Nov 16 2012

Look Kids: Big Ben, Parliament!

The UMC: like mallercise, just with more old people

Note: This is all United Methodist Church (UMC) stuff. If church politics aren’t your thing, proceed with caution. If you know they aren’t your thing, here is one of those cat videos everybody seems to be talking about.

I thought I would be able to escape the summary of the big, UMC episcopal kegger juice party that just concluded in Georgia without making a comment. Reading through the letter from Bishop Rosemarrie Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, I was thinking that I could get behind what they concluded about the great things happening in our denomination; disaster response, fighting global poverty, out-of-the-box ministry startups. I need to do that so I can still be crucifer for the UMC cross and flame. I need to get behind these things to emerge from the ashes of the disastrous General Conference 2012 (GC2012) in Tampa this past Spring that will forever be known in my mind as the time the UMC was a contestant on Wheel of Fish, chose the box, and won absolutely nothing.

And I was almost there. There was only one paragraph left. But, describing the ultimate work of Bish Bash 2012, Wenner sent the whole things spiraling out of control with a seemingly innocent bit of prooftexting:

“… we returned again and again to our central adaptive challenge of increasing the number of vital United Methodist congregations around the globe that are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We were, and are, continually aware of the leading of the Holy Spirit and that we ‘have not passed this way before.'” (emphasis mine)

Aw, Damn it. Have not passed this way before? This is a quote from Joshua 3. Joshua is speaking to the people who are about to cross the Jordan into the promised land after wandering in the wilderness for a generation. It is the precursor to an epic new beginning for the Hebrew people. God had parted the sea for their exodus from Egypt, and God is now going to take them into the land that was promised across another body of water.

I’ve been searching for something I know about our church that would make me believe we are done wandering … that the whole denomination is on the river’s edge about to step in the water and have the river stop. But I cannot. And I don’t understand how, after the tremendous losses at GC2012 to their agenda for restructuring, our Bishops could think we are in that kind of place either.

Bishop Wenner being the first woman elected in Germany to that office? That was an epic, Jordan-crossing moment.

The UMC continuing to believe that it is a frontier, trailblazing movement of faith? That is just myopic grandstanding.

We haven’t passed this way before? Really? Maybe she means the places in the Global South where the church is growing but is unable to fund itself. That seems pretty epic. But we’ve seen it before; back when the US church was but an infant. Maybe she means the seemingly irreconcilable chasm that exists between the advocates of reconciliation and biblical obedience, and the proponents of post-great-awakening orthodoxy and subservience to the Book of Discipline. That is headed for something epic. But we’ve seen it before, too. Many of our church cornerstones still bear the mark of it; it says either “Methodist Episcopal Church” or “Methodist Episcopal Church, South.”

Hell, I’ve been here before, too – shaking my head at the outcome of one of these cloistered episcopal meetings – Just a little over two years ago.

I don’t believe we find ourselves at a Jordan-crossing moment. We have been here before. We are still circling in the desert, tarrying about in a relatively small area. We still have to build a consensus that we actually want to go to the promised land. And the sooner we accept that, the better we can work together.

It could be that we are still circling because we have no Joshua. The Bishops tried to create one from their own group, but that failed. But we may have witnessed the end of our Aaron and Moses when neither Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter could lead us to agree to disagree about issues of human sexuality.

But the most telling evidence that we are still circling is that we don’t have a common direction. To me, the “Vital Congregations” movement has always been about pining for the way things were by using old metrics and values … Vital Congregations is our “flesh pots of Egypt.” And, while I’m excited at how many of my friends are doing relatively traditional church without traditional buildings, that seems to be a strategy for a wandering people, too.

We need a new vision. One that isn’t afraid to scrap our whole structure and write a new history for the Wesleyan movement. I do see some hope in the what is emerging. I’m one of those people who is excited about the modern monastic opportunities Elaine Heath describes. And I admire the clergy who are imagining new ways to be pastor and what constitutes a “church,” like Lorenza Andrade-Smith. Both seem to be getting at the essence of what made early Methodism so successful: local presence with global aim. Do either of these take us to the Jordan? We don’t know because we haven’t let these kind of ideas lead the whole of us before. And that, dear bishops, is someplace we haven’t been.


About the author

Matthew Johnson

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