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!

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