Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

A Guide to Reading the Commission on the Way Forward Status Report ©

A Way Forward … Thus Far: A Status Report on the Commission on a Way Forward has recently been released for sharing across the church.  I believe it potentially represents some excellent work on the part of the members of the Commission. The report is available as a PDF and as a video slide show presentation.

As I went through the Report with Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference, he strongly urged both a greater communication on the subject and some explanation of the terms used, the purpose of this report, etc.  This is not meant as an advocacy blog, but rather as an attempt to help people understand some of the terms and references. I will share some personal comments at the end of this post.

  1. The Commission on the Way Forward was established by the Council of Bishops at the request of the 2016 General Conference. It is to review and make recommendations back to the both the General Conference at a Called Session in February 2019 and to the Council of Bishops on all matters related to The United Methodist Church’s deep division regarding human sexuality and LGBTQ. It is made up of both lay and clergy members from around the world.
  2. This is a status report NOT a listing of preliminary findings or recommendations.
  3. Context (and all its variations throughout the status report) are references to the different settings or mission fields that local churches, conferences and even nations find themselves in. By way of example, the context or mission field of a church in rural North Katanga (a Conference located in the Republic of the Congo) is dramatically different from the context or setting/mission field of a church in urban Los Angeles (U. S.) or one in suburban Berlin (Germany). Context includes the socio-economic setting, diversity and a multitude of other factors which can mean that churches physically near each other operate in very different ministry environments.  What may be considered culturally acceptable in one setting (or context) may be culturally unacceptable in another setting (or context).
  4. Slide #6 – The Anatomy of Peace is a reference to a book by The Arbinger Institute. The Arbinger Institute describes itself as “a global training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational transformation and conflict resolution.”  In conjunction with the work of The Commission on the Way Forward, the Council of Bishops has asked that all bishops read this book.
  5. Slide #8 is particularly instructive. It is important to understand that at this point (a shade less than halfway through their work as a Commission) we are being offered a look at a “sketch,” a very rough framework for a way forward.  The Commission notes:  “At this point, the Commission is sketching models with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other, improving and correcting until we have something more detailed and complete to share with the Council of Bishops and the church for feedback.”
  6. The reference to “The Colloquy at Emory” refers to an academic theological colloquy entitled “Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” which was recently hosted by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The gathering engaged United Methodist scholars (Seminary professors and academics) and some members of the Council of Bishops in deep learning about how to “reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei” (the mission God has called us to).
  7. The reference to a “pre-1972 approach” in Slide #15 under the subheading “Context” refers to the structure of the United Methodist Church prior to the reorganization of the General Boards and Agencies, which took place after the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Again, Here is the link to the PDF, and here is the link to the video version of status report from the Commission.

Some Personal Observations:

  • This represents an immense amount of prayerful work on the part of the members of the Commission on a Way Forward. However else we respond, we should first express our gratitude for the faithful diligence of their efforts.  I ask all of us to continue to lift them in prayer.
  • Slide #7 – “What connects us now: Our Common Core” – is extremely significant. It represents a theological foundation crucial to whatever future the Lord may have in store for His church. Flushing out the meaning and implications of this theological foundation is particularly important. As the saying goes, “both God and the devil are in the details.”
  • Slides #9 – 13 contain some potentially radical implications:
    o   “A new church will not look like the current church.”
    o   “It may mean multiple versions of the Book of Discipline.”
    o   “Jesus’ call to unity may look like associations or affiliated churches.”
    o   “The way forward cannot be an extension of our path of conflict.”
    o   “We value pushing the pendulum toward looser on structure and contextualization and tighter on naming the essentials of theology and doctrine.
  • Slide #12 – “Our Global Context” – contains a wealth of insight that American United Methodists need to take prayerfully into consideration.
  • Slide #14 – “What We Have Learned” – is deeply significant and requires thought, conversation and prayer.
  • Structure and Finances on Slide #15 are critical.
    o   “We need enough structural freedom so that no one has to compromise their deeply held beliefs.”
    o   Issues involving the Pension Program cannot be ignored or wished away.  Liability is real.

There is more to be said, much more, but for now I invite a careful reading of this substantial status report from the Commission on the Way Forward.  I ask for your continued prayers for the Commission and the church as a whole.

Here in the Central Texas Conference, we have tasks groups led by members of our General Conference Delegation, Cabinet and others working to set up systems and avenues where we can give feedback to the Commission.  This is part of a combined effort of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Way Forward.  More information will be shared this fall as the various task groups solidify their plans.

For now and always!:
“God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
    when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.”
Selah
(Psalm 46:1-3)

Summer Reading ©

I returned from summer vacation on July 25th toting a stack of books that I had taken with me on our travels east to see the grandchildren (along with their parents).  In packing a few weeks before, Jolynn had raised her eyes at me and querulously asked, “Do you really think you will read all of those?”  After 40 years, 11 months, and 9 days of marriage, I have learned how to read some of her body language.  Skepticism streamed out of her mouth and drenched her expression.  I was defiant.

In my defense, I did do a lot of reading while on vacation. I read Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, Ferry (as in the boat we traveled on to get to the Isle of Mull and Iona not winged creatures in the woods), Peg the Little Sheepdog, The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby (Simon’s baby brother – grandchild number 4 – is due in late September or early October), The Wheels on the Truck Go ‘Round and ‘Round (about 15 times) and others of like ilk.  Additionally, I did get to do some of the reading I planned on; just not as much as I had hoped for.

I manage to read:

The Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith by Steve Harper
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Drehr (actually this was an audio book listened to while driving East)
About half of Methodism: Empire of the Spirit by David Hempton (I am continuing to read it and expect to be done soon.)

Some of my other summer readings (along with some fun ScFi mind-candy) include:

Unity In Mission: A Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love by Bishop C. Andrew Doyle
Bishop Doyle is the Episcopal Bishop the Houston Diocese.  He writes on how his diocese stayed in unity focused on the mission of the church despite divisions over the same issues that the United Methodist Church is currently dealing with.  The Council of Bishops has asked that all Bishops read this book.  I am currently about ¼ of the way through this significant book.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute
“The Arbinger Institute is a global training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational transformation and conflict resolution.”  In conjunction with the work of The Commission on the Way Forward, the Council of Bishops has asked that all bishops read this book as well.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger
Using the metaphor of the Voyage of Discovery in the Lewis and Clark expedition, this book pulls together in a delightfully readable many of the insights of modern leadership and systems theory joining them with Christian values and faithfulness.  It is being read by a number of Cabinets in the South Central Jurisdiction (we will probably join them in reading it).  I am about 40 pages into it and recommend it highly (so far).

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World by Bob Johansen
Rev. Ray Bailey, an elder in the Central Texas Conference and retired Brigadier General (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chaplains Corp in the Army), now serving as Associate General Secretary for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) gifted me with a copy of this book which he highly recommends.  I trust his judgment and look forward to digging into it.  I also noted in my reading that Todd Bolsinger in Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory draws quotes from this book.

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall
This book is a companion to the outstanding Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures series (some 27 volumes) of which Hall served as Associate Editor.  I am reading this book with a number of young clergy in the CTC out of a conviction that for us to move forward into the future faithfully we must recover out theological core.  It is a deep long-term personal project.

Against the Tide:  The Story of Adomnan of Iona by Warren Bardsley
I began this delightful book on the Isle of Iona.  It chronicles the work of one of the great missionary saints and bishops of Celtic Christianity.  Hopefully, I’ll finish it before summer is over!

So, what are you reading this summer?  If we are called to worship God with our heart and mind, how are you feeding your mind? Summer is a great time for catching up on reading!

Oh, wait a minute, my list is incomplete!  A friend, who is a member of a different Protestant denomination, sent me a copy of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia.  We are going to read it and compare notes about our learnings, the two of us from different Protestant Denominations, from one of the America’s leading Roman Catholic thinkers.  It looks fascinating.

There is more I want to read but like a kid surveying an overladen culinary banquet, I think my appetite is bigger that my allotted reading time!  Meanwhile, where did I place Nessie the Loch Ness Monster?  I am sure I have a picture of her (that is Nessie) somewhere….

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #6

A Movement of the Holy Spirit

Professor David Hempton opens his marvelous history of the Methodist movement (Methodism: Empire of the Spirit) with the recounting of an incident which took place at Oxford University in the early 1880s.  Hugh Price Hughes, the leading Methodist scholar of his day, challenged Professor Mark Pattison, the distinguished scholar and Rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford University, who was chairing the meeting, as to why there was no mention of John Wesley in Pattison’s lengthy essay “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688 – 1750.”  Furthermore, Pattison had relegated Methodism to “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).

Hugh Price Hughes, the great Methodist scholar, suggested that John Wesley was “one of the ‘greatest sons’ of the university.”  Irritated Pattison dismissed Methodism & Wesley as not worth consideration as a “reasonable religion.”

In truth Methodism as promulgated by John Wesley was always a head and heart religious understanding of the Christian faith.  Wesley believed deeply in the active providence of God in human life.  There were clear elements of what we might call charismatic.  Again Hempton’s reflections are insightful:  “Generally speaking Wesley accepted the epithet ‘enthusiast’ if it was meant as a rough synonym for a vigorous and earnest faith, but strenuously repudiated it if it was intended as a synonym for false claims to divine inspiration. . . . The rub of the matter was that Wesley accepted as a general proposition that God regularly and strikingly intervened in the created order to advance his purposes and protect his servants, whereas most of his critics did not in the same way”  (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 35). Not without reason Henry Rack, well on a century after Pattison and Hughes contentious interchange, would label John Wesley a “reasonable enthusiast.”

As Methodism in America grew in size and social respectability the “enthusiastic” side of the faith was gradually pushed to the edges.  This week I dipped my toe in the water of an important but often ignored segment of Methodism, namely our charismatic or renewal elements.  I stepped beyond my comfort zone to attend an Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM) gathering in Lexington, Kentucky.  ARM initially grew out of the Board of Discipleship and eventually spun off as a para-church organization loosely attached to The United Methodist Church.  While I did not witness any speaking in tongues, I did encounter a deep sense of the active movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  People were “slain in the Spirit.”  Prayer, praise and worship were ecstatic and moving with dancing and banners accompanying healing and testimony of healing miracles.

Many know that my own conversion came out of the Quakers.  My greater comfort zone is sitting in silence and praying in quiet.  I have been a part of a group at Taize where I was deeply moved by the worship and felt a deep sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Similarly I have twice been to Iona (most recently in May) where the liturgy conveys the greatness and presence of God.  Charismatic worship, however much it moves us beyond our comfort zone, must be added to the list.  I do not pretend to understand all of this, but I do believe the Holy Spirit moving in each.  (Please note, there is a danger in each form.  One of the speeches at Aldersgate contained strong elements of prosperity gospel which must be rejected as a heretical version of the gospel.). The faithful church of Jesus Christ needs all three of these different forms as well as others.

I noted some key elements to the ARM gathering that particularly impressed me.

1.  They are sold out on a Trinitarian theology and especially lift up Christ as King.
2.   They take sin and the Devil with great seriousness.
3.   Holiness as an active pursuit and ministry of Methodists is real. (The rest of the UMC could learn much from them here.  There is a strong sense of personal and social justice going together!)
4.   God acts supernaturally — that is beyond nature. (I attended a number of excellent workshops that challenged the vapid and tired Unitarian version of Methodism that infects too many of our churches.)
5.   They believe in personal, Holy Spirit inspired transformation and in the renewal of the church.
6.   They pray without ceasing; deep earnest prayer!
7.   They praise with passion – ardent heartfelt enthusiasm.

We have much to learn and relearn from this branch of the Methodist family.  It is well past time to lay down exaggerated fears (while still appropriately policing the abuses) and be more open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at work in our midst.  This too is a part of our recovering and reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #5 ©

Embracing of Our Doctrinal Core

A focus of the great historic questions for ordination in the United Methodist Church centers on embracing the doctrinal core of United Methodism.  Consider this brief listing of questions put to candidates for ordination at the clergy executive session (from The Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 336, p. 270):

6.   Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7.   Will you keep them?
8.   Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
9.   After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?

The list brings the thoughtful Methodist Christian up short.  We presume a foundation of common agreement with the basic core doctrines of the United Methodist Church.  Furthermore, John Wesley argued extensively that they formed a common core foundation with other Christians built upon the great creeds of the Church, especially The Nicene Creed (#880, The United Methodist Hymnal) and The Apostles Creed (##881 &#882, The United Methodist Church).  Under “Qualifications for Ordination” (Paragraph 304, The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016), the importance of embracing our doctrinal core is stated even more emphatically:  “Be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.”

In today’s United Methodist Church I do not believe a common doctrinal core can be assumed.  The struggle to embrace a common doctrinal core lies behind the current conflict around biblical interpretation and same gender marriage & ordination.  Our theological core must be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, discussed, argued and finally embraced anew.

As a start, I invite an examination of what we now have in the United Methodist Church.  The Doctrinal Standards and General Rules are listed in Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  They include those adopted from both the predecessor denominations – The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Methodist Church.  They start with a firm foundation:

Article I-Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Article II-Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Article III-Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

Article IV-Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

Similarly the Evangelical United Brethren doctrinal standards, which were also adopted at the time of union, list the first four doctrines as:  Article I-God, Article II-Jesus Christ, Article III-The Holy Spirit.  There are a total of 25 Articles from the Methodist Church and 16 from the Evangelical United Brethren Church.    That all sounds like a lot but they actually boil down to a basic core which John Wesley largely adapted from the Church of England.

All this makes for somewhat dry reading until we pause to reflect that much of our current angst and debate centers on issues of core doctrine.  What do we believe is central and non-negotiable?  And, just has importantly, how do we interpret or understand core doctrines as they relate to salvation, sin, free will, the sacraments, etc.?

I step back into what might well seem an archaic rendition because what we believe matters.  Belief informs, educates and guides our actions.  Likewise, we often act ourselves into a new way of believing.  As one of pastors stated in a recent sermon, “which is more important belief or action?  The answer is yes!”  It is both.  The one informs and helps shape the other.  Neither belief nor action operates on island divorced from the other.

The way forward for Methodists will surely involve rediscovering and embracing anew our doctrinal core.  The term classically used to describe the doctrinal core of the Christian movement is “orthodoxy.”  Professor Wendy Deichman, former President at United Theological Seminary comments:

“What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.”

As I travel across the church I cannot help but note that our theology is weak and appears to be adrift.  We stand in desperate need of recovering our doctrinal core.  But mere knowledge is not enough.  A theological embrace is needed if belief and action are to mutually invigorate each other.  I invite the reader to look through Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  What would be on your list of a core doctrinal belief for Methodists?  How does it match the actual position taken by the United Methodist Church?

All too often today we regard doctrine and orthodoxy in negative terms.  Sometimes “orthodoxy” is claimed as the handmaiden of one group or other.  A friend who is decisively on the progressive side of our current divide recently reminded me that the claim to being orthodox is not the province of one part of the church or another.  Today the make-up of “orthodox” Christianity is contested.  The purpose of this blog is less to argue for a particular position and more to advocate a needed embrace of the historic doctrinal core of the Wesleyan Way.  Professor Deichmann advises us rightly:

“Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.”

A Time for Courage: Part III ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part III) is the third and final section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017. Part I was posted June 19th and Part II was posted June 21st.  I remind the reader of the closing paragraph of Part II: “We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!”  –Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

So let’s get concrete about the work of ministry before us as lay and clergy together in the Central Texas Conference.  Wherever you are on the continuum between a progressive theology and a traditional/evangelical theology, we need faithful and fruitful congregations.  The Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, calls us to build vital congregations! Whatever the future brings, we need Christ-honoring, life-giving places of worship and service! This is why we are engaged in our God-honoring mission that emerges naturally out of the Great Commission of the risen Savior and moves forward under the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference nine years ago, there was already a firmly implanted understanding of the mission of The United Methodist Church and in particular of the mission of the churches in the Central Texas Conference:  “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our clear vision over the last nine years has centered on building faithful and fruitful churches in all kinds of locations, with wide and a variety missions fields including great diversity, and a deep sense of life transforming discipleship.

Vision: Vibrant and Vital local churches of all sizes, types and in all contexts all across the Central Texas Conference, which are fruitful and faithful in accomplishing the stated mission.

Yoked to the mission and vision has been a consistent core strategy which we have called simply “the Big Three.”  Collectively they represent not only the core strategy but a set of driving values which give shape to our collective ministry.

Core Strategic Values: To engage deeply in the “big three” key strategic values

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on the local Church
  3. Develop a new generation of lay and clergy leaders

This year we have added a strategic focus, namely what we are calling the WIG (Wildly Important Goal).  The WIG is the key thing we must keep as a targeted goal above all else.  In doing so, we are driven by the living power of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the risen Lord, and the constantly creating genius of our creator God.  Make no mistake, the WIG must be central to have any chance of accomplishing our stated mission.  Folks, this is true regardless of where you stand on the controversial issues facing us as a larger church!  The WIG leads us to tangible strategic focus.  It forms the linchpin of “how” we will accomplish our larger strategic task and links with the why of the Great Commission, which Christ has given us to go and make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20).

Strategic Focus:  Increasing the number of disciples of Jesus Christ during the next 10 years through . . .

  • New Faith Communities
  • Clergy and Lay Leadership Development
  • Mission Focused Discipleship

Always, always, always! narrative and metrics go together.  We will seek out the stories of transformation (narrative) – both personal and congregational, embrace growth in variety of forms – missional, spiritual, financial, social, etc.  As we learn the stories of faith transformation, they are yoked to two specific WIG measurements.

WIG MEASUREMENTS YOKED TO THE NARRATIVE:

  • Market share (as defined by average weekly worship attendance divided by total population; currently we are at 1.07%)
    •   1.1% by 2020
    •   1.25% by 2026
  • Professions of Faith
    •   3,500 per year by 2026 (At the end of 2016 the number of professions of faith was 1, 845.)

Taken together with the narrative stories, these are two key components of making disciples.

Tactics:

From our core strategy, focused on the WIG, over the years we have looked at a number of important tactical ways to move towards this Christ honoring goal of vibrant, vital, faithful and fruitful local churches in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ to go and make disciples.  This list includes but is not limited to:

  • Investigating our context (with Dr. Gil Rendle)
  • Wrestling with Wesleyan Theology (Dr. Kenda Dean)
  • Local Church Leadership (Rev. Adam Hamilton)
  • Developing cultural and ethnic inclusivity (General Secretary Erin Hawkins & Rev. Rudy Rasmus)
  • Building a Conference and Church culture that is open to experimentation (Bishop Robert Schnase – “Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences”)
  • Understanding our Path to Discipleship (Dr. Candace Lewis, Bishop Scott Jones, & Dr. Phil Maynard)

Today we intentionally add a new and old key tactical component to living out our missional focus of “making disciples for the transformation of the world” by lifting high the Big Three: Christ the Center, Focus on the Local Church, and Developing lay and clergy leaders.  What tactical component to our mission is both new and old, at once at the heart of the Wesleyan movement and yet desperately needing rediscovery while simultaneously radically new?  This crucial tactical component needs to be emphatically embraced on an intensely practical level if a congregation is to be faithful and fruitful in accomplishing the WIG and thus our stated mission.  It is no more nor less than the rediscovery and reclaiming of what original Methodists call “The Class Meeting.”

On a full sea we are now afloat indeed but, this is not the voyage of the Titantic.  Instead to the glory of God, the honor of Christ, and the celebration of the Holy Spirit moving among us, this is the voyage of some kind of combination of the voyages of the Mayflower and the Dawn Treader.  It is combination only God could put together.

Our phenomenal good fortune, no … our phenomenal divine blessing and high privilege is being signed aboard as crew on the ship of the church captained by Christ himself!  I challenge us to be who we are at our best … people of faith and not fear.  This is a time for courage; quiet, persistent, resilient courage under the Lord’s leadership and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

“God of grace and God of glory, On Thy people pour Thy power. Crown Thine ancient church’s story, Bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour, For the facing of this hour” (“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Hymn Number 577, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse No. 1).

 

 

A Time for Courage: Part II ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part II) is the second section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference June 12, 2017. Part I was posted on June 19th.   —Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

In Narnia, the green mist preys on people’s weaknesses and their fears. It makes their darkest dreams come true, and frightens, or worse yet, tempts them. The same happens in our time and even in our churches and the greater United Methodist Church.

This is a call to trust and obey. The temptation would be for us to try in this gathering to solve political issues that stalk the halls of Washington, D.C. or the 2019 issues of human sexuality and avoid the pressing needs the Lord God calls us to face today. This does not mean an ignorance of those issues or a failure to address them but rather calls us to focus on the task before us in its proper context.

There will be opportunity to face the issues that threaten us with schism, specifically same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI people.  We have a task group working with our feedback to the Commission on the Way Forward.  (The Commission holds the responsibility to prepare a report for the Council of Bishops and the called session of the 2019 General Conference.)  Each and every district along with their lay and clergy will have time and opportunity to give feedback.  We are committed as a Conference to a week of prayer for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and a faithful future of The United Methodist Church.  (It should be noted that each annual conference in The United Methodist Church worldwide has been asked to take a specific week.  Our assigned week is January 28 – February 3.)

I invite you to take the image of the voyage of the Dawn Treader along with the image of the Mayflower and yoke them together with multi biblical injunctions and instructions.  Apply Joshua 1:5b -7, 9:

I won’t desert you or leave you. Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors. “Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you.  … I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Embrace Psalm 46:1-7.

God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
     when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.
Selah

 There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
 God is in that city. It will never crumble.
God will help it when morning dawns.
 Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
God utters his voice; the earth melts.
 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety.

Clergy, allow me to speak specifically to you while inviting the laity to overhear our conversation.  We need to lay our anxiety on the altar of the Lord.  We are not in control of the future of The United Methodist Church.  We need to trust God and allow the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work while we buttress them with prayer. We need to engage in respectful, carefully graceful conversations with our laity. Let the words of Jesus guide our emotional and spiritual dispositions.

Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth.  But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. …  Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:28-29, 33-34)

Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control.

Laity, allow me to speak to you from both head and heart.  “On such a full sea we are now afloat” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3). Shakespeare’s words fit our times and our churches.  Expecting your clergy to magically solve the controversial issues of our day is not just unrealistic. It is fundamentally unfaithful.  We can neither ignore the elephant in the room – possible schism in The United Methodist Church – nor be frozen by fear.  Laity and clergy have to do this together.  We cannot faithfully and successfully sail the perilous seas of our age separately. To borrow in paraphrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., “we must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  This is a time for courage from both lay and clergy leadership.  It is also deeply a time for prayer. It is also a time for uncommon patience.  Hear again the opening words of Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Allow me to reiterate my comment directed specifically to the clergy but this time direct it specifically to the laity while inviting the clergy to overhear.  Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control. “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord, and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!

A Time for Courage: Part I ©

The following blog posting (A Time for Courage: Part I) is the first section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017.  The rest of the Episcopal Address will be shared in subsequent blogs.  — Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

One of the earliest images of the church of Jesus Christ is the image of the church as a ship at sea. You can find it imprinted on the episcopal stole.  Indeed the image itself harkens back to the Apostle Paul’s famous sea voyage to Rome and shipwreck on Malta, which is chronicled in Acts 27.

In our time, once again, images of the church as a ship at sea have come prominently to mind and are commonly used in referral and reference.  Come with me for a moment and consider some of the images of the church as a ship at sea.  The image is apt because few can doubt that we are sailing in troubled, tempestuous waters.  Consider the societal seas on which we sail:

  • Violence and terrorism seem to engulf our world, just think of ISIS, Manchester, and Syria.
  • Political chaos at home is a daily staple of life in newspaper, on television, in the blogosphere, and even among late night comics.
  • Economic uncertainty with looming retirements, healthcare concerns, and stock market fluctuations are a disturbing fact of life.
  • Religiously, the decline of the Christian Church across all denominations in Europe and North America is a well documented fact of life. For good or ill, we live in a secular age that dismisses and often knows little of historic institutional representations of Christianity.  We are in an age of religious anarchy and the absurd heresy of being “spiritual but not religious” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) engulfs our society.
  • The twined heresies of a self-centered rampant individualism and a false prosperity gospel grapple with orthodox Christianity in both its progressive and traditional forms.
  • Perhaps deserving the top of the Christian list of high seas is our theological captivity to a cultural moralistic therapeutic deism chronicled so well by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean when she was with us a few years ago.
  • Closer to home in The United Methodist Church, schism over deep disagreements centering on human sexuality – specifically marriage and ordination – threaten to tear us apart.
  • Every year we close more churches.
  • That we exist in a major leadership crisis with the baby boom generation of pastors retiring and a missing generation of replacement pastors (those who should be roughly 45 to 55) ready for larger assignments is beyond doubt or dispute. A new generation of younger lay and clergy leadership is desperately needed.

Painfully we know that we face deep change or slow death, with a steadily increasing speed.  We must face this truth without blinking, reverting to denial, or ignoring the wider reality of our tough mission field.  We are in high seas and the tempest’s howling wind is increasing!

I could go on and so could you, but I think this is enough for now.  Amazingly this is not the whole story!  In the midst of the tempest of our times God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is powerfully, gracefully, compassionately, and explosively at work in our midst. The triune God is building or, more accurately, rebuilding the movement of Christ followers.  Amid the high seas we broach the crashing waves in amazing places. Consider a small sampling.

  • The rise in the number of younger clergy leadership presenting themselves for ordination.
  • The growth in the number of new faith communities in our very midst – try on The Oaks, sponsored by White’s Chapel or a Spanish language service at First UMC, Corsicana led by Lay Supply Pastor Martin Orozco or growing youth outreach in Ranger, Texas (incidentally led by the Youth Director of First UMC, Eastland).
  • Our try on the growing number of experiments in service and witness that combine the best of both missional love, justice and mercy with a genuinely evangelistic sharing of the gospel. Think about the Missional Wisdom Foundation or Project 44 or Life Church in Waco or bourgeoning campus ministries all across the Central Texas Conference.
  • The ever increasing number of congregations engaged in hands-on ministry for the hungry, hurting and homeless. Did you know that Nolanville UMC is engaged in a backpack ministry at the bus stop that combines concrete service help with a specific by name using Scripture grace-filled witness?  Or that Lebanon UMC (in the Central Texas Conference not the country of Lebanon) is running out of room in their sanctuary?
  • God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst folks!

No doubt you can add to this all too brief list.  The gospel truth is that amid the high tempestuous seas of modern life daring courageous Christian witness is surging forward.  This is the witness the risen Savior commanded be taken to the ends of earth (Acts 1:6-8).

It makes all the difference what ship, as an image for the church, you think you are sailing on. As our membership dwindles and our divisions widen, it is not uncommon to hear references to the Titanic.  Have you heard the phrase, “Oh, they are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”  There is some painful truth we must face here.  For far too long we have acted as if we are too big to fail.  Professor Scott Kisker writes in Mainline or Methodist, “Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission).

We must confess before an almighty and righteous God who sits enthroned over our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we have acted like those who boarded the Titanic. Like Carl Hockley in the movie, we believe “It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship!”  You can make a good argument that we are not just headed for the ice fields but that we have already hit the iceberg and are taking in water.  I found reading Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall which chronicles the decline and even death of great corporations like A & P, Bank of America or Circuit City to be a painful shadowing of the history of The United Methodist Church in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

But wait! Wait just a minute.  There is another powerful image of the church we should well consider embracing.  Instead of sailing on the Titanic perhaps we are (or can be) on board the Mayflower.

Do you recall the magnificent history of the Mayflower?  In early September of 1620 they set sail with low provisions.  Fear was a constant companion as the western gales which swept the North Atlantic made for treacherous sailing at that time of year.  We know full well as an American people that they sailed for religious liberty and the cause of Christ.  They left the Old World with its model of territorial staid state supported religion behind venturing the storms of the North Atlantic and biting cold of a New England winter for a healthier, more vital Christian life and witness.  Their courage and conviction led not only to the religious freedom we so rightly cherish but, through the Mayflower Compact, to the establishment of representative democracy in North America.

Now apply this image to our context.  We set sail, should we have the courage and conviction which is to say faith and obedience, from the Old World of cultural Christianity and a favored place in America society for established Protestant Churches such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.  Our new religious world is a contested one.  Christianity, and Methodism in particular, will exist side by side with a host of competing alternatives.  The witness of vital churches and individual Christians will demand a charitable grace-filled future that will take real courage to offer a specific unapologetic witness for Christ which this new world of religious chaos desperately needs.

This is exciting!  It is hopeful!  It is a cause and commission worth the life of the Church that claims the risen Lord Jesus Christ as its head (See Colossians 1:18).  To laity and clergy alike, this is worth your life as a great call to the highest level of human living and thriving under the Lord’s leadership.  A bland, culturally passive, witness will be swept away in the storms that wash over us.  But a courageous engagement with modern culture that is faithfully and fruitfully expressive in missional evangelism by congregations and Christians in a new post-Christendom land … that is magnificent and truly done to the glory of God.

But wait, there is an even a better image for our adoption.  It comes from C. S. Lewis’s marvelous writing in the Chronicles of Narnia. The story of the voyage of the Dawn Treader offers an even greater image for Christian discipleship in our time.

Do you recall the story or perhaps remember the movie which came out in 2010 of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader?  Narnia represents the land in which the struggle between good and evil takes place.  The Dawn Treader was “the first Narnian ship to be built since the golden age and was commissioned by King Caspian, so that he might sail beyond the Lone Islands and on to the Eastern Oceans to seek the seven great lords” who had disappeared in a quest to fight evil in their land.

In the story Lucy and Edmund along with their cousin Eustace join King Caspian and his crew as they sail courageously into the unknown confronting the “green mist” which represents evil. As they do battle with the forces of darkness, Lucy hears Aslan, the Great Lion who represents Christ as Lord, speak to her.  “But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

I submit that this is where we are in our raging tempestuous world today.  The world and especially our nation and the communities we inhabit do not need us to ape the vitriol that so infects our time and land.  In the great name of Christ, our Narnia, our world, needs us to sail unflinchingly into unknown lands. Christ’s words are meant to whisper into our ears, “Take courage, dear heart.” The Lord is with you, with us.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #4 ©

Methodism at Conference

Sitting on a shelf above my computer is a little ticket which reads:  “Methodist Episcopal Church, Founded A. D. 1784, Quarterly Ticket.”  The following quote from Romans 8:16 is printed on the face: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”  It is a primal reminder that Methodism began as a movement of the heart and head for the Lord.  It lived in the disciples of “methodical” faithfulness.  Central to such discipline was the original class meeting.  Out of coming together in the class meeting to “watch over one another in love,” Methodists were naturally led to gather together in Conference.  It is here, in Conference, that The Methodist Church as an institution was shaped and formed.

John Wesley described the first conference of Methodists this way:  “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.  After some time, I invited lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us.  We conferred for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby”  (Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, p.134).

The agenda for the first conference was straight forward.  They wrestled with:

  1. What to teach
  2. How to teach
  3. What to do; that is, “how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”

Since that day, gathering in Conference together has been the governing center of the Wesleyan Way for Methodists.

To this day I am convinced that Annual Conference at our best is when we gather to worship, learn, and celebrate.  If you compare my list to Mr. Wesley’s they have considerable overlap.  In worshipping and learning we are exploring together “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.”  This is a Methodist Annual Conference at its greatest.

We were blessed this year by wonderful hosting from First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas.  The music and worship transported us to another state of being.  Tuesday’s ordination service was a tremendous celebration as we greeted a large class of those were commissioned and those who were ordained.  Dr. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, led us in deep learning that called on “reclaiming a forgotten and essential small group experience” (The Class Meeting).  Most of all God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit showed up in marvelous and wonderful ways.

Over the next few blogs I will be sharing the content of my Episcopal Address which was delivered Monday morning, June 12.  It is entitled “A Time for Courage.”

Iona Interlude ©

I am pausing my “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way” series to share a brief word on a pilgrimage in leadership development.  By the time this is posted, I will be in Iona, Scotland with a group of young adults from the Central Texas Conference.  This trip is a part of our leadership development process that is linked to the Missional Wisdom Foundation  with leadership from Dr. Larry Duggins, Executive Director of the Foundation and Rev. Wendi Bernau. We as a Conference are greatly blessed by their help and support in leadership development.

Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the larger isle of Mull, which is a way of saying that it is a remote place distant from the clamor of the world.  It is a place where, as my spiritual guide puts it, we have time and space for solitude, silence and simplicity.  Iona is a place where the call to ordained ministry may be nurtured in reflection, adoration and prayer.

In the Central Texas Conference our “Big Three” are: 1) Christ the Center; 2) Focus on the local church; and 3) Lay and clergy leadership development.  This spiritual pilgrimage with young prospective Christian leaders offers a special opportunity to thoughtfully and prayerfully weld together number 1 and number 3 – Christ at the center of life and witness combined with leadership development for the future of the Christian movement and the Wesleyan Way in Central Texas.  Such pilgrimages both to places like Iona, Scotland and Taize, France along with retreats at our own beloved Glen Lake Camp are vitally important to our developing future leaders of the faith.  In May of 2013 we led a similar group to Taize (a spiritual formation gathering from around the world held in France).

Iona is famous as the site that Saint Columba used as a base of operations to introduce Christianity to Scotland.  For well over four centuries it was a center for monastic leadership and Christian formation.  It is thought that the famous Book of Kells may have been produced at the original Iona Abbey.  After World War I, under the leadership of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), a clergyman named George MacLeod became instrumental in reviving the Iona Abbey’s role in Christian spirituality.  In 1938, as the fires of World War II loomed on the horizon, MacLeod founded the Iona Community as an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living as followers of Jesus in today’s world.

For many, including myself, Iona is what might be called a thin place, a place where through contemplation, prayer and worship heaven and earth come especially close.  The ecumenical Christian community built around today’s Iona Abbey is a center for the revival of Celtic Christianity.  The music of John Bell (in the supplement to the hymnal The Faith We Sing) comes from the contemporary Iona Community.

As a part of our daily routine, we will begin the morning with worship at the Abbey and then return to our retreat house for breakfast and time of reflection and sharing.  The day closes with worship at the Abbey again after dinner and a time of sharing our learnings together.

Jolynn and I traveled to Iona for a part of my renewal leave in my first quadrennium as bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  I look forward in a special way to taking a hike back to the remote, desolate beach on St. Columba Bay where St. Columba and his small band first landed on their great mission to share Christ with Scotland and England.

I am reminded that the Christian faith is built on such courage, conviction, and community in Christ. We are here, in part, because of their witness and faith sharing.  Out of pilgrimages like this come the next generation of leaders and pastors for our churches.

 

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