“It’s time” for the mess to stop. It is time for the slander, the name-calling, the disobedience, the disregard for covenant, and the harm being done to our church to stop. Our churches are stressed. Our connection is being slowly severed. Our witness is being shredded. It is time to stop the drama.
The one thing all of us can agree on is that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working anymore.
General Conference begins today in Portland for what will be a 10 day test of our denomination. Some believe it is time to stop acting like we are united at all. Others want a more ordered church with greater accountability. Some want to change our stance on different issues, including homosexuality, to differing degrees. The word schism is uttered repeatedly.
In a coordinated effort by a coalition of groups there are mounting events designed to put pressure on the church to change. Since they cannot get their views changed through honorable means, they seek to change it by outright disobedience to Scripture and the Book of Discipline. In the past month a retired bishop has again officiated a homosexual marriage, this time in a United Methodist Church. 111 clergy have come out as openly gay. The Pacific Northwest, Baltimore Maryland, and New York Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministries have all decided they will just ignore the Book of Discipline when considering candidates for ministry. The point has come that our denomination can no longer function. The wheels are getting so squeaky that even the grease won’t keep them moving.
So what are we to do? Some want to abandon the ship and move on. Some want to act like nothing is wrong. Some want to continue to be in conversation, though that has not worked.
Perhaps it is time to look at General Conference from a different perspective. For a moment let us pull ourselves out from the mire of this General Conference and see a different view. Before you look for a slant, a bias, a catch, or a ploy, I truly want you to know that I’m seeking to see this General Conference differently. I don’t like the vitriol, the disorder, the poor humor, or many of the other ways people have tried to process the many voices and ideas.
So perhaps it is time to try something different. There must be a better way. There must be something that can work. I believe I’ve found how we, not just the delegates, reporters, protesters, pastors, parishioners, and interested parties, but all of us can focus on General Conference with clarity, conviction, and above all love.
Here is the idea: A Simple General Conference.
What would happen if we simplified General Conference? With all of its committees, plans, petitions, caucuses, and protests, what if we had a simple conference? What if ideas were debated with honor and dignity? What if people did not protest and stop the work of the General Conference, yet instead reasoned their ideas and petitions in the processes that are fairly used? What if work could get done that honored God, empowered the church, and actually encouraged those who attended? What if?
John Wesley has much wisdom for us. We can dip into his wisdom found in his sermon The Witness of Our Own Spirit. In it Wesley describes for us what simplicity is.
We are then simple of heart, when the eye of our mind is singly fixed on God; when in all things we aim at God alone, as our God, our portion, our strength, our happiness, our exceeding great reward, our all, in time and eternity. This is simplicity; when a steady view, a single intention of promoting his glory, of doing and suffering his blessed will, runs through our whole soul, fills all our heart, and is the constant spring of all our thoughts, desires, and purposes.
Wesley wrote this sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:12 “Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.”
We need this today. We need a clear conscience. We need integrity and godly sincerity. I have no doubt that those who are passionate about differing viewpoints have sincerity. But what makes it Godly sincerity? Simplicity addresses intention. Sincerity addresses action.
Accordingly, it implies in this place, that we do, in fact, speak and do all to the glory of God; that all our words are not only pointed at this, but actually conducive thereto; that all our actions flow on in an even stream, uniformly subservient to this great end; and that, in our whole lives, we are moving straight toward God, and that continually; walking steadily on in the highway of holiness, in the paths of justice, mercy, and truth.
We greatly need simplicity. We need to be singly focused on God. We need to vote as God calls us to vote. We need to let Him guide us. We need to promote the glory of God. We need to end the shouting, hurtful, arrogant slander I see each day through social media and soon, I fear, on the floor of General Conference. Passion is a wonderful thing, but passion should never override simplicity. Our greatest passion must be to follow Christ.
And how do we do that? How do we cut through all of the fog to find the clarity? “But what is the rule whereby men are to judge of right and wrong? Whereby their conscience is to be directed?”
The answer is also simple. It is Scripture.
But the Christian rule of right and wrong is the word of God, the writings of the Old and New Testament; all that the Prophets and “holy men of old” wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;” all that Scripture which was given by inspiration of God, and which is indeed profitable for doctrine, or teaching the whole will of God; for reproof of what is contrary thereto; for correction or error; and for instruction, or training us up, in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
This is a lantern unto a Christian’s feet, and a light in all his paths. This alone he receives as his rule of right or wrong, of whatever is really good or evil. He esteems nothing good, but what is here enjoined, either directly or by plain consequence, he accounts nothing evil but what is here forbidden, either in terms, or by undeniable inference. Whatever the Scripture neither forbids nor enjoins, either directly or by plain consequence, he believes to be of an indifferent nature; to be in itself neither good nor evil; this being the whole and sole outward rule whereby his conscience is to be directed in all things.
Fellow Methodists, we need simplicity to follow God today. We need leaders and delegates who will simply be, like Wesley, men and women “of one book.” I understand that Scripture is complex and there are differing interpretations of much of it. Let us then debate those texts. Let us not get caught up in the world’s view. Do not let us be tempted by Satan to use the world’s arguments, values, or standards. We are a people who follow a tradition that is rooted in the Scripture.
Then we can simply speak. We can let our yes be yes and our no be no. Recently there have been many acts of what has been called “biblical obedience” by progressive groups. I definitely have disagreement with the idea that they are being obedient to Scripture. Nonetheless, it is the obvious double-minded and double-speak that troubles me most of all. Bishop Scott Jones put it well in his recent post when he wrote about the breaking of clergy vows.
When people justify their actions as “civil disobedience,” they are misusing language. It is not disobedience against the government. It is ecclesial disobedience. They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling. If I ever get to the point where I cannot in good conscience obey the key aspects of our discipline—and I pray such a day never happens—it will be time to surrender my credentials as a United Methodist bishop and elder and find some other way to follow Christ.
I am happy to debate and discuss different views of Scripture. I am happy to debate diverse views on homosexuality. Yet we cannot do so unless we can trust those with whom we talk. We cannot trust those who cannot keep their word. We need integrity. We cannot trust those who say one thing and do another. I cannot respect their actions. I cannot approve of their views. They ultimately hurt their own cause because their disobedience distracts from their purpose. If you care enough about your cause, keep your integrity intact.
I yearn for the people of God, in all of their diversity, to come together as people of one book, bound by covenant of baptism and the covenant of ordination for clergy, to simply speak and work together for justice, mercy, and truth. I believe it is possible. Perhaps it isn’t this quadrennium. Yet I believe a day will come when those who are called Methodist will again have a simple General Conference. Let us pray that day comes today!