The centrists and progressives fiddled our love of God and of all and paid no attention to the call for a doctrinally defined church, sure that such an idea would not ever pass sophisticated theological muster, forgetting the people don’t want sophisticated theology that leads to open borders but simple answers and big, massive walls against outsiders.
Over five years ago, I warned the good folks in The United Methodist Church that the doctrinal inquisition was soon to come.
At that point, I suggested this would happen (and you can read the fuller discussion here):
My prediction: Without a sworn oath that the BOD will be upheld in its entirety, which no one can possibly do and still be actually engaged in ministry, clergy will lose their ordination status, their appointments, the defined benefit portion of their pensions (substantial for older clergy) and their health insurance. Actually dividing up those assets and properties will be such a logistical, legal and financial nightmare that the victors will simply claim all assets as theirs.
As one who carefully observed the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Church (now at its lowest membership numbers in 30 years), the signs were everywhere. Then, accused sexual molester Judge Paul Pressler and the admittedly sexist and misogynist Dr. Paige Patterson, engineered the takeover, made everyone sign doctrinal purity documents and especially cleansed the seminaries of any who did not hold to their version of the truth, particularly of the inferior place of women in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Joining the company of these despicable men, Mark Tooley (IRD), Keith Boyette (WCA), Rob Renfroe (Good News), along with their various henchmen who populate their version of the smoke-filled rooms, have duplicated the process, simply substituting LGBTQI+ folks for women.
And here’s my next prediction: in the newly cleansed United Methodist Church, for with their voting power, they’ll get the name, women will not be far behind in the cleansing operation. There is no way those men can hold to their interpretive hermeneutic and permit women in senior pastoral leadership or serving as Bishops or District Superintendents. The divorced should go as well, but is possible that such a decree will step on too many big-moneyed toes, and thus will be ignored. Lord willing, people of color will still make the cut. But one never knows, because an organization based on rigid doctrines never seeks the wideness of God’s mercy as a starting point or even a way station.
I did try to sound the warning. So did a few other voices crying in the wilderness. In the process, I also sought to keep my own hermeneutic of grace and insist there was room at the table for all of us, for conservative, for centrist, for progressive voices, so we could continue to inform one another, sharpen one another, approach together the Lord’s Table in humility and self-giving love.
Now I know I was misguided in seeking to keep those doors open and voices heard, as were those who insisted that the UMC could continue to operate as its historically durable and gracious big tent. Once the fundamentalist camel gets its nose in the tent, nothing will stop it from a total takeover. (See below for the fable of the Camel’s Nose if you are not familiar with it).
Yes, the centrists and progressives fiddled with words of grace and hope and connection and unity without the need for uniformity. We fiddled with hopes of diversity, not realizing that fundamental human nature fears diversity above all and longs for homogeneity, for the ease of only having to be with like-minded people, and loathes the loss of power that comes from fully open doors.The centrists and progressives fiddled our love of God and of all and paid no attention to the call for a doctrinally defined church, sure that such an idea would not ever pass sophisticated theological muster, forgetting the people don’t want sophisticated theology that leads to open borders but simple answers and big, massive walls against outsiders.
In other words, we ignored the realities of the human condition. We insisted our words and our music could transform them into something genuinely replicating the kingdom of heaven vision offered to us so eloquently by Jesus, especially well-articulated in Luke 4. We thought we could camp on the witness of the Book of Acts where the formerly unclean were pronounced fully clean, where previously rigid boundaries and barriers to words of grace came crashing down, and where gatherings of God’s people featured wide-open doors and questioning minds.
We thought that the words of Paul, the ones that declared forever dead the separations between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between male and female meant what they obviously do mean: from now on, ALL are fully included, fully empowered to live out the freshness of life in Jesus.
We fiddled, dancing on the Holy Scriptures, and thought that would be enough.
But, of course, in the human condition, might makes right. In the witness of Holy Scripture, the words where by grace breaks through yet once more always come from the margins. But when operating from the not-yet-perfected human condition, the majority of votes means “God spoke,” a stance for which there is not one iota of Scriptural support.
We fiddled like Joshua Bell in the subway, never managing to engage the people as they went on to do precisely as planned, no time to stop and think, to consider the moment, to feel the brush of angel’s wings.
The seminary purge plans are surfacing now, along with those for all the General Agencies and Boards. Either agree that “practicing” one’s gayness, i.e., engaging in the normal human need for relational human intimacy or, even having a same-sex roommate, is unacceptable (it will be phrased so much nicer, of course), or get out.
Now has come the time to eliminate all who disagree with them and their hubristic one-and-only-one-way to interpret the Holy Scriptures, this complex collection of 66 books by multiple authors, written between 2000 and 4000 years ago that not a single one of them has ever read in its original iteration.
I tried to sound the warning bell but heard in return that my words were inflammatory, not helpful, unnecessary.
On this one, I was right.
Now, it’s time to pick up the pieces and, in the glorious words of Genesis One, actually live out of our calling to be in the image of God. Time to engage in the process of re-creation, of bringing fresh order out of the chaos of the destructive takeover.
Now is the time. Let’s stop fiddling and start creating anew.
The Camel’s Nose In The Tent
One cold night, as an Arab sat in his tent, a camel gently thrust his nose under the flap and looked in. “Master,” he said, “let me put my nose in your tent. It’s cold and stormy out here.” “By all means,” said the Arab, “and welcome” as he turned over and went to sleep.
A little later the Arab awoke to find that the camel had not only put his nose in the tent but his head and neck also. The camel, who had been turning his head from side to side, said, “I will take but little more room if I place my forelegs within the tent. It is difficult standing out here.” “Yes, you may put your forelegs within,” said the Arab, moving a little to make room, for the tent was small.
Finally, the camel said, “May I not stand wholly inside? I keep the tent open by standing as I do.” “Yes, yes,” said the Arab. “Come wholly inside. Perhaps it will be better for both of us.” So the camel crowded in. The Arab with difficulty in the crowded quarters again went to sleep. When he woke up the next time, he was outside in the cold and the camel had the tent to himself.
Photo credit: Photo on Visualhunt.com