United Methodism as One Church

As we United Methodists move toward our called General Conference in 2019, I sense among our Duke Divinity students, as well as among the folks in the churches where I have been preaching, growing anxiety about the future of our church.  Bishop Ken Carter (my former student!) has been giving wonderfully irenic, non-anxious leadership to the UMC through his book, Embracing The Wideness of God’s Mercy, published in service to our church this year by Abingdon Press.

On pages 120-121 there is a summary of the book which appears below with some annotations.

  • A generously orthodox faith and trust in God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, is the bridge that can connect us. It is not a wall that divides us.
  • A generously orthodox faith can create the generative space where covenant keepers, justice-seekers and those passionate about unity can walk together (chapter one).

This really is a framework for the different people who could find a home in the One Church Plan.

  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in the radical grace that saves us and that same radical grace that breaks down the walls of hostility between us (chapter two).

This draws heavily from Ephesians 2, Luke 15, and Acts 15 which can be a resource for those asking questions about scripture.  And it has been helpful to persons in the LGBTQ community whose questions are not primarily about polity but about scripture and the church.

  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in our best loved stories, such as Jesus’s parable of the free and infinite grace of the parent who welcomes the child home (chapter three).
  • A generously orthodox faith can help us to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit (chapter four).
  • A generously orthodox faith is rooted in a Wesleyan understanding of the grace of God (chapter five).

This is a reflection on Wesleyan prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace.

  • A generously orthodox faith teaches us to be patient with one another (chapter six).

This is a chapter to support our need not to arrive at closure or division but to be open to what might happen in St. Louis and beyond.

  • A generously orthodox faith sustains us in the demanding but essential work of reconciliation (chapter seven).
  • A generously orthodox faith reminds us that the apostles taught the early church to see our differences as gifts (chapter eight).

This is a response to the term “local option”, and is a defense of contextualization,which is critical to the One Church Plan.

  • A generously orthodox faith is a resource to resolve complaints and conflict in restorative and non-punitive ways (chapter nine).
  • A generously orthodox faith is the church’s bridge toward both unity and community with all persons, including those with LGBTQ identity (chapter ten).
  • This chapter is a basic reflection on Jesus’ prayer of intercession for unity in John 17 which will be helpful to those of us who are speaking up for unity.

Here is part of the Foreword that Stanley Hauerwas and I wrote for Ken’s book:

How typical of Ken Carter to see a church crisis as an opportunity to preach, as a call for Wesleyan theology.  Bishop Carter is as good a pastoral theologian as we have among United Methodist bishops.  Ken’s strong, Christ-committed voice can lead us in thinking about the present moment like Christians and in being a more faithful church.

Ken Carter’s impassioned book tries to help Methodists stay true to their deepest Christian convictions and find a way to recognize the reality of Christians who happen to be gay.  Here is Wesleyan conjunctive theology at its best, Christ and the church together into the future.  The challenge before Bishop Carter is how to confront that reality without underwriting the cultural presuppositions often associated with calls for more liberal policies that are antithetical to the church being the church. That is why Carter emphasizes that for Christians our primary language is not the language of rights, inclusiveness and acceptance but rather how we learn to regard our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters as God’s gifts.

Ken talks about “presence” rather than “cause.”  When we assume as Christians that we represent different sides of some conflicted cause we cannot help being tempted into moral preening and smug self-righteousness.  (Much of the floor debate of most General Conferences.)  Once our superior moral stance on a cause is assumed and smugly asserted, we can make little headway in any attempt to understand one another, much less be the church together.  We lose our ability to be in truthful, compassionate disagreement and just end up shouting past one another.  We don’t listen; we assert, counting the votes, hoping not that we will grow as a church but that our stance on the cause will win.  In the church today, to be in disagreement is a great theological achievement because when we disagree we are able to recognize what may be at stake in our agreements and disagreements.

Bishop Carter makes clear that questions about the place of LBGTQ Christians in our churches is a matter of holiness.  Generous orthodoxy for Methodists is a way of making clear that our fundamental conviction that Jesus really is the Christ, the son of God, who is considerably more engaging than just another “belief.”  Rather, to be a Methodist means if our fundamental Christological convictions are not true, and if our church is not formed on the basis of our Christology, then our lives are incoherent and our church is incomprehensible as the Body of Christ.  For Methodists, holiness names our ongoing growth in a way of life that is an alternative to the desperate modes of living that know not God.  To so live may look different in different times and places, so Ken stresses the importance of congregational context for the particular shape of that congregation’s mission.  This is why every worshiping community is catholic, why our commitment to the one, holy, catholic church enables us to engage in Christ’s mission in differing ways while participating in Christ-dependent unity.

Ken Carter is fulfilling two of the historic roles of the episcopacy: to teach the church to care for orthodox doctrine and to cultivate the unity of the church under Christ. Here’s a book for the church in such a time as this, an extended sermon that not only shows us a way forward but also reminds us of the joy of being saved by Jesus.

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