Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Should We Have Been Doing This Easter?

I don't have much time to post- I'm exhausted from today's Easter celebrations. But I've been reading some really interesting things I thought I'd share from the blog of my colleague, Ben, at Covered In the Master's Dust:

Meeting People Where They Are on Easter

Rethink Easter: Chreaster Hunting Season

Both of these articles are challenging and clarifying. I hope you'll find them enlightening too. Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Interlude: Whither Methodism? Whither Christianity?

It’s a bonus post everybody! When it rains, it pours, right? I’ve been thinking about the last few posts recently, while reading about all of the recent news in the Roman Catholic Church. As you probably know, the RCC just gave birth to a new thing: the papal conclave elected a new pope, Francis I. It’s kind of a big deal because this is the first time there has been a pope from the Western Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere (heck, he’s the first non-European pope, though he is of Italian descent), and he is the first Jesuit pope. I’ve also been reading on my friend Brother Anthony’s blog about more indiscretions made by priests in California and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy there.

The studies we’ve been discussing in the last couple posts show that more and more people are leaving the Church, or never affiliating with it in the first place. They also show that young people overwhelmingly believe that the Church is a place of judgment and legalism, not a place of grace and mercy. I believe that these recent survey results are not documenting coincidental fluxuations in church participation or fleeting opinions. The attitudes and choices of the Millenials did come out of nowhere; they did not arise in a vacuum. They are connected to Christians’ actual behavior in recent times.

There is a doctrine in the study of the sacraments known as ex opere operato, which means "from the work done" in Latin. It means that the efficacy of the sacraments does not derive from the holiness of the person performing the sacrament, but instead from the action of the sacrament itself. In other words, if I give communion in church, that time and space is sacred, but not because I am Just That Holy. It’s because God is there and meets us in the sacrament, despite the fact that I’m a sinner just like you. This is an important doctrine in every orthodox Christian tradition because it prevents the clergy from becoming a separate, spiritually superior class, and from making membership in such a class a requirement for eligibility for holy orders. It also prevents clergy from becoming prideful and self-important (at least, it should). 

Unfortunately, while we know about this doctrine in our minds, our hearts often forget it, and I’m not quite sure why that happens. The RCC has some rigid social teachings, including prohibiting all birthcontrol other than the rhythm method. I bring up that one in particular because it’s a teaching that has little to no relevance in the everyday lives of Catholics in most Western countries. And it significantly impacts the lives of Catholics in the 2/3 world, whose families are already struggling to make do without having to worry about large numbers of unplanned children on top of it all. Some 89% of American Catholics ignore this teaching and use other types of birth control. That is a tough pill to swallow (no pun intended), not to mention very stringent views and (in my opinion) sometimes graceless language on issues of abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination. How can priests, bishops, and cardinals hope to enforce such prohibitions in a world that is modernizing much more quickly than the Church? I think that it was originally accomplished with an approach the priests took that was somewhere along the lines of, “I am a set-apart minister of God and I am chaste and obedient. If I can do it, you can do it.” When communicated in a spirit of compassion, equity, and solidarity as fellow sinners, I think this approach could have worked, and it did for awhile.

But then the pedophilia scandals broke. Parishioners could no longer count on priest to be moral examples. They realized that priests could be predators. They can betray our trust, harm their flock, and then cover it all up and expect to continue receiving the respect and honor of the community. What kind of sheep follows a bad shepherd (Is. 56:10-12; Ez. 34:4; Jn. 10:10-14)?  And so, slowly but steadily, the people have stopped participating in a religious institution that appears to be corrupt, hypocritical, and more concerned with protecting clergy cronies than their own welfare. Frank Brunni at the New York Times says it well:
It’s time for the church to stop talking so much about sex. It’s the perfect time, in fact. It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary. The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate.
While we Protestants have learned from the scandals in the RCC and have taken measures like Safe Sanctuaries policies to make sure that kind of thing does not happen in our churches, we are still learning the hard lessons that come from broken trust in the Church universal. Some have said that what the church has is an image problem. But the bigger problem is that people's perceptions of us are correct; they do not misunderstand us. What we really have is a "credibility gap": a gap between what the Church says on certain issues and the lived reality of ordinary people.

As I pointed out in last week's post, ideology wars are not the answer. Even an ideology war is won in a way that brings the church's teachings closer to public opinion, it would be irrelevant because we have already lost. We've lost members and money, yes, but even worse, we've lost something we might never get back: trust. 

How can we gain it back? 

Well, Brunni offers an idea: "To many Catholics, active and lapsed, the beauty of the faith and the essence of Jesus Christ reside in a big-hearted compassion that has been eclipsed and often contradicted by church leaders’ excursions into the culture wars."

Indeed. It's time to stop fretting about life issues and whether the earth is 8,000 year old or 4.5 billion years old. Who cares how old the earth is when its climate is out of whack and its creatures are scraping for survival? It's time to stop arguing over the earth's age and start doing something to protect it. If we really care about children, then it's time to stop arguing over the abortion and start doing something about the 22,000 children who die due to poverty each day (about 15 million each year). And we can start at home, with small acts of compassion and mercy. When we do as Jesus did, we can start to show to world what we're really about- and we'll be transformed in the process.

But all this good work- from small acts of mercy to social action- takes energy. Where do we get that energy and find the gumption to do it? In the next few posts about what will save Methodism, I will argue that worship and spiritual formation are essential foundations that allow us to do mission- the things Jesus sent us into the world to do. Whither Methodism? Tune in next week for the first installment!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Winning an Ideology War Won't Save the UMC [Lo-Cal Snacks 03]

Oh my goodness, I can't believe it's been an entire month since I last posted in this series. Mea Culpa. I probably should not have planned such a long series with so many crazy weeks in the middle, but what's done is done. In the interim, I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry to be considered as a candidate for commissioning as an Elder in the UMC- and I passed! *Kermit the Frog voice* Yaaaayyyyy! Today, I just finished a concert cycle with Chorus Pro Musica that included very difficult music, including quite a bit of Bach. I came back from the BOM and almost immediately went into concert week. Whew! It was tiring but more than worthwhile.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. In our series so far, we have talked about things that folks sometimes think will "save" the UMC, but which will actually do the opposite. Last week month (groan), we looked at the Worship Wars in the church. This installment is on something similar, but more insidious and harder to stamp out: Ideology Wars.

The media are fond of phrases like "culture wars" and "class warfare". The global UMC encompasses so many cultures and social stratifications throughout the world that we are always working to bridge these gaps in order to do God's work in the world. But unfortunately, we have been caught in battles over ideology almost since our inception in 1968. The 1984 General Conference resolved a fight over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that had been raging since 1972 when we passed the Our Theological Task portion of the Book of Discipline. Also since 1972, we have been in disagreement over homosexuality (and, to a lesser extent, abortion). It seems as if almost every conversation had at General Conference, and Annual Conferences as well, falls into the ideology ruts of American political parties. Given that we are a global church, that's bad news. And given the recent polarization of American political rhetoric, that's terrible news.

The UMC is not the only church with this problem, however! Certain groups and leaders that are part of America's religious right have been major players in national conversations over life issues (particularly abortion), evolution, and homosexuality in the last 50 years or so, and have allowed polarities to arise. We expect people to be either pro-life or pro-choice; anyone who tries to articulate care for both mother and baby is hard-pressed to succinctly and clearly explain such a position (though the UMC Social Principles do a darn good job of it). Likewise, we are expected to either believe in creationism or evolution; though many people believe in both, they are often afraid to say so. The highly polemical discussions taking place in the media and in the church today tend to place people in ideological "camps" without really giving them the time or space to thoroughly explore the issue. We start to make assumptions about people based on the way their views align with political party platforms. For example: a person who is pro-life is, ironically, likely to oppose gun control. In other words, we pre-judge them.

Evolutionary psychologists have found that this is just how the brain works. We make categories, and then when we encounter a new person or thing, we attempt to place them into the correct category. This is a survival mechanism. If we know that large animals with sharp teeth can hurt us, we realize that it's a good idea to avoid large animals with sharp teeth. Our ancestors survived because they were able to predict when certain actions were advantageous or certain situations were dangerous. Today, in a society that is highly socially developed (and in which we go into the supermarket for food rather than into the jungle), this tendency doesn't serve us so well.  

Lately (as in, within the last 60 years), it seems as if the Church has majored in judgment. When I was home in Ashland recently, I recalled a local church's policy of prohibiting women who have engaged in premarital sexual relations from wearing a white dress or being married in the sanctuary (they are relegated to the basement). This is just one example of some of the judgments rendered in churches yesterday and today. And recent research in partnership with the Barna group has shown that young people are receiving a message of judgment. People ages 16-29 believe Christians are: antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), too political (75%), out of touch with reality (72%), and insensitive to others (70%). These people, who are largely outside the Church by now, "firmly... reject-- and feel rejected by-- Christians". Ouch.

This research is borne out in experience of real UMC ministers. A friend of mine, the Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse University, read the following statements her students' papers a few weeks ago (I obtained permission to quote them from her):

"I can't be Christian because I had a child out of wedlock."
"I am not Christian because I believe in evolution."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe a loving God would send people to hell."
"I am not a Christian because I don't think gay people are sinners."
"I can't be a Christian because I am divorced."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe people of other faiths are damned."

And while I'm thinking of Syracuse University, I also read an article about a student there who identifies as Pagan and Christian. She describes her participation in campus groups of both faiths, and she calls the Pagan group “the most accepting community I’ve ever been a part of". She's part of a Christian group and a non-Christian group, and it's the non-Christian group that is the most accepting! We are a tradition built on the example of a man who touched lepers and hung around with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus taught us that faith is not about following a bunch of rules to the letter. And yet here we are, judging as the Pharisees did, based upon our own rules which we follow inconsistently.

Now there are plenty of good people in the Church and it's easy to think, "Well, outsiders just don't know us. If they got to know us better, they would see we're not that bad." It's true that getting to know diverse people helps dispel misjudgements. But, as one author recently wrote of good people who have racist views, "I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take." Church, the rising generation has had all the Good Church People it can take.

Some folks try to make the case that winning an ideology war over a specific issue will bring young people back to the church. Both liberals and conservatives made this case about homosexuality in their floor speeches at General Conference 2012. They have a point. In Seattle, our current stance on this issue is ruining the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers there. Likewise, to change our official stance would ruin the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers in the Congo. We need to find a way to coexist as Christians who have different opinions and different ministry contexts without ruining each others' witnesses, but that's a discussion for another day. This is an evangelism problem in specific cultural contexts, and coming to a forced resolution on the issue of homosexuality will not be a panacea that "cures" the UMC of its ills. Either way, someone would leave, and those someones are valuable parts of our denominational body.

No, focusing on one social issue or another- and "winning" in official Church policy over that issue- will not save the UMC. It will further divide us and perhaps cause a schism. Like the Worship Wars, winning an Ideology War will not "save" the UMC. So... what will? We begin to find out the answer to that next week (I promise)!