what we've done--when you have 864 delegates, there's bound to be a few people that are less-than-charitable--I don't think we are going to see anything too crazy. On this last day of General Conference, we'll vote on the budget--projected to be $599 million dollars over the next quadrennium--and I suspect that the anxiety we've all felt this week will be made manifest in continual amendments and occasional grandstanding. In many ways, there just isn't time for many shenanigans, because we've done so little this week.

So we'll survive today, just like we've survived all ten days prior. I just have to think that surviving General Conference is a pretty poor way to spend $10 million dollars.

We will finish tonight, go home tomorrow, and enter pulpits and pews on Sunday. We will go back to the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And we'll do so with a new urgency, because if there is a way forward for the United Methodist Church, it surely is not going to happen at General Conference, but in our local churches.