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.
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.
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.