Another Bishop’s meeting, another statement. At this point it is to be expected that such a statement is out of touch in many ways with the expressed will of the church. I will comment on a few things briefly, but be forewarned, I will comment out of order.
“We affirm the fruitful and creative ministries in our annual conferences. Recognizing that “the Annual Conference is the basic body of the church” (BOD, 33), there is an emerging discernment that the power and hope in our connection resides in the annual conference, which is closer to local churches and better
honors our different contexts. And there is a strong conviction that we cannot arrive at solutions that enhance our unity in our legislative processes.”
First, the problem is not that we can not arrive at those things legislatively, it is that we will not do so by our refusal to listen to the one voice of the United Methodist Church. It is not that we are unable, and frankly saying so is simply a way to excuse our stiff necked pride. We will not. There is a process that we trust the Holy Spirit to work through. If we believe that the Spirit is, then the decisions matter, if we do not think the Spirit is, then why are any of us here? It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Is the Spirit moving or not. Will we sacrificed our stiff necked pride in favor of the will of the church or not. Not can’t, but won’t. Frankly, I think that is a sin.
Moving past that, the idea that the hope of the church is in the Annual Conference is interesting I guess, but it is the exact type of reaction that the Bishops are saying that we need to avoid. This is only brought up because we refuse to listen to the only voice of the United Methodist Church. We won’t listen to the voice of the church, so let’s take the battle to a smaller field instead. That is not only reactionary, but it is more damaging, not less. Why stop at the Annual Conference, let’s take the fight to the local church and split them too. That is the inevitable result after all.
Finally, let’s deal with this idea of “context” again. Sin is not contextual. So long as the Bishops continue to treat it as such, then they have utterly failed at their self description of being “preachers, teachers, shepherds, mediators, and missional strategists who appoint clergy and lead annual conferences to make disciples for the transformation of the world”. For all the talk of context, the reality is that there is sin and there is holy living. If we allow the discussion to drift from those terms, then we are no longer speaking of the things of God, but rather the politics of men. That is the entirety of our problem. Traditionalists will speak about the questions of sin in terms of holy living, and they are correct to, but they apply God’s moral law without any form of grace all to often. Progressives will often speak in terms of justice, and they are right to, but all to often they speak in terms of human justice and offer grace without any form of God’s moral law. Way to infrequently do we ever here of both spoken about. Combine that with the numerous traditionalists that say the even attraction to a member of the same sex is a sin, which the United Methodist church does not say, and the progressive constant misrepresentation of what the United Methodist Church actually says using the rhetoric of separate but equal, etc. and you end up in a conflagration of rhetoric and argument where what the church has actually said is not even represented. The Bishops have collectively, and in some cases individually, contributed to and encouraged this by their own words on the topic. They will not call us to be faithful to the church, they will only try to find ways that our unfaithfulness fosters some improper notion of institutional unity.
“Bishops are not judges or legislators. Bishops are preachers, teachers, shepherds, mediators, and missional strategists who appoint clergy and lead annual conferences to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We offer this reflection as an expression of our pastoral and prophetic witness. The prophetic gift to our church calls for a confession of the harm that has been done, an acknowledgement of grief and support of a vision of God’s promise to do a new thing (Isaiah 43).” The term prophetic witness gets thrown around a lot these days. The closest thing that I can find as a definition is “acts of kindness and mercy that attend to unjust human hurt and misery”. Now I am find with that definition, but not so fine with the implication that somehow the act of declaring an action a sin by the church requires a “prophetic witness” to undo it. None of us like to be confronted with the reality of our sin. None of us like it when our sin is mentioned or pointed out. That however is not human cruelty, it is a part of the mission of the church. One can not be a disciple after all unless one knows what holy living is. Has there been harm? Yes. We have damaged relationships, damaged the dignity of the church, etc. Is the harm done specifically to LGBTQ individuals? No. Have feelings been hurt because some disagree with the ruling? I imagine so. Do hurt feelings equate to harm? No. If they are, Jesus was pretty darn harmful to a whole lot of people.
I want to spend some quality time with Isiah 43, specifically “God’s new thing”. It concerns me that the Bishops spend so much time talking about context, but then invoke a verse well out of it’s context. The verse in question is verse 19. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall sprout; shall you not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” The context of the entire chapter is fairly clear. God is declaring Himself as Israel’s only savior. That is the context of the chapter. The context of this particular verse is also made fairly clear as being a reminder of how God delivered the Israelite’s from slavery in Egypt, and the promise that He will do so again from Babylon. For a bit of clarity, let us refer to Adam Clarke’s commentary. ” At Isa_43:16, the prophet had referred to the deliverance from Egypt and the passage through the Red Sea; here he promises that the same power shall be employed in their redemption and return from the Babylonian captivity. This was to be a new prodigy.” Let me be as clear as humanly possible here, God’s “new thing” has nothing to do with a change in His expectations, His eternal moral law, or even a change in those things called sin. What God’s new thing actually does is promise that the same power that delivered the Israelite’s from Egypt will be used to deliver them from Babylon. Adam Hamilton might say that this is a section of scripture that has a particular cultural meaning and influence with the Jews, but does not apply to us, so it is in some bucket or another. For me, I tend to agree with Thomas Coke who describes the application of this for the Christian as referring to the conversion of the Gentiles. “God says, that he will make a way in the desert, rivers in the wilderness; that he will cause the beasts of the field, the dragons and the ostriches, to honour him, for the advantage of his people. There can be no doubt that the prophet speaks here of the conversion of the Gentile world under the new economy.” I don’t pretend to know what the Bishop’s are referring to as little, if anything about their letter relates to this near as I can tell. What I do know is that this has been used by some as a justification of changing what God has declared to be sin. Again, whatever their meaning, it is a failure in the Bishop’s self description.
At the end of all of this is the idea that the Bishop’s as a whole did not care for the voice of the church and it’s decision, so they are trying to find ways that they can have their own way and still have the institutional security that they seek. Since “unity” didn’t work, they will explore new forms of unity/ Since no one will follow the rules, they will explore new expressions of them. The problem isn’t the scriptures, our disagreements, or really even the Bishops, the problem is us. The problem is our complete and utter refusal to allow for the idea that anything other than our own understanding can determine truth. We are a stiff necked and self reliant people who refuse to submit to God when we need to be a humble and God reliant people that will submit to God through the church that Christ has established and is the head of. Being a Methodist is about personal and social holiness to be sure, but those two things are not accomplished by our own ideas and desires, but by God’s.