Can the whole church say 'Amen'?

April 23rd, 2018

“On behalf of the United Methodist Church, Lord, we confess…” The bidding litany was left open for those gathered at the 2016 General Conference to finish in the silence of their own hearts. Any visitor or delegate remembers the tension which pervaded that gathering.

It is not hard to imagine what many were uttering before God:

“We confess that we have marginalized children of God by refusing to acknowledge their humanity. We have been all too hesitant to stand up for justice in proclaiming that all love comes from God and all — lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual — are welcomed at the Table of the Lord.”

In the same moment, another prayed:

“We confess that we have blessed what you have not blessed; we have named holy, what Scripture does not call holy. We confess we have been all too accommodating to the turbulent winds of culture by our hesitancy to enforce our own discipline on sexual ethics.”

At the end of the silence, the gathered were led to say together, “Amen.”

Suspend, for a minute, whatever qualms you might have with the other “side” of the sexuality debate in the UMC, and consider how problematic it is that the same community of faith can confess as sin the same matter, but from polar opposite convictions. This moment encapsulates for me the current division in my denomination.

Several weeks ago, the Council of Bishops signaled that their proposed way forward is to maintain a “united” Methodist Church while allowing for local congregations and, perhaps, entire conferences to determine their own position on same gender marriage and ordination. This “local option” has been presented as a path to maintaining unity while acknowledging the deep division present in our denomination. Bishops, after all, are tasked with preserving the unity of the church.

I too care deeply about the unity of the church — if we take seriously Jesus’s prayer in John 17, we all must. My students will confirm that nothing brings me more quickly to tears than talking about the scandal of disunity and how it must grieve the Lord. Because of this, I pray for our bishops and applaud the godly aim of keeping the unity of the church.

An essential component in preserving the unity of the church is in ordering worship so that the whole church can say “amen.” We sometimes take for granted this word included at the end of our corporate prayers and occasionally uttered spontaneously in a service of worship. “Amen” is loosely translated “so be it,” and indicates that the entire gathered community is in agreement with the prayer or other act of worship. To say “amen” at the close of public prayer is a powerful affirmation that the work of worship is a communal act. It is a public declaration that the gathered body is united in their worship of the Triune God through what has been offered. St. Jerome recalls that the sound of the people saying “amen’ in his fourth-century church reverberated within the building walls “like a thunderclap.” To say “amen” at the end of the prayer is not simply a perfunctory ritual, but a vital sign of unity.

The ordering of worship is a central responsibility of our bishops: “Those who superintend carry primary responsibility for ordering the life of the Church. It is their task to enable the gathered Church to worship and to evangelize faithfully” (Book of Discipline — 2016, ¶ 401). If bishops care about the unity of the church, they must do everything in their power to, at a minimum, enable the entire church to say “amen” at the close of prayer.

After the most recent signaling by the Council of Bishops, my mind returned immediately to that moment of confession at the 2016 General Conference. How can we move forward in unity when we confess in blatantly contradictory ways? For certain, the United Methodist Church has not/does not confess uniformly on a number of other topics. The diversity of our denomination means that there are likely numerous confessions made each Sunday which are vastly different from person to person, or parish to parish. That said, it is one thing to confess differently; it is quite another thing to confess contradictorily. When the latter is the case, the church can never truthfully say together “amen.” Any attempt at a “contextual” and “united” expression of Methodism that does not take this seriously is inescapably incoherent.

Sadly, rather than acknowledging their task to order worship so that the whole church can say “amen,” the latest indication from the Council of Bishops seems to celebrate the cacophony of contradictory prayer that will follow from the “One Church Model.” I fear that in their eagerness to pursue a way forward that keeps a semblance of unity they have neglected this most essential expression of agreement: saying a truthful “amen.”

The time of silent confession on behalf of our denomination at General Conference ended with an “amen.” Yet, I am left with the chilling fear that what was offered in that “amen” was not a thunderclap of unity, but the discordant litany of a denomination that is anything but united.

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