Last Sunday I drove to my annual conference (Holston) at Lake Junaluska convinced that schism was the only hope for the United Methodist Church. On Wednesday, following my commissioning as a provisional elder, I drove away hoping schism can be avoided. What I want to do here is try to explain as best I can what gave rise to that hope.
It began with a fast from online chatter. I took a break a few weeks ago from blogging and social media (a practice I highly recommend) which placed me out of the loop. It’s so easy to believe the sky is falling when post after post and comment after comment is about the sky falling. The reality, I discovered, is much different, but can only be seen after stepping away for a period of time.
Providentially, I went to my annual conference while this fast was happening. Coming together as the people called Methodists of Holston Conference was a wonderful experience for me. The worship was powerful and God-honoring. I was challenged and blessed and encouraged by the work we are doing as a conference to reach new souls for Jesus Christ and to spread the love of Christ to the world. When our bishop, Dindy Taylor, preached at our ordination service and told us (me) that the only commitments we can be responsible for our our own, I sensed the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I knew that I had made a commitment to God and to this body of believers to preach the Word, to faithfully administer the Sacraments, uphold and shape the Order of the church and to engage in Service to others. By the grace of God I intend to uphold those commitments. No one can make me do that, and I can’t make anyone else do the same.
I left Conference hopeful that we could return again next year to celebrate all that our infallible God is doing through these fallible people called Methodists in the Holston Conference, and proud to have been commissioned as a provisional elder into something larger than myself, and something I want to see not only endure, but thrive.
Now, this does not mean that I don’t think we still have some serious problems. I think it is crucial that we determine what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, which is our shared mission and our marching orders from our Lord Himself. And while I cannot make anyone keep the commitments they have made, it is crucial that our Church be led by leaders who keep their commitments and are held accountable when they do not. I do not expect everyone entering the church nor even those who have long been part of the church to hold the same commitments as I hold as their pastor. But as I told those in my church who wish to teach others, the further up the ladder of leadership you go, the less life-choices you have and the more accountability to which you willingly submit. My laity are welcome to show up drunk to the Table, but not my Lay Leader.
Our current conflict exists because we have leaders – both pastors and bishops – who are not keeping their commitments and no one is holding them accountable for it. I agree that this is an untenable position for any organization to hold for very long. But has it been “very long” yet? I’m not sure. Certainly the actions of some rogue pastors and bishops in the last few months have exacerbated the problem, but when I pull away from the talking heads (and silence my own) and focus on my local church and the commitments I have made as their shepherd, I wonder if we couldn’t strive a bit longer. Even better, I wonder with Thomas Oden whether or not I have a duty to do so, in hopes of reforming our church for the better. He writes in his wonderful article from 2012, Do Not Rashly Tear Asunder,
While it looks at first glance as if the sexual revisionists may be taking over the United Methodist Church, they have not. What they have temporarily succeeded in doing is to circumvent the scriptural teaching on God’s purpose in sexuality”not only for the deeper companionship of man and woman but also for the protection of children in bonded unity. But that is reversible. We must not run away at the first defeat in a conflict that may continue many more years. We have won every single one of these contests in every previous general conference. Centrist Methodists have won nine consecutive quadrennial legislative challenges since 1976. The revisionists have won zero. They think we will leave if they win only one.
The single word within is the jewel embedded in the very name of the Confessing Movement. That is our name. Our purpose is not to focus on confessing apart from our historic confessing community, but within it. Within is the decisive word for me and for the movement I helped initiate. You do not reform the church by fleeing from it.
I wonder if I have done all within my power, all I have committed to do, to confess rightly and positively what a healthy, sexual ethic for our church can look like?
Finally, I wonder if the wisdom of Gamaliel is not helpful for us today. You’ll remember that he was a teacher of the Law, highly honored by all, who gave his judgment regarding the apostles preaching Jesus following Pentecost. He advised the council, “Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even find yourself opposing God” (Acts 5:38-39).
Who knows? Perhaps after the 2016 General Conference, after which it is almost assured that our current position on human sexuality will be affirmed if not strengthened, those who have been pushing for change will find their efforts fruitless and find places to serve out their calling in ways which allow them to uphold their commitments with integrity. As it stands today, we have a church with a ratified statement about what it believes and how those beliefs ought to be lived out, and those of us who are keeping our commitments to that church have nothing to fear, nor anything of which to be ashamed. Perhaps the best way forward is to fast, to pray, to confess, and to continue faithfully performing our commitments as best we know how by the grace given to each of us, and wait and see if this plan is of God or of man.