Stephen Rankin

Author's details

Name: Stephen Rankin
Date registered: September 27, 2012
URL: http://stephenrankin.com

Latest posts

  1. Rankin File: The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools — July 17, 2014
  2. Rankin File: “Big Tent” Methodism — July 14, 2014
  3. Rankin File: Getting Practical, II: — June 30, 2014
  4. Rankin File: Getting Practical: What would a Robustly Christian Vision for UM Schools Involve? — June 27, 2014
  5. Rankin File: UM Leaders: Don’t Give Up on Church Related Higher Education — June 25, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Rankin File: Pressure Points on the Itinerancy — 1 comment
  2. Rankin File: What We Tolerate, What We Don’t — 1 comment

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Jul 17 2014

Rankin File: The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/going-beyond-institutional-definitions/


So far as I know, every United Methodist-affiliated college or university would either describe itself or agree with the description of “non-sectarian.”  It means that we do not require anyone to go to chapel, take a particular religion course, or impose the Christian faith in any way on anyone.  No litmus test or control conditions.  This approach is motivated, in large part, by the desire to welcome and nurture people of all faiths or no particular faith.

But this institutional posture presents its own sets of challenges and one of the biggest is moral.  If we regard ourselves as affiliated, but very little or perhaps nothing of the church’s identity and mission influence how the school is run, then is it honest to call ourselves church affiliated?

I can make this question go away a little bit by reference to institutional requirements.  A school can point to its charter and founding by a Methodist conference or the fact that a certain number of trustees must be United Methodist.  I think these formal criteria are very important.  As indicators, they deserve more attention than they often get.   But this description tells us next to nothing about the kind of school a school is.  Very importantly, it does not tell us how the religious affiliation guides the actual experience of students.  And if ever there was an “at the end of the day” comment worthy of the cliche, this is it.  Surely, students at United Methodist related schools should be having an outstanding, exemplary educational experience.  What is the quality of experience that students at United Methodist affiliated schools have?  Is it any different than any other school?

What happens when we risk looking beyond institutional identity?  To attempt an answer, I turn to Romans 12:1-3.  One could start with any number of scripture references.  This one I read this morning during my prayer time and it hit me hard:

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As students of the Bible know, Romans 12 marks the pivot point, moving from God’s mighty acts in history to how the Body of Christ ought to live in the world–that is, as history unfolds.  It’s easy for us in the West to read these verses individualistically – if I offer myself as a living sacrifice, then I can know God’s will.  Cool.  I think that point is true, but Romans 12:1-3 aims at something else entirely and that something else demands our attention, including and especially those of us in church-related higher education.

Paul has just spent 11 chapters expounding on God’s works in history.  The canvas on which Paul paints is huge: all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, is held under sin’s sway, with devastating and very public consequences.  God has done something for the world in Christ Jesus that the world could not do for itself.  This amazing good news is for Jew and Gentile alike; in other words, it’s for all nations.  Then comes the heartbreak for Paul of the substance of Romans 9-11, how it came about that God’s people (and Paul’s) by and large refuse to accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Well, Paul says, God has temporarily set aside their blessing in order to graft the wild olive branches (the Gentiles) into the main olive branch – Israel, whose story and mission are epitomized and brought to fruition in Jesus.

My goodness, is there a lot going on here and we can’t even begin to unpack it.  But take just one thought (and, for some of you, I recognize that I state the obvious).  Paul is doing history with a theological lens.  He has taken up large scale matters just like a good university historian might.  What is Paul doing, then, but what many in higher education seek to do?  Every college or university wants to contribute to knowledge and to help address large-scale challenges.  We do so by research (mostly at the university level), but also by educating students who then will “make their mark” on the world.

Paul shows quite compellingly how the church ought to be involved in such matters.  Considered in this way, the gifts of Romans 12 belong on a much larger scale than we normally see.  Imagine those gifts as for the church, but also for the world.  We discern the will of God in order to bring to bear all the blessings on the world that the Good News entails.

Isn’t this a description of what a good college education ought to do?  And here surfaces the ethical dilemma for church related schools.  If, at a religiously affiliated school we ape secular assumptions and consider “religion” a “private matter” only secondarily (or less) relevant to a college education, we actively if unwittingly misrepresent the Christian faith.  This is a problem, don’t you think?  We deny students the opportunity to see their career interests as participating in this glorious vision.

Waves and waves of implications come from this realization.  I can’t put them in this post, but I”m trying to gather them into something publishable.  Reading Romans 12 this morning brought to mind why every United Methodist college or university in the country should grapple anew with what it means to be affiliated.  It’s time to go beyond institutional matters to core missional concerns.  If not, why bother with denominational affiliation?

The post The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/07/the-moral-dilemma-for-united-methodist-schools/

Jul 14 2014

Rankin File: “Big Tent” Methodism

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/challenge-big-tent-methodism/


Off and on since yesterday’s Sunday School class, I’ve been pondering a comment made to me after class.  I’ve heard it many times: “Methodists are big tent people.”  And so I muse…and fume.

I must tell a bit of the lead-up to “big tent,” which requires that I  speculate about the speaker’s intentions.  It was a very brief exchange, without opportunity to probe “What did you mean by that?”  So, I exploit the comment without any desire to misrepresent the speaker’s motive, though I know I risk committing that very sin.

Here’s the background story: during the summer two adult Sunday School classes come together to share a teacher.  With the one class, I have the regular gig and with the other I’ve guest-taught here and there.  I’ve been working on the Sermon on the Mount and the past two Sundays we’ve examined the run-up to the sermon by discussing how Matthew portrays Jesus in the opening chapters.  (I’m motivated by John Wesley’s admonition in his first discourse on the Sermon on the Mount that we need to grasp the nature of the One who speaks to us in the sermon.)  Last week we explored features of Jesus’ genealogy and started on the angelic conversation with Joseph, then delved into Isa. 7:14, “Behold, the young woman is with child…”  I explained that Matthew follows the LXX version in saying, “Behold, the virgin will conceive…” and we entered the contested matter of Jesus’ virgin conception.

A week later, at the beginning of yesterday’s class, my questioner asked about how I interpreted that text.  He used the word “mythology” several times in formulating his question and the class had a rousing discussion about how modern Christians best understand Matthew on this point and, by implication, what we can reasonably conclude in today’s modern world.  I tried, as briefly as possible, to explain the internal logic of the passage and how it wasn’t just about how a baby was made, but about the power of God.

Anybody who has been in such a discussion knows how they typically go.

After class, I asked this person if I had adequately spoken to his particular interest.  He said, “Yes,” then made the  surprising observation, “Our class doesn’t usually have teachers like you.”  After a couple more comments, he asked me, “Do you know who Schubert Ogden was?”  Of course, I knew.  Ogden was a force at Perkins School of Theology back in the day.  I asked, “Do you consider yourself a process theologian?”  He answered, “Not really, but I did take some of what Ogden wrote to formulate my own thinking.”

End of conversation and beginning of my musing…fuming.

I always appreciate people who make the effort that this man has made to think theologically.  However what could I have said that elicited this chain of comments?

I have a pretty good idea that “teachers like you” means something pretty close to “conservative.”  I don’t like this term and try not to use it for labeling theological orthodoxy – that is, the set of beliefs that the church has taught, summarized, for example by the Apostles Creed.  I have the strong impression that my conversation partner thinks orthodox-belief people are hopelessly stuck in the past, as if we hadn’t thought about or been exposed to modern explanations offered by brilliant scholars like Schubert Ogden.

And then his parting word: “Methodists are Big Tent people.”  Apparently one of us in the conversation is worried about “who fits” within Methodism.  Either he thinks that I think that he doesn’t fit because he does not affirm the virgin conception or he thinks that I don’t fit because no thinking (modern) person can actually affirm such a claim literally without being considered a little daft.  Well, it’s a good thing that Methodists are Big Tent people.

This conversation reminds me (again):

1.  Every church – to be a church –  must have a doctrinal core.  I would guess that if we could play out the logical trajectories of my conversation partner’s beliefs and mine, we would have to ask if the tent can stretch that far.

2.  Every church must have a means of discipling members relative to that core.  How many times have I heard someone say, “I really like being a Methodist because we get to use our minds.  We are free to think for ourselves (unlike the Baptists).”  How did we ever get to the point that a significant number of our members think that membership means pretty much anything they want it to mean?

3.  The exercise of power is inherent to every organization, especially the church.  When duly appointed leaders attempt to exercise church discipline, they are doing what they are obligated to do.  It’s not that they get their kicks pushing people around.

If the term “Big Tent” Methodism neutralizes any one of these three points, then we wind up with something not recognizable as a church.

 

 

The post “Big Tent” Methodism appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/07/big-tent-methodism/

Jun 30 2014

Rankin File: Getting Practical, II:

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/getting-practical-ii/


Robert Benne (Quality with Soul) argues that for a church related school to carry out its mission consistent with its identity, a critical mass of committed Christians involved in leadership is a “necessary precondition.” (pp. 179-180)  I’d like to try to imagine how the principle of “critical mass” would look at a UM-related school.

1.  Let’s start with the recruiting and admissions process.  First we need to ask: what criteria do we currently use for admitting students?  Are these criteria adequate for expressing our school’s church affiliation?

Schools inevitably use some academic marker like an ACT or SAT score, coupled with a transcript and then branching out to other ways of evaluating whether a student would succeed at the school.  Such means typically include demonstrated leadership ability.  A student’s religious identity usually carries no weight.  In fact, we often downplay religious identity as a contributing factor at all.

In order to meet Benne’s critical mass marker, admissions offices should commit to recruiting and admitting a certain percentage of new students each year who represent – to use one of Christian Smith’s categories from Souls in Transition – “committed traditionalists.”  These students come to school with active church membership habits and want to continue that experience in college.  They generally take the initiative to visit the campus ministry booths at activity fairs and will seek out a church to attend on Sundays and sometimes go beyond to other involvements in a local church.  (Much of their involvement here depends on encouragement received – or not – from local church folk.)  They might plan on taking a religion course as a way of developing their faith.

We should intentionally aim at admitting a targeted number or percentage of these kinds of students (United Methodist or otherwise) into the mix of each incoming class.  Secondly, we should also target a certain percentage of United Methodist students who have demonstrated an active interest in growing their discipleship in tandem with their college experiences. If 10-12% of students at a UM school are, on the average, United Methodist, what if we upped the ante to 20%, aiming to recruit qualified students?

Historically, (United) Methodists have made it a habit to provide educational opportunities to people with talent, but not necessarily abundant financial means.  Again, in order to contribute to the church’s mission, a United Methodist affiliated school needs to grapple with how we manage to meet this desideratum.  Need-based financial aid is an enormous and growing challenge, but most schools also have merit-based aid.  A UM school can be as selective as it wants to be according to the criteria it sets for itself.  As a United Methodist-related institution, we should make every effort to find, cultivate and admit students whose socio-economic characteristics work against their going to college.

Yes, we’re talking money.  We need to find it and use it for this Kingdom purpose.

2.  Another concrete way our church affiliation could have a positive impact relates to residence life.  In the updated version of her influential, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks reflects on the power of the idea of “the commons” (pp. 200-202), those values that speak to the common good.  At the school where I work, Southern Methodist University, we have recently instituted the residential commons model.  It encompasses all four years of a student’s undergraduate experience.  We have a two-year residential requirement (one must live on campus for two years, unless one meets specific criteria for exemption), but even after students have done their two years’  residency they are still included in their residential community.  This means that they “return” to participate in various kinds of programming and community events (e.g intramural teams).

Without forcing anyone to participate in religious activities, this commons environment provides rich soil for theological and moral reflection, conversation and collaboration.  Faculty, staff and students can work together in very exciting and educationally enriching ways.

The key is to do it in a way that coincides with the church’s mission.   Why?  If we don’t think about our church relationship in relation to specific areas of campus life like residential life, we will de facto adopt some regnant secular view driving higher education.  When we do, we squander not only our distinctiveness, but a critical opportunity to develop students.  I’d love to say more on this point, but I must move on.

What about students who commute?  Who don’t fit the traditional 18-23 year old age group?  Again, if we think about these concerns (which many schools do already) through the lens of our church affiliation (which many don’t), our theological commitments at the institutional (ethos) level, then we start to generate other questions and concerns than the ones that so easily dominate.  Our church affiliation most likely would help us think about these matters in ways more effective for student development.  If we don’t, we will default to the reigning assumptions.

Again, I know we must be realistic.  It takes money to run a college or university.  But as the old principle goes, we clarify our values first and then we set the mission according to those values.  If we want something enough, we will figure out how to pay for it.

3.  Probably the most difficult and complicated suggestion I’ll make has to do with the makeup of faculty, administration and staff.  Benne argues that a critical mass of a school’s senior leaders must embrace the Christian faith and – more specifically – identify as members of the sponsoring denomination.  This is a case of recognizing existing resources (faculty, administrators and staff already on our campuses who match this expectation) and having the willingness to consider potentially controversial measures in order to develop the critical mass.

A critical mass is not a majority.  I am in no way suggesting some sort of litmus test.  My aims are much more modest.  We need to start by asking ourselves this hard question: who among our leaders embraces the faith?  Who among us are active United Methodists seeking to live their faith professionally in appropriate ways?

At a church related college/university, because we are private schools, we have the freedom to bring our faith to work.  I have been blessed – at both UM affiliated schools where I have worked – to have colleagues who are deeply, sensitively and intelligently Christian.  They know how to bring their faith to work and do it in ways completely appropriate within a higher education setting.  May their tribe increase!  We need to provide enrichment activities (e.g. professional development) to help them optimize this quality.  The prejudice still remains widespread that “faith” and “knowledge” don’t mix, so religious people should leave their faith at home.  At SMU we have a religiously diverse faculty.  I am a parent.  I would much much rather have my children experience believing, practicing Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists – all who know how to do their academic craft and share their faith appropriate for the setting (and I know this is a contested point) – than to study in an environment that treats “religion” as an optional add-on not worth very much.

Thus, for United Methodist affiliated schools, senior administrators must struggle with how we institutionalize this goal of critical mass.  Someone will need regularly to ask: how are our faculty engaging matters of religion and faith?  Not everyone has to do it, but some should.  The Untied Methodist understanding and practice of the Christian faith should be welcomed, valued and visible in United Methodist schools!  We need to find a way to monitor this particular aspect of a school’s ethos.

I’ve gone on too long.  These ideas still feel half-digested.  But I think the hunches are sound.  At the least, they show some of the aspects of a college’s make-up that require attention from a thoughtful, theologically-driven, faith-oriented approach to higher education.  Otherwise, let’s just quit pretending that “Methodist schools” are Methodist.

The post Getting Practical, II: appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/06/getting-practical-ii/

Jun 27 2014

Rankin File: Getting Practical: What would a Robustly Christian Vision for UM Schools Involve?

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/robustly-christian-vision-involve/


In response to my previous post about UM leaders not giving up on church related colleges and universities, a friend challenged me with some probing questions.  He couldn’t see, for example, how my claim that we can develop a robustly Christian approach without establishing certain controls like compulsory chapel would actually work.  It’s time for me to get practical.

Some good news: the place of religious faith and of religious ideas has found renewed sympathetic reception in higher education.  The book (I think I’ve mentioned this one previously) by Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, (Oxford University Press, 2012), describes this new-found interest and openness.  It is increasingly common to find buildings and programs set aside for interfaith dialogue or the exploration of faith in some measure.

That said, the dominant assumption in higher education is still a secularist one.  The fresh dialogue about the positive role of religion mostly still takes place separate from discussions of core academic mission.  This is especially true of research universities whose mission is to contribute to fields of knowledge.  The assumption remains that “faith” has nothing to do with knowledge.  Thus, though religion is making something of a comeback on campus,  Warren Nord’s, Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities (Oxford University Press, 2010) shows how far we have to go.  One of the strengths of this book is that it pays attention to how students are already shaped in public schools before arriving at college.  That formation (pedagogy) is unwaveringly secular:

“Currently, public schools and universities [emphasis added] unrelentingly encourage students to think about the world and the subjects of curriculum in exclusively secular ways, even though many of them are deeply controversial.” (p. 166)

This point presents an ethical dilemma to religiously affiliated schools.  If the gold standard is still essentially secular, how does the religious identity of a church related college or university engage the school’s academic mission?  How does the church’s mission enter into dialogue with the school’s mission?  I’d like to try to answer this question with some practical suggestions.

1.  The school’s mission statement should be based on a clear expression of the belief that all humans are created in the imago Dei.  Every student (not just the bright ones adorning our marketing brochures or the troubled ones filling our counseling and conduct offices) needs and should expect the kind of serious, loving commitment to their development and flourishing that our mission statements say we give.

2.  We should also take seriously the problem of human sinfulness, including how a school’s very ethos contributes to the distortion of the image of God.  One practical way this could be implemented is by reviewing residence hall policies, especially those regarding how students resolve disagreements.  All schools have procedural rules, but it is surprising how often students feel frustrated by the lack of resolution in these conflict resolution practices.  I believe one of the reasons for the ineffectiveness has to do with a naive and inconsistent view of human nature.  On one hand, we treat students as if they were fully formed adults able to handle the matters.  On the other hand, we treat them like children and overprotect.

3.  The school’s mission statement should reflect awareness of and affinity with Christian eschatology – that the goal of human life is wrapped in a vision of God’s eternal reign/Kingdom.  The vision for social justice often surfaces on college campuses.  A church related school should intentionally provide means for students to explore justice from a Christian perspective, especially since we know they will encounter ideas about justice from other particular points of view.

A couple of qualifications. First, humans have agency and desire freedom.  We don’t push people around in order to get them to think the way that we do.  We don’t hide competing claims in order to make sure they get the truth.  We can have a robust theological vision as an institutional anchor point and accord freedom to every participant in the school community (e.g. academic freedom to professors).  But we also don’t pretend that the future is limitlessly open for humans to fashion as they see fit.  God has something to say about the matter and, in fact, God has spoken.

Remember, some vision of human nature and the telos (aim, purpose) of a good college education will predominate.  If that vision is not rooted in a Christian understanding, then why is the college/university related to the church?

4.  Consonant with the value of academic freedom and what a truly liberative education requires, this vision does not requires that faculty, students or staff adhere to the Christian faith.  However, it does establish the expectation that all members of the community (including and especially trustees) understand and accept the school’s church relationship and its various attempts to contribute to the church’s mission.  No one associated with the school should be surprised or offended when a church related school does some things that look “churchy.”

I have heard a number of times of faculty at UM-related schools actually protesting that someone offered a prayer before a school function.  This attitude reveals either (a) that we have done a poor job helping people understand the church related identity, which, I believe, is often the case, or (b) that protesters illegitimately ignore the fact that they work at a church related school.

This post represents a start on some practical ways a church related college or university could distinguish itself with specifically Christian theological references points without establishing those traditional mechanisms associated with confessional Christian schools.  I’ll share some more practical ideas soon.

The post Getting Practical: What would a Robustly Christian Vision for UM Schools Involve? appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/06/getting-practical-what-would-a-robustly-christian-vision-for-um-schools-involve/

Jun 25 2014

Rankin File: UM Leaders: Don’t Give Up on Church Related Higher Education

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/um-leaders-dont-give-church-related-higher-education/


I’ve been working for a UM-related college or university since 1995.  During that time, in a variety of ways, I’ve heard an alarming number of church leaders admit that they have essentially given up expecting denominational schools to make any noticeable contribution to our church’s mission.  It’s also very interesting to note that, in the recent round of proposals either for amicable separation or for some ostensible way forward, nobody has mentioned what would happen to colleges and universities.

In one way, this oversight is entirely understandable.  Church related schools can feel like very secular places, no different than State U down the road (and without benefit of well known sports programs, except in a couple of cases).  This feature fuels the sense I’ve picked up here and there about our schools being a lost cause.  They trumpet their church relatedness when it is to their advantage, but otherwise ignore the church, so the criticism goes.

If something happens at GC 2016 or beyond to splinter the denomination, what will these schools do?  I can only guess.  Certainly, boards of trustees will face significant challenges.  Property and numerous legal questions will no doubt arise.

In the meantime, let’s consider the awe-inspiring mission opportunities of our church colleges and universities.  The undergraduate years represent an enormously significant developmental stage for young people.  According to the Institute of Education Sciences, 21.3million (!) students were expected to enroll in college this past Fall 2013 semester.  Somewhere around 5 million will attend a private four-year college.  A healthy number of those schools are affiliated with The United Methodist Church.  We can easily estimate the number of students at our denominational schools in the six figure range.  In round numbers, we have approximately 100 church related colleges and universities, not counting schools of theology and seminaries.

Admittedly, most of the students at UM-related schools do not identify as United Methodist.  Most schools, it seems, manage around 10-12% of their students populations as members of the church.  I’d love to see more United Methodist students going to United Methodist schools (75-80% of students at Notre Dame are actually Roman Catholic), but, be that as it may, think of the mission opportunity.  We don’t necessarily need to make them United Methodists (although that’s not a bad idea!) – but we need to think very seriously about how we help to shape the hearts of a generation of young adults.

And rest assured, we are shaping students right now.   Every school has an ethos, a moral culture reflective of some vision.  If for no other reason than institutional integrity, a church related college or university needs to think very carefully about how the church’s mission informs the school’s mission.  The very thought provokes alarm bells in people’s minds.  They immediately remind people like me of the bad old days when schools were controlled by churches, presidents were clergymen (yes, gender reference intended) and they and the boards of trustees tried to tell the biology professor how to teach biology.  Bring up the idea that Christian theology could and should drive the institutional mission and people react with cries of “indoctrination!”

Which is exactly what we are doing right now.  In a largely secular way.  Some vision of reality will drive a school’s ethos.  Yes, students now can take courses and find a range of viewpoints, sometimes in dramatic opposition to one another, so students have to exercise thought.  They can and do encounter people of differing religious viewpoints and of hostility to religion and they can learn in such a richly diverse environment.  But while all that is going on, the overarching vision – the school’s ethos – exercises a much more homogenous and powerful influence over how students think about themselves and their futures.

The scary thing is, we often don’t recognize this fact.  We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never talk about (the “null curriculum,” to use Elliot Eisner’s apt term).  At a church related college or university, if religious faith is portrayed as an optional accessory to the good life, then we are indoctrinating students, often without even realizing it.  It happens a thousand subtle ways.

One might think, given what I just said, that we should give up on church-related colleges and universities.  Let them go, since they’re already often quite secularized anyway.  But I plead with us not to leave this field.  The work is too important.  The secular option for higher education is easily available.  We United Methodist schools have a distinct mission.  We can figure out how to offer students Christ; how to inspire a vision of the Kingdom; how to form and shape their lives as disciples, without making them go to chapel or do other religious things.  We can undertake this mission in ways fully aware of and conversant with the religiously diverse world we live in.  We can accord students and faculty full freedom to participate or refrain.  We can do all these things and still be robustly Christian in our institutional missions.

What we cannot do is pretend that the way we do things now isn’t already shaping students in some way.  And we need to ask, how, and toward what end, are we shaping them?

 

 

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Jun 18 2014

Rankin File: Does God Talk to Us or Not?

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/god-talk-us/


In all our United Methodist fussing with one another, one question consistently emerges in my mind: do we think that God actually talks to us?  How would we recognize divine speech if we think God does talk to us?

At the Connectional Table meeting in Chicago a couple of months ago, Bishop Minerva Carcano reportedly said that she “felt the Spirit leading” her in a particular direction on the issue being discussed.  How did she know?  How (by what means) did the Spirit lead her?  With words?  Her testimony suggests divine communication of some sort.  Did God in fact communicate?  How do we test the bishop’s testimony?  Test it we must, for she is taking action on behalf of the church.

Before I go further, let me make an assumption clear.  For Protestants, I think, of any sort, we regard the Bible as the primary means through which God speaks to the Church.  So, I’m operating in this post on the notion of a connection between the Bible and divine communication without prescribing any particular theory of how that relationship works.

(Whatever one thinks of Adam Hamilton’s latest book on how to understand the scripture, at least he has admitted that he thinks some statements in the Bible are not God’s communication to us now, even if they might have been to someone at some time.  We need a means to find agreement on how/when/on what topics/in what manner God speaks to us now.)

Recently, I’ve seen several critical remarks about some United Methodists’ views on divine inspiration and the Holy Scriptures.  “Inerrant?!”  “Infallible?!”  “These words don’t reflect how United Methodists think!”  OK, let’s work with this claim.  It tells me what we don’t believe about the Bible and divine speech.  What, then, do we believe?

I know that discerning God’s will – an action which assumes that God somehow communicates the divine will – on specific matters is supremely challenging.  People can agree on a theory of divine inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy – whatever – and wind up with opposing conclusions about a particular topic or passage of scripture.  Exegetical and hermeneutical questions abound.  But we should not give up on trying to find some common ground on how we think God talks to us.  Unless we admit that we’re just making it all up, then we need to put forward some understanding of divine communication.  A counsel of despair cannot stand in the place of theoretical guidance.  An operant anti-theory – even if unstated – is still a theory.

Why does it matter?  If we cannot agree to some parameters for how we think God is speaking to us, then we admit that we don’t know and that, when we argue, we’re just engaging in attempts at rhetorical dominance.

Right now, the fight is pretty one-sided in United Methodism, it seems to me.  I don’t remember reading any criticisms of Bishop Carcano for her testimony to divine communication.   She has been criticized of course, for the particular conclusion she drew (on sexuality – and that’s the only time I’m mentioning that topic), but I’ve heard no one say [cue eye roll], “Phtthhh!  She actually thinks God talks to her!”

Do we United Methodists think that God speaks to people?  What do we mean when we refer to divine revelation?  (I’m curious for how many UMs H. Richard Niebuhr is the guide.)

Do our bishops ever talk about such things?  I know that they’re swamped with impossible demands, yet I would love for our bishops to teach us about divine speech.  We have many challenges in front of us.  It would be nice to have at least a working theory of divine revelation.  We don’t have to make it absolute or unchangeable, but we at least need to try for some shared understanding.

When delegates gather for GC 2016, will God speak?  How will we know?  Through the will of the body?  Do votes represent God’s mind?  Through prophetic speech and actions?  Again, how will we know?  Is it pay-your-nickel-take-your-choice?  If we have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about divine communication, then we probably should just stop talking about God altogether.

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