Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In Response to 'Inconvenient Truths'

For those who read this and don't know either of us...this is not an argument.  It is conferencing.  It is in the great Methodist tradition of Mr. Wesley who often penned letters articulating points of disagreement.  Sky and I go back over 25 years. He is to this day one of my few trusted friends.  I love him as a brother in Christ, and he has been as a brother to me, especially when I lost mine.  I let him know I was writing a response, and he has seen it before I've posted it.  The contents of this post does not contain anything he and I haven't discussed many, many times before.

Sky and I are contemporaries.  In fact, I was ordained elder in the class a year ahead of him.  We go back to college days and summers at Lakeshore.  Our friendship, our love of worship and liturgy, our appreciation for a pint of stout or a fine bourbon is mutually shared (although, even from The Commonwealth, I have a heart for what emerges from Lynchburg, Tennessee). Sky is a faithful servant now swept up into a level of church leadership that I don't envy.  It is a thankless task, and he is among those faithful to it.

I just want to acknowledge from the jump - anybody who quotes Zefram Cochrane to start a blogpost is already aces with me.

It is not my intent to point/counterpoint every one of the items he posits.  Truth is, I'm in league with him on most of them, although I'd likely come at some of the same points from different perspectives.  That's just the nature of being different people who seek unity in essentials, liberty in non essentials and charity in all things. I want to offer some basic points and then focus specifically on one that I want to come at differently.

Sky and I stand alongside each other in many ways as we have our lover's quarrel with the Church.  We don't hate the Church.  But the Church needs to change.  As I've alluded in previous posts, I'm fearful that as a system, we, the Church, have so boxed ourselves in that the capacity to adapt and innovate is gone.  We bought in wholesale to the thought that the Church stands firm while the world must be convicted to conformity. Whatever wisdom and intent there was in the establishment of polity to that end, the result is arrogance, a malaise of spirit, and an intractability of perspective that tins the ear of the Church from the real needs of people where they are.

The guiding presupposition, whether spoken or assumed, was that people will always see the Church as a constant pillar of strength, and will bend to it ultimately.  You want to know why people don't come to church, or why they call themselves "spiritual" but not "religious?"  It has nothing to do with Jesus, it has everything to do with the people who say they represent him.  And I don't think the Church will ever understand the magnitude of amazing grace until it offers full, complete and unconditional confession to God for the ways we have masked our biases and prejudices in religious rhetoric and thereby poisoned a soul from ever wanting anything to do with God.

What was it that Jesus said of those who cause others turn away?  Something about millstones?  Necks?  Very deep water?  The capacity to pervert the holy for purposes other than God have always been there.  It was that way in Jesus' time.  It's that way now.

My friend Sky is a "facts" guy.  He loves the stats, the actuarials, the structure of things.  Being the pragmatist he is it's a perspective that must always be in the room.  It keeps guys like me (you know, a Vandy liberal) from venturing off into theological la la land.  And he's right, our mistrust of one another as a denomination will be our undoing as certainly as any other of the mountains we've to climb to reach wholeness.  And yet, it is the historic track record to do harm to our own by virtue of being "other" (gendered, raced, prophetically witnessed, etc.) that gave the guaranteed appointment a theologically grounded place in our polity.  There are constituencies that would never had voice in the church without the guarantee that they had a place.  I agree that the unintended consequence of what the guaranteed appointment has wrought on our Church justifies ending it, but to lump it into a consent agenda at GC, have it done away with so easily without articulating clearly that this is meant to deal with those who are ineffective, not those who are prophetic, was a moment missed to bring that disjoined bunch in Tampa together.

The work of DS gives Sky a keener view of the issues wrapped up into appointments, the itineracy and the obstacles in both.  I honor and respect his perspective.  The appointment system is a mess and it is complicated by those of us (like me) who serve appointments without parsonages and have our own homes.  The cascading impact of inconsistent itineracy, diminishing congregations and the consequence of their lack of resources from the local level all the way up the pipeline while having placed from the top/down increasingly heftier prior claims on every dollar (mostly because of clergy benefits) is purely untenable.  It just is.

I was in the room when the discussion was ongoing on the floor of annual conference about the salary adjustments for our superintendents.  I didn't engage the conference on that point but I did have fun texting Sky and admonishing them for the money grubbing scoundrels they all are!! :)  There were multiple dynamics working in the room,  more than any one of us could identify. And while I think Sky's perspective has place on this point, it is not the totality of what was operating on the floor that day.

But the disconnect between what we say about God reflected in our conference theme, "Extravagant Generosity," and what we actually do as a people is an apt image for the Church writ large identifying the existential crisis of our time.

And now I address the point in Sky's blog where I come at a question from a different perspective -
His first point, "Changing the stance on homosexuality in The United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination." Wanting to be clear that I understood exactly what he intended, I called him.  I take the position that the statement is a red herring.  It's the wrong question.

I'm not clear who would be making such an assertion that changing the denomination's stance on homosexuality would equal an increase in church membership.  It's wrong headed on its face.  And Sky gives stats as to why that's the case.  A misdirected question further obscures the heart of the matter. It comes off as rhetorical subterfuge to avoid what must really be addressed.  My suspicion is that to change our position would accelerate a decrease on some fronts but not all. .  And doing it is still the right thing.  It's the gospel thing to do.  And to my mind, nothing else matters.

He and I are not of one mind on this point.  I know it.  He knows it.  And we love each other through it.  As the Church, we are utterly entrenched, so much so that we are unable to acknowledge what is true about where our Church is on this matter.  Think of it this way - when justice, God's justice is subject to a vote, you know we've got an inherent problem.

Consider...our Church continues to codify exclusion.  It's just that simple.  And we have wasted so much energy defending turf, doing battle...the leading voices are mere caricatures of the polemic.   When I have to argue with a caricature, I don't have to deal with the particular, the personal, the one I know who is so powerfully gifted by God to spread Gospel and our hearts are too hardened to care, and our system won't allow it.

Another red herring...we have to keep it as is for the good of the Church.  Child, please.  "For the good of the Church" is code for "keeping things as they are," which means keeping them the way the majority wants.

If ever you think a democracy equals Christocracy, somebody needs to wake up.

Do you hear Jesus saying "Great job! United Methodists!  It's unfortunate, but necessary, for the good the Church, keep those folks out!"  That's full blown, unadulterated "cover' for the system.  It's not grace based, no way, no how.

Fear a split in the Church? What Tampa has shown is that if there is a split it will be about power, who has it and who doesn't and not so much about human sexuality. It is the appearance of a social issue being the culprit that masks truer intent.

"But we're a global church, and different realities necessitate keeping things as they are."  Take caution, United Methodist Church, the very thing we herald with pride, being a global church, might well be idolatry of another kind.

I believe the Church could have its heart transformed by this change.  And I grieve another day of it not happening.  And while I believe the Church is wrong on this front, I will not be an insurrectionist.  I will not dishonor my vows.  I do not judge those who are choosing that path, but I do think it unwise.  It's hard to see how that ushers in an age of grace. Rather, it furthers the entrenchment.

This issue is not about whether or not you understand, or even agree.  It's about whether or not
we as a Church will be guided by the inexplicable nature of God's love and grace.  And let's be clear, we are not modeling the grace we say matters so much in our behaviors toward each other on this point and on more than a few others, including how we will order our  life together going forward.

And the world is watching.  And so is God.

That may well be the most inconvenient truth of all.

1 comment:

John Middleton said...

I appreciate the care you took to affirm your relationship with Sky before dealing with substance. It is good for the Conference that you and Sky and your contemporaries are being entrusted with leadership. We have not always been characterized by such friendship between folks who disagree on anything. I am happy to be a friend to both of you.
I also want to make clear my fundamental agreement with your position on the homosexuality issue. Quite simply, there comes a time to do the Christlike thing and accept the price that is paid. I do not express any part of that statement lightly. There is more hurt to be experienced within and beyond the UMC before we can claim a common mind on this issue.