2/6/19

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 7: The Other Plans

At long last here is my final post commenting on The United Methodist Church's upcoming (in just 3 weeks!) General Conference and the options before it.  In previous posts I've summarized the current situation in the world-wide United Methodist Church as well as several possible paths for a "way forward."  I've shared material from both supporters and opponents of the "One Church Plan" ("local option" for sexual morality and the definition of marriage), and explained in detail my own concerns about this plan, which are serious indeed.

As I've been discussing this issue with laity in my local congregation, I've come to realize that, should any of the 3 options that have been sent to General Conference pass, a decision would have to be made at the local level.

Under the One Church plan, for example, local churches would have to decide whether or not to host same-gender wedding ceremonies in their church-houses.

Now I want to look at bit more at the other two plans that were crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward for the General Conference to consider.

1) The Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan is by far the simplest to execute because it makes no changes to church teaching, nor requires any constitutional amendments.  This alone is a huge selling point.  Beyond that, I believe that it is also the most likely to preserve the largest degree of institutional unity within the denomination simply because it maintains the current teaching.  If people found our teachings on sexual morality absolutely intolerable, then presumably they would not have joined our churches or received ordination to join the ranks of our clergy.  While a great many conservatives, evangelicals, and traditionalists have signaled that they would leave the denomination if the teachings are changed in a more liberal direction, it seems likely that most of our progressives and liberals will remain within the denomination if the current teaching is retained, since (for the most part) they have already been able to live with that teaching for years.

What will the traditional plan change?

The main thrust of the Traditional plan is to increase accountability for those clergy and bishops who refuse to live in accordance with Church law, despite their own freely-accepted ordination vows to uphold the same.  This failure to, as our Lord says, "let our yes be yes" has caused a crisis of trust in the leadership and is a major reason we have come to the very brink of schism.  The Traditional plan aims to put in place serious consequences for clergy and bishops who break their vows.

I fully support the increased accountability in this area.  My concern (shared with many liberals, I would expect) is that we become too overzealous and heavy-handed in a rigid enforcement of doctrine.  That outcome seems relatively unlikely in a denomination that prides itself on a "theology of grace," but I have heard one or two of our more conservative colleagues make comments about "running the liberals out" and I think that is an attitude contrary to the spirit of Christ's teachings (remember the parable of the wheat and the tares?).  Rather our aim should be, in my view, to simply and clearly hold everyone accountable to the same standards that they originally signed up for.  There can be no "purifying" of the church (church history is full of disastrous attempts in that direction), nor any peering into men's souls to hold them accountable for their feelings (which are prone to change over time in any of us) but simply a commitment to uphold the rules and apply a consistent standard for all who freely choose to become clergy.

I've heard some people saying that the Traditional plan would require clergy and bishops to certify, in writing, that they believe in the church's teachings.  This seems to be based upon misinformation.  I have spoken with one of the drafters of the plan, and he assures me that it does not focus on inward beliefs but simply on outward adherence to the standards set forth in the Book of Discipline, which should be no great problem, since we have already agreed to that in our ordination vows.

My other main concern about the Traditional plan is that only about half of it has been declared to be "constitutional" under the UMC's constitution by the Judicial Council.  Some aspects of the plan were declared unconstitutional and had to be dropped or reworked, so that what is really coming before General Conference is a modified Traditionalist plan.  It could be that the changes that have been made by the crafters of the plan still fail to pass constitutional muster, in which case General Conference will have passed only a 'partial Traditional plan' or 'Traditional plan lite' which may prove ineffectual in addressing our problems.

What would the local church have to decide under this plan?

One aspect of the Traditional plan that intrigues me is the "gracious exit clause" which would allow congregations who are willing to agree to certain stipulations to leave the denomination and keep their property.  Currently if congregations cut ties with the denomination the property reverts to the Annual Conference.

So, if the Traditional plan passes congregations would need to decide whether to stay within the UMC or to leave (though presumably, unlike the other plans, it is safe to say that there would be a firm "default" position, namely, staying in the UMC).  The gracious exit clause is fiercely opposed by the bishops who (rightly) see that larger churches (including many of our evangelical churches) are both greater contributors to and also less dependent upon the denominational institutions than smaller churches.  These larger churches could more easily leave and become self-sufficient but what would become of the churches that remained?  Would they find the weight of the denomination's institutions far too heavy to maintain?

Yet the argument for a gracious exit clause is simple: congregations can leave anyways, and churches that feel betrayed, rejected, or embarrassed by their denomination, churches that no longer have a heart to support the institutions should not be 'held hostage' in a denomination for which they no longer have any love.  What good is having that sort of 'unity' anyway?  Just to squeeze money out of people?  Another argument is one of simple fairness and justice: if the local congregation members paid for the property and maintained it, is it really fair that the fruits of their own labor be taken from them if they dis-associate from a denomination that (they believe) no longer represents them?

My view is that even a Traditional plan Lite would still be a good option.

2) Connectional Conference Plan

The final plan being recommended for the consideration of the General Conference is the Connectional Conference plan.  This plan is the most cumbersome to enact and, for that reason, has been dismissed by many people I've spoken with as a non-starter.  Though in more recent weeks I have seen some delegates pledging to support it.  There are several things about this plan that interest me.

Strictly on a political and institutional level, the Connectional Conference Plan is the truest "compromise" between Traditionalists and Liberals.  If the Connectional Conference Plan passes then nobody "wins," and I can see a certain appeal about that, perhaps as a way to try to "bear with one another in Christ."

Because the Connectional Conference plan actually segregates conservative clergy and bishops in one conference away from liberal clergy and bishops in another (and centrists or "unsure" in a third), it actually eliminates the problem (or perceived problem) of clergy being 'punished' for their convictions by bishops or cabinets who hold an opposing view, which I do not believe that the One Church plan can really guard against, despite its best efforts.

I also suspect that the Connectional Conference plan is actually a plan that most of our committed liberals and perhaps even most of our committed conservatives could "live with" if enacted, though I expect neither would be enthusiastic about it.  I am quite confident that it could at least keep more people within the "big tent" of the denomination than the One Church plan.

At least in the short term.

One main question about the Connectional Conference plan is whether it would in fact be a stepping stone along the path to full schism.  Would the (now segregated) liberal and conservative "conferences" have less and less to do with each other, functioning as 'de facto' separate denominations until, at some point in the future, they cut what few tenuous ties remain?  That seems quite plausible to me.

Now there are plenty of people who say that a full split is inevitable (or indeed, has already, in fact, begun), so perhaps enacting the Connectional Conference plan would be a way to manage that split in a careful and gracious way.

There are some other concerns about this plan:
One is that it would be expensive because it would duplicate some offices and institutions 3 times over (where currently there is one, there might be three), which means fewer United Methodists contributing to support each church institution, thus raising the cost.  This seems a realistic possibility, though I'm not sure exactly which offices or institutions would supposedly be duplicated.

Another real concern is how the Connectional Conference Plan would work "on the ground."  I heard a colleague joke a few years ago that if a conservative jurisdiction and a liberal jurisdiction were created, and clergy and churches given the choice which to join, most all of our ordained clergy would join the liberal jurisdiction and most all of our churches would join the conservative one.  While certainly an exaggeration, his joke has some truth to it, and raises in general the question of uneven distribution of clergy who need jobs versus churches who need pastors.  Would pastors and congregations decide which jurisdiction to join in coordination with one another?  This surely will raise new challenges that would need to be addressed.

Again the local church is forced to make a decision:

Like under the One Church plan the Connectional Conference plan would ultimately force each congregation to "choose a side" which could potentially devastate the unity of the local congregations.  Unlike under the One Church Plan, however, once the choice had been made there is very little possibility that a new pastor with the opposite view would be appointed who wanted to revisit the decision.  This is a major improvement, in my view, from the One Church Plan.

Yet the Connectional Conference Plan also has the same theological problems as the One Church plan: The United Methodist Church would claim to be one church (sort of) with one message, yet teachings regarding the definition of marriage, which behaviors are sinful, and what God's will is for your sexuality would be officially contradictory from one United Methodist Church to another.
That problem would, I think, "feel" more distant, however because all Methodists (conservative and liberal alike) could say to themselves, "At least in my Conference everyone teaches the truth (as I understand it)."

But it would be a compromise, and one wonders if a compromise is tenable in the long run for people (both traditional and progressive) who understand themselves as trying to follow a Lord who chose to be crucified rather than compromise with falsehood.

This plan may be a bit of a 'shot in the dark' to preserve institutional unity, but (for all its serious flaws) I think I would personally be willing to at least give it a try, that way at least we will not have run hastily into schism, and will have actually been willing to make sacrifices (on both sides) to preserve unity.

I realize that I have left out a great deal and glossed over many details in this discussion: Time constraints have prevented me from going into more detail about either of these plans.  I am happy to have finished, and 7 posts seems a nice number.

What will happen?  God only knows.  Maybe some of you have some insight.  I'm praying.

I invite you to pray for United Methodists.  Pray for the delegates to the upcoming General Conference.  Pray that whatever decision is made that we will treat one another with Christian love, even if (as will likely happen) many feel that they can no longer be a part of the denomination depending upon the decision that is reached.
I am praying for spiritual unity, for fidelity to the Bible and the classic Christian faith, and a spirit of charity under the Lordship of Jesus.
And, quite frankly, I'm praying that there will be a way forward for me in my vocation and for my family that does not involve the loss of my employment, my pension, and the roof over our heads.  It is a stressful time for United Methodist clergy and we could use prayers too.

But I believe that in the long run 'the Lord does provide' (Gen. 22:14) and can even use this particular season of uncertainty to sharpen within us the spirit of holiness and conform us more fully to the image of his beloved Son, our Lord and our Savior (Rom. 8:29).


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12/12/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 6: My concerns about the One Church Plan

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD..."  Isaiah 1:18 (ESV)

For the rest of this series, I wanted to share my concerns about the Way Forward process, the decisions facing the General Conference (GC) of 2019, as the GC attempts to discern if and how we can move forward together given our significant differences not only over the morality of homosexuality and the definition of marriage, but also the nature of Biblical authority, Biblical hermeneutics (especially the role of church tradition in interpreting the Bible), the extent of ecclesiastical authority, church discipline and the keeping of ordination vows.

Because the Council of Bishops has chosen to promote the 'One Church Plan', my attention in this piece will be devoted to it, though I'll say a bit about the others as well (in a later post).

I have friends and colleagues whom I respect that believe that the One Church Plan really is the best hope, the best way forward for the church.  I invite anyone who reads this post to consider the reasons for the critiques I offer; come reason with me.  I am looking at the evidence provided by the experience of our own and other denominations to support my points below.  There may be good reasons to think I am wrong on some of these points.  This post is not 'aimed at' any person or group in particular, just my own assessment of the One Church Plan's problems and the probable fallout were it adopted.

While I have concerns about all three of the plans that may be considered by General Conference as a 'Way Forward' for us in our division (see Post 1 in this series for a description of the plans), the One Church Plan is, in my view, the worst.  Why?

A. PRACTICAL PROBLEMS:

I do not believe the One Church Plan (OCP) will actually serve the Unity and Mission of the Church as proponents hope

1) The ugly fight that now happens once every 4 years at General Conference will become an ugly fight that happens always and everywhere

a. Divisiveness will grow at the Annual Conference Level:

This is the biggest practical problem with the One Church Plan.  The most likely outcome if the General Conference were to adopt the One Church plan is that an ugly, shrill, and rancorous debate that now happens once every four years, far away at General Conference, would get passed down to the local level and would become an ugly, shrill and rancorous debate every year at the Annual Conference level.

We have all seen General Conferences get bogged down, devoting ever more time to debating the issues mentioned above.  Protesters from the left wing of the church have made a regular habit of interrupting the proceedings at General Conference, further slowing the work, and at each General Conference ever more work simply goes unfinished as the Conference ends and delegates must leave. 
Is there any reason at all to expect that we would not see the exact same thing repeating itself over and over again at Annual Conferences all over the nation each and every year?  And what would be the toll on our relationships if it did?

If, as most agree, General Conference's ability to "focus on the mission" has been severely hampered by this debate, surely multiplying the debate many times over would have a paralyzing effect on the system. 

I can see the beginnings already in my own Conference as more and more delegates (including myself) have for the first time ever chosen to attend the meetings of the Traditionalist and Liberal caucus groups over the last two years.  Events that used to be rather small affairs in tucked away locations have grown tremendously in just a couple of years as more and more of us feel the need to "band together" in preparation for what may be coming to the Annual Conference floor very soon as a result of the Way Forward process.    

Passage of the One Church Plan will certainly exacerbate this growing division as “battle lines are drawn” at the Annual Conference level and our collegial relationships, upon which our connectional system depends, will suffer.

b. The divisive debate will also be passed down to the local church level with disastrous results:

Not only will the work of the Annual Conference become more deeply mired in the sexuality/authority debate, so too will the meetings of increasing numbers of local churches.  The authors of the One Church Plan suggest that most United Methodist churches will not even need to make a decision on these issues, but I cannot see how that will be the case.  As time goes on, and more and more congregations “choose a side”, there will be increasing pressure for others to do so as well.

Imagine a local church with one or two prominent families pushing the church council to adopt a more liberal approach to the definition of marriage; imagine that the same church has one or two families with a very strong and traditional view of Biblical authority.  Imagine that all of these families are big givers and volunteer contributors to the ministry of the church.  Church members who, up till now, have paid little if any attention to the sexuality debate, will suddenly be forced to take a stand against people that they've worshiped with for years, even generations.

Far from being passionately debated once every 4 years, this debate could happen every month!

Up till now these decisions were made by General Conference so there was not much reason for local church members to debate them.  We are all committed to do what The Book of Discipline says, regardless of our own views, so why get in a fuss fighting about it?  Under the OCP, that "shield" protecting the unity of our congregations will be removed.

Eventually families on the 'losing side' would likely leave their congregations, and the schism that we congratulate ourselves for having avoided at the General Conference level would (continue to) take place at the local level.

2) The OCP would increase the stress on our itinerant system and hurt recruitment

Can you imagine the complicating factors if the hypothetical congregation I've just described was assigned a new pastor who had views contrary to that of the previous pastor?  Or suppose that a new pastor who passionately disagreed with the stand taken by the church wanted to revisit the issue with church leaders?

It is very easy for me to imagine, when I look at some of the pastoral changes that have happened in my Conference.  There is not an unlimited supply of pastors, of liberal pastors or of conservative pastors, and a local option will add a destabilizing ingredient to our already stressed itinerant system.

This will also add a significant new source of stress to our pastors themselves, who already have high rates of burnout, and will surely hurt recruitment of new pastors. 

3) The OCP will not prevent schism, and may well trigger one:

Since the Commission on a Way Forward began its work in 2016, some Methodist pastors and congregations have chosen to align themselves with advocacy groups in support of or opposition to certain plans.  By far the largest and best-organized of these groups is the traditionalist group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) which includes several bishops and pastors of some of our largest and fastest growing congregations (and many smaller ones).  Long before the Way Forward Commission published its recommendations, the WCA has been on record for some 2 years now saying that a "local option" was not an acceptable option for their members, and that WCA churches and leaders could potentially leave the denomination en masse if such a local option were adopted.  Based on the experiences of other denominations, there is no reason at all to believe that this is a bluff.

This point is not really a fault with the One Church Plan itself, but a political reality attached to it.  Knowing (surely?) that this is the case - and knowing that the conservative wing of the church is both larger and faster-growing than the liberal wing - it seems strange, to say the least, that of the three possible plans the bishops chose the endorse the one most likely to "run the conservatives off."  This does not seem to be a good way to support the long-term vitality of the denomination.

If churches and pastors do attempt to leave en masse this will, in turn, trigger costly legal battles as the denomination attempts to retain possession of local church properties (just as we have seen in recent years with Episcopal and Anglican Churches), which will certainly not serve our unity.  Or, if legal battles are avoided and congregations simply give up their claim to properties, then Conference Boards of Trustees will be overwhelmed by the financial burdens of huge backlogs of now empty church buildings.  Either scenario will drain further resources away from the Conference's budget for mission and ministry.  
This scenario could be avoided if the GC includes a "gracious exit" procedure in passing the plan. 

The loss of apportionment dollars from large conservative churches, however, will be the most devastating blow to the mission budgets across the whole connection.  To say nothing about the effects on the sustainability of health insurance or pension plans.

4) The OCP does not go far enough for committed progressives, so the same fight will continue in a new form:

If conservatives are likely to reject the local option, many even leaving the church over it, experience shows that progressives will not, in the long run, be satisfied with a local option either.  

In churches around the world that have so far adopted some form of ‘local option’ on the morality of homosexuality, we have seen that progressive members of those churches, having successfully pushed a local option to allow gay weddings, then begin pushing to remove the local option for churches and clergy to refuse them. 
The logic of their position is both clear and consistent: if indeed a refusal to perform gay ceremonies or ordain 'self-avowed practicing homosexuals' is a form of discrimination that is sinful and contrary to the will of God, why then should it be permitted as a perpetual feature of the life of the church?  It should not.  That logic is sound.

That is precisely why The Episcopal Church's recent 2018 General Convention voted on a rule that would effectively end the ability for bishops to forbid same-gender unions within their dioceses. There had been a local option for the bishops of each diocese, as the chief pastor, to determine whether such rites would be used.  Now the rites are required in every diocese and every church, with some allowances for bishops and priests to be un-involved who personally object, but it is clear that the "local option" was only a step along the way to a new standard for all dioceses.

We can also see the example of the Lutheran Church of Iceland.  After deciding to allow gay union ceremonies in the church, priests were initially given the option to refuse to officiate such ceremonies for reasons of conscience.  But within only a few years, that "local option" was taken away, and now all priests are compelled to officiate gay unions, based on the logic of the liberals' interpretation of the Gospel, the will of God, and the meaning of marriage.  So we have the experience of other churches to indicate to us that local option would only be a temporary stop on the way to liberals’ vision of "full inclusion" (conservatives have a quite different understanding of what this phrase should mean).  A mass exodus of conservatives (#3 above) would also make this scenario more plausible.

5) The OCP will not help the United Methodist Church to reach new people, but will certainly result in further decline

We have the recent history of other, rather similar, denominations in the US to look at to help us understand what would surely happen if we accepted actively gay clergy and same-gender unions.  We have for evidence the developments within the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The Episcopal Church among others.  Every one of these "mainline" Protestant denominations was in decline before it decided to liberalize its teaching (or eliminate its teaching in favor of a local option) on marriage and sexual morality.  After making this decision, in hopes of reaching new people and younger people, every single one of these churches saw their decline accelerate. 
Every single one. 

As it turns out, there is no crowd of progressives waiting at the door to rush in and join our churches if only we would change our teachings on sexuality.  But there are plenty of traditionalists for whom the move to redefine holy matrimony is 'the last straw.'

It is folly to assume, based on no evidence at all, that The United Methodist Church's experience would be dramatically better than these other churches.  Most of the parts of our denomination that are actually growing are in culturally conservative areas, many of them overseas.  Indeed, because the UMC has far more conservative overseas constituents than any of these other denominations we are uniquely poised, of all the ‘mainline’ churches, to suffer far more decline, and far faster, than any of these other denominations has experienced.   

We have the experience of history to show us what 'local option' does to denominations, because we've seen it play out already in other churches. 

B. THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

6) The OCP represents a failure of the church's prophetic voice on a culturally relevant issue

If The UMC rejects our own traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality it will represent a loss of nerve, and a loss of our prophetic voice to speak on an issue that is relevant in our sex-obsessed (American) culture. 

Based on what we are told by media and pollsters (though, as the 2016 Presidential election revealed, they are not always accurate and may be prone to confirmation bias) many Christians have the sense that our American culture is increasingly hostile to the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality.  Though only a slim majority of United Methodists actually live in ‘our American culture’, this perception has been a major reason why many within the church now advocate changing our position in order to remain relevant to ‘our culture’.  This is called "contextualization" and is a key feature of the OCP.

But we've been here before.  History teaches us that there was a time when early Methodism was profoundly opposed to the institution of slavery.  But as the church grew it came more and more to reflect the broader culture: in those places where the culture was broadly supportive of the institution of slavery, so too were the Methodists.  That is Contextualization at work.  But as the example of slavery shows, adapting to our cultural context does not mean we are necessarily following God's will (compare Romans 12:1-2), which brings us to the biggest problem of all:

7) Moral and theological relativism undermines the firm foundation upon which the Church stands:

The issue of the meaning of Christian marriage touches every single family in the church.  This is a big issue, and our differences are not 'hair-splitting' theological minutiae, but quite significant.  One side says that a sexual relationship between persons of the same gender should receive the blessing of the church, while the other side says it is clearly revealed in Scripture to be a sin, and contrary to God's purposes for sexuality.

The local option essentially gives up on answering the question.  We have no word from the Lord on this issue.  The local option allows a situation where "all people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25).  That is Moral relativism at work.  But if you read the Book of Judges you see that this is emphatically not a good thing.  The situation had degenerated into moral chaos.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes precisely because "In those days there was no King in Israel." 

What about us: Do we have a King, or don't we?  Do we have a word of the Lord, and a way of discerning his will for us, or don't we?  Do we have a message that we can lift up in a culture of relativism and moral chaos and say 'THIS is TRUE', or don't we? 

If we surrender to the spirit of our age, so characterized by isolated individualism and moral relativism, how can we ever say "Thus saith the Lord" with confidence about anything?  
And what is the use of a church (especially a Protestant Church) that has no ‘word of the Lord’; that cannot discern what God wants for his world in the midst of confusing times?

The truth is that sexual morality is not the only serious issue about which our clergy (and seminary professors who train our clergy) disagree.  Despite the fact that we have clear teachings about these issues in our Doctrinal Standards I can guarantee you that there is sharp disagreement, even mutually-exclusive positions held, among our clergy and seminary professors about the reality of original sin, and about whether the cross is actually redemptive.  There is profound disagreement about the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ (and of his church at the end of this age), there is serious disagreement about how salvation works and who will be saved (and who may not be).  There is disagreement surrounding Trinitarian theology, and what 'holiness' and 'justice' even mean.  
These are not peripheral issues.

Here is the question that really faces United Methodism: Will the church return to our classical doctrinal foundations and confidently reassert them as life-giving truth for a world drowning in relativism and confusion...or will we embrace relativism in order to 'get along'?    

How can the church teach with confident authority on any of these issues if we are willing to embrace moral relativism as our way of 'resolving' our deepest disagreements?  The rock of solid teaching will have been replaced by shifting sands (see Mt. 7:24-27). 
We will indeed end up with the pastoraly confusing, and theologically untenable, situation where two Methodist congregations in the same town proclaim contradictory teachings about “God’s plan for marriage and family and sexual holiness;” they would have contradictory teachings about what it means to live a righteous and holy life, and yet both would the official blessing of the denomination.

How could this not be a continuous stumbling block for both members and future seekers (especially if successive pastors with divergent views get assigned to the same churches)?  

The word of God revealed in Scripture tells us that is not a God of confusion and disorder, but a God of peace (see 1 Cor. 14:33).  The word also says "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you" (Phil. 3:15).  God clearly promises that he will lead us to unity and agreement, if only we are willing to submissively listen.  So also, Romans 12:1-2 tells us that when we present ourselves - our bodies even - in reverent submission to God, when we refuse to conform ourselves to the surrounding culture, it is then that our minds will be renewed so that we will be able to discern the will of God.

God clearly does not view gay unions as both a sin and simultaneously as holy matrimony.  This is contrary to logic and reason.  One position or the other is false and wrong.  To endorse the "local option" means we know that we, as a church, are officially condoning falsehood.  And yet in this case we will be shrugging and saying, "We know one of the positions we are endorsing is wrong, but that is the best we can do."

But, when we consider the promises of a Living God, is it really?  

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12/5/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 5: Theologian Critiques 'One Church Plan'

When I was in seminary, my first year Greek class was taught by David Watson, who was at that time writing a doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Mark, and was easily one of my best teachers in my time at Perkins.  Today Dr. Watson is the dean of United Theological Seminary, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology, which has seen a renaissance under his leadership.  Dr. Watson is a clear thinking scholar who loves the Lord, the Church, and the Word of God.

Dr. Watson has also recently published a critical piece pointing out some major problems with the "One Church Plan" that many of our bishops hope (see previous post) will be adopted by General Conference in February as a way for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity in the midst of our disagreements over how to apply Biblical and traditional authority in the church, in particular as it relates to the issues of sexuality and the meaning of Christian marriage.

I heartily encourage you to read his full post: The One Church Plan: Problems of Governance and Theology.
As I let the bishops "speak for themselves" in the last post, I'll be making generous use of quotations in this one, so that Dr. Watson can speak for himself, with some comments of my own, of course.

As the title makes clear, Dr. Watson sees two major types of problems with the One Church Plan (OCP).  The first is a problem of governance.  In any large and diverse denomination, there will be some disagreement among the members about almost every issue.  The imperative thing for maintaining institutional unity, then, is to have a clear system for addressing these disagreements.  For United Methodists, that is the General Conference.  We have a clear system of authority in the UMC, but because the General Conference has consistently re-affirmed that classical teachings on sexual morality and the definition of marriage (and is likely to continue to do so under the current way of doing things), the authority that holds us together in the midst of our diversity is itself now being rejected by many Progressives and Liberals who have grown impatient with what they see as injustice in the system:

Yes, United Methodists disagree about homosexuality, but we have ways of dealing with disagreement. The threat of division is not the result of disagreement. Rather, the threat of division comes from the rejection of our processes for resolving disagreement by some segments of the church, including some of our bishops. I understand that those who have rejected our processes for the resolution of disagreement have done so out of a deep sense of moral obligation. We should be clear, however, that what we are facing is not simply a clash of ideologies, but a crisis of governance.

I believe that the Bishops, as a group, have greatly contributed to this crisis by continuously affirming as a group that they will uphold church teachings and church law, but then being apparently unwilling or unable to follow through when clergy (or even other bishops) choose to ignore church teachings as affirmed by the General Conference.
If General Conference itself can be discounted, how then can the diverse institution be held together?

The OCP's 'Local Option' offers a new approach to this problem.  I wonder, after reading Watson's assessment, if he believes we are moving toward a congregationalist polity (moving us closer to how Baptists operate), and away from the connectionalism that has historically been a defining feature of Methodism:

The solution they offer changes our governance, moving some decision-making authority to local churches, individuals, and annual conferences....Noteworthy is the move toward a polity based on individual conscience, rather than on the collective decisions of the church. One might object that the OCP shifts decision-making power only with regard to matters related to homosexuality, but its basic principle, clearly spelled out in its “Theological and Biblical Foundations,” is that our deep disagreement necessitates this shift. Were we to follow this same principle moving forward, whenever there is deep disagreement at the level of the General Conference, we should simply move decision-making power to local levels.

The One Church Plan involves moving decision making authority to a more local level in the church as a way of moving forward and helping to resolve our denomination-wide conflicts over human sexuality and theological authority.  I have long argued that I believe this will simply move us from an ugly fight that happens once every four years at General Conference to an ugly fight that happens every year at Annual Conference, and potentially even more frequently in the local Church.  Watson agrees:

I have particular concerns about the OCP at the local church level. It specifically states, “Local churches are not required to vote. Most would likely make no changes in practice at the local level” (15). It also affirms: “This plan minimizes disruption in the local church (in most cases) and gives freedom to churches to adapt in order to minister to the LGBTQ community in context” (15). This picture of the effects of the OCP on local churches is optimistic, to put it kindly. It would only take a very small vocal minority to push for a vote in any church. Most United Methodist churches represent a diverse array of opinions about matters related to LGBTQ persons. In time, most will likely vote if the OCP passes. This plan avers that it is merciful to allow churches to debate and decide issues related to LGBTQ people internally, rather than relying on the duly elected representatives to the General Conference. I would argue that this is not mercy, but cruelty. The church I attend, like so many others in United Methodism, would be torn apart were it forced into such a decision. Shifting the locus of authority from the General Conference to the Annual Conference, local church, and individual would not resolve our disagreements or bring peace, but rather metastasize the rancor and division that so characterizes our quadrennial gatherings.

Beyond issues of governance (church polity), the One Church Plan, says Dr. Watson, raises significant issues of theology.

There are also numerous theological problems. For example, a proposed amendment to ¶105 reads, “As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause person of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently” (20, italics mine). By this rationale, our disagreement results from God’s revelation of truth and grace. How God’s revelation and grace have led us into this confusion is unclear, as is God’s rationale for doing so. Apparently, God is in fact the author of confusion (contra 1 Cor 14:33). 

This is an interesting point.  In the italicized sentence "God's revelation" is what "may cause persons of good conscience" to disagree.  How can the Church officially affirm such a thing?  Surely it is our finitude or limitations or sins that "cause" our disagreements, and not God's own revelation?

So too Watson then suggests:
Perhaps a better rationale would be, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, NRSV). In other words, in our human brokenness and finitude, we may not be able always to perceive God’s truth with clarity. This would mean, however, that some people in our denominational debate have perceived God’s will more clearly than others, which the OCP is loathe to concede.

That some people are right and others are wrong is a concession that the OCP is not willing to make, but logic demands that it is clearly true in this case:
If there is a God who did indeed create marriage for his own purposes,
Then it cannot follow logically that our mutually-contradictory interpretations of what marriage means are both correct and both equally in harmony with the one Divine Will.  Such an assertion runs contrary to Reason.

Watson then goes on to note that the OCP document does not offer a theological rationale for its new revised definition of marriage, which means it could be an unstable definition resting (potentially) shifting sands.  What if, for instance, advocates of "open marriage" begin to assail the revised definition, if there is not a theological and Biblical rationale for why marriage must be monogamous?

While the promoters of the One Church Plan have described it as "generous" in allowing people with differing interpretations to stand together in unity, Watson does not believe that the OCP actually creates the "Neutral Ground" that it claims to make:

It is important to note that the OCP implicitly affirms same-sex marriage. By eliminating the stipulation that marriage is between one man and one woman, we are not simply creating space for a broad range of positions. We are implicitly stating that we recognize the validity of gay marriage as a denomination, even if some members of our denomination do not agree with our doing so. In other words, we have a case of addition by subtraction. Crucial to this point is that there is no local option attending the redefinition of marriage. It is a redefinition for the entire denomination. Committed traditionalists should not be happy with this.
Yet the OCP also allows clergy, local churches, and Annual Conferences to reject and even prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. Following the line of argument that progressives have made since the earliest days of our denomination, this is simply the continuation of a longstanding pattern of discrimination. It will allow United Methodists in some areas to act in ways that progressives have long claimed to be unjust, bigoted, hateful, and harmful.
All this is to say, the OCP does not create a neutral ground where all can stand in unity. Rather, it offers us a picture of the church in which the way we understand and practice marriage just is not all that important. Those who do think our understanding of marriage is a crucial part of our life together – those who hold deep theological and ethical convictions about marriage – will never be satisfied with this proposal.
Finally, Watson criticizes the way the One Church Plan document deploys the language of 'religious liberty'.  Long time readers of this blog will note that I have, along with many Libertarians, long been an advocate of addressing some hot-button culture war issues in the United States at the State and Local levels whenever possible, instead of forcing upon us a one-size fits all approach from the Federal Government which inevitably does not take into account the very real differences in cultures among the states.
Some may find it odd, then, that I oppose moving decision making about how the church will handle some of the same theological issues to a more local level.  But the difference is rooted in the vast difference between a nation (into which you are born, and which has the power to compel you to obey its laws - even by using physical violence) on the one hand, and a Christian Church on the other, which one freely joins on the other.  Watson explores this same issue in the final section of his piece:

Religious liberty is a notion at home in the sphere of civil government. It protects religious groups and individuals from restrictions and interference by the government in the expression of their beliefs and practices. As an ecclesiological concept, religious liberty is as out of place as a pig in a rose garden. Churches are communities of faith and practice. In the United States, joining a church is, in and of itself, an expression of religious liberty. The decision to order one’s life in keeping with the teachings of the church is also an expression of religious liberty. Such liberty is necessary so that people of faith can live out their convictions in a society that does not always share those convictions. But should people of faith be protected from the convictions of the communities of faith they have freely chosen? The use of “religious liberty” in the OCP betrays a deep confusion about the difference between a church and a civil society. This confusion, moreover, runs through the entire plan like a foundational crack that will eventually result in the collapse of the entire structure.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what the best way forward is for our denomination. I do believe, however, that the OCP is too deeply flawed on too many levels to move us forward in faithfulness and integrity. 
I appreciate Dr. Watson's tireless work to revitalize the church and its theological education (much-needed work that has borne some fruit already), as well as is less-well-known work to make the church more accessible to individuals with disabilities and learning disorders.  I hope people will consider well what he has written.  Again, the FULL Article is HERE.

In my next article, I will offer my own concerns about the One Church Plan and my assessment of the other two plans as well.

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11/27/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 4: Bishops promote 'One Church plan'

If you have been following this series of posts, you know that there are three Proposals for "A Way Forward" for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity after years of conflict over theological issues surrounding sexual morality, and also how to interpret and apply the Bible and ecclesiastical authority with relation to this (and other) contentious issues.

The Commission on the Way Forward submitted 3 different proposals for ways that the UMC could deal with its conflict.  There was some confusion over whether these proposals were being submitted to the Council of Bishops for consideration and selection of only one, or if all three were to be reported directly to the General Conference.

In the end, all three proposals have been offered to the General Conference for consideration, and a majority of the Bishops (but, by no means all of them) on the Council of Bishops have chosen to "endorse" the One Church Plan, which is also sometimes called the "Local Option" plan, because it empowers local congregations, clergy, and annual conferences to make their own decisions about sexual morality and the definition of marriage.  Thus, one United Methodist congregation might hold one teaching on "God's will for Christian marriage" while another UM church across town might hold a different (even contradictory) view.

The bishops (or at least, most of them) chose to endorse this plan as an attempt to make space for liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists and anyone in between to all co-exist under the same rules, with greater flexibility given to the local level.

Because the bishops chose to focus on the One Church Plan, it was by far the most "polished" of all three plans developed by the Way Forward Commission (which relates to the Judicial Council decisions discussed in post 3).

Some have grumbled that it was inappropriate for the bishops to endorse any plan at all since doing so could potentially undermine the work of the Way Forward Commission and the General Conference, and indeed the bishops are as divided as the larger church, and so the endorsement could simply be interpreted as the point of view of one faction rather than a Council of Bishops that is somehow "above the fray".

On the other hand, others have suggested that in making an endorsement the bishops are offering leadership and guidance to the church in a difficult and anxious time.  Still others have wondered if the bishops will end up with "egg on their face" or even a some kind of crisis of credibility if the General Conference does not pass their preferred plan.

I guess I keep saying this: only time will tell.  But I trust that God knows how this all plays out and, as we children used to sing, "He's got the whole world in His hands."

Here is a video featuring several of the bishops, including my own bishop, promoting the One Church Plan.

For a different perspective my next post will feature a critique of the One Church plan from one of my former seminary teachers, a prominent United Methodist Theologian, Dr. David Watson, whose leadership has helped bring revival to a (previously) declining United Methodist Seminary.

Then my final post in this series will explore some of my own reasons for opposing the One Church Plan in favor of a more traditional model of some kind (though, as you will see, there are some aspects of the Traditional Plan that I do not especially like).  There are some things I really like about the Connectional Conference Plan as well, and I'll share some thoughts on that.


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11/26/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 3

Late last month, a long awaited ruling from the Judicial Council (i.e., ecclesiastical Supreme Court) of The United Methodist Church was issued related to the upcoming special session of General Conference in February 2019.

To read my full review of how we got here, read Part 1 of this series of posts.

The brief recap:
To address The United Methodist Church's disagreements over Biblical interpretation, Church authority, and sexual morality the world-wide General Conference of 2016 created a special "Commission on a Way Forward" to offer recommendations.

After two years of work, the Way Forward Commission has suggested 3 possible plans for preserving the institutional unity of the denomination in some form or other.  These three plans may be considered by a special session of General Conference in February of 2019 that has been called to deal with just this issue.

The three plans developed by the Commission are
1) The Traditionalist plan, which maintains current Church teaching (consistent with 3000 years of Judeo-Christian understanding) on sexuality and strengthens accountability for those pastors and bishops who refuse to abide by church teaching
2) The One Church Plan (a.k.a. "Local Option") eliminates any church-wide teaching on human sexuality and allows each congregation to decide if it will host same-sex weddings, each pastor to decide if he or she will officiate them, and each Annual Conference to decide if they will ordain individuals as pastors who are living in homosexual relationships
3) The Connectional Conference plan would radically restructure the denomination to group congregations and annual conferences into "Connectional Conferences" based upon theological convictions.  Presumably there would be a Traditionalist Conference and a Liberal Conference, and perhaps an "in between" Conference.  Annual Conferences and Congregations and pastors would then all decide which way to affiliate.

Each plan consists of a number of separate pieces of legislation, which together have a cumulative effect.

The Judicial Council Rulings: 
The Council of Bishops wisely requested that the Judicial Council look at each plan to determine whether it is constitutional under The United Methodist Church's constitution.

The Judicial Council has released its decision, which you can read a more complete description of at the Central Texas Conference Website.

In short, the "One Church Plan" requires only very minor modification to pass constitutional muster, so it is basically ready to go.

The "Traditionalist Plan" had more difficulties.  Of the 17 petitions that make up this plan, 9 of them are either partially or wholly unconstitutional.
If the remaining 8 petitions were passed, perhaps with a few of the others in modified form, we could end up with a Traditionalist Plan "Light", that would clearly express the direction that the Church intends to head, but would also have less "teeth" in terms of accountability for those who break their ordination vows.
I have no doubt that Traditionalist groups are hard at work to come up with corrections or alternatives to avoid a "Light" plan, but such a revised plan would not have the benefit of having been "pre-approved" by the Judicial Council, and could be (partially) struck down after the General Conference ended.

Finally the Judicial Council did not issue a ruling at all upon whether the "Connectional Conference Plan" is constitutional, since it would require amendments to the Constitution and so would be judged under a different constitution, as it were, and the Judicial Council did not want to issue a ruling on hypotheticals.  This leaves even more questions hanging over the most complicated of these three plans, that many see as both the truest compromise between liberals and conservatives and also the least likely plan to actually be adopted.

Of course, as I've stated in the first post on this topic, the General Conference could (theoretically) discard all of these and create a whole new plan from scratch.  Time will tell.

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United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 2

This is the second post I am sharing regarding the future of The United Methodist Church after the special General Conference of late February 2019.

The FIRST POST I shared on this topic linked to THIS PIECE from Rev. Lynn Malone which is well worth the read.  Rev. Malone has been a pastor, district superintendent, and General Conference delegate, and is thoroughly familiar with the inner workings of United Methodism.

Lynn laments that no matter what General Conference chooses to do, including a choice to pass no legislation, there will be additional pain and division within the church.  Lynn's very sober assessment ends with a word of hope: who knows what sort of resurrection God may yet bring?

Now, for a different perspective, I'm sharing THIS POST from Rev. Thomas Bowsher, a pastor in the Dakotas Conference.  Rev. Bowsher's post was recently highlighted at UM NEWS.  Bowsher argues that The United Methodist Church is at a critical crossroads because the values that have held United Methodists together are no longer understood in the same way by all Methodists; for this reason, he says, a split of the church is now inevitable.

Bowsher says that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that the General Conference 2019, or any of the three plans submitted to it (or any plan that the General Conference itself can produce) will actually put an end to the bickering and division within the Church.

Bowsher also argues - and is echoed by many traditionalists on this point, and even a few liberals as well - that because a split is inevitable, the leadership of the Church (including GC2019) should be working to make that split as smooth and amicable as possible.

While many of the Bishops have adopted a "unity at any cost" approach to GC2019 and the future of the UMC, Bowsher makes an important theological observation:

"We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that maintaining unity as a denomination is the same as unity in the body of Christ. We are not biblically commanded to maintain unity as an organization. However, we are called to be in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ"


In discussions of church unity, people have often pointed back to Wesley's sermon about the "Catholic Spirit" as pointing a way forward for divided Methodists.  But what has not so often been pointed out is that, in this sermon, Wesley clearly is addressing Christians who are already divided into different denominations over theological differences, but who are nevertheless working and praying together for the mission of Christ.  In other words, Wesley is addressing how Christians of different stripes can work together in love, not whether Christians in the same church who are crippled by disagreement ought to split or remain institutionally united.

Wesley does not address institutional unity in that Sermon, but unity in heart and unity in love.  At this moment, Methodists would do well to consider where these differ and where they overlap.  We should consider how (and if) we can maintain loving fellowship while also dividing institutionally OR how (and if) we can maintain a loving fellowship while also remaining locked together in a continuous and acrimonious fight for control within the institution.

I fear that Bowsher is correct that some kind of split is inevitable, either a formal "top-down" split arranged by a General Conference or a less formal "bottom-up" split as families leave congregations, and congregations leave the denomination.  This is already happening (as the departure last year of the Mississippi Conference's largest congregation reminds us) and it is every bit as much of a real schism in the body as a "top-down" split because the church is composed of people and congregations (including those that will leave), not simply institutional machinery such as boards and agencies and seminaries.

Many theologians and pastors have been asking for some time now the question: "Has the split of The United Methodist Church in fact already happened, already begun?"

Bowsher is implicitly suggesting that our current situation points us towards the limits of diversity and inclusion.  As 21st century Westerners and as United Methodists we have been quick to repeat the mantra, so celebrated in our culture, that 'diversity is our strength', and it can be a strength indeed.  However it should be clear with even a few minutes of clear thinking that some forms of diversity can also become a weakness.  How can we walk together if we are determined to walk in divergent (i.e. 'diverse') directions?  Does a marriage become stronger the less and less that a husband and wife have in common (which is to say, the more "diversity" there is between them)?

Bowsher is asking how can Methodists maintain unity if we no longer understand our core values in the same way (i.e. if we have a 'diversity' of contradictory understandings)?  Wesley raises this same point in his sermon when he says "two cannot walk together unless they be agreed", quoting from Amos 3:3 (KJV).

For a large institution - especially a religious institution - to remain united, there must be agreement on the core values and the basic, "non-negotiable" beliefs and practices, and that agreement must be spelled out clearly in black and white, not left up to the reinterpretation (or misinterpretation) of each individual or faction.
This clarity on core principles is precisely the function that the Book of Discipline was created to serve.  The Discipline gives expression to the mind of the whole global church that United Methodist faith and practice is "this, not that."

And yet it is the authority of church teaching and church law contained within The Book of Discipline that is now being openly challenged by some pastors, and even a few bishops.  Do we then have enough agreement on core principles to walk together in a unified direction?
Bowsher is not so hopeful on this point.

For my next post I'll be looking at a recent Judicial Council ruling on whether the plans submitted to General Conference are constitutional.

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10/17/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 1

THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

For those who are interested, I want to share over the coming weeks and months a few articles and analysis pieces from various United Methodist leaders over the possible fall out of General Conference 2019 and the possible future(s) for our denomination.

This post serves as an introduction to what has been going on and links to the first article I think is worth reading on the topic (so, if you already know what is going on in the UMC, feel free to skip down to "What do the experts say" below to find the recommended link).

WHERE ARE WE NOW, AND HOW DID WE GET HERE?

First, a review.  The United Methodist Church has come to a point of serious disagreement and division over some of its official teachings in the area of sexual morality, and how to appropriate the Biblical teachings upon these issues (and others as well).
What does the Church officially teach in its Book of Discipline (the book of official teachings and church law)?  The United Methodist Church understands that all people are created in God's image and therefore have "sacred worth" and that the church is to be in ministry with and showing love toward all people, including LGBTQIANP+ individuals.  The United Methodist Church believes that homosexual practice* is incompatible with Christian teaching, and understands marriage to be a union of one man and one woman.  Sexual relations are only affirmed within this Bible-defined marriage union.  The United Methodist Church also supports laws in civil society defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

The church also teaches that, while abortion may be a legally accepted medical practice in rare emergency situations, "we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child."  The life of an unborn baby is morally equal to that of an adult mother, both bearing the image of God, which obviously means that we reject abortion as a means of birth control, which constitutes the great vast majority of all actual abortions.

On all of these issues the Church's teachings have become controversial because they run directly counter to some of the popular teachings of our American popular culture.

Accordingly, some within the church have called for these official teachings to be reversed or dropped from the Book of Discipline.  Progressives have suggested alternate ways to interpret the relevant Bible passages so that they do not mean what they appear to say or, in other cases, progressives have simply suggested that the relevant Bible passages only address 1st Century concerns and are indeed not relevant or applicable to the issues at hand in our contemporary culture, whatever those passages may say.  This latter move involves a re-envisioning of how Biblical authority "works" that, most traditionalists argue, is quite different from what we have inherited from the traditions of the universal Church, and particularly from our Protestant and Wesleyan heritage.

Every four years the General Conference of the Church meets, which alone has the authority to change church teaching.  So, for some decades now, the fight over sexual morality has become increasingly visible, and increasingly shrill at each successive General Conference.
In addition, a number of clergy and even some bishops, have signaled that - despite their ordination vows to uphold our church law - they have no intention of living according to rules that they see as unjust discrimination.

A WAY FORWARD?

At the 2016 General Conference it was clear that an impasse had been reached and there was serious discussion about the possibility of a formal split, or schism, that would divide the church between more traditionalist and more liberal groups.
To avoid such a split, the General Conference (responding to a request of the Bishops) tabled all discussions related to human sexuality so that the issue could be referred to a special Commission on the Way Forward, that would make proposals to deal with our division over this one issue.

The Bishops' Commission on a Way Forward has met over the past 2 years and has developed 3 proposals for the Way Forward.  A special General Conference has been called for Feb. 2019 to consider these proposals.  The General Conference could adopt any one of the proposals, or revise one, or craft a totally new proposal for adoption, or indeed choose to take no new action at all.

The three proposals will be discussed in detail in the articles and posts that I share.  In short they are:
1) The Traditionalist Plan - maintain current church teachings, strengthen accountability for clergy and bishops who break their vows;
2) The "One Church" Plan (i.e. "Local Option") - remove the church's historic teaching and allow each pastor, congregation, and Annual Conference** to set their own policies on whether the pastor will officiate or the congregation will host same-gender union ceremonies and whether the Annual Conference will ordain individuals living in same-sex relationships;
3) The Connectional Conference plan - the most complicated plan involves creating 2 (or 3) super "conferences" with which individual Annual Conferences and/or congregations could then affiliate.  One of these super conferences would be traditionalist and one would be liberal (another might be in between); each would set their own standards for ordination, but would jointly share the stewardship of things like UMCOR (our disaster response ministry) and the clergy pension program, the Publishing House, and the like.

What the General Conference chooses will have profound implications for congregations (who may at some point have to choose a new group to affiliate with), and clergy families (whose callings, careers, retirement plans, and so on will be affected), and denominational institutions (and their employees) such as seminaries, universities, children's homes, and mission organizations and so on, that may be divided or merged or eliminated.

SO, WHAT DO 'THE EXPERTS' SAY WILL HAPPEN?

Of course, we are all prayerfully waiting to see what will happen in February.
I have a few thoughts of course, but I'd like to share the thoughts of people better-informed that myself.

Rev. Lynn Malone is no stranger to General Conference and has shared his thoughts HERE.  Rev. Malone is exactly right, in my view, that choosing any of the three plans will certainly result in more division and pain, and he highlights the real possibility that the 2019 General Conference chooses to do nothing at all.  That, in my view (and his), would be a catastrophic error, but some believe that it is the most likely outcome.

====================================================
* Note that the church's teaching only addresses homosexual practice, meaning outward behavior, not homosexual desires or the people who feel or experience those desires
** The Annual Conference is roughly equivalent to the Diocese in Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, it is the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, which connects all of the local congregations within a geographical region; for example, all of the churches in Louisiana form one Annual Conference.  The Annual Conference, not the local congregation, is the body that approves and ordains candidates for vocational ministry

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8/23/18

Read Epic Poetry to save Civilization (or: What is an Epic Poem?)

A couple of years ago I re-committed myself to reading The Great Books, the Classics of Western Civilization.  This is partly my attempt to continue the sharpening of my mind, having been away from the formal classroom for over 10 years now (I've mentioned in a recent post why I think the Great Books are well worth reading).
Reading and celebrating the Great Books it is also one part of my small attempt to preserve and uphold the glories of Western Civilization over against the onslaught of a multi-cultural (that is, anti-cultural and generic) consumption/entertainment culture (or better yet, "un-culture") that encourages us to forget our history, our roots, and the ideas and ideals that made Western Civilization great, so that we become acultural "consumers" of the latest widgets, willing to do whatever is needed to keep the global economy going, without regard to the ideas, quirks, habits, and inhibitions of our forebears.

Though no civilization is perfect, or anywhere near to it, I remain very proud to be an heir of the treasures of Christendom and Western Civilization more broadly: Our ancestors built the Gothic Cathedrals and put a man on the moon; they developed the ideas of Human dignity and the rights of the individual and democratic governance; they brought to the whole world science and technology, hospitals and schools; they abolished slavery and created some of the greatest works of philosophy, theology, music, architecture and literature ever known.
Of course they did plenty of terribly bad things too that we have to learn from; but I believe there is a strong tendency in our society, and especially among our gatekeepers of education, mass-media, and political institutions, to downplay and even reject our Western Heritage rather than celebrate its many noble achievements.  Reading the Classics and celebrating our unique culture as members of what Winston Churchill called "Christian civilization" is a needed corrective in our era of cultural nihilism, intellectual distraction, and historical amnesia.

SO I've been working through a number of great and demanding works including of course the Epic Poems.  I've read the Iliad and the Odyssey (in prose translation) and The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy (in verse translations).  These poems share with us not only the stories, but many of the ideas, questions, and values that are at the heart of Western Civilization.
The only other Epic Poem that immediately came to mind is Paradise Lost by Milton.  Following The Aeneid of Vergil (or 'Virgil'), Milton (eventually) divided Paradise Lost into 12 books (chapters), to mimic more closely the Epic poetry of the classical era.

I never cared much for narrative poetry in High School or really even in college.  But now I find my tastes have changed (matured?) and I do enjoy reading narrative poetry much more.  I've gone back to re-read the narrative poems and Psalms of the Bible, and looked for narrative lyrics in hymns (which there doesn't seem to be much of).

And of course, I've read and re-read other classic narrative poems.  But the question arises do these other Classics of Narrative Poetry also "count" as Epics?  I mean poems such as Beowulf or the Song of Roland or, more recently Idylls of the King by Tennyson (which are 12 narrative poems about King Arthur that do cover the major events of his life, but do not exactly form one continuous narrative).

As it turns out someone has made a YouTube video discussing just this point. I enjoyed watching this conversation between noted Classical School and Great-Books-based Home-Schooling proponent Wes Callahan (whose videos I've shared before) and the interesting Christian blogger and theologian Peter Leithart, asking whether Paradise Lost was the last epic, what exactly is an epic, and why has narrative poetry fallen out of literary fashion (which is a really interesting moment to reflect on the ways that culture, technology, and art all interact).
I hope it whets your appetite to go read some epic poetry or other classics of the Western Tradition...



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7/31/18

Alpha Males, Beta Males, "toxic masculinity," and real Manhood

Or, we might call this post "A Good Masculinity is hard to find..."

A few months ago I was talking to a young, nominally Catholic, man who has a son, a toddler.  We were talking about what it means to be parents, and I made a comment along the lines of "And now you must teach him how to be a man."  To which my acquaintance replied, "As soon as I figure out whatever that means..."

There seems to be a great deal of confusion in our culture about what indeed does it mean to be a man.  It seems that lots of people (including lots of women) are more comfortable referring to the men they know as "guys" rather than as "men."  It is almost as if we aren't quite sure whether they really are men yet.  

I suspect that, in fact, an uncertainty about "whether I'm really a man" actually lies behind some crime and domestic abuse, as men try to prove (to themselves) that they are strong and worthy of respect/fear and that this somehow makes them "real men."

Why this confusion?  How have we lost the vision of what it means to be a man, and how to get there?

Part of this results from the decline of a common culture thanks in part to multiculturalism (which is ultimately "anti-culturalism" if you think about it - no culture is permitted to be THE culture, so no cultural practices or ideals can ever be normative and universal), and partly this results from the (related) rise of individualism and informalism (and those two are connected).  The confluence of these shifts have left us bereft a common set of rites of passage for boys across our culture, intended to instill in them certain virtues and character traits, as part of the pathway into manhood.

Added to all that (or perhaps because of it) we've got the phenomenon of "prolonged adolescence" and we have to wonder if the 30-year-olds who still live with their parents and cannot provide for themselves really are "men" yet.  Being able to provide for and protect one's self and, indeed, one's wife and children has traditionally been one of the marks of manhood that still lingers in our cultural imagination (and for good reason).

Added to all of that, some are now questioning the value of Manhood itself.
Just today I saw an ad/commercial on YouTube urging us to "evolve the definition" of masculinity.  This is part of the Left's** reaction against what the good folks on the Left** call "toxic masculinity" - the domineering, aggressive, and (often sexually) abusive sorts of men who have come to flourish in some quarters of a culture that has largely thrown off Christian morality and the classical virtues, a culture that celebrates the individual's desires and (especially) a "free-for-all" sexual ethic where "nothing is taboo" any longer.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has a Biblical understanding of human nature that throwing off sexual restraints would result in a rise of sexual predation.  And so it has.

The Bible teaches that sad the history of men attempting to dominate women (essentially, what is now being called 'toxic masculinity') is actually a consequence of Original Sin, of the Fall of Mankind from our original state of grace (see Genesis 3).  Christianity teaches that this problem is not simply widespread, it is actually universal - we are all tainted by sin - and that the only solution is the renewal of each hardened heart by the grace offered freely to us by Jesus Christ.  This grace we receive by faith in Him, by inviting him to be Lord over our lives, by reception of the Sacraments, and by a life of prayer and devotion.

The Left is - unsurprisingly - rushing to throw out the baby of masculinity with the bathwater of sexual abuse, assuming that THE problem is strong and assertive men.  The "Alpha male" must be rooted out of our culture and replaced by the "Beta male," because it is assumed he will be much nicer to women.
But, as I've said, we don't have a problem with sexual predators because our men are too manly, but rather because they are immoral, because they lack virtue, because our society has thrown off all restraints when it comes to sex.  The truth is that the 'Beta male' will also harm women, though probably in different ways.

Also unsurprisingly, the solution offered by the Left will fail, precisely because it doesn't fully appreciate human nature and culture.  Alpha males, strong and assertive men, aren't going away, and no amount of PSAs on YouTube will change that (just ask yourself whether such PSA's will ever gain the passionate viewership of, say, the SuperBowl).  That vigorous Masculinity is here to stay is a good thing, for in a dangerous world we need brave and strong men to maintain to protect lives and the peace of communities.

A couple of weeks ago I heard an NPR interviewer speaking with a former Navy Seal about a book the Veteran had written about raising kids who are courageous and aggressive problem solvers.  Toward the end of the interview, the NPR interviewer made the comment, "Some of my colleagues did not even want me to interview you today, fearing that your book is promoting a 'toxic masculinity'; how do you answer that charge?"
I chuckled to myself and thought "If a foreign nation invades our country and starts killing people in the streets (as has indeed happened before), or if terrorists invade your office building or commuter train, you folks at NPR are going to wish you had a lot more men around who were aggressive problem solvers."

But the good folks on the Left are certainly correct on this point: Alpha males certainly can be abusive, dominating, rash, insensitive to the needs of others, and all the rest.  Masculinity can and often does turn 'toxic'.  From the Christian point of view this is no surprise precisely because every one of us is fallen and corrupted by the power of sin.  The problem is not masculinity itself, the problem is that masculinity (just like femininity, actually - though this post if focused upon masculinity) has been infected and corrupted by sin.
There must be restraints for all of us against immorality, there must be social pressures that push us toward good behavior.  Above all there must be ideals to strive after, there must be a vision of Manhood that directs our energies and passions toward the Good and away from sin.

And the Bible and the Christian tradition gives us precisely this vision.

What does it look like to be a man of God in a fallen and corrupted (and often dangerous world)?  In the Bible we are offered the ideal the "Warrior Poet", the sage-soldier, the man who is at the same time ferocious and stern in battle to defend his family, community, and his faith - but also sensitive, tender-hearted towards his loved ones, spiritual, and artistic.

In Scripture this ideal is seen in King David.  He was both the warrior who could slay the giant Goliath but also the poet who could write so many of the Psalms that stand as some of the most beloved Poetry in human history.  He was an artist, a musician, a sensitive soul who openly wept and danced in public, but also a "man's man", a leader of armies whose strength, courage, and bearing inspired other men to follow him.

He studied the arts of war, but also the arts of love and worship, even as he also applied himself to the study of the Holy Scriptures of God.  David was faithful, responsible, dutiful, ready to defend and provide for his family and his community.  He was a man.
Interestingly enough when Michelangelo set out to sculpt an "ideal man", he produced his famous David.

David was an able fighter, who slew many of his enemies in battle - but he also showed mercy to his enemies, like King Saul when David had the chance to kill him in the cave.  And, while standard procedure in those violent days was to wipe out all family members of a potential rival king so as to secure one's own claim to the throne, David after he became king, allowed Saul's lame grandson Mephibosheth to feast at David's own table - and act of kindness and generosity unheard of in those days.

In all these ways David really was "a man after God's own heart."  For God is also the artistic Creative who is at the same time the jealous defender of his own people, as Pharaoh discovered when he tried to keep them enslaved.

Even when David failed (colossally) to live up to his own ideals, even as a sinner he becomes an instructive example for manhood, since all men also sin.  When David fell into disastrous sin, he heard the prophetic word of correction and actually heeded it: he did not equivocate or deny wrongdoing, he repented - even publicly.  He left a public record of his prayer of repentance for us as well.  In his penitence we see not only his sinfulness, but also piety and humility and honesty on display.

The virtues of King David help us see what manhood is all about.  Indeed "virtue" is derived from the Latin word for "man."  To be most truly manly is to be virtuous.  In the New Testament we see the virtues of David and many more virtues lifted up: generosity, charity, humility, chastity, simplicity, courage in the face of danger, resolve & grit in the face of suffering, honesty, temperance, self-control, and so on.  We see the virtues taught to us in the Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5 and in the Fruit of the Spirit of Galatians chapter 5 and in the great 'theological virtues' of 1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love.  Psalm 1 describes a virtuous man (in much the same way that Proverbs 31 describes a virtuous woman).  In all these passages, the Bible says,  "Here is what it means to truly be a man as God intended."

All of these virtues are perfectly and completely embodied in the Life of Christ himself, the truest man that ever lived (which is the double-meaning behind Pontius Pilate's words in John 19:5).  We seek, in our own imperfect ways, to live them out and embody them in our own varying circumstances and vocations.

As the teaching of the Bible helped shape the cultures of Europe, the same ideal - the ideal of the Warrior-Poet, the Strong-Sensitive, also came to be celebrated in Christendom as Chivalry.  In Medieval Christian literature these virtues were embodied by King Arthur (the model of a wise and Christian king), and, most especially, by Sir Lancelot, the ideal knight.

Here is a great video (which is actually an essay by C.S. Lewis accompanied by illustrations) about the Medieval concept of Chivalry and how it is a corrective both to a 'toxic masculinity' that is all about strength and dominance, but without sensitivity and mercy on the one hand, and a "beta" masculinity on the other hand that is all sensitivity, but never strong or stern when the situation calls for it.
Lewis, of course, was (like Tolkien or Winston Churchill and so many others in those days) himself a poet and artist who also served as a soldier and fought to defend his homeland.  They were chivalrous; they were men (not 'guys'); they were warrior-poets.

May God look with mercy on our broken and confused society and grant us godly and virtuous men.



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**Terms like "Left" and "Right", "Liberal" and "Conservative" are short-hand expressions to refer to groups that share certain overlapping beliefs or perspectives.  As such I recognize that the terms are necessarily un-nuanced and problematic, since very few individuals will perfectly fit the "mold."  No doubt plenty of people will be happy to refer to me as a member of the "Religious Right" - I don't identify myself as such, but it is an understandable short-hand, since a great many of my views, theological and political will align with what is usually understood by that term; though I strongly maintain that some views and attitudes will also be quite different than what is usually implied by "Religious Right."  No doubt the same works both ways.

As I use the term "Left" in this piece, I have in mind the editors and reporters working for institutions like NPR and the New York Times, other media figures such as the Ladies on "The View," as well as academic figures like those I personally took courses from in college who seemed determined to find misogyny under every rock and behind every tree (or at least, behind every etymology).  Even my conflating such actual individuals under the heading of "the Left" will be inadequate to actually take on board their various differences and uniqueness-es, but such is the nature of any short-hand terminology.   

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