Better Together: Embodied Community

Better Together: Embodied Community

Photo: Shutterstock

By Thomas Lambrecht

The slogan “We Are Better Together” has been used for everything from a political campaign to the headline for efforts to keep The United Methodist Church from separating. Efforts to promote greater unity in our country deserve support. After all, this is the only country we have, and we need to learn how to live together in this country. On the other hand, my colleagues Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton have shown in their book, Are We Really Better Together?, that we are not really together in our denomination. Attempts to patch over the things that divide us deeply from each other in our denomination cannot mask the reality that we are simply not operating from the same worldview. In that case, we are not “better together” because our togetherness leads to continual conflict over the direction of the church. And this is not the only church that exists. There are other alternatives.

However, today I want to use that slogan “Better Together” to talk about a different kind of togetherness – the embodied community found in the local church. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, local churches have suffered the loss of community. Many churches closed for months and some have recently closed again due to Omicron. Many members have created a new Sunday morning habit of tuning in online to watch church. Many others have created a new Sunday morning habit that disregards church altogether. Estimates are that local churches will lose one-third to two-thirds of their members over the course of this pandemic.

As we begin this new year of 2022 and its attendant New Year’s resolutions, I want to make the case that we should prioritize once again gathering in person as safely as possible with our brothers and sisters in Christ to worship God and grow in holiness. While there are understandable times and circumstances that could cause us to temporarily withdraw from in-person worship, there is simply no substitute for meeting in the flesh with other believers to strengthen and express our faith.

Scripture Commands It

The writer to the Hebrews encourages, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Neglect for the regular meeting together of believers is not a new phenomenon in 2022. It has been happening since the first century!

It is important to understand why meeting together is necessary for the life of faith. The kind of mutual encouragement and stimulation to grow in love and good deeds can generally happen only in person. Watching a worship service online does not give us the opportunity to interact with our fellow believers, offering and receiving encouragement in the faith with them. We can engage with the chat function, but it is just not the same as looking someone in the eye and telling them you are praying for them.

The same section of Hebrews offers other reasons for in-person gathering. Verse 22 invites us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” We can absolutely draw near to God in the privacy of our own home as an individual – and we should on a daily basis. But gathering with other believers strengthens our faith and helps to purify our hearts, so that we can even more effectively draw near to the Lord. Again, there is no substitute for this personal gathering that enables us to draw near. Singing hymns and worship songs with others really lifts me into the presence of the Lord. Experiencing the preacher looking me in the eye when she exhorts me to a life of holiness carries a power that is minimized when we are separated through electronics.

Verse 23 commands us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If we don’t gather in person, we forgo the opportunity to converse with others about what God is doing in our/their lives. We miss hearing how the Lord answered prayer this week or unexpectedly ministered to a personal need. Meeting together gives us the strength we need to “hold unswervingly to [our] hope.” It is the difference between sitting on the bench with our fellow players in the game, versus watching the game on TV.

The bottom line is that, when we forsake meeting together, we cultivate (at best) a spectator mentality toward church that weakens our faith and deprives us of the ability to live out that faith in everyday life.

Jesus said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). I once read an illustration of this truth in the picture of the coals in a fire (whether in a grill or fireplace). When the coals are all together, they burn with a hot and steady fire. When an individual coal is placed out to the side away from the rest, it soon grows cold and loses its fire. That is exactly what happens to our faith when we neglect meeting together – it grows cold.

Gathering for Worship Improves Our Health and Well-being

A recent article in Christianity Today  by Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University surveys research relating church attendance with personal health and human flourishing. They find that “religious service attendance powerfully enhances health and well-being.”

The article states, “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular-disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.” Specifically, when compared with those who never attend religious services, regular attenders have 33 percent reduced risk of death, 84 percent reduced risk of suicide, 29 percent reduced risk of depression, 50 percent reduced risk of divorce, 68 percent reduced risk of “deaths of despair” for women and 33 percent reduced risk of such deaths for men, 33 percent reduced risk of adolescent illegal drug use, and 12 percent reduced risk of adolescent depression.

The authors found “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity. People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”

It is important to note that these benefits accrue to people not based on what they believe, but on what they practice. As the article puts it, “Our research suggests that religious service attendance specifically, rather than private practices or self-assessed religiosity or spirituality, most powerfully predicts health. Religious identity and private spirituality may, of course, still be very important and meaningful within the context of religious life, but their effects on health and well-being don’t seem to be as strong as those of regular gathering with other believers.” They go on, “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”

The authors attribute this beneficial effect in part to the embodied community engendered by church worship participation. “Religious communities provide a strong social safety net that other institutions can’t easily replace. … The apostle Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body may also help us understand part of the power of communal religious life. (See I Corinthians 12) … Through their diverse gifts, and the help they provide one another, members of churches are supported in religious faith and spiritual growth, but also in more mundane matters, from care during illness to help finding work after a layoff.”

The authors point beyond the mundane to the spiritual power present in the gathering of believers. “Paul’s use of the body imagery is not merely a metaphor, however, but a claim about the intensity and reality of Christ’s presence in and through the church.” The gathering helps all present to draw near to the Lord and experience his life-giving presence and power. After all, Christ promised “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Consequences for Society

At the macro level, the individual outcomes of decreased health due to decreased worship attendance contribute to massive social consequences. As Brendan Case, one of the authors of the CT article, points out in another article in First Things, “Deaths of despair caused drops in overall life expectancy in the United States for three consecutive years (from 2015 to 2017), the longest period of decline since World War I.” He goes on to state, “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has … assembl[ed] a body of evidence that suggests that about 40 percent of the increase in suicides from 1996 to 2010 was attributable to declining religious participation.”

The way Case sees it, “Job losses, declining marriage rates, and shrinking religious communities interact in complex ways to bring about deaths of despair. Low (or no) wages reduce men’s ‘marriageability’ and so drive down marriage rates. Lower marriage rates cause church attendance to decline, which in turn has been shown to increase divorce rates. The result is an atomized society in which deep friendships and simple human warmth become luxury goods. One recent study found that loneliness may increase mortality risk over a fixed period of time by 26 percent, perhaps in part because communities afflicted by isolation and atomization are natural breeding grounds for self-destructive behaviors.

“Religious communities are crucial sources of social connection, but perhaps equally important is their role in directly teaching that suicide or abusing drugs and alcohol is wrong. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put it, ‘religions are moral exoskeletons.’ They provide ‘a set of norms, relationships, and institutions’ that protect individuals from their own worst instincts and from giving in to self-destructive temptations.”

Church attendance is a key tool in combatting loneliness, depression, and the isolation that this Covid pandemic has forced upon us. Worship participation not only grows our faith, it helps restore a healthier society, both individually and collectively.

There may be good reasons why an individual or family needs to stop attending worship for a time. The risk is the temporary pause becomes a habit. As the CT article puts it, “the most common experience of Christians who don’t go to church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits.”

Now at this renewing of the year, we have the chance to renew our commitment to church participation through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” We will be healthier for it – physically, spiritually, and societally!

Better Together: Embodied Community

The Lowly Loveliness of Thanksgiving

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

All of us at Good News wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Our thoughts on gratitude were brought into focus this week through a column by the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren. As one of our favorite writers, we have deep appreciation for her books Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night. She is a columnist for Christianity Today, and writes a weekly newsletter for the New York Times. 

What follows is a brief excerpt from this week’s article in the Times newsletter.

“The practice of gratitude is central to nearly every religious and spiritual tradition. And all of us have much to be grateful for. We get the shocking privilege of living on this planet that is uniquely crafted so that humans can be born, breathe, grow, work, harvest and create. We have bodies that know the pleasures of strawberries, guacamole and buttery popcorn. We hear laughter and breathe in the steam of hot coffee.

“The practice of gratitude teaches us, as the theologian Christine D. Pohl put it,’the giftedness of our total existence.’ This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.

​​​​​​​“To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.

“Maybe your Thanksgiving will be dreamy, full of abundant food, family, friends, and laughter. Or maybe you’ll burn the turkey, maybe you are barely getting by, maybe you will feel lonely or hurt by your family and friends. Even still, there are ordinary gifts and overlooked graces that surround us on each day of our lives.

“‘Even in these lowly lovelinesses,’ says the title character Thomas Wingfield in George MacDonald’s novel, ‘there is a something that has its root deeper than your pain; that, all about us, in earth and air, wherever eye or ear can reach, there is a power ever breathing itself forth in signs, now in a daisy, now in a wind waft, a cloud, a sunset, a power that holds constant and sweetest relation with the dark and silent world within us.’

“Thanksgiving Day softly asks us to practice thanks for the lowly lovelinesses that make up each of our lives, to take time to notice the constant and sweetest relation offered by the giver of every good gift.”

Better Together: Embodied Community

Life Vests and Torpedoes

A postage stamp was issued on May 28, 1948, to honor four chaplains who sacrificed their lives in the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. The chaplains —George L. Fox, Clark V. Poling, John P. Washington, and Alexander D. Goode — are pictured above the sinking ship.

By Steve Beard –

Some of the most emotional moments broadcast on television are when deployed military parents return unexpectedly to surprise their kids coming home from school, during a musical recital, or at a graduation. Sheer joy boils over and you can almost feel the tight squeeze of the bear hugs. Tears of happiness cascade down the faces of the unexpected with unreserved elation. In a perfect world, those moments would last forever.

A few years ago, I joined my family at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego to honor my grandfather, Harold L. DuVal, a veteran of World War II. For the families gathered at the site near the Pacific Ocean, it is a breathtaking experience. Those leaving flowers or touching plaques want to make sure that their loved ones are not forgotten. Walking the grounds gives a good opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform.

While Memorial Day in May is specially designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military service, Veterans Day in November is an opportunity to show gratitude for all current and former members of the Armed Forces.

February 3 is designated as a special day to honor four specific heroes from World War II (1939-1945) and recognize their acts of self-sacrifice during a fateful night off the coast of Greenland in an area the Navy dubbed as Torpedo Alley – a treacherous stretch of the North Atlantic filled with Nazi submarines. The U.S. Army transport ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester was a cruise ship that had been repurposed to serve during wartime. It carried more than 900 military personnel, merchant marines, and civilians.

At one o’clock in the morning on February 3, 1943, a German torpedo tore a massive hole in the ship. The ship went completely dark. Sleeping soldiers woke up in a whirl of disorientation. Survivor Michael Warish described the scene in No Greater Glory: “The lights went out, and steam pipes broke, and there was screaming. Then the bunks, three to five decks high, went down like a deck of cards. Shortly after, there was a very strong odor of gunpowder and of ammonia from the refrigeration system.”

Those who were awake scrambled to upper levels to reach a lifeboat. In Bloodstained Sea, survivor Walter A. Boeckholt remembered, “I was thrown against the ceiling and then landed on the floor. By the time I was recovering my senses, the ship was already tilting. I grabbed for the door, which hadn’t jammed as of yet, and walked out on deck, realizing I didn’t have my life preserver, I went back into the room to get it. As I returned to the deck, they all seemed to be yelling, crying, and trying to get to their lifeboats. Most of the lifeboats were frozen solid or broken in the process of trying to get them loose.”

On board were four chaplains, all lieutenants. Only a few months previous, the Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America) had become friends and ministerial colleagues during military chaplaincy training.

In the whirlwind of panic on the ship, the four chaplains from divergent faith traditions handed out life vests to the terrified young men. Refusing to take places on the lifeboats, they helped as many soldiers as they could to escape the sinking ship. As the supply of life vests ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to four soldiers who were without.

Tragically, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully deployed. The Dorchester sank in less than 20 minutes.

Witnesses report that the chaplains said prayers and sang hymns as they linked arms as the ship was sinking. “When she rolled, all I could see was the keel up there,” recalled Dorchester survivor James Eardley. “We saw the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm … like they were looking up to heaven, you might say. Then the boat took a nosedive. It went right down, and they went with it.”

Another survivor had a similar recollection. “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything,” engineer Grady Clark testified. “The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Of the 902 passengers, only 230 survived.

There is no way to adequately measure what the efforts and sacrifices of the four chaplains meant on that night. Pfc. John Ladd, a survivor, said that seeing their selfless actions was “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” For nearly eight decades, the story has been a symbol of counterintuitive sacrifice, faith-based cooperation, and remarkable love.

In 1944, the U.S. government posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was released in their honor. In 1960, the U.S. Congress authorized the unique creation of the Four Chaplains’ Medal and posthumously awarded it to the four men.

In 1988, a unanimous Act of Congress established February 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” There are numerous stained glass memorials, plaques, paintings, and sculptures to their courageous act found around the nation and at places such as the Pentagon and West Point.

One of the deceased clergymen was the Rev. George L. Fox – the Methodist chaplain. Prior to the fateful night, he had valiantly served in World War I. As an Army ambulance driver, he gave his gas mask to a wounded French soldier. In addition to other commendations, Fox was honored with the French Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War. After the war, Fox became a Methodist minister. Despite having lung damage from World War I, Fox volunteered for service again after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I have to go,” he told his wife. “I know what those boys are up against.” For Fox and his fellow chaplains, devotion to God manifested itself as selfless service to those in need.

Floating in the freezing Arctic water after the explosion on the Dorchester, Pvt. William B. Bednar heard “men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

“To take off your life preserver, it meant you gave up your life,” said survivor Benjamin Epstein in the Pioneer Press. “You would have no chance of surviving. They knew they were finished. But they gave it away. Consider that. Over the years I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. Could I do it? No, I don’t think I could do it. Just consider what an act of heroism they performed.”

Amazing grace for survivors. Through the efforts of David Fox, the nephew of the Methodist chaplain on the Dorchester, the memory of the story of the Four Chaplains has been preserved. In 1996, Fox rented a video camera and attempted to interview as many Dorchester survivors as possible. He ended up meeting 20 of the 28 known survivors. According to Fox, the first sergeant of the ship, Michael Warish, reported that the four chaplains had a remarkable comradery: “These men were always together.”

“Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew,” Fox told America in WWII. “And yet here they were, always together, and they loved each other. The men said it didn’t matter which service they went to, that the chaplains always made them feel welcome and cared for. They were remarkable for 1943, way ahead of their time.”

Through contacts in Germany, Fox also reached out to the three remaining survivors of the German submarine U-223 that had fired the torpedo. “When I was interviewing the U-boat crew, they just would cry,” Fox recalled. “The men had never told their families this story. They realized that when they hit that ship, there were men dying. They cheered the first moment, and then it just got very silent, and they felt terrible after that. These were Germans – they were not Nazis – young boys, 17, 18, 19 years old, forced to do it or they would have been shot, pretty much like in the movie Das Boot. The U-boat crews did what they had to do, but they didn’t like it very much.”

Through a notable reconciliation effort by Fox and the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in 2000, survivors of the Dorchester met with the surviving crew of the German submarine. The men from U-223 had also known loss. The submarine was sunk a year after the Dorchester attack.

Remarkably, two surviving German veterans arrived in Washington D.C. for a 2000 memorial ceremony and they wept openly after visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The small group of both the American and German survivors were invited to the nearby home of Theresa Goode Kaplan, the then 88-year-old widow of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode who had died on the Dorchester.

“She shook the Germans’ hands, and accepted their expressions of regret for her husband and for her suffering,” reported The New Yorker. “When the room was silent, Gerhard Buske (U-223’s executive officer), produced a harmonica, raised his hands to his mouth, and blew out a slow, warbling rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Everyone clapped. Then the room lapsed back into silence.”

Buske returned to the United States in 2003 to speak at a ceremony on the sixtieth anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking. “We the sailors of U-223 regret the deep sorrows and pains caused by the torpedo,” he said. “Wives lost their husbands, parents their sons, and children waited for their fathers in vain. I once more ask forgiveness, as we had to fight for our country, as your soldiers had to do for theirs.”

Buske concluded by imploring the gathering to follow the example of the four valiant chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said. “I wish that we can say the truth to correct errors; we can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; that we can bring joy where sorrows dominate.”

Better Together: Embodied Community

Finding (Another) Way Forward

 

​​​​​​​Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

By Thomas Lambrecht

Since the 2016 General Conference, The United Methodist Church has been trying to find a way to resolve our differences that can be supported by a majority of the denomination. The Commission on a Way Forward was set up to bring recommendations to a special General Conference in 2019. Unfortunately, the Commission was not allowed to consider all options, but was limited to what the Council of Bishops thought would keep us “together” as a church.

At the 2019 General Conference, progressives and centrists put all their eggs in the “One Church Plan” basket. They believed the best or only way forward was to allow annual conferences and clergy to have autonomy to figure out whether or not to broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and ordain openly gay clergy. Traditionalists relied on maintaining the church’s long-standing conception of Scripture, defining marriage as between one man and one woman and restricting non-celibate gays from ordination.

The traditionalist approach won the most votes at the 2019 General Conference by a slim majority. Progressives and centrists decided that they could not live with a traditionalist way forward. Traditionalists had already stated they could not live with a “One Church” way forward. It was this impasse that began to convince folks that separation was the only way forward.

In the months following General Conference, the question was asked whether a way could be found to bring about separation in a gracious, Christ-honoring way, rather than resort to spending millions of dollars on court battles over church property. This led to various groups trying to negotiate plans of separation that would be acceptable to many persons across the theological spectrum. Passing a plan of separation by a slim majority would not be helpful if many in the church refused to honor it.

Eventually, representatives of all the major advocacy groups (left, right, and center) agreed on the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Crucially, this proposal also had support from leaders (mainly bishops) outside the U.S. Since then, it has been endorsed by five annual conferences, including very progressive and very traditional ones, ranging from 64 percent to 86 percent in favor. This is the kind of broad support that could lead to a successful implementation of a gracious separation.

General Conference Postponed

The Protocol was headed for likely adoption at the May 2020 General Conference, until Covid-19 hit. The postponement of the conference, first to August 2021 and then to August 2022, has caused some to think that the Protocol has “timed out.” That for some reason, it no longer can be considered.

Of course, this is not true. The Protocol was validly submitted by the Sierra Leone, Michigan, and Zambia Annual Conferences prior to the deadline, and it is to be considered by the delegates at the General Conference, whenever it meets.​​​​​​​

The other myth floating around is that “conditions have changed” since the pandemic and therefore the provisions of the Protocol need to be reconsidered. I wrote on this question last week.

If anything, over the last two years, the need for the Protocol has become even more clear, with some annual conferences ordaining multiple non-celibate lesbians and gays as clergy. The divergence of practices from one annual conference to another and the divergence of theology regarding the inspiration and authority of the Bible mean that we cannot fruitfully live together in one church body.

This has not stopped a few church leaders from trying to find another way forward that does not involve separation or that keeps as many local churches as possible bound within the UM Church. Some leaders are still in denial about how deep the divide is within our church. Other leaders are in panic mode because any kind of broad separation will impact the UM Church institution in dramatic ways. Preferring to try to hold as many churches within the denomination as possible, by whatever means necessary, some leaders do not favor allowing separation at all. Such a short-sighted, institutional preservation approach will only make the conflict worse and cause more harm to the church.

Connectional Conference Revived

Some leaders proposed that the jurisdictions should be abolished and that every region of the church should have two different conferences – one traditionalist and one centrist/progressive. Everyone would still be United Methodist, but the different theological conferences could operate under different rules according to their consciences.

This approach would not ultimately be acceptable to most traditionalists because it would leave us yoked as part of a denomination that affirmed what we believe to be contrary to the teaching of Scripture. It would also confuse the identity of what it means to be United Methodist.

Most progressives could not accept this approach because it would permit parts of the UM Church to practice what they call discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons. The need to “correct” the “injustice” practiced by traditionalists trumps any desire for a papered-over unity in the denomination.

This Connectional Conference Plan redo has almost no support from General Conference delegates.

Christmas Covenant

About the same time that the Protocol became public, another proposal, called the Christmas Covenant, also came to light. The Christmas Covenant would set up each different region of the church (U.S., Africa, Europe, the Philippines) as its own separate conference, each able to operate by its own set of rules.

I have analyzed the shortcomings of the Christmas Covenant before. It does not solve the theological impasse because every region – and notably the U.S. – would have a significant number of both traditionalists and progressives. The fight would continue at a regional level, and it would be set up for progressives to prevail in the U.S. region of the church.

The Christmas Covenant may very well be how the post-separation United Methodist Church would organize itself. But it is not a substitute for the Protocol. Some form of separation is still needed to resolve the conflict.

Both the Connectional Conference redo and the Christmas Covenant also require two-thirds votes in favor at both the General Conference and all the annual conferences. (The Protocol does not.) This makes it even less likely for either to pass General Conference while traditionalists remain in the church.

Non-Legislative Solutions

One avenue for separation was adopted by the 2019 General Conference. That is the Par. 2553 disaffiliation. While the cost for this option has come down for churches in most annual conferences, it still remains high. While a few churches have taken this route, many local churches are unable to afford the cost, making it not a viable way for most churches that would like to move to the Global Methodist Church to do so.

Another option for separation has recently surfaced, which is to use Par. 2548.2 as a way to allow local churches to leave the denomination to unite with another denomination. This could be a viable way forward for some, especially if General Conference is unable to meet as scheduled. It would require a two-thirds vote by the local church and approval by the bishop, Cabinet, district board of building and location, and the annual conference. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through.

The terms for this 2548.2 separation would be set by each annual conference. Negotiations are underway to see if a standard set of terms can be agreed to that would allow churches across the connection to move to the GM Church on equal terms without waiting for General Conference to enact the Protocol. However, each bishop and each annual conference would have the choice of whether or not to utilize this paragraph and the standard terms. It is unlikely that all bishops and annual conferences would embrace this pathway, leaving many local churches still stuck in a UM Church that they no longer can support. This approach would also not explicitly allow annual conferences to move to the GM Church, which could jeopardize the continued viability of some annual conferences if many of their churches depart. Central conferences and annual conferences outside the U.S. could not use this avenue to move to the GM Church because 2548.2 does not provide for conferences to take that action.

The 2548.2 separation would be helpful for local churches that are in a desperate situation in their annual conferences. Perhaps they experience hostility from their bishop or superintendent. Or perhaps many of their members are ready to leave the local church if it does not immediately take action. In these kinds of situations, 2548.2 could relieve the pressure on individual churches and clergy. For the reasons given above, however, it would not be a broad scale way to resolve the UM Church’s impasse.

Neither the 2553 nor the 2548.2 approaches would eliminate the need to pass the Protocol. For full and fair separation to take place, the Protocol is the only avenue before the delegates to achieve a gracious result.

A Call to Grace

Just in the last few days, another statement has been issued by centrist and progressive leaders calling upon the church to facilitate separation. They say, “The season for waiting on General Conference legislative solutions as the only way forward has passed. We recognize that continued delay in making decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church hurts our mission and is especially harmful to our central conference and LGBTQIA+ siblings who are caught up in this conflict.”

We would strongly support several of their proposals:

  • “We call the church to a pastoral response to the anxiety generated by having to delay decisions that impact peoples’ lives and ministries.
  • “We call on bishops and annual conferences to develop resources to assist local churches in discerning their future, including resources on how to have difficult conversations in ways that reduce harm.
  • “Honoring the expressed desire of some churches and church leaders to leave The United Methodist Church and participate in other denominations, we call bishops and annual conferences to use existing disciplinary authority to find grace-filled ways for these leaders and churches to follow their call now, allowing them to take their church property with them where appropriate.”

Unfortunately, the provisions in the Discipline allowing local churches to withdraw are inadequate to provide for a truly viable separation for all the churches and annual conferences that want to do so. Central conferences and annual conferences outside the U.S. could not avail themselves of the opportunity to separate, as it is not specifically provided for in the Discipline. Again, using one of the non-legislative ways forward is no substitute for the Protocol.

We strongly disagree with the Call to Grace assessment that, “Given the safety considerations that result from this [Covid] tragedy, it appears likely that the General Conference, scheduled for August-September 2022, may be postponed again.” The Commission on the General Conference is the only group that can make that decision, and they are currently operating under the assumption that General Conference will be held as scheduled. Any change in that position will be decided by that Commission in the spring. With the U.S. opening its borders to vaccinated persons and the steadily increasing supply of vaccines for non-U.S. countries, it appears feasible for delegates to travel to the U.S. for the conference. We continue to believe that an in-person General Conference is possible, and that a distributed General Conference would also be possible in the event that everyone meeting in the U.S. becomes impossible. What it will take is the will on the part of our leaders to make it happen.

What the Call to Grace and all the “other ways forward” show is that leaders across the spectrum long for this impasse to be resolved in a grace-filled way. Their statement says, “Those who have decided to remain in The United Methodist Church wish to begin doing the work now of envisioning the future UMC. To be able to do that requires the ability to graciously release others to their own future.” This works both ways, and we heartily agree.

 

Better Together: Embodied Community

Pro-Life Logic

 

Photo Courtsey of Pixabay.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Controversy is ramping up over abortion, as several states have passed more restrictive laws and some are contemplating the possibility that the Supreme Court might reverse the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The proposed new Global Methodist Church is unequivocal in support of a pro-life position. How are we to think about abortion in today’s social context?

The church would do well to follow the lead of Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun, who is best known for tending the needs of people in the slums of Calcutta, India, and received the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor worldwide. “Abortion has become the greatest destroyer of peace, because it destroys two lives, the life of the child and the conscience of the mother,” she said, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Let us thank our parents for wanting us, for loving us, for giving us the joy of living. … You are priceless to God himself.”

This is obviously a controversial and emotionally fraught issue. We need to pay attention to the experiences and feelings of women facing unwanted pregnancies and be prepared to support them from a pro-life perspective. There is also a need to think clearly, biblically, and theologically about the moral aspects of abortion, as well as being informed by the best science. My main concern is how Christians ought to put our beliefs into practice in our personal lives, more than how our beliefs should influence governmental laws regulating abortion.

The question hinges on how we understand the life that exists within a woman’s womb. Is it a human person? Is it a blob of cells? What exactly are we dealing with here?

There seems to be broad consensus that what exists within the womb is alive. After all, it is growing and developing and even has a detectable heartbeat by the sixth week of pregnancy.

Part of the Woman’s Body?

Some would say that a fetus is simply part of a woman’s body. Having an abortion for some is the moral equivalent of removing a tumor or having plastic surgery.

Against this view is the fact that a fetus has different DNA than its mother. If the fetus were simply part of the woman’s body, it would have the same identical DNA as the mother. But of course the fetus has both the mother’s and father’s DNA, combined in a new and unique way, so it has a distinct life from that of the mother.

While it is completely dependent upon the mother for sustenance, the fetus reacts independently to external stimuli. The fetus has periods of wakefulness and activity, independently of what the mother might be doing at the time. The fetus can respond to the sounds of music or the parents’ voices.

In Luke 1, we read how the baby John the Baptist leaped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice. As Elizabeth reports, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:39-45).

Ultrasound technology shows us that a fetus has a life and existence of its own. When it comes to the baby in the womb, the mother is dealing with a separate new life, which takes the question into a different moral category.

As reported by Emma Green in The Atlantic, activist Ashley McGuire recounts her own experience of pregnancy. “When you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”

A Human Person?

The question still remains whether the life within the mother is human and whether it is a person with all the rights and protections of a human being.

Here again, science comes to our aid. When the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, it has all the necessary genetic code to describe its unique existence. From that point on, it is a matter of development. That development takes place rapidly and gradually over the course of the nine-month pregnancy. Even after birth, that development continues until a person reaches physical adulthood in their late teens. At what point during that development does a life go from being non-human to human? Or from being a non-person to being a person?

The Supreme Court in a later decision chose viability as the point at which the unborn child gains some potential protections of the law. That is the point at which the baby could survive outside the mother’s womb. That point is very difficult to establish, however, and medical advancements have been pushing the point of viability earlier in pregnancy. Crucially, what is different the day before a baby is viable from the day after is simply growth and development. No new physical structure is formed that yields viability. The baby has simply grown to the point where it could sustain its own life outside the mother’s womb.

The recent Texas law established a fetal heartbeat as the point at which the baby gains the right of protection. This is a more objective standard, since it can be determined without question from outside the womb. It marks a definite change in the status of the physical development of the baby. But again, there is nothing intrinsically different in an infant before it has a beating heart from after. It is still the same life in development.

Some moralists centuries ago placed birth as the moment when the baby becomes a human person, since it can now breathe the air. They drew upon the image of Genesis 2, where God breathes the breath/spirit of life into the dust, and the man became a living being. I have held and baptized a baby who died in her mother’s womb at nine months gestation. That baby was perfect in every way, except that it was not alive. It was just as much a human person as it would have been, had it been born alive two weeks later.

In some cultures, due to high infant mortality, parents would not name their babies until they were several years old and they had a decent chance of survival. Were those babies less human before they were named?

All these demarcation points are somewhat arbitrary. They are different points along a spectrum of development. The real change that takes place is when a sperm and egg unite to form a new life and it implants in the uterine wall for its life to be sustained. Going from independent cells to a new life is the most defensible demarcation point at which that new life ought to be protected.

“The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form,” said Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University. “It just became so obvious that these were just developing humans.” (Reported in The Atlantic.)

Contraceptive Failure

The vast majority of abortions are performed as a “backstop” for contraceptive failure – either a failure to properly use contraception or because the contraception failed to prevent pregnancy. It is important to note that no contraceptive method is 100 percent effective. Sometimes, abortion is considered a form of contraception, but that is really a misnomer. Abortion does not prevent conception, it ends the life that is conceived.

This is where our overly sexualized culture does women a disservice. Women are often expected to engage in sexual relations without any form of commitment by the man, yet women are the ones who bear the consequences in terms of pregnancy. This is fundamentally unjust. But the answer is not to do away with the consequences by ending the pregnancy. Rather, the answer is to return to God’s plan for how we experience our sexual relationships.

God designed sexual relationships to be experienced within the context of marriage, which represents a commitment by the man to care and provide for his wife and any offspring that might be conceived. Without that commitment, women and children are left unprotected and not provided for. An irresponsible man simply expects the woman to have an abortion to eliminate the consequences of his irresponsibility.

Biblical theology teaches that men and women should reserve sex until marriage. This protects the woman from being taken advantage of, and it prevents the vast majority of potential abortions by reserving pregnancy and childbirth to the safety of marriage, where both the woman and her child are provided for. The CDC reports that 85 percent of abortions are obtained by unmarried women.

This approach to sexuality is counter-cultural. Jesus and the apostles consistently invite us to live by a different set of values and assumptions than our culture does. Such an approach also avoids the emotional pain, emptiness, and even the physical consequences of promiscuity. It is the healthiest way to live.

Rape and Incest

When discussing abortion, the exceptional cases of rape and incest often assume disproportional attention. They account for less than 2 percent of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute  and statistics compiled by the State of Florida. Pragmatically in terms of secular law, if granting an exception allowing 2 percent of abortions would end 90 percent of abortions, that is a trade-off that could make sense. There is certainly no reason to provoke controversy over the “hard cases,” when the vast majority of abortions do not fit those categories

“I was adopted nearly from birth,” reports Rebecca Wasser Kiessling, an attorney, wife, and mother of five. “At 18, I learned that I was conceived out of a brutal rape at knife-point by a seiral rapist. Like most people, I’d never considered that abortion applied to my life, but once I received this information, all of a sudden I realized that, not only does it apply to my life, but it has to do with my very existence.”

It is natural to want to end a pregnancy caused by a traumatic event like rape or incest. But how do we respond to precious souls like Rebecca?

Christians believe that God can work all things together for good and that God can take something meant for evil and use it for good. We must consider why the life of the child should be taken because of the crime perpetrated by the rapist. God can bring healing to the mother through the life of the child. And there are thousands of childless couples looking to adopt babies, for whom such a child could be a real blessing from the Lord.

“Those of us who were conceived in rape are not the’hard cases,'” Kiessling has testified. “It is those with the hardened hearts who would condemn an innocent child to death.”

Stewards of Life

Biblically, life is a gift of God. God creates life and expects us to be good stewards of the life we are given. While the mother and father play a crucial role in bringing new life into the world, ultimately, God is the one who forms life in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Children are a gift from God (Psalm 127:3). His purpose for our life dates back before our birth (Jeremiah 1:5). God loves and values unborn children.

The issues around abortion are painful ones to wrestle with, and there are no easy answers. We can prayerfully consider how God would want to use the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves for our good, the good of others, and his glory. We do not want to close the door on the possibility of miraculously answered prayer.

At the same time, women with undesired pregnancies provide an opportunity for the body of Christ to come around them with love and support that would make that pregnancy manageable. We ought to be the hands and feet of Jesus in serving women and their unborn children with love and acceptance. Often, that support needs to continue past the birth and through the baby’s childhood, particularly for single mothers and women in poverty. The church’s pro-life ethic is not just during pregnancy, but extends through all of life.

The church can also offer the forgiveness and healing of Christ for women who regret their decision to abort a child. This is not an unforgiveable sin, and women ought not to be condemned to live with guilt and pain their whole lives. Jesus came to set us free from guilt and shame around all the brokenness we experience, including misjudgments and wrong choices that are costly.

In this cultural moment, Christians have the chance to speak up for the voiceless and powerless – both the unborn children whose lives are at stake and the women who feel compelled toward abortion. We have the chance to live out the ethic of life for both mothers and children. We can live by a different set of values and assumptions than our culture regarding sex and commitment. And we can offer the forgiveness and healing of Christ to a broken world.

Better Together: Embodied Community

Is the Protocol Constitutional?

Photo Courtsey of Shutterstock.

By Thomas Lambrecht  –

The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation provides a way for amicable separation to resolve The United Methodist Church’s conflict over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, particularly related to ministry to and with LGBT persons. Some within the institution of United Methodism are fighting tooth and nail to prevent separation from occurring. After all, the nature of an institution is to do whatever possible to maintain its existence.

These institutionalists have raised questions about whether the Protocol is constitutional under United Methodist Church law. They raise the valid concern that we do not want to pass a plan at General Conference that later turns out to be unconstitutional and unenforceable. Many General Conference veterans remember the 2012 General Conference passing “Plan UMC,” only to be told on the last afternoon of the conference that the comprehensive plan to reorganize the church was unconstitutional.

Therefore, it is important to consider the possible ways that the Protocol could be unconstitutional and try to assess whether that is indeed the case. The Rev. Dr. William B. Lawrence, professor of American Church History and former dean of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has written a paper arguing that the Protocol is indeed unconstitutional.

Practical Considerations

First, it is important to note that the Judicial Council – United Methodism’s supreme court – would be the body that would rule on the Protocol’s constitutionality. It would take a two-thirds vote, six of the nine members of the Judicial Council, to rule it unconstitutional. This is a fairly high bar, not easily achieved. This is especially true when one considers the Judicial Council’s goal: “When reviewing legislation for constitutionality, we defer to the legislative authority of the General Conference. In reviewing acts of the General Conference for constitutionality, our first inclination is to save legislation, if at all possible, and not destroy” (Decision 1210).

The Council of Bishops requested the Judicial Council to rule in advance on the constitutionality of the Protocol. In Memorandum 1407, however, the Judicial Council declined to rule, citing the fact that it might intrude on the legislative authority of General Conference by placing its “constitutional seal of approval on one proposed legislative item.” The Bishops could ask again for a ruling (with stronger arguments) or, more likely, the delegates of General Conference could themselves ask for a preliminary ruling on the first day of General Conference. Such a request would have to be honored, and it could provide important guidance to the legislative committee working on the Protocol.

Can an Annual Conference Withdraw?

The primary objection by Lawrence and others to the Protocol’s constitutionality is (they say) an annual conference is not permitted to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. Lawrence argues that such a vote would infringe on the authority of the jurisdictional and central conferences to determine “the number, names, and boundaries of the annual conferences” (Discipline, ¶ 40).

However, if an annual conference were to withdraw, the jurisdictional or central conference would simply redraw the boundaries of existing annual conferences to include the vacated area or form a new annual conference to cover the vacated area. The withdrawal of an annual conference does not negate the constitutional powers of jurisdictional or central conferences.

The Constitution does not forbid annual conferences from withdrawing, nor does it explicitly permit it. The Constitution does say that “the annual conference is the basic body in the church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on [several specific matters] and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution” (¶ 33). Since the power to allow an annual conference to withdraw is not specifically delegated to the General Conference, it is reserved to the annual conference to do so.

Even if that were not the case, under ¶ 16.3, the General Conference has authority “to define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.” So the General Conference can give annual conferences the power to withdraw.

Importantly, the Judicial Council has already considered and ruled on this question. In Decision 1366 a ruling on the Traditional Plan, which originally contained a provision allowing annual conferences to withdraw, the Judicial Council said,

​​​​​​​An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to “define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences” in ¶ 16.3. … We agree with the submitter’s argument that the ‘withdrawal of an annual conference does not negate the constitutional powers of jurisdictional or central conferences.’ … While the General Conference, under the authority of ¶ 16.3, may regulate the process and set the conditions for an annual conference to leave The United Methodist Church, the annual conference, having ‘reserved to it…such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution,’ exercises autonomous control over the agenda, business, discussion, and vote on the question of withdrawal. Consequently, we find that amended ¶ 2801.9 is constitutional.

Lawrence argues that this decision does not count, since the provision in question was never adopted by General Conference. At the very least, however, it provides clear guidance to the Judicial Council’s thinking on this matter. Nearly the same members that decided 1366 are continuing members of the Judicial Council today. It would be very unusual for them to change their minds and overrule a previous finding of constitutionality. In accordance with Decision 1366, the Protocol “regulate[s] the process and set[s] the conditions for an annual conference to leave The United Methodist Church.” It thus complies with what the Judicial Council requires, making the ability of an annual conference to withdraw constitutional.

Lawrence further argues that annual conference withdrawal under the Protocol is unconstitutional because it allows lay members of the annual conference to vote on the membership of its clergy – presumably by voting the annual conference to align with another Methodist denomination, which would automatically take all its clergy members into that other denomination. Lawrence writes, “It would remove [clergy] from membership in the [UM] church by sending them involuntarily into some other church body.”

However, clergy membership in the new denomination would be strictly voluntary. Under the Protocol, clergy who wish to remain in the UM Church are able to do so, even if their annual conference withdraws, and they would continue to be eligible for a UM appointment. The laity would not be voting on whether or not clergy would be members of The United Methodist Church. That decision would be up to the individual clergy involved. Under the Protocol, clergy who agree with their annual conference’s alignment decision would automatically move into that chosen alignment, while clergy who disagree with that decision can choose a different alignment. So clergy who wish to remain United Methodist may do so, even if their annual conference votes to align with a new Methodist denomination.

Other Objections

Another objection raised to the Protocol is that it does not require an annual conference to vote to approve the withdrawal of a local church. This objection is derived from ¶ 41, where a two-thirds vote of the annual conference is required to allow a local church to transfer from one annual conference to another within The United Methodist Church. Judicial Council Decisions 1366 and 1377 ruled that the provision allowing a local church to withdraw and join a new or existing Methodist denomination was unconstitutional because it failed to require that annual conference approval.

Judicial Council Decision 1379, however, reversed the previous rulings in light of the fact that “Paragraph 41 of the Constitution governs the narrowly defined circumstance of a local church transferring from one annual conference to another but does not apply to a local church seeking to exit The United Methodist Church.” Decision 1379 still required a simple majority approval by the annual conference for any church disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church. This requirement is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but is extrapolated from the fact that the annual conference is the basic body of the church.

But proponents of the Protocol would argue that ¶ 16.3 in the Constitution gives the General Conference authority “to define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences … charge conferences, and congregational meetings.” General Conference therefore has the authority to grant congregational meetings (church conferences) the power to disaffiliate and to specify that annual conferences do not have the power to approve of such disaffiliation. General Conference has the authority to limit the powers of an annual conference, just as it has the authority to grant powers to an annual conference, as long as the powers to be limited are not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution. Therefore, the ability of a local church to disaffiliate (and align with a new Methodist denomination) without annual conference approval is indeed constitutional under this line of reasoning.

The final objection to the Protocol’s constitutionality is that it should require a two-thirds vote at all levels. (The Protocol requires a two-thirds vote for a central conference to align, a 57 percent vote for an annual conference to align, and either a simple majority or two-thirds vote for a local church to align.) The requirement for a two-thirds vote for such decisions is not found anywhere in the Constitution, other than in ¶ 41, which was already ruled to be irrelevant to the process for disaffiliation decisions. Some would argue on a prudential basis that a two-thirds vote is preferable, while others would argue that a majority vote is preferable. Either way, however, there is nothing in the Constitution that decides the question one way or another. The Protocol carefully balanced the needs and circumstances of different parts of the church in arriving at the percentages chosen.

The bottom line is that all the major objections to the Protocol’s constitutionality are either without a basis in the Constitution or have already been addressed by Judicial Council. Delegates can enact the Protocol with the fairly strong assurance that it is constitutional. Of course, no one can guarantee what the Judicial Council might rule. That is why a ruling in advance of General Conference would be so helpful to the legislative process. In the absence of such a ruling, delegates can still proceed with confidence to adopt the most comprehensive and balanced resolution to our church’s conflict. The church needs this conflict resolved