Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Faith Works 3-2-19a

Faith Works 3-2-19a

Jeff Gill


A way forward, or side-stepping issues?



As for the United Methodist Church and its recent General Conference, let alone the Roman Catholic bishops' gathering at the Vatican that happened earlier, they overlapped in more ways than one.


I am a semi-professional church geek, so even though I'm neither Methodist nor Catholic, I actually have had these two scheduled events on my calendar for some time. They are the kind of gatherings from which great things can be expected.


Or not. Church conferences and conventions and consultative assemblies are infamous for how little they often produce. It was often said before, during, and after the recent special General Conference (the UMC normally has them every four years, the next regularly scheduled one coming up in 2020 in Minneapolis) that it was being done somewhat in a hurry and moderately on the cheap, and it cost $3,600,000 to put together for 840 delegates and four days.


That doesn't include the amounts spent by groups pushing one agenda or another in the weeks and days ahead, clogging my social media with ads and emails and messages – probably a couple million there. Call it $5 million in total to accomplish . . . what?


The end result was essentially a reaffirmation of the current Book of Discipline, the guide book and laws of the UMC clergy and conferences and churches. One group hoped for a relaxation of limitations and restrictions on LGBTQ clergy, another wished to see them maintained and even tightened.


You could say the latter side won, but I think in Christian life it's always something to worry about when you start talking about sides, and definitely I pause before declaring anyone this side of the Throne of Heaven a "winner." The standards will not be relaxed, and progressives are starting to look for the exits. No one looked good in the four days of parliamentary maneuver and endless voting; to many within and without of the Methodist communion, it didn't look like what we want to see when we are trying to talk about faith communities at work.


The bishops in Rome didn't give them a good lead in, having built up expectations perhaps unreasonably, and ending up with a "more of the same" result of regrets, promises to do better, and a slightly more vehement statement by the Pontiff of "soon and very soon." When it comes to child abuse and consequences for abusers, the word "soon" doesn't sound very encouraging.


In other words, organized religion did not come off well in general media over the last two weeks. And while I'm not surprised, I had hopes. Let's say they weren't dashed, but they certainly weren't raised.


When Christians gather in large numbers, I'd like to hear more strong preaching and teaching, see dramatic acts of service and mission to the area where we came together, and know that God's good news is more widely known for our having met. Bluntly, that didn't happen. I teach history and polity to seminarians, so I know why it didn't happen, and why in many ways it happened the way it did, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.


In my own tradition, when I'm teaching our basic outlines to groups in churches and in classes for ministry preparation, I often say that the Disciples of Christ hold that there are three sacraments. Ancient liturgical traditions usually call for seven sacraments, and the Reformation churches in many cases boiled that down to two – baptism and communion. But for the Restoration Movement of which we're a part, there's baptism (by immersion), communion (weekly if not more often), and voting on stuff.


Is "voting on stuff" a sacramental act? No, not to anyone. Not really. But our life and activity makes it look as if we believe the act of voting on things has the power to bring the Holy Spirit to bear on a problem, that it can be a conduit of grace from the Divine realm into this broken world.


It doesn't work, of course. Voting on stuff is not a fast track to the will of God. American Protestant traditions like the Disciples or Methodists have a belief rooted in our relationship to frontier American history that voting fixes things – we may be getting over that. I don't know.


Yet the bishops in Rome showed us that their polity is not a guarantee of wisdom and swift justice, either. How do we wrestle with hard questions and wake up knowing that we have wrestled with God, and been in a holy place? Jacob did it in the wilderness, not a convention center. We may have to find a special place of our own to come and listen and learn.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not a Methodist, but he knows plenty of John Wesley quotes. Tell him where you see the traffic heading in this and other areas of church life at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 3-2-19

Faith Works 3-2-19

Jeff Gill


A way forward, or side-stepping the issue?



As for the United Methodist Church and its recent General Conference, there's a case to be made that my perspective on their decisions isn't worth a hill of beans in this crazy world.


I'm a straight white male, plus I'm not even a Methodist. But I can say utterly unironically that some of my best friends are, and I'm interested in their faith and work for a wide variety of reasons, personal and professional.


Plus, as a seminary teacher on occasion (and this semester is one such occasion) of history and polity, this is right in my wheelhouse for at least an historical viewpoint. I'm the kind of church politics geek who's had both last week's Catholic bishops' conference in Rome on his calendar for months, let alone GC2019 in St. Louis for the Methodists.


But to even hint in one column on my take on all this, I'm going to have to irritate people all across the spectrum of church and society. So buckle up.


It occurs to me that we have a president in this country (hang on, I'm not changing the subject, really) that would be perfectly content with having a harem. Like many wealthy and powerful men, he has shown a tendency to trade in wives for younger models (literally) who become sacrifices to his own mortality and aging process, soothing those transitions by keeping a more youthful partner in his bed and across the breakfast table. Would he like to be able to simply add new, younger ones rather than expensively having to transition from a former spouse to a later edition through divorce and property settlements? I can't imagine he wouldn't.


In this country, though, we have guardrails up. Our culture has settled on some guardrails around marriage and relationships – and you (or I) might think the lanes are too wide, the stripes need repainting, and the potholes are terrible, but there are guardrails, outside of which you just can't easily drive in the middle of traffic.


The big controversy in many quarters about how the United Methodist Church decided to retain its standards of "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness" for clergy and non-acceptance of same-sex marriage as a church act has to do with the role of the non-American membership of the UMC. African Methodists constitute around 40% of the total 12 plus million members, and they're growing at a rate that implies they'll be a majority relatively soon. The pressures on the processes wanting to liberalize standards have that as their backdrop. This Special General Conference was called, in part, because by the next regular General Conference in 2020 that majority will probably be a reality.


And the Africans are not interested in relaxing standards on sexual activity from where they've been. For this, they've been demonized in social media and by advocates of the changes proposed; perhaps worse, it's been repeatedly implied they've just been manipulated by cash and propaganda from American conservatives. When I read this stuff, I ask myself "have they actually ever met and talked to any African bishops?"


I have. I had a series of life-changing conversations with one, in this country, in 2005 and have kept up with him, and alongside him some mission and ministry partners in North Katanga on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What they have said repeatedly is this: our society does not have any guardrails. Next to none. Polygamy is common, exploitation rife in our cities and villages.


Christian preaching is often the first message many men have heard about the need to treat women with respect, and to live their family lives as something other than a series of conquests. This is, they tell me, still an ongoing struggle. The boundaries of their church are pretty much all the guardrails they have for defining family and relationships in any form other than through power and force as their defining qualities.


So they are not interested in relaxing any standards right now. And I hear them. I also see the conflict in this country perhaps more clearly than they do in Africa, and I acknowledge the pain felt by those who see our society making lane changes and resetting some road markers, opening up acceptance and support of same-sex relationships, but then seeing some churches, perhaps their own faith tradition say "we are not making those shifts." Not now, maybe not ever.


It is not a small thing being asked of either side, and the negotiations are perhaps not best worked out through voting and parliamentary procedure. The dialogue is not over. But for now, the UMC is staying in its same lane. And there's heavy traffic ahead.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not a Methodist, but he knows plenty of John Wesley quotes. Tell him where you see the traffic heading in this and other areas of church life at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.