Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wandering from the Wesleyan Way??

“In essentials unity; in non-essentials, charity, and in all things love”.

This quote has been attributed to John Wesley[1].  It is indeed emblematic of other things that Wesley said, how he lived, and how the people called Methodists have tried to function throughout the intervening centuries.  It reflects our desire to try to give room for diversity in our ranks and, in essence, keep the list of essentials short. 

I wonder if we 21st century Methodists have lost our way and need to be reminded of the gem of wisdom contained in the quote above.  

I fear that we United Methodists[2] often major in the minors of our faith while missing the mark pretty badly on some of the majors

Case and point, consider what unfolded in Tampa, FL from April 24–May 4, 2012, as we gathered for our General Conference meeting.   It can truly be said that we Methodists are a "People of the Book"—namely the Book of Discipline.  Any changes to our Discipline arise from the deliberations of General Conference.  Every four years, delegates from all over the world gather to worship, pray together, and  seek out the Holy Spirit’s direction on where God calls our denomination to go over the next quadrennium. 

With Twitter and Facebook streams flowing non-stop, this was one of the most "visible" General Conferences ever.   I wasn't a delegate, but like many millions of others around the world, I was able to watch live as the proceedings were broadcast live on the Internet via streaming video. 

As I watched, I couldn't help but feel that the delegates at this year's General Conference were wandering from the Wesleyan Way.  They seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time debating matters that appeared obvious and not enough on some matters that really needed serious debate.  

For example, there was a huge debate over the extent or reach of God’s love?  Really?! Isn’t that an essential we can all agree on without lengthy debate? Apparently not! When a proposal came up that sought to include Paul’s statement from Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, to a revised preamble to our “United Methodist Social Principles”[3], considerable debate ensued.  In the end the proposal passed, and the 2012 Book of Discipline will be updated accordingly.  However, the result of the vote would suggest that 44% of the delegates in that room—who are chosen to represent a cross-section of United Methodists around the world—seem to question whether nothing can separate us from God’s love, or at least they wouldn’t want to go so far as to put it in writing.  Rather alarming!

Not only do we debate matters that don’t seem to require debate, we also bog down what would seem to be non-essentials.  Case and point, the delegates debated a proposal to chang Lay Speaking to Lay Ministry—arguing that the ministry involves much more than “speaking”.  Now I am a Certified Lay Speaker and I agree that lay speaking is much more than "speaking"; so I didn’t really object to changing the name to be more inclusive, if that was the consensus of the body.  On the other hand, I didn’t think it needed such a lengthy debate!  We didn't need to bog down in Robert’s Rules of Order, with Amendments and Amendments-to-the-Amendment, as we debated minutiae for several hours.  All the while I kept thinking:  “A rose by any other name…” 

Another issue with much more far-reaching impact is one that seems to come up at every General Conference—that of proposed changes to our Discipline on the matter of homosexuality. This has been an issue that has generated intense debate and division not just for United Methodists, but for many—if not all—Christians. Clearly, some believe this issue is essential and thus aren’t willing to compromise their point of view.  In fact, some become so entrenched in their view they feel they threaten to “separate” from those who disagree with them on this issue[4].  For them to even admit that others among their ranks do not share their opinion seems to be a threat to the "sanctity" of our denomination.

I can’t help but wonder: Is it time to call their bluff?  Is it more important to make it clear that we the people called Methodist desire to extend God’s love to as many as possible or to appease those already “inside our doors” to keep up an illusion of unity and peace in our denomination?

But for now, at least, the status quo prevails and the language of our Discipline will remain unchanged in 2012. United Methodists, it seems, have once more opted to keep “peace” in their ranks—even if it is an illusory peace[5].  Not only did the delegates at General Conference reject any notion of changing the language currently in our Discipline; they also rejected a minority view (put forth by pastors Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter) that would have acknowledged that faithful United Methodists differ on this issue and recognized that a growing number of United Methodists (particularly youth and young adults) do not see homosexuality as, “incompatible with Christian teaching” and feel increasingly disenfranchised by our current position. 

So not only will we keep the "exclusive" language in our Discipline but we won't even acknowledge the growing minority who no longer share this view, many of whom have chosen or will choose to leave our denomination—seeking a place that values their voice and does not prevent them living out the full expression of who God has created them to be.

On the other hand, there were matters that clearly seemed worthy of rigorous debate that were passed over.  There was a proposal this year to do away with guaranteed appointments for our Elders—clergy who have gone to seminary.  Now, you would think that surely the body would give this matter due diligence.  You would be wrong!  This matter was quietly shunted to the consent calendar.  That means it was packaged with an assortment of other “non-controversial” legislative proposals that the delegates agree to approve en masse to free up time more lengthy debate of other matters. In practical terms, this means that the delegates give up their right to engage in debate on these issues.

It took a while for the delegates to realize what had happened, but of course, eventually, someone did.  They gathered the required signatures and bought a petition to the table that sought to reopen debate over this issue; but the proposal was dismissed over a technicality.  One of the signatures was deemed to be a duplicate—which invalidated the entire petition. There was no opportunity given to correct this.

And so, just like that, Elders (like my wife) have lost the certainty of an appointment.  While this should not impact established clergy in good standing, it certainly sends shockwaves through the system that has been in place for years.  Young people considering going to seminary may think twice if—even after going through the grueling educational demands required—they will have no guarantee of a job at the end.  Established clergy feel betrayed.  After years of serving faithfully, they feel as if the “rules” have suddenly changed”—and they weren’t even given a chance to voice their opinion.

While most agree that there is a need to “weed out” ineffective clergy, one has to question the wisdom of going about it this way.  Whether or not this is the intent, it is inevitable that some will perceive this as an attempt to consolidate power by the Episcopacy.  While Bishops seem to have very few limits placed on them (e.g., a proposal that would have imposed term limits on Bishops failed to get enough votes) clergy must now “measure up” or they could find themselves out of work. 

This move to end guaranteed appointments opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box of “questions” about how this new policy will be enacted and implemented, and yet there was no opportunity given to discuss these concerns before this controversial proposal was enacted.

I suppose only time will tell how this new policy will play out in practice but one can clearly see the potential for abuse of Episcopal power here.  This perception could have been avoided by simply allowing for more debate over what seems like an essential matter to how we function as United Methodists.

United Methodists take pride in our unity; we claim we desire to practice  unconditional love in our churches. However, it seems to me that some of the actions (by that I mean the legislation we actually enacted or, in many cases, failed to enact) taken by the 2012 General Conference could have the exact opposite effect—creating more division and dissension in our ranks and continuing to exclude certain groups from full participation in our fellowship.

And so, as the dust settles from General Conference 2012 and the delegates return to their respective Annual Conferences, where do we stand?  I feel that we the people called United Methodists should admit that we still have much to learn.  We should commit to keep “moving on toward perfection,” stretching ourselves out of our comfort zones, and becoming all that we are capable of being in Christ.  We must agree to disagree, to keep wrestling together in with these hard issues in our local churches.  We must pray for boldness to stand up for what we believe, willingness to compromise, openness to the views of others, and humility to respect those who see things differently than us. 

Most of all, we should reaffirm our founders vision and vow to remain united in essentials, diverse in non-essentials, and—most importantly—unified in our mutual love for God and our neighbors on this planet we call home. 

[1] There seems to be debate on where this originated; it may go back as far as Augustine in the 4th century.
[2] I’m focusing on United Methodists here, but I think we could probably substitute any denomination here—or just use the word “Christians.”
[4] Homosexuality is but one of these “hot-button” issues that create such strong opinions that people can and do separate over it. 
[5] See Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11; Ezekiel 13:10.

1 comment:

John Jackman said...

Alan - thanks for a very thoughtful comment! The link was sent to me by a Methodist friend. Like many other things, Wesley borrowed the motto from the Moravians who so influenced his life. The saying in its current form doesn't actually trace back to Augustine, but to a Lutheran theologian: It was borrowed by Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius. However, the earlier Moravians used a similar form which viewed essentials of Salvation (God's love, Christ's sacrifice), incidentals to salvation (things that inform us of God's love), and accidentals (language, style of music, etc). These are for us principles to live by and I think those who think they are standing up for the kingdom by "drawing a line in the sand" only demonstrate to the world that we do not fulfill Christ's commands -- "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Thanks again for your comments. - Rev John Jackman

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