Selling Out Orthodoxy

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Let me begin by confessing. I am an orthodox Christian.  My faith is deepened every time I seriously engage with the creeds, the canon of scripture, and the fathers and mothers of the Church catholic. This has not always been the case.  I entered seminary in the thrall of modernist, naturalist triumphalism.  I associated the historical tradition of the Christian church with naïve, anti-science perspective.  I had confused orthodoxy with the modern strand of Biblical literalism and inerrantism. And, I had confused the traditional faith of the Church with a right wing political program. In short I had confused orthodoxy with modernist right wing conservatism.

Seminary helped me sort much of this out. It taught me about the ways in which the classical confessions of Christianity could be succor for intellectual curiosity instead of a bludgeon for those with whom you disagreed. I learned that the fathers and mothers of the church had often fought against the kind of reductive treatments of our scriptures that were found in modern fundamentalism.  I came to see the orthodox Christian tradition as rich and diverse, certainly not reducible to a particular political platform.

Since then I have often found myself defending orthodoxy to my more “progressive” friends. What you dislike most about this tradition, I tell them, is not really a part of the tradition.  And, in places where the orthodox tradition pushes you, it is best to be pushed, to live into the tension, and to engage in the ongoing dialogue that is orthodox Christianity.

Unfortunately, this is always a hard position to take, often because those claiming to represent orthodoxy make exactly the same kinds of mistakes about the tradition that the enemies of orthodoxy make.  Take, for instance, two recent commentaries on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, both of which claim that the Conference moved the Church toward orthodoxy.

The Baptists

Writing for the Southern Baptist Convention, Joseph Rossell penned an article entitled Methodists’ Long Arc Toward Orthodoxy. What evidence does he provide to fill out the title? Well, he notes that the General Conference did not change its stance on homosexuality.  He lauds the fact that the Conference did not decide to divest from programs supporting Israel.  And he finds most encouraging the fact that the Conference withdrew from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-choice organization, and did not renew a resolution endorsing the language of Row v. Wade.

Now, one might wonder, where is the “orthodoxy” in all of this?  Where are the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the Church mothers and fathers? Where is the great tradition of Christianity? Where is there even a mention of the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit?  Even the name of Jesus is absent from the article.  The list produced by Rosell is a who’s who of social issues for the Religious Right.  It says nothing about Christian orthodoxy.  It suggests only that the United Methodist Church is shifting to become politically more conservative. The UMC trends more toward the Republican party platform than it did three weeks ago, but there is nothing here to suggest any win for “orthodoxy.”

The Professor

One expects an analysis with more depth from William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University.  In addition to being Wesleyan, and thus having a sense of Church tradition which would be understandably atrophied in a commenter from the SBC, Abraham has done sustained work on the concept of orthodoxy.  Indeed, his work on Canonical Theism is part of what lead me to my greater appreciation of orthodoxy.

So, when Abraham now turns to discuss The Birth Pangs of United Methodism as a Unique, Global, Orthodox Denomination what do we find?  Playing the Owl of Minerva, Abraham declares the direction of history, in which the 2016 General Conference has been “a watershed moment.” The United Methodists Church has become a “unique, global, orthodox Methodist denomination.”

What follows, however, is not an account of developing theological maturity in the Church.  It is a narrative of political intrigue, placing the progressives, the moderate Hamiltonians, and the traditionalists and evangelicals against one another.  The key issue, of course, is homosexuality.  The whole thing is enthralling.  There is even the suggestion of a cabal; “a network of progressive bishops who are very effective at controlling” the Council of Bishops.

The narrative climaxes in the clashes of the 2016 General Conference, where “traditionalists and conservatives” ran the field. For the progressives and moderates, Abraham tells us, things could not have been worse. “The orthodox train was barreling down the tracks and all they could really hope for was that someone could get their hands on the emergency brake and stop it reaching the station.” (Yes, he really used the phrase “orthodoxy train.”) The collapse of the left was halted only by the Council of Bishops stepping in and setting up a commission that pushed the resolution of the issue down the road.

Despite Abraham’s key use of the term “orthodoxy” here, his article is long on politics and woefully short on theology.  Aside from ad hominem generalizations about moderates and progressives, Abraham does not bother to engage any actual representatives of either group. And the most substantive support he offers for his claims about the significance of arguments about homosexuality in the church is that: “The issue is theological and moral; theological because it involves its doctrine of creation; and moral because it is a matter of the canonical and ethical practice.”

Abraham does not let this lack of theological substance limit the rhetorical heights of his claims.  What is at issue, he tells us, is “the total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching.” With our arguments over homosexuality, we face “a fourth schism in the life of the church.” [1] Those who disagree with the conservative position are likened to the Arian heretics of early Christianity.

The total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching is at issue in our arguments about homosexuality? Really?  Is this issue more central to the canonical tradition than other issues about which we argue? Issues of war and peace? Issues of divorce? Debates about the gifts of the spirit? What justifies suddenly declaring on this issue that those who disagree are as Arius? If we are to take such language seriously, we need it deployed with more seriousness.

What of the claim that the issue involves the doctrine of creation?  Do our arguments about abortion, in vitro fertilization, genetic testing, etc. involve this doctrine any less? Since when has “involving” a doctrine made something central to Christian orthodoxy?

This is not an appeal to orthodoxy, this is dressing a position up as orthodoxy for political purposes.  As Abraham councils, because “orthodoxy” is at stake, traditionalists “are right to eschew merely pragmatic schemes of accommodation and negotiation.” By running the stakes so high, he has made dialogue and compromise seem impermissible. All that is left then, is the play of power.  Not a bad situation for a person who believes that his position is the one with the power.

Orthodoxy Left out in the Cold

There is one further issue that makes it clear that the General Conference 2016 was not about re-claiming orthodoxy. During the General Conference, two separate committees took up the question of whether to recognize the Nicene Creed as a Doctrinal Standard for the United Methodist Church.  The proposal was not supported by either committee, and never made it to a broader vote.

Now, if one were concerned with orthodoxy, the voting down of the Nicene Creed seems like exactly the kind of thing that would garner that person’s attention.  The Southern Baptists predictably don’t make the connection. Abraham offers a weak argument that today’s disputes about homosexuality are like the early Church’s fights over Arianism while failing to mention that the UMC side stepped endorsing the Creed that actually addresses Arianism.

So, for all the whoopla about “orthodoxy” winning at the General Conference, what these articles reflect is the domestication of the language of orthodoxy for the purpose of forcing a conservative conclusion onto ongoing dialogue.  And that is a sad thing, because orthodoxy is something much bigger and better than we can fathom, being so fixated as we are now on the current power plays in our Church.  Unfortunately, so long as it is dragged down to be a mere symbol in those fights, we will never be able to appreciate its full grandeur.



[1] You will be excused for not knowing what the first three were as Abraham has selected (1) divisions over Arianism, (2) divisions concerning the doctrine of salvation by faith, and (3) divisions over the authority of scripture, and has not included the East West Schism or the split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Possibly, Abraham did not want to highlight the fact that most of the things that we think of as “schisms” in the life of the Church actually happen between groups that both maintain their place within some version of orthodox Christianity.

Is what we DO together sufficient for Unity?


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One of the things that I have always appreciated about Wesleyan Evangelicals is that they have always resisted the alternating social quietism and tunnel vision to which their fundamentalist brethren are tempted. While there are tensions in the Wesleyan tradition as to where to place the emphasis between winning souls and offering material ministries to the poor and oppressed. It has always been a mark of Wesleyanism, whether conservative or progressive, that one cannot set aside the social dimension of the Gospel.

Recent discussions, however, have challenged this claim. In discussions about unity in the Church, some Wesleyans have begun to treat our commonality in social ministries as only “superficial unity” or perhaps not even worthy of the word “unity.” Note: what I am most worried about here is not simply the claim that the importance of common social ministries to the poor, etc. in the church is overridden by the divisiveness of our position on homosexuality (which I do take to be wrongheaded on its own).  What concerns me the most is that some have, in the heat of the argument, begun to write off our social ministries as a real ground for unity at all.

So, let’s look at some of what I am talking about. (If you are familiar with these ministries, skip down to past the numbered section).

1) Since 2008, the Church’s mission Imagine No Malaria has raised $68 million in cash, pledges and commitments.  It is one of the largest non-Governmental contributors to the Global Fund to The United Methodist Church.  Its Nothing But Nets campaign has engaged United Methodists across the United States. In 2015 alone, over 1.2 million people benefited from the programs. And Imagine No Malaria has contributed to cutting in half the number of malaria deaths in the past decade.

3) In 2015 UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief celebrated its 75th anniversary.  It is run on donations, primarily from the One Great Hour of Sharing which is organized across the United Methodist Connexion. This allows UMCOR to avoid the advertising expenses of similar groups like Catholic Charities and the Red Cross, so that donations can go straight to the ministry of the organization.  UMCOR has served vitally in over 100 countries across the globe, and has served a central role in responding to natural disasters in the United States.

4) The 2016 General Conference commissioned 29 new missionaries for the Church.  These missionaries will join the other 350 United Methodist missionaries across the globe who develop churches, serve as chaplains, help develop farming, teach, administrate, and offer health care.  In addition, the Church sponsors Global Mission Fellows (the United Methodist parallel of Americorps), Global Justice Volunteers, and Mission Volunteers for shorter terms. The programs allow members across our connexion to participate directly in our global ministries beyond their local churches.

5) The United Methodist Church is currently associated with 119 undergraduate schools in the united states. This grows out of the call in the 1800s for all annual conferences to build their own colleges to make good on Wesleyan aim of joining knowledge and vital piety. Many of these schools have gone on to do the yeoman’s work in opening higher education to first generation students. The Church also has 13 schools of theology in the United States, including some of the best in the nation and Duke.  Beyond this the Church relates to over 700 different educational institutions globally, including Africa University, which has become a powerful institution in the rise of United Methodism in Africa.

Ok, those examples only scratch the surface of what we do together.  But hopefully they do start to fill out a picture of a Church which is not only doing something together, but reaching out in vital ministries together.

So, what should this count for? Well, such common ministries may not be sufficient for establishing Church unity.  But if you don’t see how they get us a great deal of the way there, I am willing to say that you are not very Wesleyan at all.

First, these are not simple things we do.  They are ways of living the Gospel together.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus suggests that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  The Connexion of the United Methodist Church allows us to reach out to the least of these (which includes ourselves) on scales that no individual church can dream.  Through these ministries, through our unity in these ministries, we come to approximate the Kingdom of God on a scale that no non-denominational conglomerate can. One imagines the believer, on the day of the judgment of nations, explaining to God that she or he thought that saving God from a death at the hands of malaria was really superficial to the kind of unity in the church he or she was looking for.

Second, it is particularly true that as United Methodists our social ministry to the poor and oppressed can be played off against our common beliefs. The practice of social ministry to the poor and oppressed is central to Wesleyan orthodoxy. Wesley famously claimed that there is no holiness but social holiness.  Feeding and clothing those in need, and seeking justice are two of the means of grace.  Our ministries with the poor and oppressed ought properly to be seen in the Church as a means of grace through which the Church as a whole is invigorated by the work of God. Further, our corporate ministries as a church are one key part of the central concept of our polity: connexionalism. To treat our shared social ministries as superficial is heretical for a Wesleyan.

In fact, I would suggest that our connexional ministries are THE ONLY ministries that can be offered as distinctive to the unity of the United Methodist Church.  Any non-denominational church can offer you a Wesleyan theology and an open communion table.  If you are only after strict adherence to a set of beliefs, it would be much easier to find yourself a small community of like minded people and worship together without all the committees, conferences, and Global Boards. But is only the connexion that can offer a way to live that theology out globally in the way that we do.

Now, before anyone gets too hot and bothered, let me answer my original question.  Is what we do together sufficient for Church unity?  No.  I don’t think it is.  It is, as one would say in philosophy, necessary but not sufficient. In addition to it we need a common core of theology, liturgy, etc. which I believe we also have. But that is an argument for another day.

At the very least, today what I want to do is to get us to stop being so un-wesleyan in the way that we treat our common social ministries. I do not mean to claim that we are the only ones who do such ministries, or that we are the best at them (though there are some areas where we are the only ones, and some areas where we are the best).  All I am claiming here is that are common social ministries are important.  What we do together is not superficial.  It is not unsubstantial.  It is not insignificant for the unity of our Church.  And, whatever the significance of our disagreements about homosexuality, we should stop killing our own tradition by minimizing the significance of what certainly does contribute to our substantial unity.


Unity Beyond the Current Order in United Methodism


Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor at Candler School of Theology, recently published a blog on church unity. Dr. Watson is an important voice in United Methodism, rightly praised highly for his work on the Class Meeting.  As such, it is worth while looking at what he has to say, and offering some criticism.

Here let me focus on his two central claims.

First, Watson suggests that, since the Discipline represents our polity, and since it is shared polity that allows for unity, those (like me) who have advocated for a unity which includes resistance to the current stance in the Discipline are not really in favor of unity.

Watson’s view here has initial plausibility, but is ultimately overly idealistic. The world would be much more orderly if the codes of rules that our societies produce were actually the substance of our societies.  But this is never really the case in any simple way.  Lived societies are constantly negotiated, and rarely fully captured on the page.

This fact is clear enough to anyone who has ever taken a thorough look at the legal code in any modern state.  In North Carolina it is illegal for bingo games to last more than five hours.  In Rhode Island it is illegal to sell toothbrush and toothpaste to the same customer on a single Sunday.  No one actually follows these rules. Does this mean that the unity of these states is compromised? No.  Often times practice does not fit to de jure standard.

The above represent places where the legal standards represent modes of life that we would all agree are (at least) out of date. But that is not always the case.  Often times the implementation of law differs regionally.  Take, for instance, traffic laws.  Anyone who has driven in multiple parts of the country will recognize that driving habits differ depending on where one is, and that what is de facto allowed by police will vary if you live in California or Kansas (for instance).  In some cities if you pull into an intersection while waiting to turn left it can get you a ticket.  In others the police officer behind you will honk if you have not pulled out into the intersection.  This despite the fact that the de jure laws on the books are often exactly the same. And yet the unity of the United States is not threatened by this variation in de facto driving patterns.

Not only this, but the Judao-Christian tradition itself has a long history of violating its own written standards.  Take for instance the Puritans in the early Americas.  Today most people have a dour view of the Puritans as strict legalists. There is some justification for this, and part of it would come from reading their explicit social laws. You would be amazed what you could get killed for according to these documents! But, historians tell us that this is not a particularly good way of getting at what the Puritan societies actually did in practice. In practice, while the law calls for strict punishments, the Puritans exercised a great deal of grace. While the law represented the absoluteness of their moral resolve, when it came down to it nobody actually wanted to carry out capital punishment on the guy who lived down the street. The situation is doubtless the same for many of the laws found in the Old Testament. While critics today enjoy trotting out the relatively minor infractions for which one could be justly killed according to the Torah, history does not record the actual carrying out of these punishments on a regular basis (and with the number of capital offenses, judicial killings would doubtless have been regular occurrences).

But why stay in the distant past or in other denominations?  It turns out that there are lots of rules currently in the Discipline that go unenforced and no one even takes note.  See, for instance, this list of 25 ways United Methodists don’t uphold the Book of Discipline. My point here is not that we should have no enforced standards (we need enforced rules) but that we need more than a simple appeal to The Discipline as is currently stands in order to make sense of how and why we enforce. Not all difference in practice is an attack on substantial unity, and not all unity springs from our shared rules.

So, contrary to what Watson suggests, not towing the line in following the written standards of the Discipline is not necessarily an attack on Church unity.  In fact, the real question for people who make this claim is what is it about the issue of homosexuality that makes it so unique in our social standards that our unity depends on strict enforcement?

Watson’s second claim is that those who advocate for moderation (something like freedom of conscience) on issues of homosexuality have provided no developed theological rational for this possibility.

I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God.

Apparently then Watson believes that moderates need an argument for God’s indifference on the question of homosexuality in order to justify their appeal to agree to disagree.  That is a fascinating claim, and I can think of no reason why it would be true.

Let’s say that two Christians agree to disagree on for whom to vote in an election.  Does that mean that they agree that God is indifferent on who gets elected? It’s possible, but not likely. Rather, they probably both believe that (all other things equal) God would prefer their candidate, but they agree to disagree because they are virtuous people who are marked by humility about their own judgments about God’s will in this case and because they recognize that there are other important things that they gain by not leaving the relationship.

But, again why make the issue abstract.  Anyone who is familiar with the United Methodist Church knows that we just do agree to disagree on all sorts of things.  Does that mean that we agree that God is indifferent on those issues? We disagree with each other on the ethics of war, alcohol consumption, abortion, divorce, etc. Are United Methodists therefore obligated to take the position that God is indifferent on these issues? That seems a uniquely absurd conclusion.

Again, the real question here is why, given that we do disagree about such important issues to the Christian tradition as the ethics of war, etc., can we not come to agree to disagree about homosexuality?  In the midst of disagreement between United Methodists of good faith, what is it that deprives us of the humility that would allow us to find substantive unity across our disagreement?

I must admit.  To that I have no answer.

Who Won at General Conference?


The spin has already started concerning the vote Wednesday at the General Conference.  Within minutes of Conference action, Reconciling Ministries (aligned with the progressive wing of the Church) issued a press release stating that: “This historic action by the Council of Bishops (COB) represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality.” [1 It took John Lomperis, United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (a right wing parachurch organization), a bit longer to figure a way to say that it was really the conservatives who had won.


So who really won at the General Conference?  The Church.

Coming into the Conference the official stance of the Church opposed homosexual weddings and ordination, but in practice many more progressive regions have found ways around enforcing this standard.  There were lots of proposals, but basically four different options on the table for the Church:

(1) Conservatives win – We strengthen enforcement of the current anti-LGBTQ standards in the Book of Discipline.

(2) Progressives win – We eliminate the current standards in the Book of Discipline, and become a Church that universally affirms homosexual ordination and weddings.

(3) Schism – We split into multiple denominations and force individual churches to choose which way to go.

(4) Muddle on – We don’t change the current standard, we don’t strengthen enforcement.  We continue on in our common ministries while de facto recognizing that the Church embraces no one position on homosexuality.

As I have argued in past posts, option # 4 is at present both for principled and strategic reasons the best of a set of bad options for the Church. [2, 3]

Throughout the Conference up to this point we have appeared headed for either option #1 or option #3. [4]  These are not, as I have suggested, unrelated.  The victory of one or the other “side” in our ongoing fight leads inevitably to the collapse of our common ministry as a Church.

But on Tuesday night, in part to avoid the specter of Schism, the General Conference asked the Bishops to lead by presenting their own proposal.  The Bishops retired to executive session, and came forward on Wednesday with their plan. The plan was to refer all discussions about homosexuality to a special commission that would report back its findings to a special session of the General Conference in two or three years.

Some felt that the Bishops had failed in meeting the demand of the moment.  They had not proposed a way to put this all behind us. But the grounding for such complaints is unrealistic.  The Bishops were not, in a night, going to sort out the issues which have plagued the Church for more than a decade. But even beyond that, there is no plan that they could have proposed which would have solved the problems we face.  If the General Conference did not like any of the myriad plans put in front of them thus far, no new plan was going to fit the bill.

I am no great fan of the idea of a commission, though it is clear at this point that the General Conference needs some process beyond the byzantine legislative procedure if it is going to achieve anything more than great power conflict on such issues.  Nor do I like the cost associated with calling a special meeting of the General Conference, though if we have learned anything in the past two General Conferences it is that the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference itself is not adequate for dealing with all, and especially the controversial, business of the Church.

After an extremely acrimonious floor debate, the General Conference voted to accept the proposal from the Council of Bishops, 428-405.

So who won?

It was not progressives who want to convert the Church to a uniform pro-LGBTQ platform. The current official standard of the Church has not changed.  No one will be required to perform gay weddings or accept ordained homosexuals into their pulpit. Indeed, at this point we don’t even know if the commission will be able to find a proposal that will officially recognize the plurality that exists in our church currently. Any proposal from the commission will have to come back to a Conference and face the same contention that exists this time.

But equally, it was not conservatives. At the same time that the General Conference was voting for the Council of Bishops proposal, the Judicial Council was ruling that any attempt to make mandatory minimum punishments for violating the current standard of the church was unconstitutional. Conservatives have thus been blocked from strengthening the regime of punishments in the Church. (Note: further Judicial Council rulings may yet further set conservatives back, but that is another story).  And, like progressives, they have to wait to see what comes out of the commission that has now been created.

I say let them wait. The longer we can prevent one or the other side from winning, the more time we have as a church to minister together and focus on what is essential to the Gospel.  The longer we muddle through, the more time there is for the Holy Spirit to work in transforming us organically rather than from the top down. There are many issues that need still to be addressed before any official solution is possible. But for today, we can celebrate the victory of the Church and continue in ministry together. And, my good God, we might even get to some other issues before the end of the General Conference!

Have We Reached Schism?


I awoke this morning to the full sound and fury of United Methodist social media. Late last night rumors emerged that the Council of Bishops is considering a plan of schism for the United Methodist Church. These are, at this point, rumors.  Anyone who has watched General Conference before ought to know that threats of schism are par for the course.  Often times, they are part of the power game that is the General Conference these days.  Only time will tell if this is part of the political process, or a serious threat to end the political process.

But before dismissing this as nothing more than politics as usual, it might be worthwhile to look at the power dynamics that would lead to a shift in the calls for schism. Over the last four years, the United Methodist Church has developed a fragile form of de facto compromise over questions of homosexuality. Conservatives control the official stance of the Church.  But liberals have found ways to avoid enforcement of this standard in regions where they predominate.

This system is intellectually incoherent, but it has the makings of a compromise that could not be achieved in any coherent system. In any coherent plan, either one side would gain enough power to lord over the other, or individual Annual Conferences and churches would be forced to explicitly take sides (inevitably leading to schisms within churches). As such, I have advocated for maintaining the status quo as the only realistic alternative for workable unity.

Inevitably, however, at General Conference, the two extremes fight to take over. It is too early to have a accurate picture, but the perception out of many corners of the Conference is that conservatives have taken the upper hand. With the power of African votes combined with American conservatives, conservatives have managed to put their own slate of nominees in key positions, including on the Judicial Council. And, in committee, efforts to close loopholes for enforcement of the official standard of the church have been passing. Progressives have likened it to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980s.

If there is any truth to the rumors of the recent talk of schism, this would be the reason. If conservatives succeed in closing loopholes, etc, this would end the fragile de facto compromise in which our church lives. With a consolidation of conservative rule, some progressives would rather hit the road than live in a foreign land.

I am still hopeful that this is not the only alternative. The General Conference has yet to vote as a whole on the closing of loopholes, etc. But regardless of what comes of the current rumors of schism, it seems clear to me that the victory of one or the other side in our ongoing debate will lead to the end of our church. At this point, that is a very real threat.

The United Methodist Church at a Non-Turning Point


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As everyone who follows the Methodist blogging world knows, the United Methodist Church is in a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. So what should we do? What will we do?  I suspect the answer is nothing. And that’s not so bad really.

The crucial issue is (of course) homosexuality, especially homosexual marriage and homosexual weddings. Conservatives have managed to determine the shape of the official Church stance, but progressives have found ways to sidestep or just ignore this stance in some regions.

A few years ago I was more optimistic about hammering out a coherent compromise within the church, but have long since become cynical about these efforts. There are several reasons for this.  First, because there are extremists on either side who are willing to blow up any compromise.  But not all of the dysfunction should be blamed on the extremists.  The logistic, moral, liturgical, and theological issues involved have turned out to be more intractable than I earlier thought. People of good faith have labored on these issues without making headway.  None of this has been made any easier by the (lack of) institutional structures for fruitful dialogue. We live in a Church that only gets together every four years for a couple weeks to actually iron out the details of our common life. This structure is clearly insufficient, and the patchwork of social media engagement that has developed in the interim has shown itself entirely unsuitable for profitable discussion.

In any case, at the end of four years of fighting, there is no real compromise position that has emerged. So at this point there are really four alternatives.  All proposals at this point are versions or mixtures of these.

1. We strengthen enforcement of the current standard in the Discipline.

This is the alternative where conservatives “win” and progressives “lose.”  It is unlikely that it will carry the day at General Conference. While the conservative position likely gains strength via the growth of the votes of African United Methodists at the conference, the progressive position will likely have picked up more votes among the European and American voters.  Aside from this, it would not really resolve the issue.  Progressives have proven perfectly willing to find ways around previous declarations of the General Conference.  There is no reason to think that more statements on the need for enforcement would significantly change the situation.  The most likely outcome is that progressives would respond with two different strategies.  On the one hand, they would continue to ordain and do weddings without publicizing, and since these practices are accepted in significant pockets of the church no one will complain.  On the other hand, some progressives will continue to pursue the practice of ecclesial disobedience. The cost to the church in terms of Church trials and bad publicity would only speed the decline of the denomination.

2.  We change the current standard.

This is the option where progressives “win” and conservatives “lose.” For the reasons cited above, this too is unlikely to pass at the General Conference.  Further, passing it would lead to similarly problematic outcomes.  Changing the official stance of the Church would lead to outright rebellion from conservative churches and clergy. Some would start withholding apportionments to the General Conference, declaring de facto independence.  More extreme congregations will seek to leave the Church. The cost associated with trials to enforce the trust clause would build up.  Bishops would be forced to decide whether it is worth it to even fight the attrition. Inevitably, the effect would be to speed the decline of the denomination.

3. We split the Church down conservative/progressive lines.

This is the option where extremists on both side “win,” and the majority in the middle “loses.” There is no reason to think that the General Conference would even seriously consider an plan for schism. In any case, in order to split, the two sides would have to agree on how to split. The changes of agreement there is only slightly less likely than the emergence of a grand bargain in which both sides come together to sing Kumbaya on the Conference floor. Besides this, the effect of a split would be catastrophic for United Methodist congregations.  Most include people on both sides of the disagreement, and being forced to decide between a new progressive or conservative version of United Methodism would inevitably ostracize members on one side or the other. The result would be to speed the decline of the denomination.

4. We don’t do anything.

This is the option where everyone loses, but a relatively small amount. Regardless of how much effort is put in by varying interest groups, this is the most likely outcome of the General Conference on issues regarding homosexuality. Conservatives retain the ability to say the official position of the Church is reflected in their practice and theology, and where they control the mechanisms of enforcement they are able to enforce these standards.  But they might as well get used to the fact that this standard will not be universally enforced across the church.  Progressives get to continue and indeed expand their efforts to establish a new policy in practice which includes ordaining LGBTQ persons and performing gay weddings.  The Church will suffer some attrition from extremists who cannot live with the de facto compromise, but the loss is nothing compared to what would happen if either side “won” over the other.

You will find few blogs arguing for the forth option.  Most of those participating in the conversation at this point are devoted to one side or the other. But, it turns out that the majority of the United Methodist Church is not. Despite the perception in the blogging world that we are at the edge of a catastrophe, most United Methodists in the pews don’t even know that any of this is going on.  They are just good people, coming together in worship, serving at their local food banks and homeless shelters, and contributing to the broader mission of the church.  The first three options above will bring a catastrophe to their doorstep.  But there is no necessity to this. There is no solution that will make everyone happy, but we can figure out how to muddle on in ministry together. In fact, the solution is easy.  Just don’t do anything.

A Dose of Realism for Those Feeling the Bern

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So, yes, Bernie Sanders has registered ahead of Clinton in a Boston Herald-Franklin Pierce University poll in New Hampshire. In fact, the poll puts him significantly ahead; by a full seven percent. Further, he is drawing huge crowds to his campaign events. And there is plenty to like for Democrats who have not had a really strong left-wing candidate since the Reagan administration. Still, the basic obstacle to his nomination has not really changed. He has not proven himself electable.

His lead in that New Hampshire poll is not as surprising as it might seem. The poll respondents skewed young compared to the likely profile of actual voters. Since Sanders has much stronger support from younger voters, this probably slanted the results, even if it was not enough to establish the difference. Further polls will be necessary to see if it was a blip or a trend. At current the aggregate average at Real Clear Politics still puts Clinton up by 1% in the state.

But even if the poll reflects a trend, there is no reason to think that the result is meaningful beyond New Hampshire. Sanders is a Senator from next door Vermont, which is demographically quite similar to New Hampshire. Significantly, both states are around 95% white, and have higher than average percentages of college graduates. This plays directly to Sanders’ strength. He is strongest among highly educated, liberal white democrats. Once you get beyond that demographic, he doesn’t make much of a splash.

So, for all the good feels of many liberals who dislike Hillary, there is little to suggest that anything has significantly changed in the electorate over the past year. Hilary is still the clear favorite to win the nomination, and still has the best chance to win the general election. About the only thing that could take her down in the primaries would be if something in her ongoing email debacle made her unelectable.

This isn’t to say that things can’t shift. There is enough time left that just about anything could happen. But unless something significant moves, it’s still Hilary’s race.

The Prayer of Abel’s Blood


Guest post by Lauren Bowden.

The first prayer in the Bible comes not from a person, but from Abel’s spilled blood. A man kills his brother, and the blood cries out on behalf of the injustice and betrayal. There is a spiritual primacy given to the prayers that arise when creation groans and when injustice occurs. You can dehumanize and disembody those who suffer into oblivion, into forgotten blood on the ground, but God hears them. Urgently. And First. Do we?

The first claimed people-group in the Bible, the chosen ones, the Israelites, are chosen precisely because God hears their cries of enslavement in Egypt. There is a spiritual primacy given to those who experience oppression, violence, and mistreatment of the hands of their brothers and sisters. They have God’s ear. Urgently. And First. Do they have ours?

In Exodus, God split the sea for the hurting, the chosen, for those who were unsure they mattered. Special treatment? You bet your ass. The last are first in the Kingdom of God.
We must split the systemic barriers so that our brothers and sisters can walk down a street at night without being stopped and harassed. So that they can go through an education system that functions as more than a failure factory, or worship without fear of being shot or mocked.
I do not know if the people who put Confederate flags at Ebeneezer and the King Center consider themselves religious. I do know that my religion informs my outrage. And I believe God hears the prayers of Black America. For God, black lives don’t just matter. They are chosen. Primary. First.

Lord in your mercy, please, hear our prayers. Our groaning. Soften us so that we can hear each other. Because Jesus, we really need an Exodus out of this mess.

Inside Out – Psychology Goes to the Movies


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It has to be rare that a psychological theory becomes the basis for a Disney movie. As far back as Darwin, evolutionary theorists have searched for the function of emotions in human life. The assumption behind evolutionary theory, of course, is that the features of living things exist because they aid in securing survival. Beyond the more physical and physiological features, the ultimate goal of evolutionary theory is to produce an account of all features, including psychological features of living beings. Thus, the emergence of the evolutionary theory of emotions. Emotions are features of living things, thus they must have functions in securing the survival of the species in which they inhere.

Without raising explicitly the specter of evolutionary origins, Disney’s Inside Out provides an introduction to the basics of an evolutionary/functional theory of the emotions.

The movie is set in the interior world of the self, where figures representing different emotions govern the behavior of a little girl named Riley. When Riley is born, we are told, her inner world was first directed by Joy – being both a proper name and a descriptive account of the character. In general, this fits with the typical modern idea that human beings are directed first by their desire for pleasure. For the rest of the movie Joy will be the primary narrator and the ideal leader of the group controlling Riley’s mental life.

Of course, it is not long before Joy is joined in the control room of Riley’s mind by Sadness. Sadness immediately makes Riley upset, and she and Joy spend most of Riley’s early years fighting for control. Eventually, these two are joined by Disgust, Anger, and Fear.

Joy explains the function of each of the emotions. Disgust prevents Riley from coming into contact with things that are poisonous to her body. Anger is, following a classical account, “the moral emotion.” It/He takes control when Riley perceives that something is unfair (thus securing that she gets her share of goods). Fear inhibits dangerous activities so as to preserve Riley’s life.

Joy is, however, unsure of the function of Sadness. Indeed, for much of the movie, Joy believes that Sadness has no proper function, and tries to marginalize Sadness at every opportunity. The conflict between the two sets off the events that will drive the narrative. Joy’s wish to prevent Sadness from influencing Riley leads to a catastrophic collapse of Riley’s personality as Riley is progressively cut off from her relationships and social activities– parents, sports team, play, etc.

Ultimately, in order to bring things back into balance, Joy has to realize that Sadness does serve a function. Namely, Sadness triggers reactions from others that come into support Riley’s life. When Riley is sad, Riley’s parents step in to comfort and nourish her. Sadness is an alarm bell that engages Riley’s social safety net.

Is this psychological thriller an adequate account of human psychological functioning? No. In part this is a function of the mechanisms necessary for imagining the mental world as run by homunculi. Since the emotions are imagined as different characters, they are artificially separated from each other. Anyone who has ever gone on a roller coaster, for instance, knows that fear and joy are sometimes indistinguishable. It is also impossible to maintain the scheme of characters that are identified only with one emotion. All of the emotions in the movie are, for instance, at some point afraid of something.

More problematic are some of the assumptions of modern psychology that are built into the background of the narrative. The picture of the person that we get is driven by emotions, especially by the drive for pleasure. Reason is almost entirely marginalized. There are references to thoughts and abstract thinking, but these appear to be tools for the emotions to use in directing the person, not substantive features of personality themselves.

It is also noteworthy that the idea of a unified person is entirely left behind in the scheme of the movie. Riley, as it turns out has no identity. She is not an agent, does not have free will, and it is hard to think of any sense in which she would be responsible for her own actions. Her decision to run away from her parents in the movie, for instance, is “plugged in” by Anger.

This said, the picture of human psychology presented will probably provide some language for discussions with children. While the process of maturing into adulthood is not explicitly discussed, it is interesting to muse that it might require certain destructive periods as we re-make our personalities across time. And the movie presents really interesting possibilities for discussing depression, which is notably separated from Sadness in helpful ways in the movie. The movie does well in recognizing that our mental life is tied to our social and material context. Finally, I have already had to field questions from my eldest daughter about the “puberty” alarm that is highlighted at the end of the movie!

Now, before you say it (if you haven’t already), I know that this is a Disney cartoon. It is fun, funny, and action pact. The psychological scheme represented is necessarily overly-simple, and in service to a story line. So, you don’t have to process all the way through the psychological theory behind the narrative. But, if you do, it is worth it to find some of the background assumptions that will be shaping your child’s imagination as they conceive of themselves in the future.

Stop Oppressing Methodist Evangelicals!


David Watson has recently posted a blog post complaining of the poor treatment he and other evangelicals received in the West Ohio Annual Conference. They were, he reports, torpedoed by charges of being schismatics. This, he explains, has no basis in fact given his own and other evangelicals have explicitly rejected calls for schism. Despite this, only one representative of the evangelical slate was elected to General Conference while a Centrist and Progressive coalition took the clear majority of positions. What we have here, Watson concludes, is “an emerging Methodist McCarthyism.”

Before critiquing Watson, let me make some qualifications. First, I do not doubt that Watson is right that there were dirty politics and misinformation involved in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Personally, I have been sickened to see the extent to which Methodist politics parallels worldly politics at all levels. I would even suggest that the whole notion of having “slates” of candidates is a corruption of our conference process. If we start out institutionally divided against one another, there is no hope of coming out truly united on the far side. We have created a zero sum game in which every meeting will produce clear winners and losers. Second, Watson is reacting to a local situation which he knows far better than I. He is frustrated and angry. No doubt, to some extent justifiably so.

All of that said, I am not buying the idea of a one sided McCarthyism. Last summer Good News Magazine published a letter “Regarding United Methodism’s Future.” According to its self-description, it was authored by “more than 80 pastors” who “represent all five jurisdictions and more than 30 annual conferences, and many serve as lead pastors of some of the largest congregations in United Methodism.” The letter rhetorically asked: “Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will?” Are we not willing, in “In the manner that Paul and Barnabas chose to part amicably (Acts 15:39-41)?”

The letter was like a bomb that had gone off in Methodist social media. And that was no mistake. As I noted at the time, it was part of a long running political strategy from the Good News Community. For years, whenever progressives and centrists had challenged the evangelical position on homosexuality, evangelicals threatened to break the church.

So, roughly a year ago a group of evangelicals were stressing how widespread their movement was, and were calling explicitly for a schism in the United Methodist Church. Even Watson himself could sound quite close to the message of the 80: “I’m afraid, though, that after 2016, these theological friends and I–these brothers and sisters in Christ–will no longer share a worshipping community. The denomination has reached a breaking point.”

What happened to the calls for schism? Well, on the face of things, the strategy of calling for schism failed. We will have to wait to see whether it failed so extravagantly that it could open the way for a revision of the Book of Discipline on the issue of homosexuality. But clearly it did build up some ill will against evangelicals, and made it easy to target them as schismatics in some of this year’s round of Annual Conferences.

Watson is right, there has been very little explicit talk of schism from evangelicals this year.  Further, not all evangelicals signed off on schism even when it was popular. So, no doubt, opponents of evangelicalism are stretching the truth to make the case that all evangelicals signed on for schism, and that electing evangelicals will lead to schism. But, then again, the original message was created not by centrists and progressives, but by some of the leaders of evangelicalism itself.

As for charges of McCarthyism, we live in a system where there actually are boards of people who are authorized to ask questions about people’s personal lives and sexual preferences, and are able to reject them for jobs if they don’t fit the party line. But it is the evangelicals that are in favor of continuing the current limits here. So, before throwing the label of McCarthyism around, it might be worth at least taking a moment to think about how the metaphor cuts in multiple directions.

In short, what happened in Ohio sounds like a backfire of the strategy deployed in the letter of the 80. There were big name evangelicals involved in that, and the institution of Good News was identified with the effort. So, if evangelicals end up getting lumped in with that, it would be worthwhile for them to look at the mistakes made by evangelicals in addition to complaining about the rhetoric being deployed against them. Otherwise, this kind of thing tends just to continue a narrative of oppressed evangelicalism, which is extremely oversimplified.