February 1st, 2015

Eugene Peterson’s contributions to theology and practice are assessed by several essays in Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson (Cascade Books, 2014). In a public response at Western Seminary to the book’s critiques, Peterson stated, “I don’t trust myself for my own theology or polity. The institution isn’t infallible, but fallible people like me need to submit to it.”

When facing forks in the road on my own faith journey, I also pause and remind myself to “submit” to the institution of the church. This is why the Book of Discipline is good to remind me, “Ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust” (¶363). A relationship of sacred trust or mutual promises keeps me grounded as a fallible individual. When I break that sacred trust, I must be held accountable.

Frankly, when left to my own devices, I simply do not trust my own self-interest regarding important matters of theology and polity because, alone, I am fallible. In this holy relationship of sacred trust, I must first defer to the church for guidance on how to respond.

And when that sacred trust is broken, a just resolution is necessary, which is not only about saying “sorry” but also about coming to agreement about what behaviors in the future will be sufficient to ensure that the bond (trust) is not broken again.

If sacred trust is broken, we expect to be accountable. But obedience to church law may cause intense angst when there is a righteous fire burning in the belly prompting contrary actions believed to be grounded in love, justice, and mercy. A refusal to conform to institutional constraints can be an act of conscience in faithful obedience to God.

In The United Methodist Church, we are currently experiencing this tension between accountability and resistance around matters of sexual orientation and marriage.

This issue of Circuit Rider offers, without contentious debate, some responses to our dilemma. In the midst of evolving controversy over same-gender marriage, perhaps we can step back from the rhetoric or ultimatums and seek fresh insight into the context and consequences of the disputes. Sacred trust is not only about holy conversation or even holy expectant waiting as we pray for insight and consensus. It is also about holy living, holy reconciling, holy witnessing, and holy service as a community bound by mutual covenants. How do we understand the purpose of the church complaint process in this context? How can we encourage holy conversation among folks who disagree? What spiritual practices allow us to discern the way forward? What exactly is unity in the midst of discord?

These articles will stimulate thoughtful reflection and holy conversation without necessarily resolving the current dispute.

Eventually, through prayer, we trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us on.

About the Author

Brian Milford

Brian K. Milford is the Chief Content Officer & Book Editor of The United Methodist Church. He has served read more…
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