July 23, 2014

Defining the Methodist middle: Is there a via media for the #UMC?

The United Methodist Church is increasingly embroiled in an ever more polarized debate over human sexuality. As the debate rages, many have called for and attempted to articulate a via media, that is, a middle way between the two divergent sides. In recent weeks and months especially, though, I've found the call for a middle way to be curious at least and baffling at worst. The reason? Given the diversity of those associated with the middle, it seems difficult to actually define the middle. And terms that cannot be defined are by necessity meaningless. Allow me to illustrate the difficulty. 

Earlier this year, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter outlined a proposal that articulated what they see as "A Way Forward" for the UMC in light of the sexuality debate. Hamilton has done a good job of associating himself with the idea of a "middle way," and his plan for the Church reflects that attitude. It outlines the progressive and conservative sides and then presents a local option that the authors take to be a compromise or third way. You can see how Hamilton applies his approach to a variety of issues in his book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World.

Bill Arnold has shown (quite conclusively, in my view) that Hamilton misconstrues many of these polarizing debates by not taking account of  the many and varied views on each issue in question and by assuming that a middle way is always available and preferable. Arnold levels a heavy critique of Hamilton's way of reasoning and argues that the position of the UMC is already a middle way on a number of issues. See Arnold's book Seeing Black and White in a Gray World On the issue of human sexuality, Hamilton proposes as a third way that local churches and Annual Conferences make their own decisions about LGBTQ unions and ordination. In contrast, Arnold argues that the current UMC position that all persons are of "sacred worth" even though same sex practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching" is the true middle way. Hamilton affirms same sex practices; Arnold does not. Both believe they are the via media. How do we make sense of this? 

Another example comes with regard to the same issue. Steve Harper's new book For the Sake of the Bride has been touted as a "third way" through the current division. Harper's book has quickly become well-known because, though he has been aligned with conservatives in the past, he now takes the progressive view on sexuality. In contrast, just last week Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was said to have "joined the middle" after offering a conservative case against UMC schism. Again, Harper and Tooley come down on opposite sides of the sexuality issue, yet in the last week or so both have been described as part of via media. How do we make sense of this? 

One forum that is gaining prominence in the UMC is the Via Media Methodist blog. If you haven't seen this one, be sure to stop by. The contributors always have thoughtful insights on UMC issues, and their tone is commendable. The blog aims "to offer an alternative beyond the current polarization" in the UMC, and "raise the level of discourse within" our denomination. I've found this site very helpful in modeling Christian charity and respect while engaging in difficult conversations. However, for reasons outlined above, I'm still unclear on what it means to be in "the middle." I did find an interview with Allan Bevere on the most recent edition of the Wesley Cast to be helpful. Bevere described the middle way as involving more a way of reasoning rather than a set of specific positions. Okay, so maybe the middle is a method, not a position.

But this still leaves me with questions. If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle. If the via media is a way of thinking about an issue and not an actual position on a particular issue, how does it actually move us forward? Who can help me? What is the via media? How do I know it when I see it? What am I missing? 

July 22, 2014

New SermonCast: "First Things First" #UMC

Every organization that wants to be around and be effective for the long haul must, at some point, ask the question: What is the most important thing? They must decide what matters most, and then they must resolve to keep that most important thing always before their eyes, always in front of them. They must pursue it relentlessly. They must keep first things first.

The Church of Jesus Christ is no different. Like any other organization, we must decide our priorities and keep first things first. Check out this week's sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to find out what the Church's "first thing" is and why we must keep it always in front.

July 17, 2014

New Podcast: Hungry? #UMC

What comes to mind when you hear the word "appetite"? Most of us probably think of food. Right? Appetite is, of course, primarily about our desire for food. But we use the word to express our desire for other things too. Maybe we have an appetite for popularity or status. Some people might have an appetite for power or control. We hear of people with an appetite for destruction. All of us probably have an appetite for relationships. Maybe our appetite is for entertainment or sports or (dare I say) college football. 

Given the widespread application of appetite, we shouldn't be surprised that Jesus has some things to say about the subject also. And when Jesus talks about appetite, he zeros in on one thing. Listen to the podcast to find out what that one thing is and how to cultivate an appetite for it. 

July 8, 2014

New Sermon Podcast: "See Holy, Be Holy" #umc #wesleyanaccent

I'm excited to announce that I've just begun a new appointment to St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. It's a great church, and I'm honored to be the pastor. Yesterday was my first Sunday in the pulpit. I had a great time and am grateful for a very warm welcome. The church will be podcasting my sermons each week. You can easily subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, put the feed in your reader, or check out the player widget in the column to your right. Sermons will also be archived on the church website

My first installment is called "See Holy, Be Holy" and digs into Isaiah 6:1-8 and the prophet's vision of God's holiness that led to his being completely set apart for a holy mission. I always enjoy hearing from readers and listeners. So, feel free to share your thoughts.  

June 24, 2014

#WesleyCast Interview w/ @DrewBMcIntyre, Review by @TalbotDavis #UMC

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Lake Junaluska last week. I've been United Methodist for over 20 years, yet this was my first visit to this Wesleyan hallowed ground. The lake was beautiful, adn the grounds were amazing. I was not disappointed. I was there to speak at the breakfast meeting of the Western North Carolina Conference Evangelical Movement (WNCCEM). The turnout was great, which impressed me, because it was a 7:30 am breakfast meeting. Now Junaluska is, of course, in the Eastern Time Zone, and I live in the Central Time Zone. So it felt like 6:30 am. I'm almost certain this was the first time I've delivered a speech that early in the morning. And I would do it again in a heartbeat! It was great fun. For a very kind review and reflection on the talk, head over to Talbot Davis' blog, I'm grateful to Talbot for creating this opportunity and for his very gracious comments.

While at Junaluska, I was also interviewed for the Wesley Cast, a podcast devoted to theological dialogue in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. The podcast is hosted by Drew McIntyre, Steven Fife, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge who together operate the Via Media Methodists blog. Drew did the interview in which we discussed my then upcoming talk at the WNCCEM, the "A Way Forward" proposal, and the prospect of unity or schism in the United Methodist Church. It was a lot of fun and I'm grateful to Drew for the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Click through to listen to the interview (Released: 6/23/14), and be sure to subscribe to Wesley Cast so you can catch future episodes.

It was a whirlwind trip. I wasn't even on site for 24 hours. But I did get the chance to attend one worship service at the meeting of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and enjoyed hearing Bishop Jonathan Holston preach. I also made a quick visit to the World Methodist Museum where I saw John Wesley's portable pulpit and one of four copies of his death mask. It was a remarkable experience to look at the exact contours of the face of a man who lived centuries ago and who has shaped my life in profound ways. It was great to visit the beautiful Lake Junaluska, make some new friends, and get a small sample of North Carolina Methodism. Next time I'll have to stay a little longer.

June 16, 2014

Allowance Isn't Affirmation, Except When It Is (@DrewBMcIntyre #UMC)

My recent post aimed at evaluating the "Way Forward" plan set forth by Adam Hamilton and others has garnered a fair bit of response, some positive and some less so. This is to be expected on any matter related to how the United Methodist Church (UMC) will proceed when it comes to our denominational stance on same sex practices. One of the more extended critiques of my view comes from Drew McIntyre. His tone is charitable and his evaluation is thoughtful. I'm grateful to Drew for taking the time to dig into what I've written and give some conversational pushback. Careful interaction is certainly essential if any of us really want to move forward. This post aims likewise to proceed with charity and gratefulness for this opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue

The Critique
Drew argues that I have failed to account for the critical distinction between allowing some event or action, on the one hand, and affirming that event or action, on the other. To make the point, he draws an analogy which suggests the possibility that the UMC might allow but not affirm the blessing of same sex unions by our clergy and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals by our Annual Conferences is similar to what happens when God allows but does not cause evil actions or events. God is not the author of evil, but he does permit evil because he has created us with a certain amount of free will. Based on this analogy Drew claims, "allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church 'affirming' those choices." The argument he makes is that I have missed the essential distinction between allowance and affirmation.

Flawed Logic
Drew certainly raises some good points, and I agree that there is a difference between allowance and affirmation in some cases. However, I find his view unpersuasive in this case because the logic by which he argues is flawed. In my view, Drew has committed the logical fallacy of false analogy. Drew's argument depends on a perceived similarity between the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices and God allowing evil events to occur. Drew concludes that if God can allow evil without causing it, then the UMC can allow the blessing of same sex practices by clergy and Conferences without affirming those practices. This argument assumes that divine causation and UMC allowance are sufficiently similar to form a reliable analogy. But are we justified in likening the mysterious manner in which God governs his creation to the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices? I am not persuaded that we are.

Theologians have long struggled to find the best language to describe the manner in which God governs his creation without becoming culpable for evil. Our attempts at this are called theodicy. We wrestle with terms like sovereignty and providence seeking definitions that account for the evidence in scripture and experience. As Drew observes, Calvinists tend to see it one way while Arminians see it differently. But it's not immediately clear that either side has given a fully satisfactory account of why God is not morally responsible for the presence of evil in his creation. Honest folks on various sides of the debate readily acknowledge aspects of their view that make them uncomfortable. We all articulate ways of thinking that help us along, but theodicy is hardly a settled matter. If it remains unclear how God can allow evil to occur without being morally culpable for it, then it is not clear that there is enough similarity between the proposal for the UMC and divine allowance of evil. The analogy from theodicy depends on a perceived similarity that is neither established nor warranted. Drew has committed the fallacy of false analogy. His manner of reasoning is flawed and his argument unpersuasive.

Discerning the Difference
Drew was not the only one to suggest that the allowance proposed in the "A Way Forward" plan does not amount to a UMC affirmation of same sex practices. Others made this claim as well. It is thus worth our time to think more carefully on the question of why, in this case, allowance is indeed affirmation.

When a couple approaches a member of the clergy seeking to be joined in marriage, they are asking the clergy person to declare God's blessing and the Church's blessing on their union. Remember that the minister declares and blesses the union with authority vested in him or her by the Church. The minister performing a marriage rite is an authorized representative of the Church who declares the blessing of the Church on that union. When a person seeks ordination in the UMC, he or she is asking the Annual Conference to act in accord with the authorization of General Conference to affirm and bless the call of God on their lives for a set aside ministry in the Church. For General Conference to say that the denomination allows individual clergy and Conferences to offer the Church's blessing in such circumstances, even though the UMC itself does not offer its affirmation, is a contradiction. It's nonsense. If the Church says it's permissible for clergy to bless same sex unions and for Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals, then the Church is authorizing clergy and Conferences to extend the Church's blessing to such practices. In this case, the Church is affirming the compatibility of these practices with Christian teaching. We are not simply "allowing pastors and churches more flexibility," we are authorizing them to pronounce the blessing of God and the Church on practices that God neither condones nor blesses. In this case, allowance most certainly amounts to affirmation.

It is true that allowance does not always amount to affirmation, but sometimes it does. What matters is being able to discern the difference, and conversations like this one help us along in the discernment process. Sometimes simply allowing an action or event to take place makes us culpable for that action or event. Pilate washed his hands of Jesus' blood, but does anyone really think him not guilty of crucifying the Lord of glory? 

June 6, 2014

Why "A Way Forward" Isn't (#umc #umcschism)

These are difficult days in the United Methodist Church. The divide in our denomination between those who differ on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching is deeper than ever. Both sides are frustrated. Both sides are hurting. Both sides want a solution, though different people on each side have different ideas on what constitutes a solution. Many hope that conservatives and progressives will work out a compromise and remain together in a  united United Methodist Church. One recent proposal aimed at such unity comes from Adam Hamilton and has been endorsed by a number of others in the denomination. The proposal has already been analyzed by some and evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses, and more analysis will undoubtedly be forthcoming. This is good. Proposals like this have potential for a massive impact on the UMC, and they come with a variety of intended and unintended consequences. Shared dialogue is very important, especially since our future as United Methodists is at stake. 

Before I get to the proposal itself, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Adam Hamilton. I've read his books, participated in his mentoring groups, used his materials, and implemented some of his strategies. Like many, I have benefited greatly from the resources that Adam has made available to the Church. I appreciate and have attempted to imitate his practice of looking for the helpful contributions and strengths of perspectives other than his own. So, the following evaluation comes in the context of years of appreciation. 

A Double Proposal
The heart of the proposal in "A Way Forward" is twofold:
  1. Local churches would have the authority to determine the nature and extent of their ministry with gay and lesbian people, including whether they will or will not allow same gender unions.
  2. Each Annual Conference would have the authority to determine whether or not it will allow self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
The goal of moving these decisions to local and regional levels is "to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference." Those who have signed off on this document believe that it "would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities."

Compromise? 
The "A Way Forward" proposal is set forth as a compromise that would keep progressives and conservatives together in a single United Methodist Church. The idea is that if local groups get to make their own decisions, then everyone will be happy, or at least able to live together. But is this proposal really a compromise? I fear that it is not. If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions. Implementing this proposal would necessitate the removal of the "incompatible" language from the Discipline and it would necessitate the removal of the language that forbids same sex unions in local United Methodist churches. This is not a compromise. This is a reversal of the denominational position. Allowing those who so desire to abstain from participation does not change the reality that this would be a win for progressives and a capitulation for conservatives. 

Forward or Apart?
Others will certainly have a different take on this plan, and I welcome some healthy and charitable dialogue on the matter. But as I see it, given that this proposal amounts to an affirmation by the General Church on homosexual practice, it is unacceptable for those who affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church with regard to homosexuality. If implemented, many conservatives would find themselves unable to remain in the United Methodist Church and would feel forced to leave the denomination. As a result, the implementation of this plan would not help us avoid a split. Instead, it would lead us ever further down the path toward schism. I suspect that we would experience something similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church. Conservatives churches (and perhaps whole Annual Conferences) would pull out of the denomination to go it alone, affiliate with another denomination, or form new associations. This plan is not a way forward; it would push us further apart. 

April 20, 2014

Athanasius on the Resurrection

Today is Easter Sunday. Where better to turn than On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius? This is one of those books that I keep coming back to over and over again. And as many times as I've read this ancient book, it never gets old. It never loses its potency and is always fresh. So, here are a few excerpts on the significance of Christ's resurrection for your Easter morning. 

The Reason Christ Came
The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt (22).
Death No Longer Feared
A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to died rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection (27).
 The Victory of Christ
Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is they sting?" (27). 
Christ is risen! Alleluia! 

April 18, 2014

Resurrection is Everything (@OfficialSeedbed)

My latest guest post for Seedbed went live this morning. Here's the intro:
"Why celebrate Easter?" That's an honest question that was put to me recently by a man who is deeply interested in religion, though intentionally not part of any orthodox Christian tradition. His question is one that many believers seldom ask. After all, Easter is a given for church-going people. When have we ever felt the need to justify our celebration of Jesus' resurrection? But in our increasingly secularized culture more and more people are less and less familiar with Christian belief and practice. So, maybe we should be more careful to ask the "Why?" question, not only for our sake but for the sake of those who may be interested in but unfamiliar with Christianity. Why is Easter so important? What's the big deal? Why do we celebrate? 

April 15, 2014

Rediscovering Wesley: The John Wesley Collection from @OfficialSeedbed #UMC

I was excited to see this post from Seedbed.com  this morning announcing a new project called The John Wesley Collection. The plan is to take key works of Wesley (and others that Wesley curated and published) and republish them with modern typesetting and attractive cover art in order to make the writings of the Methodist founder more easily accessible to a new generation. Here's a little more from the official announcement: 
John Wesley’s profound legacy and impact on world Christianity during and since his lifetime can be viewed through a number of lenses. The revival that arose under his leadership changed the social and political structure of eighteenth-century England as the poor and lost found hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than in revolution against the crown. The influence of Wesley’s Spirit-inspired teaching continued unabated as the Methodist movement spread scriptural holiness across the American continent and lands far beyond.
The writings represented in The John Wesley Collection resourced the early Methodists in their quest to spread the gospel by providing the intellectual and spiritual moorings for the messengers of the movement. Seedbed believes these writings are as relevant to our context today as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Consequently, we consider it a sacred calling to join with those who are recapturing John Wesley’s publishing vision for the twenty-first century.
You can find out more by reading the rest of the post at Seedbed, and be sure to take a look at this video that introduces the project. Here's a list of titles you can expect to see published, which is part of an entire website devoted to The John Wesley Collection. The first volume in the Collection is Wesley's Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on Mount, which has already been released and is available now. This and the other resources that are coming will be great for individual or group use. 

Here's why I find this project important for cultivating the renewal and spread of the Wesleyan message today. The rise of the "New Calvinism" (as it's known) has been fueled by a revival of interest in primary source texts and key historical figures associated with the movement. College students are devouring the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and others, not to mention Calvin himself. The works of Wesley that Seedbed is now making more easily available fueled the spread of early Methodism and fanned the flames of revival in England and North America in the 18th century. It may be that, as a new generation of readers discovers the primary works of Wesley, such revival will come again. Perhaps the Spirit that empowered Wesley and his bands will resurrect a "New Methodism" that embodies Wesley's passion to offer Christ and spread scriptural holiness across the land.