Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.

A Quick Reminder of Why Wesley Still Matters

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John Wesley

John Wesley has been claimed by so many different heirs and used to so many and varied ends that it is refreshing to have someone like Hal Knight come along and point us back to the source.  John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, his new entry in the Cascade Companions series designed for nonspecialist readers, comes along just as the United Methodist Church is wrestling with what it means to be faithful to Wesleyan tradition in the 21st century.  Knight, who is a professor of Wesleyan Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is not going to take sides in that conversation, but he is going to point out why Wesley still matters.

In 10 brief chapters and a conclusion, Knight offers a biography of Wesley that is oriented toward his developing thought in relation to other movements of the 18th century, particularly Moravian and Calvinist strains.  Knight traces Wesley from his early (and lifelong) understanding of salvation as holiness of heart and life to his 1738 discovery of the knowledge of God’s love as gift and power, which became the engine of his later work.

We go with John and his brother, Charles, to Georgia.  We travel with him to Bavaria to learn from the Moravians.  And we glimpse his extraordinary ministry of preaching and writing throughout Britain.  But Knight keeps the focus on the controversies that fired him, the sermons and writings that revealed his deepening theology, and the Methodist apparatus he developed to support that theology.

The Wesley that emerges is not the rigorous obsessive we sometimes imagine from his journals, but a man truly fired by a notion of God’s love.  Wesley, in Knight’s telling, even has a warmth that keeps him in relationship with others, like George Whitfield, who could have been styled fierce opponents.

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Dr. Hal Knight

In the end, Knight chooses to highlight how Wesley could challenge Americans of our day.  In opposition to those who think that Christian salvation “is solely about our post-mortem destiny,” Wesley insists “it is about receiving a new life in the present, one that lasts through all eternity.” (141)  American spirituality, so prone to the belief that “there is a wonderful self inside of us waiting to be actualized,” could use a dose of Wesley’s realism about the human condition and the way “salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a free gift of God, given through the cross of Jesus Christ and actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit.” (142)  And Wesley’s focus on the need for accountable community and spiritual discipline could upend “the pervasive privatization of religion in American culture.” (143)

Talking about these things is a much better goal than trying to draw Wesley into the denominational anxieties of the largest Methodist body that traces back to him.  Wherever the UMC goes, it will need to come back to Wesley’s genius if it is once again to be about “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”  That holiness is an appealing goal in Knight’s retelling.  And the book itself whets one’s appetite to know what has been and what will be.

Cascade Books provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  You can buy this book through Amazon and support this site:

Jarena Lee and the Day the Preacher Stumbled: Exhortation and the Methodist Future

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

The preacher was in trouble.  It’s hard to take the life out of the story of Jonah, but somehow he had. Struggling preachers are not unusual.  We’ve all had a Sunday.  Or several.  But in early 19th-century Methodism, including the AME branch of Methodism, (of which this preacher was a part), the official preachers had a back-up—exhorters—and Jarena Lee was just such a person.

Listening to that poor preacher, Jarena was convicted by “supernatural impulse” to stand and expound on the same text.  It was a daring act because it sure looked like preaching.  And women didn’t preach in those days, (although a number of Methodist women had taken the lead in what looked very much like preaching roles in Wesley’s movement, though they never had the title).  

Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:

“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”*

Jarena was a forerunner of all the women who now have their calls recognized in denominations like my own—the United Methodist Church.  But something else gets my attention in this exchange—the role of insiders and outsiders in a local church.

514UrBuBTgL._SX425_Early Methodism was on the move.  Its circuit-riding preachers traveled large circuits and they were frequently reassigned to new circuits on an annual basis.  They were not meant to become enmeshed in a particular church or community.  They had “nothing to do but save souls,” as John Wesley put it, and to organize small groups to continue the work of growing in holiness.  They couldn’t help but be considered outsiders, or in the lingo of the Eastern Shore where I live, ‘come heres.’

The exhorters were the insiders, the lay leaders who kept the Methodist societies going when the preachers weren’t around.  They were the ones who could encourage and inspire.  To use a modern word, they were the ones who could contextualize the message that the preachers proclaimed.  It was a role that men and women fulfilled.

Even when the preachers were leading the worship, the exhorters would supplement their sermons in the way that Jarena Lee did, sometimes offering fiery, charismatic, and evangelistic calls after the preacher did his best.  One Methodist exhorter, Thomas Saunders noted, “It is common with us for men and women to fall down as dead under an exhortation,” accompanied by numerous conversions.**

IMG_6635Methodism has changed since the days of Jarena Lee.  Our clergy now settle in and are encouraged to become real residents in the communities that they serve, even if they still retain their membership in the larger Annual Conference.  Lay servants, lay speakers, and certified lay ministers are the heirs of the exhorters.  Women and people of color now take on leadership in all these roles, hopefully without worry that their call from God might lead to their expulsion from the church.

The insight that early Methodism had, though, that ought to be retained is that a vital and healthy church depends on the interlocking wisdom of insiders and outsiders.  Outsiders bring new ideas and a broader vision of the Church.  People in the community bring a knowledge of the history and deep currents of a particular place.  Both have gifts to give.

So much of the tensions in rural America these days relate to how much agency local communities have in determining their future.  With declining populations, changing economies, and other challenges, small towns begin to doubt their capacity for building a vibrant community like they remember they once were.  

It’s the same for churches.  But the Methodist genius of connecting the native capacities of the local and the animating energy of the committed “traveler in the midst” still has the potential to renew the Church.  It’s how God moved Jarena Lee.

*David Henson, “Jarena Lee: The Pioneering Female Preacher You Never Hear About,” Patheos.
**Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 80). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Reformation(s)

640px-Luther95thesesFor many years, I taught Reformation history as part of the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.  I didn’t want the course.  My interests were medieval and contemporary, not the stodgy theological arguments of Luther and Calvin.  But there was a year when the regular faculty member couldn’t teach it.  I took it over for a summer and ended up staying with it for over a decade.  Me in the ultimate dead white guys course.

I tried to stir things up by being a contrarian.  I started the first session each year with three “radical suggestions”:

  1. Reforms in the Church started a long time before Martin Luther (supposedly) tacked up his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517,
  2. Medieval Catholicism was the source of great spiritual comfort and dynamic theological thought, even into the 16th century, and
  3. The Reformation was so diverse and its characters so distinct that it is more appropriate to talk about a plural “Reformations.”

I think there are interesting things to explore with each of those statements, and so I did each summer with willing and interesting groups of local pastors from across the south central region.  We had debates in character over disputed theological points from the period and they are among my favorite memories from teaching.  If I do say so myself, we brought the Reformation to life, redeeming it from its musty reputation.

So this week, as we observe the 500th anniversary of Luther’s most iconic act, I am appreciating what I learned in teaching.  I see the period that produced modern Protestantism as a mixture of promise and failure, like most human eras.  The downsides were dramatic: the further fragmentation of the Christian Church, a wave of religious violence and persecution that produced large-scale suffering and death, and a Protestant-Catholic split that is only just beginning to heal.

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“Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.”

But the Reformations also unleashed and uncovered latent capacities within the human spirit and the Christian Church.  In both Protestant and Catholic circles, learning and literacy flourished and new universities were formed.  Reformers reclaimed the centrality of Scripture as a source of continuing vitality and inspiration for the Church.  Dramatically new forms of Christian community and mission emerged, and though some went off the rails in their novelty, others were both faithful to the tradition and necessary for the times.  Our own Methodist movement, though it came along 200 years later, was part of that explosion of organizational creativity.

517bFEQdmkL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Phyllis Tickle gets the credit for popularizing the saying, but she quotes Anglican bishop Mark Dyer when she notes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Tickle stated her belief that we are in the midst of the latest shake-up in the Church, sorting through what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism.  Luther, Calvin, Menno Simons, Wesley, and all the unnamed women and men who made the Reformations what they were may have descended into the history books and receded into our minds as dusty caricatures, but they believed there was something vital in the Christian movement that could still be accessed when we tutor ourselves in the Living Word.  Having lived with them in the classroom and with my great students through the years, I believe that, too.

The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the UMC

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photo by Anna vander Stel – via Unsplash

The last thing I want to talk about is the United Methodist Church’s legal wrangling around the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who came to her office last year as a lesbian pastor in a same-sex marriage. Last week the Judicial Council of the denomination ruled that her consecration as bishop was carried out in violation of The Book of Discipline and now the Western Jurisdiction, where she serves, will be asked to review her standing through the complaint process.  We know this terrain all too well and it is news to no one that questions of human sexuality still divide United Methodism.

The Judicial Council provided some clarity about what the official stance of the church is with regard to non-heterosexual clergy and I expect the Western Jurisdiction to provide more clarity about how deep the divide still is over that stance.  I continue to pray daily for the Commission on A Way Forward, which is tasked with conferencing around the Great Divide, and for an institutional consensus that will allow this church that I love to move forward together.  I also pray for Bishop Oliveto, who seems to be a fine and faithful leader.  But my heart aches to talk about something else.

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Bishop Oliveto shaking hands with Dixie Brewster at the Judicial Council hearings last week – photo by UMC.org

To those who are carrying out ministry with an explicit or implicit threat that if things don’t go the way they desire in this debate they will leave I say, “Enough!”  You are wounding the body of Christ.  And we need a community of creative, covenanted, committed Christians to navigate this age.

There are biblical metaphors about such things.  No one can serve two masters.  When you set your hands to the plow don’t look back.

I know the rejoinder—“We can’t go forward until we have clarity about this one thing.”  We can.  We have.  It took over four centuries to get our Christology right and look what the Church did during that era!  We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.” Methodists, in particular, are the people of AND.  We adapt our structure, our means, and our location for the sake of our mission.  As Paul puts it, “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means” [1 Co. 9:22, CEB].

We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.”

Clarity comes down to knowing what and who holds us together.  Our fidelity is to the one who has changed our lives and who calls us to an untamed holiness that is constantly stretching us to “adopt the mind that was in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 2:5].  That’s the reason for my heartache.

I believe it is God’s desire to have a Church that is not constrained by its bureaucratic apparatus.  And I worry that we are not creating spaces for new things to grow.

41ibb2XofKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In their book Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker talk about the opportunity this age presents for reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan and Christian message.  “We are in a full-blown institutional crisis. Is this a bad thing? [We] don’t think so,” they say.  “Self-serving institutionalism is dead. The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead. That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us” (9).  And yet…”Today there are plenty of seekers looking for a model for creating down-to-earth yet spiritual expressions of community. What is needed are multiple examples of how to do it” (20).

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.  These will be small — like yeast and mustard seeds, two other biblical metaphors for the kingdom — but they will be places that are receptive to God’s new thing as it is revealed in local community.  And they will muddle through, gloriously!, until the fruit is ripe.  These are the conversations I want to have.

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.

Full inclusion and diversity of biblical interpretation, the issues that swirl around the UMC’s current impasse, are important.  But I wonder if we are able, in our current state, to talk about them if we don’t first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.  And we have better things to talk about.