Friday, June 29, 2012

You Keep Using That Word . . .

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, . . .
Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men . . .
 Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God . . .
                                      The Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2004

Within the United Methodist Church is a group seeking to work for greater unity in a denomination that has seen more than its share of factional fighting over a variety of issues.  Rooted in the conviction that there is "power of the gospel to unify women and men of all ages, nations, and races who have found new life and restored dignity in the truth of Jesus Christ and in His body the Church", they move on to what they call "three deep convictions":
  • There is no authentic unity in the Church apart from agreement on the truth of the gospel.
  • Our constitutionally protected Doctrinal Standards are foundational to our agreement in the gospel.
  • There are inadequate proposals for unity to be named and critiqued.
There is nothing in this statement from the Confessing Movement with which I could find disagreement.  Indeed, I believe that we need even more clearly and more loudly to affirm our unity as a people redeemed by God, living out our call to be the Body of Christ in and for the world.  This requires an acceptance of our sinfulness and repentance.  We need even more fully to work together, diligently to search our lives, and those around us, holding one another up in prayer, and being bold enough to call to account in love and humility those we see straying.

Saying that, I find the Confessing Movement to be misguided, suspect in their intentions, and outside the best of what can be called our traditions as Wesleyans.

In the Book of Discipline, there is a section that records what has become known as The General Rules of the Methodist Societies.  The background to these three rules, printed above, is also given in the Discipline.  Beginning in 1739, having been approached by groups of people seeking to work together to fulfill St. Paul's call that we "work out our salvation in fear in trembling", Wesley set up what he called societies, which were, in turn divided in to "classes" of a dozen who would commit to work together for mutual support, calling to account, prayer, and giving what they could to support the ministries of their churches.  As the story continues:
There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: "a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins." But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.
I made a case yesterday for the sources for our theological reflection to run as deep and wide as possible.  Trusting in the God who holds all creation as beloved, we should never restrict ourselves by some prior set of assumptions to the opening of the Spirit.  Today, I would like to make a case that the norm by which we do our reflection be nothing more or less than the single condition Wesley set 273 years ago.  As the statement concerning our General Rules continues, this desire will only be known as it is lived.

As James Cone succinctly tells readers, the norm of theological reflection is how the sources are interpreted (A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 35).  The point of departure, then, for theological reflection revolves around how we understand different words.  This is not to say these understandings are either arbitrary or capricious.  On the contrary, the specificity of the revelation of who God is in and through the incarnation in Jesus Christ crucified and risen as testified in our lives through the Holy Spirit demonstrates that these definitions are clear and specific.

To return to The Confessing Movement to demonstrate how it is possible I can accept their general statement of principles, yet find the movement itself to be so wrong-headed, let us consider some reflections they made on part of proposal before the recently concluded General Conference that would have made the seminaries affiliated with the denomination more accountable to it.
The question has often been asked, at least by those who seek renewal in the church, whether the church believes that its educational institutions, and particularly its theological schools, should reflect the values, the beliefs, and the mission of The United Methodist Church.  Or to put the matter another way, do the leaders of the church understand, and do they intend to do anything about, the conflict between bowing before academic altars on one hand and advancing the cause of Jesus Christ in The United Methodist Church on the other?

 Perhaps the question is moot.  The last known heresy trial in the church took place in 1905.  Up until then (during the period of tremendous church growth) the bishops of the church, given the responsibility by the Discipline to “guard the faith,” monitored seminary teaching even to the extent of being involved in the selection of professors.  The General Conference of the M.E. Church of 1908, influenced by the rising tide of theological modernism, removed from theDiscipline the phrase, …theological schools, “whose professors are nominated or confirmed by the Bishops….”   Later it would remove the reference that the theological schools existed “for the benefit of the whole church.”   Since the theological schools did not exist for the benefit of the whole church, for what or for whom did they exist? . . .
United and Gammon seminaries are perhaps the closest in their endeavor to come along-side the church in its attempt to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Gammon seeks “to recruit, support and educate pastors and leaders for The United Methodist Church.”  Its vision is to “educate and equip persons to be prophetic leaders in the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (the exact words of the mission of the UM Church).

United Seminary also seeks to reflect UM values in its vision statement.  United seeks to educate leaders to make disciples of Jesus Christ, renew the church, and transform the world.  It is perhaps the only seminary which takes seriously the task of “renewing.”   One of its professors, Jason Vickers, has written a book, Minding the Good Ground A Theology for Church Renewal, which actually links renewal with theology and a new direction. 

When evangelical students have been asked if any of the seminaries affirmed their evangelical faith while they were students, two seminaries have been mentioned as being open and affirming to evangelicals, namely, United and Duke.  Some students speak positively of certain professors in other seminaries, but none of the other seminaries have received overall positive remarks. (emphasis in this paragraph added) 
What does the author of this piece mean by "evangelical"?  What does the author mean that such self-identifying students find their faith "affirmed"?  What would it mean for them not to experience such affirmation?  In what ways?  Clues are given in following paragraphs:
Claremont speaks of being a “multi-religious consortium” with the inclusion of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists.  “Multi-religious” affirmation does not appear to include the affirmation of evangelicals.  Claremont desires to instill students with ethical integrity, religious intelligence and intercultural understanding.  Being interpreted this means it does not seek to seek converts from other religions.  

Iliif affirms its United Methodist identity but within the “liberal” Christian heritage which is interpreted to mean openness to emerging truths especially those from science, experience, and other faith traditions.  Iliff is committed to modeling the values it embraces: diversity, mutual respect, accountability, honest communication, critical self-reflection, curiosity, creativity and a sense of adventure.  There is nothing there about winning disciples for Jesus Christ.
Quite apart from the notion that seminaries be held to the same set of criteria as churches (not to mention reinstituting heresy trials; that's a big winner right there), it seems clear the Confessing Movement has no real interest in "authentic unity" under the Gospel.  Were that so, why on earth would they spend any time worrying about whether or not one group or another attending one of our United Methodist seminaries felt affirmed there?  Far from affirming anyone, the Gospel is a constant source of negation, a destroyer of our comfortable assumptions and a constant reminder of our need for repentance and renewal.  It is this Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, that leads to the one needful thing: a desire to flee the wrath to come, and be saved from our sins.  This is not done in affirming anyone about anything; rather, it is only known as the lives of believers unfold.

The single norm by which any reflection deserves the title "in the Wesleyan tradition" is simple enough: it will be known by its fruits.  I can already hear the clamoring: But . . . but . . . what are those fruits?!?  That just goes to show you didn't click the link at the top and read what follows each ellipsis after the rules are stated.  In other words, there are specific norms by which we can know that we are being upheld in the faith; or, to reverse the order a bit, there are specific norms by which we can hold one another accountable to the faith.  They do not lie in adherence to any set of words.  They do not lie in crafting mission statements.  They do not lie in affirming any particular group in their particular profession of faith.  Rather, the only norm that serves us people called Methodist is a life of personal and social holiness; a life attendant upon the corporate worship of the God of Jesus Christ, including participation in the sacraments that renew the Body of Christ in its mission and ministries.

I have no need to join a "confessing movement", despite affirming that we Christians who call ourselves United Methodist are in need of remembering who we are and whose we are.  We all have the need to have our lives together, including our God-talk, always ready to submit itself to the test of whether or not it is evidenced by the fruit.  That is the norm, not just for our reflection and dialogue; it is, as it should be, the norm for our life together.

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