7 pieces of institutional clutter the UMC needs to leave behind

May 9th, 2017

I’m a sucker for the “25 things you need to get rid of” article. Clutter drives me crazy.

I used to watch those hoarding TV shows. In so doing, I became aware of the ease of slipping into patterns like that. It takes constant effort to stay on top of it.

I’ve developed a habit of daily “tidying” to maintain control over the pervasiveness of clutter. And yes, I’m entranced by Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Her basic philosophy: Toss any item that does not give joy when touching it.

No question about it: the decluttered life is freer, flexible, more creative and unquestionably more joyful.

It continues to fascinate me that a church, based on the intentional, ecclesiastically awful, rule-breaking methods of John Wesley, now has elevated rule-keeping to the status of holiness.

Rules always beget more rules. They are worse than wire closet hangers. We have an overstuffed closet of rules. It is time for a ream-out.

Seven pieces of institutional clutter to discard

So, camping on these ideas plus my quirks, here are seven pieces of institutional clutter the UMC needs to leave behind.

One: The idea that relying on the Bible alone can answer all questions of theology, doctrine and church structure.

Wesley understood that Scripture had to be interpreted through the eyes of wisdom, the studies of others, through lived experience. But as the evangelical push takes over, and splinter groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) gain adherents, there is a grand retreat to this unsubstantiated idea that we can throw Bible verses at anything and have it fully settled.

The truth: Life is more nuanced than an “If you would just follow the Bible, all would be well” statement.

I recently received a jury summons form. The day I am to appear for what could be a two or three-day trial happens to be two days before we leave for Europe and a long-planned vacation. If I postpone serving, my only alternative dates were the two weeks before we returned and the two weeks that I had committed to be in California to care for my brother after a kidney transplant.

No other possible options. Neither choice will work. If I follow the rules, all will not be well. I’m willing and want to serve. But I’m not willing to cast overboard time to see my overseas children and grandchildren or my brother’s health for the sake of being a proper citizen.

The rules, set in place for good reasons, threaten a full year of planning and the life of my brother. I will break them for a higher call and I will be right in doing so.

From the earliest of our religious history of the desert-dwelling Hebrews, religious leaders have known that the written words were not enough. Jewish tradition holds that along with the written law, God also gave a massive amount of oral law to explain how to follow that which was written. Even with it, people have been arguing about the exact observance of the Law ever since then.

“Sola Scriptura” does not work. It never has and it never will.

Two: The contention that doctrinal “purity” will unite.

As Heather Hahn of United Methodist Communications writes concerning the stances of the above mentioned WCA:

The Rev. William J. Abraham was even more explicit about what he’d like to see happen. He said the United Methodists who disagree with church teachings on homosexuality should simply leave and start their own church.

Doctrinal purity and insistence on uniformity of thought have never united or opened widely the doors to grace. As Abraham’s statement makes painfully clear, those kinds of purity demands shut others out.

Yet the Gospels make it clear that Jesus intentionally, and at significant risk, opened the doors to God for those that the Scriptures had previously pronounced as unclean. The radical changes to the understanding of grace as seen in Acts 16 unmistakably announce that religious beliefs must be modified to fit current realities.

Only the love of God despite difference brings true unity. Uniformity kills, slowly strangling the life from the church.

Three: The idea that majority vote gives proper expression to the voice of God.

The “majority” almost always votes with the current power block. But the prophetic voices come from the margins, from the people without that all-corrupting power.

The “majority” voted for Barabbas to be spared, not Jesus. Holy conferencing, the centerpiece of the United Methodist connection, shuts down with Robert and his carefully followed, labyrinth and manipulatable Rules of Order in charge.

Four: The “God must be blessing it because it is growing” mantra.

Cancers grow and grow rapidly. So do the kinds of weeds that choke healthy growth. People flock to easy Christianity, authoritarian theologies and cheap grace because they justify spiritual and mental laziness.

The decisions to define a church or a clergy person as “effective” based on how many people show up for worship and how much money they give compromises the core of the gospel.

Yes, healthy things grow. If a church does not grow, there is something unhealthy about it and it needs uncovering and healing. Rootbound, totally-self-centered churches should be repotted and replanted — and sometimes that hurts a lot.

But fast growth means nothing in the scheme of holiness or blessing. Healthy growth comes in different forms and at different rates.

Five: The current adoration of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

This cumbersome, nearly unreadable, often contradictory, many-times amended book, possibly fully understood only by the few experts who define their lives by legal minutia, is slowly strangling the life from this one glorious connection.

Rules should set us free, not turn us into multiple Gullivers, tied up in knots and immovable.

Grapevines have to be radically pruned yearly to stay vibrant producers. With proper care, they can live for generations and bless all who enjoy their abundant fruit. An untrimmed grapevine looks sturdy and can provide great shade, but it produces little fruit.

An untrimmed grapevine looks sturdy and can provide great shade, but it produces little fruit. That shade too often protects us from seeing the real light. We must radically trim The Book of Discipline to bring life back to this connection.

Six: The structure that permits decisions that affect the entire church made only once every four years.

Sigh. This structure probably did work quite well in the 1800s. But now? Seriously? Gulliver again anyone? Things turn on a dime now, and our inflexibility leaves inadequate space and zero flexibility for good responses to rapid changes.

Seven: Our obsession with bedroom activities and our inability to define holiness in ways that go beyond but still include sexuality.

We’re on the verge of requiring a genitalia check for someone to get ordained.

Among other things, we dare not let in any possible clergy who may have been born with ambiguous genitalia because no one even knows how to define their biological sexuality.

The UMC has defined “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” as one who has genital to genital contact with a same-sex partner. So . . . how do we prove that they are or are not? And what about celibate marriages among self-avowed practicing heterosexuals? Are we going to make sure that couples are having regular sex? That’s biblical as well.

What about the sexual histories of the applicants? Many young people experiment sexually before settling down with life partners. Should the various Boards of Ordained Ministries learn to perform virginity tests on their non-married female applicants?

Men, as usual, get exempted since there is no visible sign of their sexual behaviors. On the other hand, men with damaged genitalia were unable to serve as Hebrew priests. If the Bible, and only the Bible, is our guide, they may need to drop their tidy-whities for a quick BOOM inspection as well.

And let’s be honest, the vast majority of sexually predatory behavior comes from male heterosexuals. They may be the ones that need to be weeded out, not faithful same-sex couples.

Clearly, the above scenarios border on the ridiculous. But if we define holiness and fitness for ministry primarily by sexuality, they are not as ridiculous as they look.

We no longer live in the clean/unclean world–and God knows that.

Holiness and fitness for service demand a far wider base. A holy use of our sexuality is certainly part of it. However, only if we are going to enter into the ancient Middle Eastern custom of rigidly defining everything, and I do mean everything, as a binary “clean or unclean,” can we rightly remove from ordination those who are living in sexual faithfulness to same-sex partners.

At the time when the early Israelites were in the process of forming their fledgling nation, living out the clean/unclean classifications made sense. It helped them separate from the forms of worship they were leaving behind to worship the one true God.

Jesus, while an observant Jew, also made it clear that the clean/unclean separations had passed. He healed on the Sabbath, ate with sinners, touched the leper and the unclean woman. Do not read this lightly: such were scandalous actions. The religious leaders, faithful to their rules, heaped condemnation upon Jesus for them.

Will the UMC start requiring kosher kitchens and demand that all UMC members quit wearing clothes made of blended fabrics? If so, there may be a reason to stick with the “Either you are hetero or non-sexual or you are out” current stance. But in our day, that bucket no longer holds water.

The UMC is not yet dead. But it is dying under the weight of its institutional clutter.

Because of the current crisis over sexuality that threatens to destroy this once-vibrant connection, we are at the ideal time to clear away the clutter, clean out our closets and rid ourselves of anything but the essentials of serving together.

 Christy Thomas blogs at Patheos.

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