This week, I am heading for Washington, D.C., to the United Methodist Building. Did you know that The United Methodist Church owns a building next door to the Supreme Court? We do, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s the home of The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, and there I will be receiving some training for my role as the Chairperson of the Annual (regional) Conference version of that same body, and then attending a Consultation on the Social Principles.
It’s that latter part of the trip that has me very excited.
The UMC’s Social Principles are not church law, but rather the denomination’s statements of reflection and position on issues of social justice or concern in the world. The United Methodist Church, a global denomination, struggles to agree upon and live out such important statements in a widely diverse and multi-cultural global context. Recognizing this, the 2012 General Conference entrusted the Board of Church and Society to develop a process and a set of recommendations for reimagining the Social Principles in a 21st-century, global context. These consultations, held all over the world, are bringing together members of The UMC to pray, discern, reflect, and dialogue together about how we might live into that calling in this time.
I’m excited and honored to be a part of this conversation. I think it is a hopeful and necessary step in our denomination’s role as a vital and relevant denomination today. If we are to continue as a church, we must be connected to the justice concerns of our time, in a way that is sustainable, contextually relevant, and grounded in our heritage and theology as United Methodists.
But it’s more than that. I believe that conversations along these lines hold some of the answers to the debates within the denomination. My experience at the 2012 General Conference on the reproductive rights subcommittee taught me something amazing: when people of diverse opinions gather, hear one another, share deeply, and then turn their hearts to what they can agree upon on a very controversial issue, God’s work is done. We found, every time we tried to proscribe local, contextual action about abortion, that we were unable to agree. But every time we articulated what we values and believed about human life, parents, babies, families, and so on, we could agree. Around the world, across the political divides, we were united in our convictions and principles, but divided on how those played out. And if our polity (church governance) structure allowed us to live in this way, I believe we could be both more united as a body, and more contextually nimble and relevant to carry out ministry in all times and places.
This week, I am praying for vision for The United Methodist Church, and for new hope and connection as we gather and dream and discuss and discern. In invite you to join in that prayer.
This blog post is part of a synchblog today on the topic of schism in the UMC. Please share your thoughts here, on the DreamUMC website, on your blog or facebook page, and tonight at 9 pm eastern on Twitter as we chat together.
Sadly, I have recent experience with splitting up.
It’s not easy, and it hurts more than anything I’ve experienced– a profound loss akin to the death of a loved one. A complex and roiling issue, filled with technical, procedural, emotional, psychological, and spiritual transformation: this is the road of divorce. It’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.
At the same time, I can attest that sometimes a relationship becomes unhealthy, un-fulfilling, unloving. Sometimes, separation, while painful, brings new life and more beautiful, vibrant hope than either party has known.
I’ve never been a huge supporter of the idea of schism in The United Methodist Church. I recognize that there are many times when I exclaim “I’m done!” or “I’m getting out!” I see the efforts for inclusion thwarted again and again, and the uniquely Methodist understanding of grace eroded away. I hear my ecumenical colleagues lament struggles within their denominations, but talk openly about their sexuality, or see them tagged on Facebook, officiating weddings for their gay or lesbian congregants, and want to weep (okay, sometimes do). But I remain. I recognize that this urge to quit is born out of anger and pain, not my best place of discernment. I stay because I believe history is too full of schism over people of color and women, and I want this to be the time we learn to embrace God’s children as they are. I stay because I want to leave no one behind. I stay because there is much I love about the UMC, not the least of which is the love that binds us together, a deep commitment to engage in struggle together.
I suppose I say to myself, in the words of the Indigo Girls: “I still believe, despite our differences, that what we have’s enough. I believe in us, and I believe in love.”
I wonder, though.
I wonder, because my ability to minister effectively in my community and my context is being severely undermined by words in the Book of Discipline that do not offer love and grace, but condemnation and dehumanization. Even while my local church welcomes and embraces all persons, and even while I have vowed to officiate weddings based on the love, maturity, and commitment of the parties and not their genders, even so, simply calling my friends, loved ones, family members, congregants and community members “incompatible” makes it nearly impossible to extend the love and blessing of Christ. I wonder because so much time, effort, and resource goes into trying to change the Book of Discipline in a handful of paragraphs, or to stonewall any changes, that our witness and mission as a global denomination is hampered if not completely halted. Most of all I wonder because we cannot even agree that we are in disagreement. We can’t acknowledge our differences openly and with vulnerability (by saying, for example, that people of good faith disagree about homosexuality). If we can’t say we have differences, how can we believe Love is enough, despite them?
Weeks like this past one have me thinking maybe schism wouldn’t be so bad. But then I think about how it would play out. It starts to feel like arguing over china. But sometimes plates have sentimental value, and sometimes people need a way to eat. How would agencies and committees be allocated? Who “gets” the Board of Discipleship and its work? Who “gets” the Committee on Relief? Oh, we’d figure it out, I’m sure. But if the publishing house and the Board of Global Mission are plates and cups and wedding gifts, what I really worry about are the children.
I worry about people in local churches.
Take my local church. We are not a reconciling congregation, although every so often, the background conversation begins that we should do the work to search our beliefs and values and make a statement about sexuality and inclusivity. It would not be unanimous, but there would be large support. Mostly, I think folks haven’t’ done it yet because they don’t want to leave any loved ones out. So where does that leave this small but vibrant, progressive but cautious, inclusive of queer people and of traditionalists, congregation of beloved children as their parents argue and split and divide the shared property? I can’t answer that question, but it makes me heartsick.
There are a couple of reasons why I think we can remain together, and should at least try:
1. Our strength is in our diversity. The nearest United Methodist Church to the one I serve is six miles away. It is a more conservative, traditional congregation with a more conservative, traditional (male) pastor (until July 1 anyway). My colleague and I can be found at the Vermont State House on marriage equality days, wearing our clerical collars and standing on opposite sides of the demonstrations. But on days when there are rallies for workers’ rights, economic justice, or health care access, we can be found side by side, partners in the religious and spiritual task of seeking justice. When someone comes to my office, expressing dismay that the church where I serve– or I myself– is too liberal, I gladly give them the contact information for the church in Barre. Every so often a person comes in to Trinity, having tried the church in Barre and finding it “too conservative,” and finds a happy home in our congregation. Together, these two United Methodist Churches serve the needs and build the gifts of people who are and may be United Methodist in this area. We need each other.
2. When I worked on the reproductive rights subcommittee at General Conference, we found that a great number of people from a huge variety of contexts, backgrounds, and beliefs could come to the table and discuss abortion in fruitful ways. We reached an impasse every time we tried to proscribe what doctors and patients should and should not do. But every time we refocused on who were were as United Methodists and how we were called to be in ministry before, during, and after crisis pregnancy, we were able to reach a closer consensus despite our vast differences. When we listened to each others’ stories and asked what our proactive, loving, spiritual response should be, we could live in harmony. Despite our differences, Love was enough.
Here’s what I think we should do.
1. I think we need– right now, at the next General Conference– enabling legislation to create a United States Central Conference. This will allow The United Methodist Church to hold some things in common– our articles of faith, our boards and ministries, our local congregations, and yes as of this most recent General Conference, our Social Principles. It will allow every Central Conference to amend the rest of the Book of Discipline, and the way is is lived out, to take into account their local context. I think Jurisdictional Central Conferences could work, but that leaves a lot of southern progressives in a tough spot, in strange solidarity with northern conservatives. It is the only way I believe we can remain united, however, allowing us to hold essentials in unity, non essentials in liberty, and all things in deep grace and love. This change necessitates a second, no less important one…
2. We need to remove all proscriptive language from the Social Principles.As the UMC tries to make the Discipline more global, this is the only way forward. As a positive example, this is what we found about discussing abortion. We could all mourn the circumstances that might cause individuals to consider abortion, but we could not make any statement with consensus about calling for an end to practices, supporting or not supporting organizations that provide access to medical care including abortion, and so on. Let that be a local, contextual response. So, while paragraph 161 of the Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and I imagine we would keep arguing about that, it cannot further state that “self avowed practicing homosexuals shall not be appointed to serve as ministers in the UMC.” See the difference? The latter is proscriptive, and is more rightly a conversation for a more local context.
3. Consider this a trial separation. Can we give one another the space to live and serve in love in our contexts, equipping each other but not constraining the ministry that needs to happen? Or has too much damage been done? Can we live with or change the “incompatibility” language? Can we live with the liberty of our siblings in the movement? Can we heal the pain of the past? If not, can we use this breathng space and the time and space we need to more amicably consider how we would move forward together and apart?
Today, for now, I hold on to hope. Love is my favorite name for God, and so when I consider our divisions, I have to hold out for the power of Love. Despite our differences, what we have is and can be and I hope will be enough. I believe in Love.
I get headline notifications on my smartphone from both NBC news and the AP. This means that I can have Olympic results spoiled, know who won a country music award for music I dislike, and be in the know about the deaths of celebrities I’ve never heard of, all in nearly real time (which is about 2 hours behind Twitter). Huge, huge news happened this week, but I noticed something curious.
My smartphone was silent about it.
I didn’t receive a single update about the three states voting on marriage equality this week. I can’t help but think that giving equal rights to all people has become something of a given. A less interesting headline than which animal won the Kentucky Derby (I hear it was a horse of some kind).
Sadly, not in all places.
Also in the news this week, the United Methodist Church is charging a clergy person with violating the Book of Discipline by officiating the wedding for his son and his now son-in-law. Stop me if you’ve heard this one (or read about it on Hacking Christianity, or the New York Times).
The matter surrounding Rev. Dr. Ogletree yet again highlights the division and discrimination lurking at the heart of the denomination I love. But this case has hit me in a different way than previous instances, stirring up a multitude of emotions and reflections that I will flesh out in the next few blog posts.
1. As ever, questions of trial and dissent call to the forefront discussion of schism within the United Methodist Church. This will be the subject of Monday’s blog post, which is itself part of a larger synchblog (many bloggers discussing the same topic on the same day), and a DreamUMC twitter chat that night.
2. I’m fascinated by the focus on the fact that Rev. Dr. Ogletree officiated the wedding for his son, as if this makes the action more pastoral and beautiful and blameless. I want to explore this.
3. Like my friend and colleague Vicki Flippin (see below), I too have a story about saying no– or at least not saying yes. It is time to confess and seek further healing.
4. I have various and sundry thoughts about what is and is not prohibited by the institution, and how impossible it is to uphold this unjust law, even if we wanted to.
5. I love people.
I’m going to start with #5.
The New York Times article referenced above names some elders in addition to Rev. Dr. Ogletree. In particular, it focuses on the response from Ogletree’s Bishop, Bishop Martin McLee, whose response has drawn heavy criticism from progressives. Additionally, the article cites Rev. Vicki Flippin, who offers her own love letter in response, as one of two clergy in the New York Annual Conference openly stating that they have officiated at same sex/same gender weddings.
Both Bishop McLee and Rev. Flippin are friends of mine. In fact, It sounds ridiculously silly to me to not use their first names.
Both Martin and Vicki are friends of mine.
Vicki and I met this past year as we were both Fellows is a young clergy leadership development program through the Lewis Center. Our group met three times over the past nine months, and have stayed in contact on facebook in between meetings. Vicki is compassionate and intelligent, with a quick and friendly smile and a deeply loving heart. After our first meeting, we each drew a name from a hat and prayed for that person until the next meeting. I was happy to learn that Vicki drew mine. She’s also a passionate voice for justice and inclusion, and I cannot wait to hear her preach at Reconciling Ministries Network’s Convocation in August. I’m proud to know her and so proud of her words and actions this past week especially.
Martin was a District Superintendent in my annual conference, and we served together on our conference’s delegation to General Conference last year. An alternate delegate, Martin was frequently my go-to person when I needed to step away from the floor (like right after this happened), and on at least one occasion– when the body refused to even discuss security of appointment, but summarily dismissed the concerns of women and persons of color– was the set of broad shoulders upon which I unabashedly cried. Long before the Northeast Jurisdiction got a chance to meet him as a candidate, our delegation interviewed Martin and heard his vision and passion for the future of the United Methodist movement. I was proud when our conference nominated him, and proud to support him as a candidate for Bishop. I told people of his passion for justice and inclusion, and I stand by that conviction still. I wept when he was elected, and consecrated, and then again, later and alone, when I realized this meant he wouldn’t be part of our Conference any more.
As I said above, I’ve said “not yes” to marriage equality, and it broke my heart. Knowing and loving Martin, I can only imagine how much this breaks his (I preached about this a little here).
I’m not excusing or condoning the way his response has played out thus far.
I’m also not saying that I feel betrayed and abandoned by him, either.
First and foremost, when I see this case, and I see Rev. Dr. Ogletree whom I don’t know but imagine I would like and respect, and I see Vicki whom I am so proud to call colleague and friend, and I see Martin whom I love as well, I can only stand with an open and hurting heart. No speculation, no elation or anger, no judgement or excitement, only compassion and complexity. This is the connection. This is the Church. These are the people called Methodist. Bound, in ways we can only begin to grasp, to a structure, to a movement, to the Divine.
A year ago, grace again was shortchanged, voices again were silenced, division again went unnamed.
A year ago, hearts broken and sealed and scarred over were broken again in places familiar and new.
A year ago, the Body of Christ was broken.
And so I broke a loaf of bread.
I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t my action.
It was the action of a body, a community, a family, a Christ. Wounded and hopeful, hurting and despairing, fragmented and one.
A year ago, as we always are, we were broken.
And we broke bread together.
And I was broken open.
Somehow, some way, this breaking of bread– something I do at least once a month, something I participated in thousands of times– somehow this changed me.
I found, in the breaking and sharing of bread, in the reflection on the chaos and frustration and agony and fragile hope of General Conference, a deeper sense of my calling.
A year ago, I was broken open. A year ago, I was called anew.
I set my feet on another path. A path running parallel, or nearly so. A path to someplace deeper.
I found a depth of passion I didn’t know I had. I renewed a sense of vision and purpose that had dried up and hardened, like our scarred-over yet fragile hearts.
From that place of brokenness, or broke-open-ness, life could never be, entirely, the same.
Seeping up from the cracks was a need to advocate for deeper justice, to live with deeper conviction, to delve more fully into faith an ministry and compassion and peace.
I spoke out when injustice happened. In my denomination. In my church. In my home.
I spoke my true heart. I said the hard things. I let myself feel what I was feeling.
A year ago, Someone broke down my defenses, demolished my protections and stumbling blocks (and made it harder to tell which were which).
And in the past year I have watched a new movement grow. I have witnessed the elation of church doing it right and the crushing betrayal of getting it so wrong. I have relived the pain of the past and envisioned hope and purpose for tomorrow. I have been a better pastor, and Methodist, and person of faith. I have struggled more deeply and trusted more fully, or really, really tried to.
In the past year, I have found my truer self, uncovered pain and vulnerability I didn’t know I had and tapped a depth of strength I didn’t know existed. I have seen my children grieve, and let them surprise me with their resilience. I have mourned the loss of love. I have celebrated it in new and beautiful places. I have seen cruelty in ways I never imagined, and received compassion from unexpected sources. I’ve made friends who changed my life. I’ve lost friends who had touched it deeply. I have shattered all my understandings, and learned from life what grows out of that rubble.
All because of a loaf of bread.
A year ago, Christ’s Body was broken.
And when we take hold of that reality, it takes hold of us. When we lift up the pieces of the bread, the body, the world, broken and wounded, we are lifting up parts of ourselves. When we live into the broken places, we find ourselves in them, seeking transformation and new birth and needed healing.
A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.
A year ago, I didn’t know how broken I was, or how broken open I could be.
A year ago, I broke the Body of Christ. And Christ broke me open too.
I’ve been home from the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church for a little over a week and a half, and I’m still mentally unpacking (although I actually did unpack my suitcase after almost a week).
From my perspective, the highs of the NEJ gathering centered on one event: the election as bishop of my colleague, Rev. Martin McLee. Martin– ah, Bishop McLee– is a passionate and compassionate preacher-prophet, and his voice as leader of the New York Annual Conference and as a member of the Council of Bishops will benefit the church as a whole. Martin’s words following his election were prayerful and inspiring, and in the following break, Methodist music rock star Mark Miller took over the piano and the conference enjoyed an impromptu hymn sing. At the service of consecration for Bishops McLee, Webb, and Steiner-Ball, I wept copious and happy tears.
The lows of the conference for me had a lot to do with the lack of fulfillment of those dreams I had named. I did not find the worship and bible study time to be spiritually nourishing, and left the room nearly every time we sang, because the hymns were so loaded with noninclusive language and poor theology. I was jarred by the bible studies, particularly the one the last morning, which featured a couple of images that were triggers for me (pregnancy/child loss and weapons, not things that put me in a very worshipful mood).
More importantly, I failed to see us use our time for holy conferencing. While we passed one piece of legislation affirming ministry with GLBTQ persons and allies in the northeast, we did not have any fruitful conversation on that or any other topic, in my opinion. I had hoped in that earlier blog post that the discernment around episcopal nominees would allow us to “spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there?” I didn’t see or hear that conversation anywhere. I know we had a lot to do, with 19 candidates to interview all in one day. But the conference is made up of less than 300 delegates (277 to be precise, a number burned in my brain by our 30+ ballots…). There should be time over meals or in and around legislative sessions to be intentional about gathering outside of our annual conferences, to connect with others in our region, and dialogue about what we might be looking for in episcopal leaders or people to serve on boards and agencies (without campaigning!), or to discuss the particulars of being United Methodists in ministry in the northeast. I’d love to see us use our time very intentionally, to create connection that can break down barriers and ease some of the distrust that many people lifted up coming out of the conferencing session.
I’m not sure how Jurisdictional Conference sessions are put together, but I am interested in creating greater space for conversation and connection in 2016. Thoughts?
After an early summer hiatus of laziness self care, I’m getting ready to head out next week to the 2012 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
Jurisdictional Conferences– those regional gatherings of delegates from several annual conferences– are like the poor, forgotten middle children in some weird family, who actually are the ones holding the whole system together and taking none of the credit. I think. We all love Annual Conference, with the blessing of seeing friends and colleagues from one’s close connectional ties once a year (okay I love it). And everyone gets the scope of General Conference, with delegates from all over the world gathered together once every four years to discuss and vote on The Big Issues that impact The Future Ministry of the Church.
But those little Jurisdictional Conferences? What are they good for? That’s where we set a couple of regional budgets, and elect bishops. Nothing exciting.
Except I’m really excited.
Because I think Jurisdictional Conferences could actually be kind of radical.
Following General Conference, I helped create and facilitate an opportunity for ongoing conversation about the United Methodist Church and the directions into which God is calling us, DreamUMC. Through that online conversation, we’ve been talking about ways to live into grassroots movement, deeper Wesleyan spiritual formation, more authentic and inclusive Christian Community, and more relevant action in the church and the world. I’ve become convinced that Jurisdictional Conferences offer an opportunity to do this.
Jurisdictional Conferences are smaller in number than the gatherings at either an Annual Conference or a General Conference session. There will be about 250 delegates at the Northeast JC. This seems like a perfect number of people to me– large enough to share a variety of ideas, but small enough to get a chance to talk to just about everyone, and form meaningful connections and create or strengthen the relationships that are at the heart of Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition.
This smaller size should allow JCs to function with greater agility and to tackle challenges more creatively. Yes, I know; we’re still the church and being agile isn’t exactly our strong suit. That’s why I said should. But the potential is there.
With geographic regions larger than an Annual Conference, but smaller than, you know, the whole world, Jurisdictional Conference sessions can be opportunities to think about and strategize for regionally contextual ministry, which is something the church desperately needs as we live into the future of mission and ministry wherever we are.
Jurisdictional Conferences do have the opportunity to pass legislation together, and should be able to give this legislation some careful thought (again, should). I know of a couple of pieces coming before our gathered body that I’m interested in, one dealing with the structural makeup of the church at its various levels (trying to address some of the problems of power imbalance we saw at GC2012), and one speaking to the need to be in more faithful ministry with and as GLBTQ persons in the Northeast.
Finally, yes, Jurisdictions elect and place both board members and bishops. That means we should spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there? I don’t know about you, but I find that to be an exciting question!
So as I prepare for the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, I’m looking forward to a time to connect as Methodists in relationship and vision, thinking and praying about ministry in a regional way, taking bold steps together, re-imagining leadership and direction, living into a bold, outside-the-box commitment to follow the Spirit’s movement wherever She is leading us, and selecting and equipping the lay and clergy leaders that the UMC needs for the mission and purpose ahead.
Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.
I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further. A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.
So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.
Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?
One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.
Is the Table Open?
“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.
My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”
Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.
We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.
Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?
Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.
In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?
I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.
There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.
It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.
Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.
At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”
Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.
But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”
Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”
Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.
Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?
This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.
Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.
Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?
So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.
That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of Godthat is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.
Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?
And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.
Reflections on Romero
A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.
In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”, William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”
Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.
Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.
That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.
May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.
We had our first Twitter Chat for #DreamUMC, the conversation born out of the strong desire to keep shaping the future of our denomination in the wake of General Conference. You can read the full archive of the chat here, or you can view bullet points of answers to the questions we discussed (and some unofficial demographic info) at the facebook page.
First of all, wow! There were 171 people tweeting, and many many more I know who were “lurking,” or as I call it, actively listening. We sent 1,272 tweets, not including retweets. That’s a lot of conversation in an hour! Although dominated by younger voices, the conversation spanned generations, came down fairly even on gender representation, included voices of clergy, laity, and folks between the two, and crossed the U.S. pretty well. We have some work to do yet on inviting the voices of persons of color and reaching out to hear our siblings in the movement from around the world. But there is a lot of energy for movement and hope in this body.
Especially as the conversation got started, what was amazing to me was the passion of the participants. Here, ten days after General Conference ended, people were still filled with pain, regret, brokenness, and grief. Here, despite the brokenness and raw pain, people were still filled with vision and hope and excitement for the future of the United Methodist movement. Such deep pain and deep joy, woven together often in the same person, speaks volumes for the vibrancy and heart of the UMC. As the conversation concluded, the call to continue and progress in our work together was overwhelming and joy-filled. I have rarely felt more in the presence of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing, and never while staring at pixels on a screen.
Reflecting on the conversation, I want to try to synthesize what I heard. We asked three questions, and some themes emerged from the responses.
Question 1: What did you learn/take away from General Conference 2012?
In response to this question, this is where I experienced a lot of pain and brokenness. Many tweets lifted up a new or renewed understanding of our division as a denomination, and several spoke directly about lack of trust. One person wrote “Trust issues abound and we have no idea how to heal them.” Others spoke of the power imbalance in the denomination, and disillusionment with this power. “Manipulation (from all parties and sides) carries more influence than Holy Conferencing.” Many tweets lamented the legislative process, and how it seems to be in the way of the true work of the Spirit and the forward movement of the church. “Movements cannot be legislated,” one wrote, and another: “it is wrong to expect reform to happen @ the structural level.”
Many people lifted up both the blessing and challenge of being a global church– or as I’ve recently had reframed for me (in this excellent post by Wes Magruder), an international church that wants to be a global church. The beauty and diversity of the global Methodist movement breaks down when we try to articulate theology and polity across radically different contexts. As one person put it, “I learned that theology is contextual and structure probably ought to be too.”
Still others took away hope from the General Conference. “God is not finished with the UMC!” was a frequent refrain. People celebrated new connections and friendships, and the sense of not being alone, in either the feeling of sorrow or the passion for ministry we share. Many celebrated the desire for change and the opportunity for conversation and hope. Much as we may try to Methodologize (think I made that up) our movement, that doesn’t stop the Holy from breaking in. As one person wrote: “even when we think all hope is gone, the Spirit has a tendency to show up and surprise us!”
Question 2: How has this new knowledge changed your Dream (vision or hope) for the United Methodist Church?
The next time I am feeling discouraged about the state of the world in general or the church in particular, I promise myself that I will read through these answers again, or just ask a fellow dreamer to tell me their dream for the UMC. These answers were beautiful. Still much pain laced through them, but such amazing and faithful dreams.
Broken dreams were named: “I’m struggling to see how a schism will be avoided,” one person wrote. In another place, a participant would add “I think it’s already happened.” Trust issues were raised again: “I now realize that in order to move forward, we need greater trust. Far too many folks became us vs. them.”
The need for localized contextual ways of being the church was named and lifted. One person summarized this feeling well: “I have become much more in favor of regionalism/contextualism. Annual conferences and local congregations need to be unbound,” while another wrote “I wouldn’t have understood it before #GC2012, but I’m all for a US central conference now.”
Many, many of these dreams envisioned openness and inclusivity for all people, some naming especially the GLBTQ community, but many leaving a wide-open statement– regardless of any division. “I am now even more passionate and committed to building relationships across cultures and other barriers…without agenda,” one participant wrote. Another said, “I (continue to) dream/hope that the UMC will be UNITED, but in our diversity, not just our name.”
The dreams included a deep need for personal transformation and formation as disciples, and the hope that personal transformation would expand out into a transformed way of being and relating to one another. “It has made me more determined to teach Wesleyan theology, more determined to share Wesleyan formation, less fearful,” said one tweeter, while another wrote that we need “less ‘fixing,’ more constructive listening and discerning what a holy life and life together may be.”
In this part of the conversation, one person wrote that General Conference convinced them to go all-in and seek ordination, to get deeply into the system and work for change. Another wrote that GC convinced them to abandon the ordination track and fully embrace and claim the power of lay leaders within the church for transformation. It struck me as wonderful that both articulate a sense of transformation and purpose and calling, and it highlights for me that the call to ministry has to do with our gifts and passion, not our titles or position on the laity-clergy spectrum.
Question 3: What’s one achievable change that would make the UMC a bit closer to the church you dream about?
Here the conversation was at its most powerful for me, as people’s passion was channeled into positive, practical visioning. What I learned is that there are lots of people who see the same way forward I do (I think it has a lot to do with contextualizing our theology and practice, through some form of national or regional central conferences for the U.S.), there are many people who have other or additional creative ideas for transformation. Nothing gives me more hope than passionate people who also can think proactively.
There were many cries for a U.S. Central Conference, something for which I’ve never heard a huge groundswell of support before. But as I mentioned earlier, the tension of trying to live globally (not internationally) amid massive cultural differences really tied our hands and hearts at this conference. One person put it this way: “A US Central Conference free to set our own standards around the issues that divide the global church. That is it.” Another wrote, “Ditto, US central conference. &, quit trying to motivate US church w fear. Motivate w love (good news).”
Many spoke to the need for refocused ministry efforts at the “church” level, and one person emphasized that we need to “expand our idea of ‘church’ to include non-conventional forms of ministry (campus ministry, non-profits, on tap groups, etc).” Another sumarized this need, saying: “invest in the local church, focus less on ad campaigns and expensive meetings and more on the work of the people.”
Still more voices lifted up the need for justice-seeking local ministries: “quit trying to legislate for holiness and rather emphasize social holiness,” said one, and another, “go back to some of our roots of leading social change instead of following it.”
I was especially heartened by the numbers of people describing a need for deeper theological education and spiritual formation at all levels of the church. One participant wrote of the church’s need for “much more serious commitment to Wesleyan theological education. We need more curriculum based on theology AND context.” Another put it this way: “new emphasis on practical theology at local & general church level, a theology of ‘doing’ church-aka being the body of Christ.” This theological formation– from the grassroots up, not the top down!– impacts our entire way of being as a movement. Said one individual: “Return to Wesleyan tradition. more local autonomy, more Lay leadership, prevailing GRACE, full inclusion, I could go on.”
Very practical, short term suggestions called for the elimination of dashboard metrics tools: “Dashboards (obsession only with the quantitative) creates a distorted view of kingdom building that is consumer driven.” Others called for term limits for bishops and for delegates to General Conference. And of course, there was a call to reinstate the Conference Cookies.
One participant invited us to dream up “a radically different way to do GC2016. I have no idea what that looks like, but we need to start imagining now.”
Many goals were personal and connectional, speaking to the heart of what Methodism is, in my opinion. Some were general: “Encourage more collaboration & working together rather than fighting against each other.” Others much more personal: “I’d really like to be in meaningful conversation with our sisters and brothers in Central Conferences.” Still others focused on the #DreamUMC conversation itself as a place where change needs to happen: “reach out to my CC friends and people of color to make sure that the tweet chat has a wider range of voices.”
One person concluded with a simple goal, “Stop worrying about our fears….just do ministry….” I’ve found that at any level of ministry, this is the best advice.
Conclusion & Looking Ahead
For many of us, this conversation was only the beginning. As the hour drew to a close, people expressed joy and hope through the process, “It’s like a Holy Spirit wave!” one person wrote, and I agree. Another person wrote that Twitter gave them a whole new understanding of Pentecost, and I can’t help but see how much of this conversation, and the form in which it is happening, will shape my sermon for that holiday next week. I concluded the time feeling uplifted, hopeful, and heard (which is ironic, since as moderator, I kept most of my opinions to myself– a challenge for this raging extrovert). And I felt and feel deeply blessed to be part of a church and a movement filled with so many passionate people who love and serve Christ in radical, hope-filled, life-changing ways.
We plan to chat again in two weeks, on Monday May 28th, 9 pm eastern.
And as often as we need to in order to equip ourselves, organize our thoughts, and hold one another up in grace and hope.
(May 13, 2012) Reflecting on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, much of it seemed to me to be a lesson in how God works outside of our plans, expectations, and categories. In the face of a wily and wild Holy Spirit, who refuses to be contained by little things like place of origin or status as delegate, who is willing to withhold the grace of God from those upon whom the Spirit has been poured? (Acts 10:44-48)
powerfully present in spirit with me today were the people who had been with me in the moment, and/or who had helped me with some sermon crafting details. Most especially: Gregory (for lifting the cup), Leigh, Steve, JoAnn and Annie (for weeping with me– on camera), Jeremy S, Karen O and Laura Y (for information now as then), my NE delegation and UNY “step” delegation and volunteers (for being you), Kristen, Justin, and Chett (for laughter through tears), and Sean (for friendship that doesn’t fit inside parentheses).
I used a handful of photos on screen during the sermon, illustrating the chaos, brokenness, and tears of General Conference.
I’m a Taurus (in fact– shameless plug for well wishes– my birthday is tomorrow). If you believe anything at all about astrology, that should tell you that I am stubborn. Perhaps my decision yet again to remain United Methodist in the wake of the past two weeks is simply a manifestation of my inner bullish nature.
I hope it’s more than that.
I wrote a while back about why I’ve remained United Methodist so far, and most of those reasons remain. However, of the four points I listed, two were challenged: our understanding of grace came up for a vote and passed by a measly 53%, and our use of interpretive lenses (the “quadrilateral”) was scheduled for a vote and never made it to the floor. A third point has been significantly diminished: by removing guaranteed appointment, the church eliminates a safeguard that has protected women and persons of color in ministry for years.
The theology I love about United Methodism remains, for now. Prevenient grace. Unconditional love. Personal and social holiness. The structure that allows for our ministry remains, for now. General Boards and Agencies that equip local churches. Democratic organization. Lifting many voices.
But what also remains, and can never fully be expunged, is the tremendous harm the UMC does to people at the margins, most especially in this time and place, to persons in the GLBTQ community. This isn’t a political conversation or an issue to debate. These are my friends, people as close to me as family. These are names and faces, arms that hold me when I weep broken-hearted onto their shoulders and laps when it’s really them who deserve to be weeping. Tears I have shared and dried when they let the safety walls down for a minute. Hands I have held, sweaty-palmed, while votes were cast. Laughter and hope I have shared in small miracles, or as a way to chase away the shadows of sorrow.
At some point, one wonders, when does my continued engagement in a body that can be so abusive signal my complicity with that abuse?
Some of you are bold enough to ask me that (and know that I can hear it and love you and trust in your love for me, still). Some of you haven’t asked but wonder, maybe, if I think it. I do.
So why am I still here?
Not theologically, but personally.
I could be UCC. I’ve got a lot of friends in that denomination, and I bet they’d help me get in. I’d even get some control over how often I move. I could join the voices calling for churches, or conferences, or jurisdictions to declare themselves independent. We could be the United Methodist Church of New England. Or the Northern Methodist Church.
But I’m still here.
I’m giving it one more try, in part because of the hope I named. There are two reasons:
1. Because I can. That’s not meant to be flip; I’m deadly serious. For many of my friends, remaining is not an option. When the abuse is lobbed at you personally, it comes to the point when it may be time to go. But since it’s not me, I can stay and fight for inclusion. And because I can, I kind of feel that I should.
2. I’m not leaving anyone behind if I can help it. If I get out, my church, my conference, my jurisdiction, where does that leave my congregants, my colleagues around the connection, my friends in the Southeast Jurisdiction? As one aforementioned tear-bedecked dear one reminded me, I’m staying around to be there for the GLBT babies straight Methodists keep having, to baptize them, teach them, serve them communion, and doggone it marry them.
If we can find a way to stay connected, to be the church I love, to find and articulate those thing that are essential, where we seek unity, maybe we can all give each other the freedom to live and serve as one diverse body. And that’s better for everybody, I hope.
So maybe this one last time, I’m giving my all for a church that practices the grace we say we believe in, and that orders itself with love and compassion around Wesley’s rule to do no harm and do all the good we can, and I hope we can someday live into his invitation: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”