United Methodists and Incivility

I suppose it’s a measure of our time that a call from United Methodist bishops to practice respect when holding church conferences evoked a blog post that claims a United Methodist clergyperson “lied through his teeth” in a conference years ago.

The bishops asked United Methodists to engage in respectful conversation as the quadrennial all-church meeting known as General Conference approaches. It’s a pressure-packed meeting in which policies for the global church are considered, budget is approved and church-wide programs of mission and ministry are presented.

As many other denominations in this contentious age, United Methodists are confronted with theological and cultural issues that evoke deep-seated emotions. Among these, how to respond to homosexuality is one of the most prominent.

Neither church members nor clergy are one mind, but a majority of delegates have voted at past General Conferences for restrictive language that prevents the ordination of practicing homosexuals and states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church also affirms the sacred worth of every person and calls upon families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends and to commit to ministry with and for all persons. A recent survey reveals that people in different regions of the United States hold widely different views on this issue. However, when asked how important it is for the church to address disagreement on homosexuality, a minority say it’s important to do so.

There are other contentious issues and sometimes the words used to characterize those holding opposing points of view have been harsh to the point of doing harm. It’s this harsh, harmful speech the bishops have called delegates to avoid. It’s a modest, appropriate request.

In 1739, as it became clear the Methodist movement was taking on a life of its own outside the Anglican Church, John Wesley, the movement’s founder, instructed his followers with a set of general rules. Reduced to their simplest form, they are: First, do no harm; Second, do all the good you can; Third, love God by attending worship, hearing or reading about the Word, receiving Holy Communion, praying individually and as families, searching the Scriptures, and practicing fasting or abstinence.

This is the heritage of the people of The United Methodist Church. It’s remarkably fresh and contemporary. The bishops have called us to honor our heritage and behave as we’ve been asked historically to behave.

These are not the values of the majority culture. We’ve seen the incivility of that culture, its disrespect for the sacredness of human personality, its willingness to make violence a form of entertainment, its language that demeans and diminishes. I have not experienced what the blogger in the link above has experienced, It would make me skeptical too. Such experience shape us and culture infiltrates faith. I do believe we in the church have learned the cultural language of skepticism and despair. We can repeat it by rote. We can even live it out, if we choose to. Sometimes it feels like a a culture of despair it’s killing us because it speaks in words that Gary Gunderson calls the language of death. This language is about division, competition, entropy, despair, disease, fear, separation, lovelessness and confusion. He says “It takes discipline to avoid the vortex that spins us into the center of fear.” I think it kills our creativity, our excitement, our energy, our curiouslity. It puts us on the defensive. It nurtures fear and separation. This is not the language of life. It’s certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of abundant life.

Conversations using the language of death can only spiral downward. Personally, they leave me in the dumps. I’m interested in getting to the top of the hill to see what’s on the horizon–to glimpse the future. And I know I’m not alone. I think the only way to look toward the future is to put the language of death behind us. The bishops haven’t asked us to avoid discussing our differences, they’ve asked us to show respect and compassion for each other even when we differ. It’s not an impossible task. If it is, we’re beyond repair.

But I don’t think we are. In fact, I think people are already acting in ways that give life.

I heard a report today that Nothing But Nets which seeks to provide bednets for kids in malarial regions has raised $13 million in barely one year. It’s become a grassroots movement. Those who started it had no idea it would take off like this. In this instance people are setting aside those contentious things that we can’t agree upon and rushing toward life, something we do agree on.

But that’s not all. The bishops identified seven vision pathways for church renewal they are holding themselves accountable for. In response, the general agencies of the church that carry out various ministries suggested four areas in which they will collaborate with each other, with annual conferences, local churches and other partners to address both internal and external ministry by the church. The four–attracting new leaders for the 21st Century, creating new places (communities of faith) for new people, engaging in ministry with the poor and working to end the killer diseases of poverty–are generating positive conversation, curiosity and energy. These are actions people of the church said they’d like to happen, and they’ve said they’d like to see them addressed collaboratively. They are biblical. They respond to Jesus’ call to become disciples and follow him.

As the leader of a general church agency, it’s not my place to advise delegates how to vote, how to behave or what’s important. That’s not my purpose here. I am responsible for implementing the mandates of General Conference. But I care deeply for this community of faith and feel passionately about it. As a private individual I have hopes. And I’m sharing personal hope. Maybe I’m naive and my hope is in vain, but I hope the delegates to General Conference come with a vision of what could be–a world in which leaders lead with integrity and global vision, one in which alienation and hostility are transformed by hospitality and compassion, one in which people searching for meaning and purpose recieve an invitation into a faith community, one in which grinding poverty is addressed by empowerment and justice, and killer diseases are prevented and healing is offerred to everyone. Big hopes. Hopes worthy of our conversation, even the commitment of our lives. I also hope we honor the bishops’ call and respect each other even when we differ. And I pray we look to the future where we may catch a glimpse of God calling us to help create a renewed and transformed world; and to be a people who do no harm, do all the good we can, and love God. I hope we speak the language of life.

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