Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Sexual Identity Crisis of the United Methodist Church

There is one thing about which we can all agree: the ongoing battle within the United Methodist Church over sexuality is an extremely exacerbating debate. Everyone hates it. We all want it to go away. Everyone- young or old, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, United Methodist or not- implores why we must persistently lock horns over the issues surrounding the presence of LGBT people, especially when this fight distracts us, divides us, and paints a picture for the rest of the world of the church at its very worst.

ID Crisis ChurchNevertheless, for nearly 42 years, this issue has increasingly been the defining issue of the church to grapple with. Now it threatens to tear the United Methodist Church apart. With the conclusion of the Schaefer trial and news of many more of these trials already in the works, tensions are rising to historic levels. We are indeed in the midst of a major crisis of sexual identity in the United Methodist Church.

Crisis doesn’t just mean “pain and distress” as commonly used. Crisis comes from the Greek word krisis, which means “a decision”. A crisis is a major point of decision in which several paths are laid out before us. We must choose which way to go.

The problem has been that at our point of crisis, the people of the United Methodist Church have been asked to choose from one of two paths. The first, which has been the standard of our Book of Discipline, has established that the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. As such, same-sex weddings are outlawed, clergy who perform them can be charged, tried, and lose their credentials, and no self-avowed practicing homosexual may be ordained. The second path continually and persistently offered our church has been a change to our Discipline that would allow for the full inclusion and embrace of LGBT persons into the church: membership, marriage, and ordination.

When our denomination meets for General Conference every quadrennium, we are thrown into the same crisis in which yet another excrutiating choice must be made, a choice that will ultimately pain and exclude a significant portion of the church. That choice for nearly 42 years has been made to uphold the incompatibility of homosexuality within the life of the church: with special emphases on marriage and ordination.

Now we are in a state of chaos. As gay marriage became law in 16 states and in the District of Columbia, some clergy and churches have been conducting same-sex marriages and in doing so, have conscientiously defied church law in the name of righteousness, fairness, and what they uphold as a true example of the gospel. Charges, trials, and verdicts ensue as well as a growing possibility of a devastating split to the church, or a grand exodus by those who can no longer tolerate the standards and practices of the church.

Then there are so many more folks who don’t strongly subscribe to one side or the other, who are afraid of being torn apart in this tug of war. They never receive the press or the attention that the sides of the debate always seem to garner. But they are suffering and hurting, too.

As for me, I am in deep pain over the state of the United Methodist Church. I am deathly afraid of a split or an exodus. We would never recover from a loss like this, and I don’t want to have to choose between which side, which of my church family, I would remain loyal to. I love and need all my church family, including the ones I don’t see eye to eye with. They especially have enriched and deepened my life and my vision.

However, I have a proposal that I believe most fair-minded, open people will embrace. It’s admittedly quite vague and undefined right now, but better defined, it will restore our unity and uphold the greatest truths we all share.

I am proposing a via media, a third alternative which can rise above the two choices we’ve always been given and become a place we can all live in, even with our great differences.

I believe we can find a biblical model or principle that will allow our full United Methodist church to co-exist, even with our great differences. We can each uphold our passionate convictions while making room for the other. In that way, we can cling to Jesus, to each other, and to our church, even when we are not able to agree.

Many on both sides would vehemently challenge me here. They would claim that a third way would compromise essential aspirations and truths from their side. They argue that there are fundamentally incompatible convictions and aspirations that cannot possibly co-exist in one body, not without damaging the integrity of the whole.

Well, so far the two-choice paradigm we’ve been living with for nearly 42 years has proven one thing: it’s killing our church. If it’s allowed to continue out of principle while each side entrenches itself even more deeply, we will be reduced to a much weaker, smaller shadow of our former selves which I firmly believe will summons the death knell for Methodism in America. None of us will be better for it. Each side is killing the church in the name of preserving it.

I also firmly believe that the Holy Spirit has been trying to lead us in a different way, to a different place. It’s a place quite different from the places people are entrenched in now. It’s a place, not necessarily of compromise, but of shared community in which there is respect, trust, love and embrace of common, higher, Christ-like principles. The problem is that we’ve not been able to listen among the calamitous voices of the debate over LGBT. Or, afraid of backlash from the ideological right or left, we’ve feared to go there. Well now, with the church in jeopardy, we have nothing to lose, especially if we believe in the future of a United Methodist Church.

To get there, God will call some open people who are not afraid of backlash from their respective side to engage in this work. They are the blessed peacemakers whom Jesus names “the sons and daughters of God” (Matthew 5:9). It will be hard painful work, but I believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us. If we can be humble and moldable enough and endure the friction from within and without, God will show us this different way. And Jesus’ disciples who make up our church will see and respond.

~A Postscript: For Those Still Reading~

Right now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t care what you say, Chris. I will not be a part of a church that calls sin acceptable and tolerates anything that goes against the Word of God.” News flash: none of us do, liberal or conservative! Of course we don’t want a church like that. I hear no one saying, “Yup, I’m all for proliferating sin and evil in my church!” And of course, we all want to uphold the Word of God as our light and truth. The problem is that we cannot agree on what is sin and what is not. What one calls sin is a painful stumbling block to the other, and what one doesn’t call sin is also an offensive stumbling block to the other. Perhaps the Apostle Paul might have a word to say about that…

Right now, I can hear an entirely different group of people saying to me, “I don’t care what you say, Chris. I will not be part of a church in which people are excluded and oppressed on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or any other kind of identity.” News flash: none of us do, conservative or progressive! Of course we don’t want a church like that. I hear no one saying, “Let’s go the way of Westboro Baptist Church and cast out all the [insert pejorative].” Of course we want to include and embrace all people. An inclusive church is one of founding tenants of the United Methodist Church. The problem is that we all don’t agree on the nature of inclusivity. It’s not a question of who we include, but what we include, specifically standards, behaviors, and the qualities we want (or don’t want) for clergy.

As you can see, neither of the critical statements I mentioned here about sin and inclusivity which we hear bantered about in the debates are helpful. No one wants a church who tolerates sin. No one wants an exclusive church. But perhaps a step forward would be to claim what we all do want: an inclusive  church which loves biblical righteousness. Can we all say that together, even if our definitions differ from time to time?

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Pastor Appreciation from Atheists

The month of October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. As the title suggests, it’s a month designated to thank and honor pastors and clergy who have had an impact on our lives. Some years, I’ve received touching notes and cards from parishioners. Other times, the church would put on a potluck supper in my honor. Then there were some years in which October came and went with very little. That never bothered me, really. I don’t anxiously sit around waiting to be accoladed and thanked.

This year, however, I received two notes of appreciation from some friends of mine. They are not my parishioners. In fact, they are no one’s parishioners. That’s because they are atheists. Here’s what they wrote:

I understand that October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month. To be honest, I don’t particularly appreciate clergy in general, since I’m essentially opposed to organized religion. However, I want to make exceptions for clergy members who make an effort to help people here on Earth and not just in a supposed afterlife, and who try to lead by example rather than just mouthing the words. Shout-out to our friend Chris Owens–we may not always agree, but I appreciate his honest efforts to see the other side’s perspective.

I also got this one from another atheist friend:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for being my friend and my internet pastor. Knowing you and talking with you has meant a great deal to me – even when we disagree, I always feel I learn something from you, and for all those times we turn out to agree (which is delightfully more often than I feared) it gives me a wonderful sense of perspective about the Christian community today which I find is lacking among many atheists, and broadens my world view greatly.

You are, indeed, an individual very worthy to hold the title of “pastor” and you bear the mantle of responsibility, authority, and vulnerability well – better than many I know who hold that title.

Wow… I was deeply touched and humbled by these words. It’s one thing for a church member to say these things. But for people who are not members of my faith community- folks who do not believe in God and reject organized religion!- to affirm my ministry and me that way, it resulted in one of those rare moments of beautiful pause.

Now some Christians may scoff at any pastor who gets a warm response from atheists. Perhaps I’m compromising myself. After all, I should be preaching the truth boldly, without compromise or apology, especially to unbelievers. Of course, this thinking assumes that part of my job is to offend and alienate people who don’t agree with me. Whatever… There are enough Christian jerks out there who spout off their truths and slam people who don’t see God and the world like they do. I refuse to be one of them, even as I have my differences with people who think and see differently than me.

BridgesMaturing as a Christian has led me to the great value of connecting with people who aren’t like me. It’s a wonderful gift in my life, actually. I learn a lot. I see whole other perspectives which help me to understand how people think and why they think that way. After all, I can’t be a good pastor who effectively shepherds and teaches the good news of Jesus without that. More importantly, I’ve found the gift of loving and being loved by people who would most likely never be my church congregants. Those human to human contacts in which I see the face of God in people, especially those don’t acknowledge God’s existence, is a priceless treasure which draws me closer to Jesus and closer to them. That alone is a precious gift.

So to my friends, Ed and Sophie and the many others I have friendships with who are not Christians or even theists, thank you for being a hallowed treasure in my life. Thank you for the things you teach me, for challenging me, for helping me to think more critically, carefully, and with increased sensitivity and awareness. And thank you for loving and at times forgiving me. You’ve made me a better person, disciple of Jesus, and pastor. You are also much, much appreciated.

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