Archive for January, 2015

A Better Way Forward: A Short Response to “A Way Forward”

Monday, January 26th, 2015

On Saturday, November 22, 2014 the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church held “A Day of Holy Conversation on Sexuality in the United Methodist Church.”  Facilitated by the Common Table for Church Vitality, we discussed this question: “In light of concerns being expressed in different areas of the connection of The United Methodist Church and in society as a whole regarding human sexuality, how can we move forward in mission and ministry together?”  The Common Table invited representatives to speak from three key perspectives in the church: progressive, traditionalist, and centrist.   No doubt these labels are questionable and far too simplistic but they each represent a sizable and vocal constituency.   Without going into a detailed description of the proceedings, I want to offer a critique of the centrist “solution” and give more definition to a progressive “solution” that I hope will also appeal centrists and some conservatives.  The speakers representing the centrist position suggested something like the solution proposed in the document “A Way Forward.”  This document has been signed by over by over 2600 United Methodists.  As I read the document I found much to affirm, but there are serious flaws that I think would exacerbate divisions in our church.   Let me begin with what I affirm.

First of all, I’m grateful to the writers and signers of “A Way Forward” for rejecting a proposal for an “amicable separation” of the denomination and for offering an alternative.  The authors and signers speak up for the vast majority of United Methodists who reject schism.  Second, the authors affirm that the local church is the primary place of mission and ministry—I do too.  Third, I appreciate the humility of the authors.  They recognize that the “proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out.”  Lastly, I affirm the last section about what unites us as United Methodists. 

Now I want to highlight what I think are the key flaws in the proposal.  I thought I was going to have to write a lengthy analysis but I found that others have done that better than I could.   Blogs written by David F. Watson, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio and Bill T. Arnold, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary show clearly how the proposal undermines the connectional structure that has been a hallmark of United Methodism.   I think they also effectively show that “A Way Forward” ironically makes schism more likely.  David F. Watson writes:  “It’s not at all clear that this proposal will actually preserve our unity. Dividing up between annual conferences and congregations that accept gay and lesbian marriage and ordination and those that do not seems to be a step toward division, rather than away from it.”   Rather than quote them at length, I encourage you to read both blogs—they are not very long.  

Besides making schism more likely, there is another key problem with “A Way Forward”:  it maintains the derogatory language and discriminatory policies in the Book of Discipline.  For a local congregation to override these statements, it would require “request from the senior pastor and a supermajority vote of the members of the congregation after a process of prayer, study and discernment.”   This is a high bar indeed.  Suppose the congregation no longer wants to discriminate against same-sex couples but the pastor does: too bad.  Or it could be the other way around.   These negotiations would once again push the battles of general conference back into the local church.   And, there is no mechanism in “A Way Forward” for pastors to offer their pastoral services to same-sex couples unless their congregation has agreed to change the policy.   This will lead to more costly and counterproductive trials as increasing numbers of clergy refuse to discriminate.

As I believe “A Way Forward” is in actuality a path toward schism, what am I proposing as an alternative?    I believe our sister church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, provides a good model for us. 

First of all, their statement is grounded in their theology.  It is 37 pages long, not counting the addendums.  It openly acknowledges differences among them on same-sex relationships but treats the different viewpoints respectfully.   On page 20, it outlines four different positions on same-sex relationships.  Each one begins with this phrase “On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced . . . .”   What a wonderful way to show respect for other positions.  We recognize that those with other convictions are operating in good faith and good conscience.   Lastly, there are no derogatory statements about same-sex relationships and no discriminatory and punitive policies.  So, what I am proposing is 1) a recognition that we are divided in our beliefs, 2) a commitment to respect the beliefs of others recognizing that they are “conscience-bound beliefs” and 3) we remove from The Book of Discipline the derogatory “incompatibility” statement, the discriminatory policies regarding ordination and marriage, and affirm that pastors are free (but not required) to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Finally, I think those who identify as “liberals/progressives,” as “moderates/centrists,” and as “conservatives/traditonalists,” all need to repent.   We are all complicit in an institution that has hurt and alienated LGBTQ persons, that has denied and rejected their gifts and graces, and that has slowed the progress of their civil rights.  There is no room for gloating—all are complicit by action and inaction. The way forward will be a way of repentance and will look a lot more like the “Truth and Reconciliation” process that is being used in the Michigan Area than allowing congregations and conferences to “do their own thing” as proposed in “A Way Forward.”   The “Truth and Reconciliation” process would bring hope for genuine repentance as we listen to the stories of LGBTQ persons and hear how our church’s statements and policies have affected them. 

So, what are the strengths of this “solution”?

1)     It promotes unity.  Local congregations and conferences will not need to take sides or vote in what would be deeply divisive decisions.   Clergy and laity are free to hold and express different views on same-sex relationships as long as they show respect for other positions.   Pastors are free to determine whether they can, in good conscience, officiate at same-sex marriages.  I would hope that pastors with conscience-bound convictions against same-sex marriage could refer same-sex couples to pastors with conscience-bound convictions that affirm same-sex marriages, but that would be their decision.

2)    It is simple.   Rather than kicking the can farther down the road with piecemeal changes to The Book of Discipline, it simply removes the derogatory “incompatibility” statement and the discriminatory policies regarding ordination and marriage.  In many ways The Book of Discipline would be silent on these issues like it was before we added the hurtful language and policies in 1972. But, it does require us to acknowledge that we are divided in our beliefs regarding same-sex relationships and to respect the convictions of others. 

3)    This proposal will eliminate the divisive, costly, embarrassing, and counterproductive trials of clergy officiating at same-sex marriages.   Our church’s attitudes and policies toward LGBTQ persons have hampered its ministry to and with young adults.  Research conducted by the pro-Christian Barna Group in 2007 on Americans age 16-29 found that “anti-homosexual” was the dominant perception of modern Christians. Ninety-one percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of Christians in this group used this word to describe Christians.”  Trials of clergy who provide pastoral services to same-sex couples makes the church look vindictive and punitive.  These trials directly undermine our public relations campaign of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the people of the United Methodist Church.”

4)    There are no winners or losers.   When I signed on to “An Altar for All,” along with many others, I made this confession:  “We repent that it has taken us so long to act. We acknowledge our complicity in the church’s discriminatory policies that have tarnished the witness of the Church to the world. We value our covenant relationships and ask everyone to hold the divided community of The United Methodist Church in prayer.”  We are all complicit—no one is without sin.  Few of us share exactly the same position on these issues.  If we are disciples we are constantly searching the scriptures and searching our hearts to hear how God is guiding us through the Holy Spirit.   This “solution” does not require us to fit into some prescribed box or to adhere to one position.   Let us show charity to one another and offer the hand of fellowship remembering Wesley’s words: “’If your heart is as my heart,’ if you love God and all [humankind], I ask no more: ‘give me your hand.’”

Like “A Way Forward,” I acknowledge that my “proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out.”   At the same time, I think it is much simpler and much more conducive to the unity that “A Way Forward” seeks.

I invite those readers who find this approach persuasive or helpful to sign the linked petition that will go to The Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops.

 

 

John D. Copenhaver, Jr.is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He is a member of the Virginia Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. You can email him at jcopenha@su.edu

Not Someday, but TODAY: Another View of Selma

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

The movie “Selma” confronts a dark past that mirrors the present in a poignant way that is almost too close for comfort. It follows the people who played key roles in what led up to what we know as Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after Confederate General and KKK leader) in Selma, Alabama, and the marches that followed to enable the creation of the Voters Rights Act of 1965. While we are aware the past and present are very different parts of history and take comfort in how our society has made dramatic changes, we know all too well that there is much more work to be done. The film expertly resonates much of what we have witnessed since that fateful day in Selma, Alabama where the Civil Rights Movement took a radical turn.

When watching Oprah Winfrey’s depiction of Annie Lee Cooper attempt the humiliating process of voter registration, I can’t help but hear, “black lives matter.”

As people are beaten on the streets and suffocated by the tear gas of police in gas masks, I hear echoes of voices screaming, “I can’t breathe.”

As an unarmed young black man by the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson is killed by the police after trying to protect his family, I hear a plea of, “hands up, don’t shoot.”

Throughout the movie, I found myself questioning whether this movie was shot forty years ago, or in the past few months. The problems marchers faced in Selma have not ceased to exist, but have gone under the radar as marginalization and systematic oppression continue to be the norm. That is, until recently. We have returned to the struggle of fighting to not respond in anger, but instead by being strategic in how we encounter oppression and inequality through diplomatic means.

As a first year seminarian, I continue to struggle with the thought that I continue my day-to-day activities in our nation’s capital surrounded by so many injustices against people of all shapes, colors, and sizes.  It is not recent news that people are being marginalized, but we all need to remind ourselves of our roles as Christians in a world filled with a dearth of the love and peace that we long to have as children of God.

People may critique the historical accuracy of the portrayals of President Johnson and Dr. King, but there is something phenomenally sacred in experiencing the emotional turmoil of the discussions that take place within The Oval Office. Instead of focusing on the inaccuracies, let’s set our minds on reestablishing the Voting Rights Act that these individuals worked for, which is being eroded before our very eyes.

Like those who marched in Selma and protested against discrimination across the country, we are at a pivotal crossroads of our society. When we may get frustrated when our world seems to be dealing with situations of racism, grief, hatred, anger, and sadness, looking to a film like “Selma” enables us to see the light at the end of the tunnel, where our greatest fears become our strength to seek and make change. We see Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explore the woes of leadership and search for his own empowerment and meaning in a greater cause. He finds support in a then young John Lewis, who reminds him of his courage and thirst for righteousness.

In the words of the rapper Common, an actor in the film and the writer of the movie’s Golden Globe winning song, “Glory”, “'Selma' has awakened my humanity.” We are called to action and awareness to care for this right to be human that people have struggled to protect. The marches in Selma were not standstill moments of history, but were momentous inspirations that remind us of our integrity and pursuit of justice. We continue to sing that we shall overcome someday, but as Christians we are called to bring the reign of God to the here and now of our world through God’s grace and love. May I perhaps suggest a new hashtag? #WeShallOvercomeTODAY

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Emily Pickens-Jones is a first year Masters of Divinity student and Missional Fellow at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. She hails from the Bay Area of California and is the daughter of two United Methodist Clergy. She graduated from University of California, Davis with a B.A. in International Relations, focusing on the cultures and religions of Africa. She studied abroad in Tanzania and served on the staff and lived at her university’s campus ministry, CA House, which is also home to a Multifaith Living Community, an interreligious intentional and inclusive living environment. She has attended countless UMC conferences and has served as a youth and young adult leader in a variety of capacities. She has a strong calling to working for social advocacy through the United Methodist Church especially concerning interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

Selma: Yesterday and Today

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Exactly 50 years ago this month, a voting rights campaign began in Selma, AL resulting in a non-violent, peaceful, 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, to the steps of the state capital building on March 25, where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd estimated at 25,000 or more.  This event built on previous gatherings: an earlier march attempt that would become known as “Bloody Sunday”, where many were attacked and many severely beaten, even run down by state police and sheriff officers on horseback. An even earlier march, in nearby Marion, AL, had resulted in the police shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, as he tried to protect his mother from a policeman’s nightstick.  The new movie, Selma”, depicting these historical events opens with four little girls walking down the steps of a church when a sudden, horrific, screen-filling explosion blows away those four innocent little girls, once again giving those who lived through that period the emotionally gut-wrenching, tear producing awfulness that we experienced then.  That bombing happened in Birmingham, AL in Sept. 1964, only two months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.  That bombing would serve as a deeply motivating tragedy for the civil rights movement, and certainly was on the minds of the people gathered in Selma.  We too easily see such heinous bombings as mere historical facts, thinking that such god-awfulness happened “way back then” but surely not now as we have made so much progress in race relations, even electing an African-American president—not once, but twice.

But just last week a bombing occurred outside the NAACP office building in Colorado Springs, CO.  While local news reported the event, national media almost completely ignored it until it went viral on Twitter, and some other social media.  The employees had just returned from a holiday period, and it was known they would be returning that day.  The bomb did very little damage, even though the FBI is now calling it an “improvised explosive device” (IED), and is investigating the incident, with a white male seen by some witnesses being sought for questioning.  But damage is not the issue, since the very fact that this can happen 50 years after a bombing caused horrifically tragic deaths, should alert us all to the reality that some people in our country want to reopen the violence of the past to intimidate and/or injure, perhaps even kill, others simply because of the color of their skin.  Any who doubt this should simply read, though no one should ever have to read such vitriolic awfulness, the comments posted on the TV stations’ comment lines (like KKTV), blaming the NAACP for the bombing, and/or saying they deserved it (all under the cover of anonymity, of course).    

When that “Bloody Sunday” happened Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to religious leaders all across the nation to join them in their peaceful, non-violent march for freedom.  The response brought many such leaders and lay-people from across the nation, so that black and white marched together.  Two whites who responded, Unitarian pastor James Reeb, and Michigan housewife, Viola Liuzzo, were killed—he by local whites who beat him so severely one night that he died two days later; she shot to death by four KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma after the conclusion of the march (three of those four from the KKK were later prosecuted, though only for conspiring to violate her civil rights).  Such a response is now needed from religious leaders and lay people, as well as anyone else of good ethical and moral thought and motivation, in Colorado Springs, and anywhere else such attempts at intimidation or injury are taking place.  That NAACP will have its annual All Peoples Breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 19, and as many as can possibly make it most certainly should, to show solidarity with our human brothers and sisters in this organization—and anywhere else in the nation that such a gathering is scheduled.  Or we should join the NAACP to show our support, or any other means that might demonstrate that we will not stand idly by while human beings and fellow citizens are being attacked and/or threatened.      

It is popular among some commentators to state often that every generation must win essential freedoms once again.  That such a basic political right as voting in this democracy, and the basic human right of living without being judged by the color of your skin, have to be won again and again is sadly pathetic.  Yet giving the realities that actually exist, it seems true that this is so.  Yet it is essential that this be done not just by certain people of color, but by all people of all colors.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us all:  racism is as damaging and destructive to the racist as it is to the people against whom the racism is pursued.  He also stated that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And it is precisely such injustice we must stand united against, so as to establish real justice for us all.

Back to Selma”: The movie is exceptionally well done, even though it takes some slight liberties with actual historic events for appropriate and good dramatic effect.  It is well worth every penny to see it, most especially in this current era of racially charged realities, because it demonstrates visually and graphically the kinds of realities we have already lived through as people in this nation, and what we need to remember as we seek to go forward being better in our race relationships as people living in this nation.  It is exceptionally well acted and well written, even including the “new” speeches (though the movie is not speech heavy) since, for whatever reasons, the King family did not sign-off on his speeches being used for the movie, though the ending of the speech on the steps of the capital building in Montgomery does end virtually the same as the actual speech, in which he said: 

The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.  The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.  The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”  Then later added, “And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead:  remain committed to nonviolence.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.  We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.  And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man.  That will be the day of man as man.”   Then he finished with a stirring quoting of lines from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:  “Our God is marching on.  Glory hallelujah!  Glory hallelujah!  Glory hallelujah!  Glory hallelujah!  His truth is marching on!” 

Martin Luther King, Jr., at another time and place, also said the following:  “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world.  It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism.  Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.  To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”  Hate is the reality of those who bomb churches within which walk little girls.  Hate is the reality of those who put bombs outside the offices of the NAACP.  Hate is destructive and too often deadly—and hate cannot be allowed to be the final word!  It wasn’t 50 years ago, and it cannot be today, 50 years later!  It is love that had the final word then and must have the final word now!  Let’s make it so!  Amen and Amen!

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Rodney Noel Saunders is a United Methodist clergyperson living in Alberquerque, NM where he serves as the Wesley Foundation Director at the University of New Mexico.

A Just Resolution is Still Unjust

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Last night, on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, the terms of a just resolution were released in the complaint filed against Bishop Melvin Talbert for officiating the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in Birmingham, Alabama in October 2013.

Photo by Laura Rossbert, Reconciling Ministries Network

In many ways, the announcement of just resolution from the College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church is a recognition of Divine presence throughout the complaint process.  I’m thankful for the faithfulness of all who were part of this resolution – and for those of us who will continue to be part of helping this resolution come to fulfillment. It seems fitting this would take place on Epiphany, which traditionally marks the end of the Christmas season and in many faith communities it is expressed through the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts, marking the recognition of the Divine in our midst.

The just resolution process placed within our Book of Discipline – for bishops, as well as for clergy and laity – was developed as a way to seek out honest conversation, wholeness, and restoration. Indeed, it is intended to be an alternative to a punitive trial system which mirrors the American legal courts. Just resolution has been used in many contexts including schools, legal cases, and in many recent church complaints.  Our Book of Discipline sets just resolution as the hoped for goal of any complaint that is filed for violation of the Discipline. I celebrate on this day of Epiphany that our church law is one of grace and wholeness.

Unfortunately, this same Discipline which provides grace and wholeness causes pain and harm in the first place. The Council of Bishops would never had the need to file a complaint against Bishop Talbert if a ban against officiating at same-sex weddings were not in place. And this ban stems directly from our Discipline’s famed incompatibility clause (¶161.F).

While it is important to celebrate this just resolution as a way forward, both the complaint and the need for just resolution in complaints regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons and those in ministry with these persons, are inherently unjust from their genesis. Bishop Talbert, drawing from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Augustine, has made this abundantly clear in his articulation of the concept of Biblical Obedience: “an unjust law is no law at all.” I hold the same to be true: that an unjust resolution is really no resolution either because the unjust law – anti-LGBTQ language in the Book of Discipline – still exists.

I pray for the Council of Bishops as they work alongside Bishop Talbert to bring life to the terms of the just resolution.

I pray that all of the bishops might encourage the work of the Council of Bishops Task Force on Accountability and Task Force on Human Sexuality, Race and Gender in a Worldwide Perspective to understand the pain The United Methodist Church has caused to LGBTQ persons, their families, and friends in every corner of the world.

I pray that all members of the Council of Bishops will seek “to actively pursue sustained theological conversation especially around human sexuality, race and gender in a worldwide church.” Ending the deafening silence from the Council of Bishops, as a body, surrounding the injustices of racism, white privilege, and police violence in America and around the world, could be one step in exploring the intersection of injustice.

I pray for the Council of Bishops and all individual bishops to “make use of the teaching role of the bishop through preaching, teaching, writing and theological conversation to continue to address our differences and to work for unity in diversity.”

I pray that the Council of Bishops consider options in addition to the complaint process to address differences that “reflect our Wesleyan heritage, and acknowledge that ways of resolving disagreements within a community of faith should be distinct from those of a civil judicial process.”

I pray for the day when our Council of Bishops, as a whole, as well as individual episcopal leaders, do not have incompatibility clauses to uphold.

I pray for those delegates selected by Annual Conferences to be seated at General Conference. I pray they realize how much power they have to change our Discipline and our Church. I pray they recognize the Holy Spirit in their midst. I pray they know how much their lives are intertwined with mine.

It pains me that the Council of Bishops must spend their time on this injustice and not collectively speak a prophetic word to the brokenness of our immigration system, climate change, our Church’s complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and issues of police violence and white privilege. It pains me that our best leaders are not able to be effective pastoral shepherds and witnesses to Christ’s love and grace because of time lost to administrative duties created in the upholding of unjust laws.

So when I say ‘pray,’ it means more than words. It means action.

Won’t you pray with me to work so that a ‘just resolution’ can become a resolve for justice?

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Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

 

Photo by Laura Rossbert, Reconciling Ministries Network

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