This Is Our Witness?

My oldest grandchild texted me this link a couple of days ago. “Take a look at this,” she wrote, “and tell me what you think when you get a chance.” The link opens an article about the church trial of United Methodist pastor  Frank Schaefer for officiating at his gay son’s wedding six years ago. His action violated the denomination’s clear prohibition of clergy performing same-sex marriages.  Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating the policy and suspended for thirty days. At the end of his suspension he must either agree to follow all provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the denomination’s law book) or surrender his ministerial orders.

This whole affair was news to my granddaughter. She’s not a United Methodist, so she hasn’t followed our internal conflict closely. She’s been raised Catholic, and has grown into an intelligent, curious young adult with intense curiosity about a wide range of issues. Like many young adults a couple of years out of high school, she’s working, taking college basics, and figuring out what’s next.

I texted her back that a meaningful response required more than 140 characters and followed up with an extensive email. It included a brief history of the issue (we’ve been arguing for forty years without settling anything), and outlined what defines the “sides” in both church and culture. I described how cultural attitudes have changed as our understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular have evolved. I described the impasse at the 2012 General Conference and the subsequent responses of “Biblical Obedience” , a form of ecclesiastical civil disobedience advocated by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference and others who continue to work to change the church’s policy, and the insistence by the Good News organization and others that “rules are rules” and those who break them should bear the consequences. Finally I mentioned Bishop Mel Talbert’s presiding over a gay marriage in Alabama in late October  and the subsequent action of the Council of Bishops requesting that a complaint be filed against him.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that this was where we’d find ourselves, I would have doubted your sanity. We’re dragging our pastors into church courts for performing their children’s weddings? For forty years we’ve held together the tension between “All persons are of sacred worth” and “…homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice”? No wonder things are coming apart! Successive General Conferences have chosen power politics (vote-counting and arm-twisting worthy of Congress!) over acknowledging that people of deep faith are on all sides of this issue? We’d choose to resolve our differences with a series of church trials that at least one writer calls “A Methodist Inquisition” ? This is our public witness in the second decade of the 21st century?

Call in the spin doctors!. Maybe we can airbrush away the wrinkles, blemishes, and parts we want to hide in the darkness. Too late. This is who we are right now and the whole world sees. Young adults like my granddaughter see it. Faithful young United Methodists feeling called to ministry see, and wonder whether they can fulfill their calling with integrity in a polarized church; folks attracted by  our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” marketing struggle to reconcile the promise with the closed minds, hearts, and doors in this bizarre tale.

We have to do better. For God’s sake we can and must do better. Let our public witness lift up the life-changing role of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in disaster relief and recovery in the Philippines and all over our planet. Let our public witness spotlight urban ministries that are transforming cities all over our country. Let our public witness show how “Imagining” No Malaria has fueled a wide-ranging partnership among diverse people and institutions that’s making “No Malaria” a growing reality. Let our public witness tell the story of thousands of faithful ordinary congregations in all sorts of circumstances. Let our public witness highlight countercultural faith communities that welcome those who are unwelcome everywhere else. Let our honest, prayerful, Christ-centered process of working through this conflict and its underlying biblical and philosophical issues become our powerful public witness.

I don’t know the next step. I do know that folks on various sides of the issue will have to step up in remarkable, Christlike ways. I do know what Paul wrote to some early Christians who’d rather fight than reconcile: “…to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” (1 Corinthians 6:7 NRSV) I know that Paul identified Christlike love as the ultimate spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13). I know the advice about Christian maturity in Ephesians 4 which includes “…speaking the truth in love…” (v. 15), “be angry but do not sin” (v. 26), “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander…”(v. 31) and “…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:2).

Most of all I know that every new chapter in this “Methodist Inquisition” leads to death, not life. We’re not that far from becoming a circular firing squad. Everyone stands in a circle with their guns pointed toward the center. At the command “Ready, Aim, Fire!” all fire simultaneously—and you know the rest of that story. We can, must, I pray will, find another way. It’s not just a survival issue for our church. It’s far more important. It’s a life-and death issue for millions who need the Love that’s made us who we are and now reaches out to love others through us. It’s a matter of faithfulness to all who have loved us to life in Christ; to all who have gone before us in the history of the church; to succeeding generations like my granddaughter who would love to be part of an authentically- loving faith community. Most of all, finding a new way forward is a matter of faithfulness to our Lord who goes before us to build a New Creation–with or without our participation.

5 Responses to “This Is Our Witness?”

  1. 1 Brianna Higgs November 25, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    I love this.
    Can’t wait to give you more ideas.


  2. 3 DrTony November 25, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    Reblogged this on Thoughts From The Heart On The Left and commented:
    We sing that people will know that we are Christians by our love but somehow I don’t think that is what people sometimes here. We have to begin thinking about what we are doint.


  3. 4 betsypc January 27, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    Over the last few years I have struggled with disillusionment with The United Methodist Church. For reasons other than this ongoing struggle of the church in regards to the homosexual community, I finally distanced myself from all things church and began learning what all I did not know about basic orthodox Christianity. Based on my experience as a life long Methodist and comments I heard from others within the church, it is a faulty and probably fatal assumption that the person in the pew is grounded in any usable knowledge as to who God is and who “I” am in relation. This is a huge problem that strikes at the heart of why the church is in existence

    I am now trying to find my way back in to my local UMC congregation and it is a risky undertaking simply because of local issues. But when I look at this horrible argument, it gives me pause because it is a no-win argument.

    I truly do not know what the answer is. I have done some reading on the matter and am not convinced there have been any great in-roads in the understanding of human sexuality. I lean more towards the understanding that the push for acceptance is more a product of the media putting a “good face” on homosexuality.

    I look at the long term standing of the church on this issue and I just do not see us as being any more enlightened than at any other time in history. In “The Romance of Orthodoxy”, GK Chesterton has an amazing take on the role of tradition: it gives a wider view than that of “the arrogant oligarchy who happen to be alive”.

    Ultimately, I have had other more basic spiritual issues pressing me so it has not felt beneficial to spend a great deal of time on this one.

    Right now, I am more concerned about the damage being continually done to the church over this matter. The problem is, this is a matter of conscience for everybody concerned. One thing I have learned as I have read Wesley’s sermons is that for him, the conscience is the line you did not cross. It was basically a matter of conscience that forced me to distance myself from the local church and I have not regretted it. No one knows better than me how imperfect The United Methodist church is at this point in time. Its structure needs a major overhaul. But even so the current structure is all we have and as faulty as it is now, it was set up in good faith by those that went before. The General Conference has come to the same decision 10 times. At what point does the pro contingent accept the collective conscience of the church? I monitored the Twitter feed from GC2012 and was stunned at how so many of the pro contingent were ready to force this issue even if it brought the church to its knees. There is a Bishop who puts this issue above the health of the church. I find this unacceptable, no matter the issue. The reality is it is the pro contingent that is the in the driver’s seat in regards to the health of the church when it comes to this issue. I do not understand what sort of victory they will have if they drive The UMC to its knees. I also know the fall out a legislated decision wreaks on the local church–and here in South Texas, it was not the pro contingent that came out “on top”–they are the small congregation trying to find a footing in the community that no other church will touch, not even the sister congregation of the same denomination that managed to avoid a melt down. Bottom line is, the history is there; a decision for full inclusion will do nothing to bolster the church or its mission.

    Within the UMC, both sides continually drag Wesley into the fray. I offer up some quotes that neither side have used:

    From “The Lord is our Righteousness”

    “How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion! And not only among the children of this world…but even among the children of God, those who had experienced ‘the kingdom of God within them’, who had tasted ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’. How many in all ages, instead of joining together against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time but hurt one another’s spirits, weakened each other’s hands, and so hindered the great work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! How many of the ‘lame turned out of the way’! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard for all religion, and their contempt of those that profess it! and how many of the “excellent ones upon earth’ have been constrained to weep in secret places’! What would every lover of God and his neighbor do, what would he not suffer, to remedy this sore evil? To remove contention from the children of God? To restore or preserve peace among them? What but a good conscience would he think too dear to part with in order to promote this valuable end? And suppose we cannot make ‘these wars cease to all the world’; suppose we cannot reconcile all the children of God to each other; however, let each do what he can, let him contribute if it be but two mites toward it. Happy are they who are able in any degree to promote peace and goodwill among men! Especially among good men; among those that are all listed under the banner of ‘the Prince of Peace’; and are therefore particularly engaged, ‘as much as lies in them, to live peaceably with all men’. ”

    A quote from Wesley in Scott Kisker’s “Mainline or Methodist” attributed to the Preface to his “Sermons on Several Occasions”

    “Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so by plain proof of
    Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread and therefor am unwilling to leave it, labor with me a little; take me by the hand and lead me as I am able to bear…Perhaps if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arises…this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell, much less blow it into flame.”

    One more observation: one month after GC2012, The Wesleyan Church held their own GC2012. They are very open about their stance on homosexuality, and the homosexuality issue was never a part of the discussion. Last I checked, The Wesleyan Church had experienced record growth for 2 or 3 straight years.


  1. 1 Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness | ancoraimparo87 Trackback on December 14, 2013 at 4:04 PM

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