Responding to the Violence in Orlando

The news of another terrorist shooting and the tragic deaths of so many in the Pulse Nightclub rocks all of us with its senseless hate-filled violence. It addresses us all on so many levels – unchecked gun violence (examples are many: Sandy Hook, a Colorado movie theater, Columbine High School, etc.), the ISIS terrorism campaign that reaches around the world: Paris to Indonesia to the United States and back again, the horrors of the Syrian/ISIS civil war, ongoing prejudice against those in the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on.

The biblical cry of grief and pain goes up once again.

“I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:1-2)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, both the tragedy of gun violence and violence and prejudice directed at a specific groups (the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Ethnic violence of any kind, etc.) must be addressed more successfully. Internet nurturing of hatred and violence is an evil that must, in some as-of-yet-unknown fashion, be addressed.

Even more, hate-driven acts of violence against member of the LGBTQ community is against the moral precepts of all civilized people and especially an offense to those who profess to be Christ followers. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear:  “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 161F, p. 111).

I echo Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter (in slight paraphrase to fit our Central Texas Conference setting): “I am lifting up the clergy and laity who will lead worship in our Central Texas Conference churches. May you announce God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s desire for nonviolence through Jesus Christ, who is our peace.

“And as United Methodists [Church and especially in the Central Texas Conference] . . . along with my fellow bishops and especially Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, “I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God’s beloved children.” (Bishop Ken Carter Jr., The full text of Bishop Carter’s statement can be found at here.)

In last Tuesday night’s (June 7th) ordination sermon, I said, “Fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those of another religion, race or nation is not the Christian faith.  We ought to be ashamed that it is so represented by some in public life.”  I would add to that what should have been in the original sermon, namely that “fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those” of an alternative sexual preference is not the Christian faith!  Violence is not the way of Christ.  Christians are to be in the world but not of it! (See 1 Peter 2:11.)

May we lift all who are affected by this tragedy, especially members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando and the people of the city of Orlando as a whole in our prayers. Along with our prayers, may we actively seek ways to faithfully embrace all of God’s children and spread the Kingdom gospel of Christ’s peace and love to all.

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Statement to the Clergy Executive Session

of the Central Texas Conference Of the United Methodist Church
Shared with Opening Plenary Session of the 2016 Central Texas Conference, June 6, 2016

As most, if not all of you are aware, the recently concluded General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon adopted a statement of action put forth by the Council of Bishops entitled “An Offering of a Way Forward.”  Among other things, it establishes a Commission to seek a way forward for the United Methodist Church which upholds the unity of the church amid our deep diversity and disagreement over issues of human sexuality.  Furthermore the statement calls for a Called General Conference sometime in the next quadrennium to receive the Commission’s report and act on possible recommendations.

Near the end of the adopted report is the following statement by the Council of Bishops: “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

It has been erroneously reported that this involves a moratorium on complaints and charges related to the presiding over same gender wedding. This is not so.  Please carefully understand the operative sentence.  “WE [the Bishops of the United Methodist Church] will uphold the Discipline.”  Should you choose to violate the Disciplinary provisions on same gender weddings, a complaint will be brought against you and if necessary charges will be filed.  Church law in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church has not been suspended. I will seek to live in grace pursuing meaningful just resolutions, but such just resolutions will be significant and have consequences.  I will up hold The Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

I ask all of us, lay and clergy alike, to pray for the church as a whole and all individuals affected (both those in favor of a change and those opposed). Together may we explore ways to “live in grace with one another.”

I commend to you strongly the We Are More campaign initiated by the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (including myself) and the Communication Directors of the member Conferences (including our own Vance Morton).  We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore website and social media properties and the outstanding, life changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

Council of Bishops Letter to the Church ©

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Members of the Council of Bishops delayed their leaving Portland, Ore. following the end General Conference 2016 by a day and came together to work on issues referred to us by the General Conference. In major part, we worked to share a common understanding with regard to the adoption of “An Offering for a Way Forward” – a statement from the Council of Bishops on Human Sexuality, which establishes a Commission on Human Sexuality based on action by the 2016 General Conference. You can read this statement at ctcumc.org/COB-awayforward.

It is important to faithfully consider the contents of the statement from the Council of Bishops, which was adopted by General Conference. My colleague, Bishop Scott Jones, resident bishop of the Great Plains Conference UMC, has written a useful summary, which I share with his permission below.

“Please read the statement carefully, and study it closely. It has many important sections about prayer, continuing conversation, and the unity we have in Christ. At the same time, there have been social media statements, which are based on misunderstandings of the document. The following key points will help you understand what it does and does not say:

  • We [The United Methodist Council of Bishops] are committed to the unity of The United Methodist Church and will seek to strengthen it.
  • We will lead the church in every part of the world in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance.
  • We are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other, rather than separation from one another.
  • We have heard that some believe there is “contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate language concerning human sexuality in the Book of Discipline.” However, no agreement about the truth or falsity of this claim has been reached, either by the Council of Bishops or by the General Conference.
  • The Council of Bishops will form a commission to study all of the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. The subject has been referred to this commission, which will be named sometime between now and Nov. 2, 2016.
  • The Council of Bishops may choose to call a special session of the General Conference before 2020 to deal with recommendations of the commission. No decision has been made about whether this is a wise use of the church’s money and time.
  • The Council of Bishops will have conversations about how the church can best live in grace with one another, including discussion about ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm.
  • The bishops will uphold the discipline of the Church while these conversations continue.
  • All provisions of the 2012 Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality will remain in force until a General Conference changes them.”

We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore web site and social media properties and the outstanding, life-changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally the Bishops have shared an open letter to the church which can be found at ctcumc.org/COBGC16letter.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

A Strong Witness from Lay Leaders ©

Friday, May 13th, the Laity Address was given at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.  Listening to Lay Leaders from Upper New York, Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, Zimbabwe, and the Great Plains Conference, delegates and observers heard a strong call to engage in evangelistically sharing Christ and the Christian faith.  It was a remarkably clear challenge to re-engage in explicitly sharing salvation in Christ.

Consider a variety of notable quotes:

  • “Our ongoing challenge comes from the need to embrace all that discipleship entails.”
  • “Discipleship is not just about helping out when we have the time or energy, it is about offering Christ.”
  • “Hold true to the foundational commitments to Jesus.”
  • “Engaging others means being willing to step out of our comfort zones to make Christ known to others.”

I invite readers of this blog to take the time to listen to the Laity Address by clicking here.

Amid the continuing spiritually uplifting worship and the bright lights of witness like that offered Friday by the Laity, the various committees of General Conference continue to struggle with their work. There are great continued calls to love all!  Who can disagree with the great need to love and to reach out in love?  We are called by Christ himself to love God and love our neighbor.  Yet, there is much debated about what it properly means to love.  The call is to love people but not necessarily the practices they engage in.  This debate focuses around the issue of how to respond to issues around LGBTQ life expressions.

I continue to be struck by how wide the worldwide witness we have is. A subtheme behind our arguments about rules, practices and church law is perhaps the wider issue of how we live together as a worldwide church.  At times it feels like almost anything said or written is going to offend someone.  Prayers are needed as we struggle with the twined calls to love and holiness.

Report from General Conference ©

The quadrennial gathering of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church began Tuesday afternoon. The opening worship was inspirational.  With over 40% of the delegates coming from outside the United States, the diverse international flavor and multi-lingual character of the greater church is everywhere present.  Gone is the day when we can think of ourselves in purely a North American/US context.  This is a very good thing; a true work of the Lord giving evidence of the Witness to Christ reaching around the world (Acts 1:8)!

The worship services have been spiritually uplifting and soul life-giving. The content of our worship has been strongly Christ-centered — so much so that it has been a noticeable change and has pointed theological focus.  It is here, in effusive worship and praise, that the heart is sent soaring. This morning’s (May 12, 2016) opening worship included a deeply moving contemporary song with the following chorus:

“More like you, Jesus, more like you
Fill my heart with your desire
To be more like you.”

It was followed by the traditional hymn, “Lead Me Lord.” Sharing in the singing I found myself convicted of the need to be open to the Lord’s manner of relating and way of serving.  I do not think I was alone.

Almost as if we are riding a rollercoaster, we have swung from the highs of worship and prayer to the lows of a protracted squabble over the rules of the General Conference. The lack of trust across the spectrum is everywhere evident.  It is difficult to reconcile the wild swings of mood and relationship.

Amidst the deep lack of trust and intense wrangling over rules, Bishop Gregory Palmer’s Episcopal Address (the formal speech by a bishop on behalf of the entire Council of Bishops to the church) stood in a great witness to the church as a whole in all of its wide and wild variety. It was a powerful and holy address.  If you read or listen to one thing over the long length of General Conference, read or listen to Bishop Palmer’s address on behalf of the Council of Bishops.  You will be blessed by doing so.  A link is provided here.

We Are More ©

On May 10th the United Methodist General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon. Quadrennially (every four years) General Conference meets as the highest ruling body of The United Methodist Church. General Conference alone can speak for the whole church. At General Conference the Discipline (book of church law) is adopted for the next quadrenniam. The worship is inspiring. The speakers are challenging. The debates are invigorating.

All too often debate over a controversial issue drowns out much of the meaningful substance of the greater ministry taking place in and through the United Methodist Church worldwide. It is no secret that once again much of the debate and argument will be focused on issues regarding ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (currently not allowed in United Methodist Church law) and performance of same gender weddings by United Methodist Church clergy (also currently prohibited by church law). Other controversial issues regarding resolutions addressing a vast array of issues clamor for attention.

As I attend General Conference (bishops preside but do not vote, much like at Annual Conference), I am reminded of Bishop J. Chess Lovern’s marvelous statement. “Great churches wrestle with great issues.” [A personal aside: Bishop Lovern ordained me an elder in the United Methodist Church May 31, 1978.] In the midst of our public debates it is easy to forget that the foundation of ministry is faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the making of disciples for the transformation of the world.

The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (Central Texas is a part of the South Central Jurisdiction and I am one of the afore mentioned bishops) along with their Conference Communication Directors (Vance Morton for Central Texas) have gotten together to share the incredible good news and faithfulness of the church and Conferences of the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve entitled the campaign We Are More in order to remind one and all that we are more than an attention grabbing headline and heated debate. In faithfulness to Christ we are about life transformation and the transformation of society.

I strongly urge readers of my blog to follow the #WeAreMore campaign launched by SCJ Bishops. Together we have produced a series of compelling faith-based stories from around the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The campaign is designed to connect people and proclaim that #WeAreMore when united through Jesus Christ. Click the logo to the right to read more about the campaign or visit ctcumc.org/WeAreMore to check out the faith stories already posted and/or to submit one of your own.

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 4

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part IV: Convicted Hope

But, I started the talk the way I did out of deeply held convictions. We are not just an Easter people; we are an Easter church!  There are signs of new life all around.  The Lord God really is doing something new!  McGrath is right: “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity.”

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

“In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”

Embracing a full blown, unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us.  The way ahead is difficult.  It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful.  We are duly challenged.  Is Jesus Lord of our lives including our professional work?  Is this His church or a human institution?  Make no mistake: the way is strewn with obstacles, but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.  Do you remember that marvelous interchange which takes place between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 3

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

Allow me for a moment to hit the pause button here to make a couple of strong assertions. First, whatever your position on same gender marriage & ordination, a decision should not be made on the grounds of losing or gaining members! I cannot say this strongly enough.  We should do what we best understand to be biblically and theologically faithful.  The advice to Timothy is well embraced.  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Secondly, you know better than I that our current warfare over gender ordination and marriage is the presenting issue where the far deeper issues of theology and practice meet. What is really at stake is what it means to be a biblically faithful church and individual disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Pointedly we are wrestling with deeper issues of authority; how do Christians relate most faithfully to the culture and the future of the Wesleyan orthodoxy in America.  I find myself constantly reminded of the phrase “he (or she) who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.”

Third, we must cherish unity and simultaneously NOT make unity a cardinal cause or our highest value. I do not understand how a church which began by breaking away from the Church of England can claim unity as our highest institutional value. Please hear me carefully.  We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity but unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value.  Please allow me to stress this last.  We should pray for and work towards unity.  Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value!  No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless.  It will not.  It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!

Peering through the murk and fog, allow me to hit the play button again and make some observations.

  1. We have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church.
  2. The anti-intuitionalism combined with a culture embracing a “free church” model makes church discipline and leadership increasingly problematic. Take the cultural mix of churches insisting on the right to choose their own pastor (I’m talking United Methodist now!), pick & choose apportionments, and decide for themselves what part of The Discipline they will abide by. Now mix in the growing number of acts of disobedience to church law (which is much greater than simple disputes over same gender marriage), many of which are endorsed by episcopal leadership. Stir this concoction, seasoning with a clergy culture that resists any form of accountability and a Council of Bishops that is absolutely unable to really lead. It takes no genius to assert that “the center will not hold.”
  3. We are in more financial trouble than we realize. As Lovett Weems has amply demonstrated, finances are a trailing indicator. In 2012 for the first time there was a reduction in General Church appointments (which we prefer in the Central Texas Conference to call “Connectional Mission Giving”). The General Secretaries Table has already suggested a modest ($12 million) reduction in apportionments for the next quadrennium. Now salt and pepper this with two things: a) there is significant discussion about the need for a much greater reduction, possibly as high as a $100 million reduction freeing resources for impactful local missions and ministry; and b) Some of our better financial leadership as a denomination have already held a national conference on right sizing the United Methodist Churches financial structure.
  4. As we are currently constituted, we don’t really need all the seminaries we have. Furthermore, MEF (Methodist Education Funds) which go to both official UMC seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry will come under increasing scrutiny. Connect this with the anti-institutional spirit of the age, and the pressure to return all the money to Conferences for their own scholarship use will grow. It almost goes without saying that a splintering church will find it even more difficult to fund seminaries. With regard to the growing issue of orthodoxy, the question is being asked seminaries, do your preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)? Are you preparing students to pastor United Methodist Congregations with faithfulness and fruitfulness? Which leads naturally to the next point…
  5. We are in a local church leadership crisis of immense proportion. Bishops and Cabinets simply do not have enough competent clergy to appoint. This is intensified by the wave of baby-boomers retiring and conversely mitigated somewhat by the number of fulltime appointments being lost every year due to a declining church.
  6. The guaranteed appointment in its current form is a dodo bird. Regardless of Judicial Council rulings, the guaranteed appointment in its current form (again, a huge and careful qualifier) cannot be financially sustained. Boards of Ministries are struggling with a radically different way to understand the ordination process, the role of higher education, the importance of mentoring and need for jobs.
  7. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not option. It is biblical and practical. We won’t be here if don’t! Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology. Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate. If we evangelize more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.
  8. The deeper theological crisis which has been the backdrop of this whole talk of this gathering itself, continually asks us to consider the “big tent” conception of the church as over against the disciplined, truly disciplined (and discipling) movement for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I realize that this recitation can feel unmitigatingly depressing. I actually stand before you excited and hopeful.  I can be hopeful not in a winsome denial of reality (which is everywhere present in the United Methodist Church) but because of the gospel itself.  We do see in a mirror dimly. We must begin to face the future unflinchingly.  The United Methodist Church as currently constituted will not survive regardless of decisions at this General Conference over same gender issues.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

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