Iconic brushstrokes from Ukraine

Iconic brushstrokes from Ukraine

By Steve Beard

As I watched the evening news during the haunting first few weeks of the scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine, I could not help but see Kateryna Shadrina’s vibrant image of the Madonna and Child superimposed over the video footage on television of mothers carrying their young children in a panicked evacuation of their homeland.

Although I have half-a-dozen depictions of the Mother and Child in my office, the liquid blues and electric yellows and oranges give Shadrina’s a different dynamic. The 27-year-old artist is an iconographer from Lviv, Ukraine.

Her image wreaked havoc on me.

Visual arts animate the imagination in ways that words alone cannot. To see Michelangelo’s Pietà – the sculpture of the lifeless body of Jesus being cradled by Mary after the crucifixion – is to engage a part of the mind and soul that mere nouns and verbs do not touch. Through painting, Van Gogh helped us visualize the story of the Good Samaritan, while Rembrandt illuminated the story of the Prodigal Son. El Greco told biblical stories in Spanish Renaissance fine art, Howard Finster preached the gospel through American folk art, and Marc Chagall challenged us to see the crucifixion from a different vantage point.

Let me be clear, I am not an art critic. I like what I like. But I also understand there is much to learn through the vision of an artist. “The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender,” observed C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”

Four years ago, I was drawn to an essay written by John A. Kohan in Image journal about a new generation of young iconographers from Lviv. Icons are a very specialized field of religious visual art – a practice of spiritual devotion within the church dating back to the third century. Over time, stylistic peculiarities developed that differentiated icons from other forms of religious art.

Many of these contemporary Ukrainian artists are notably utilizing unusual color schemes and unexpected textures. The images are arresting and have nudged my own personal spiritual imagination in new ways.

Kohan – who had worked for Time magazine for more than 20 years and is an avid sacred art collector – had been drawn to this fresh expression of ancient spiritual artistry because of the “intriguing new variations on traditional tempera-painted holy images” and because the illustrations were being created on “unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry, all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles.”

His essay in Image was my introduction to the work of marvels such as Ivanka Demchuk, Lyuba Yatskiv, Natalya Rusetska, and Sviatoslav Vladyka. All these artists – and numerous others – are uniquely showcased by Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv and its website.

After the invasion of Ukraine, the network evening news began broadcasting from Lviv – 40 miles from the border of Poland. That sparked my memory of Kohan’s Image story. The Rev. Kenneth Tanner, an old friend from college, also introduced me to a handful of other artists from Ukraine through Instagram.

Kateryna Kuziv. “Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.”

While my low-church Methodist heritage does not offer a framework for iconography, I fully respect and appreciate that the imagery expresses a mystical spiritual dynamic for sacramental Christians that far defies the category of mere “beautiful art.” The pieces are often referred to as “windows to heaven.” Icons are meant to cultivate the soul and be an aid in prayer.

“I believe that art should testify of beauty. The search for it always leads to God as the original source – that is why I choose iconography,” observed Kateryna Kuziv (born 1993). “Beauty always points to something more, a sense of God’s presence. Creating icons for me is a pursuit of God, of paradise as a state of being with Him, a reproduction of the transformed reality, of the purified nature of humanity from sin.”

Natalaya Rusetska. “Resurrection.”

Other artists in this spiritual stream describe their work in similarly transcendent terms.

Natalaya Rusetska (born in 1984): “My art is about the eternal, the timeless, the extraterrestrial, the hidden. One of the inherent features of sacred art is symbolism. This is a figurative creation that reveals the inner essence of the depicted. Sacred art affects and changes the spiritual state of the human.”

Ulyana Tomkevych. “Doubting Thomas.”

Ulyana Tomkevych (born in 1981): “Painting the icon is the special conversation with the Lord and also with oneself. The silent prayer, that gives me the feeling of inner peace and harmony. This is the time for rethinking the Bible stories and the Ten Commandments in the context of the modern human life because the Bible is timeless. I think that first of all God is Love and Mercy. And the daily icon painting helps me to live my life with this understanding.”

A prescribed new vision

“My parents are doctors, so they did not plan for me to become an artist,” said Ivanka Demchuk in an interview with The Day several years ago. At a very early age, she had serious issues with her eyesight (astigmatism, farsightedness). Her ophthalmologist prescribed an intriguing treatment: “To increase the visual load in one eye, I had to obscure the other eye and then do a lot of painting, sculpting, and coloring. From that time on, I attended children’s art clubs, an art school, took an interest in classic paintings.”

Ivanka Demchuk. “Hidden life in Nazareth.”

Today, we are all the beneficiaries. Demchuk’s artistic imagination is on full display in a particularly captivating rendering above entitled “Hidden Life in Nazareth” portraying the holy family as Jesus takes his first steps as a toddler. In the background, there is laundry drying on a clothesline and a worktable with carpentry tools. I had never contemplated the first step of someone who would become known as “The Way” – but surely, there had to be one to be celebrated and pondered. Demchuk’s work helps give believers like me a more panoramic sense to the Incarnation.

Long before Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, Demchuk (born in 1990) believed in the timeless relevance of stories such as the Good Samaritan and St. George the Dragon Slayer battling evil. In the context of the current barbaric war, some of her images take on even deeper significance and symbolism. “The evolution of human consciousness has not gone far enough to render us qualitatively different from people who lived two millennia ago,” she has observed. “We are facing the same problems and issues; we may become traitors just as those who crucified Christ.”

“A sword shall pierce your soul”

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:34-35).

The soul pierce. What a gothic declaration to a young mother. Unlike any other human walking the earth, Mary knew Jesus with an unparalleled knowledge and intimacy. In understated fashion, the biblical text declares, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Kateryna Shadrina’s imagery of the Madonna and Child gives an almost expansive stargazing night scope to Mary’s experience. Mother and Child have been artistically portrayed since the era of the catacombs. The great poet Dante referred to Mary as “the lovely sapphire whose grace ensapphires the heaven’s brightest sphere.” Shadrina’s brilliant color scheme reflects that poetic sentiment. Her insightful artistic collection has rejuvenated my own spiritual imagination when I revisit biblical stories I have read for decades.

Kateryna Shadrina. “Victima.”

Shadrina’s exhibition at Iconart Gallery earlier this year was entitled “Victima” and reflected her views on sacrifice, faith, and love. In addition to her artistry, her thoughts on the subjects are equally compelling.

“Where there is true love, there will always be a place for sacrifice. Sacrifice can be considered as the level at which the power of love is measured,” she writes in the exhibit’s narrative. “And the standard in this is God – the perfection of love. He sacrificed the most precious thing for our hope. But in our pragmatic world, it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons so that one’s sacrifice is not made in vain. We are focused on the terrestrial things, we catch the moment and don’t know exactly whether to think about the salvation of the soul and the kingdom of heaven.”

Art in bomb shelters.

Because missiles do not recognize beauty, truth, or faith, Ukrainians have been storing precious artwork in bunkers. “There is an egomaniac in Moscow who doesn’t care about killing children, let alone destroying art,” Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, told the Washington Post. “If our history and heritage are to survive, all art must go underground.”

There are, of course, pieces of great beauty and value that cannot be hidden in bunkers. Statues have been wrapped in foam and plastic. “The stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1360, are covered in metal to protect them from Russian rockets,” reports the New York Times.

Maria Prymachenko in 1936. British Museum.

Early on in the invasion, Putin’s army targeted a museum in Ivankiv, 50 miles northwest of Kyiv. Housed in this seemingly insignificant civilian target were 25 paintings by Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), a world-renowned Ukrainian folk artist who wowed both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

“The museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed,” the artist’s great-granddaughter Anastasiia Prymachenko told The Times of London. “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture.”

In a truly heroic gesture, a friend of Anastasiia’s ran into the burning museum and saved as many of the artworks as he was able. “When he saw the smoke from the museum he ran, broke the museum window and went into the fire,” she reported. “He couldn’t take everything out but he knew the most famous paintings were by Prymachenko. Since he only had a few minutes, he just took these paintings, and a few other works of art.”

Prymachenko created brightly-colored mythical and fantastical creatures and her work was called primitive, naïve, or the “art of a holy heart.” With critically acclaimed exhibitions literally around the globe, she stated her motivation in utterly tender terms. “I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth,” she once said.

Allowing art to shine

Christianity around the globe is largely represented by three major expressions: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Within Ukraine, the vast majority of the population is Orthodox. However, Ukrainian Greek Catholicism is the dominant expression of faith in Lviv and in much of western Ukraine (the “Greek” in the title is about its Byzantine liturgical worship style, not about Greek ethnicity).

“Pilate condemns Jesus” by Ivanka Demchuk.

The contemporary iconographers in Lviv come from a spiritual lineage of survival that knows what it is like to hold fast to life and faith underground. After World War II, Joseph Stalin mercilessly attempted to dissolve and destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It was forced to worship in clandestine secrecy. The sanctuaries, art, and treasuries were summarily confiscated and handed over to Moscow’s Orthodox Church.

“Harsh repressions followed,” observed Dr. Nadia M. Diuk, then vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a 2016 Atlantic Council report. “Ukrainian Catholic priests were beaten, tortured, and given long prison sentences. Tens of thousands of religious laity met the same fate. UGCC Metropolitan Josef Slipiy was exiled to a hard labor camp in Siberia. The church went underground: services were held in the forests, or in private homes where they dared. Children were baptized in secret and religious rites performed clandestinely, while the Soviet state continued its assault on priests, monks, nuns, and the Catholic faithful, offering respite within the Russian Orthodox Church or repression as the price for refusal to cut ties with the bishop of Rome.” (Dr. Diuk, herself ethnically Ukrainian, died in 2019.)

In 1994, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times: “While many priests died in concentration camps and believers were persecuted, it was the biggest underground church in the former Soviet Union. Rites were administered, priests ordained and bishops consecrated secretly during these years.”

Part of the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in 1989 was the restoration of the legal status to this ruthlessly persecuted church. On August 19, 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church received possession – once again – of the historic Cathedral of St. George in Lviv. Tens of thousands rejoiced inside and outside the reclaimed sanctuary.

It is not difficult to see the new generation of imaginative artists and iconographers as a significantly blossoming manifestation of relentless faithfulness during decades of Soviet suppression.

“The time when I create the icon is my way of praying, questioning, searching, the time of being with God, before God, the state of happiness and peace,” said Katheryna Kuziv about her art. “The aim is to express the ‘incarnation’ of God’s Word in a visual image, where a touch of God’s reality must take place to awaken a longing for God, to promote the pursuit of Him.”

Although once viewed solely as a distinct art form within Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, John Kohan (spiritualartpilgrim.com) has hopes that an ecumenical reappraisal is taking place with a new generation. “Expanding the range of prototypes of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and key moments in sacred history can only make these images, which are uniquely created for personal prayer and corporate devotion, more accessible to larger numbers of Christians – a development in sacred art-making, surely worth celebrating in the universal church,” he wrote.

During the 1990s, there was not a more popular art commentator on British television than the late Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018). For more than 40 years, she lived in obscurity as a reclusive nun devoted to prayer in the middle of the night. However, the plain-spoken elderly nun – an Oxford-educated amateur art historian – became a media sensation with her insightful BBC/PBS tutorials on various works of art – from cave drawings to Andy Warhol, including iconography.

While she had detractors, Sister Wendy most certainly understood the spiritual dimension of icons. She knew that the apparent surrealism was often utilized to invite our eye to gaze at a world unseen. “They are drawing us out of our worldly reality into their world, the true world,” she wrote in Encounters with God, “summoning us to leave behind all that is earthly and to breathe an air more pure than we can understand.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Art above: “Madonna and Child” by Kateryna Shadrina (left) and Hidden life in Nazareth” by Ivanka Demchuk (right). Special thanks to Iconart Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine. 

 

A People of One Book

A People of One Book

By Bishop Robert Aboagye-Mensah

If the Methodist movement has any hope for continuing its vibrant global mission into the future, it must build its mission on the same foundations on which John Wesley built.

Bishop Robert Aboagye-Mensah

On February 3, 1738, when John Wesley returned to London after he had served as a missionary in America, he had this to say, “It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country, in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the mean time? Why, … that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.” 

Four days after this confession, under Providence, Wesley met Peter Bohler, a minister of the Moravian Church. Bohler took Wesley through the Bible and on several occasions explained to him that it is by grace that we are instantaneously saved, through faith in Christ alone. Finally, according to his Journal, on May 24, 1738 Wesley experienced this grace firsthand. 

“I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” he wrote. “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change, which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley later placed his conversion to God – and indeed, his entire ministry – in the context of the Bible.

“I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach that way: For this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O give me that book,” he famously wrote. “At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.’ I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable…. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”

Wesley is here recapturing the mission of God as found in the whole Bible. That is, God wills to be known and worshipped by all persons and nations as the One and only Creator, Ruler, Judge, and the Savior of the world, and that in Jesus Christ this mission of God has been fully realized. After his conversion, Wesley referred to the Bible as “the book of God,” and himself as “a man of one book.” For him, in all matters the Church is to be judged by Scripture – and not Scripture by the Church. As he put it, “as long we have the Scripture, the Church is to be referred to the Scripture, and not the Scripture to the Church; and that, as the Scripture is the best expounder of itself, so the best way to know whether anything be of divine authority, is to apply ourselves to the Scripture.” 

Wesley also understood that the Holy Spirit who inspired the original authors of the Bible continues to inspire current individuals and groups as they study and meditate on the Word. Additionally, he admonished Christians to “consult those who are experienced in the things of God, and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak.” Here, Wesley is referring to some of the early African Church Fathers like Origen, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine. In his book The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundations, Thomas C. Oden states that these Church Fathers were considered among others as “the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with the Spirit by whom all Scriptures was given.” 

Dr. Oden points out that in addition to accepting the biblical interpretation of these early African Fathers, Wesley was also greatly influenced by their commitments to holy living, by how they immersed themselves in prayer, their dedicated reading and studying of the Bible and by opening themselves to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, particularly in worship. These African saints became models for Wesley’s own life and ministry in eighteenth century England. Today there are African Methodist scholars who also consider the early African Church Fathers as models of reliable interpreters of the Bible and have returned to them, studying their Bible commentaries and Christian spirituality. (African scholars are sincerely grateful to Dr. Oden and the Center for Early African Christianity for making available Bible commentaries of the early Church Fathers, particularly that of the African Church Fathers.)  

Wesley’s view of the Bible is extremely important for the future of global Methodism. May we reflect on the opening words of Wesley on “Thoughts Upon Methodism.”

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

To maintain our identity and relevance in the world as the people globally called Methodists, we will have to be people of the “Book of God” – the Bible. As John Wesley and the early Methodists were, may we be a people of one book.     

Robert K. Aboagye-Mensah is the past Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church Ghana (2003-2009). During that period he also served as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and also as the Vice-President of All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) for West Africa sub-region. The Most Rev. Dr. Aboagye-Mensah was a member of the Board of Directors of The Mission Society from 2009 to 2015. This is the third of a series of articles provided by TMS Global to platform some important voices in global Methodism. Image: Celebration in Lawra, Ghana for the dedication of a borehole at the Methodist Integrated Health Project. The Most Rev. Robert K. Aboagye-Mensah, in the middle in the cassock, presents cloth as a gift to short-term team members who helped build a parsonage in another town – and to Mary Kay Jackson. A TMS Global missionary and engineer, Mary Kay had drilled the borehole as part of her work with relief agencies to bring potable water to rural villages in Ghana. Photo provided by Mary Kay Jackson.

​​​​​​​Parsing Protocol Questions

​​​​​​​Parsing Protocol Questions

Map of United Methodist Jurisdictions and Annual Conferences in the United States of America. Photo Courtesy​​​​​​​ of the United Methodist News Service.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

A few weeks ago, the Rev. Adam Hamilton was interviewed by UM News Service on his thoughts about the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. He said, “Generally, the idea of allowing people to graciously exit with their buildings, I think almost everybody has agreed to that.” Hamilton notes this is a significant change from five years ago, when very few were in favor of allowing denominational exit. While he notes that anything can happen at General Conference, he believes this idea would have broad support.

At the same time, Hamilton reports that some have raised “questions” about certain provisions of the Protocol. Some question the feasibility of allocating $25 million to the new proposed Global Methodist Church. Others question the ability of an annual conference to vote to withdraw from the UM Church or would like to see the percentage of that vote raised from 57 percent to two-thirds. In this article, I would like to address the thinking behind these particular provisions.

Annual Conference Departure

The Protocol provides that an annual conference may vote to withdraw from the UM Church and align with another Methodist denomination formed under the Protocol based on a vote of 57 percent in favor. This was the very last provision of the Protocol that was agreed upon, and failure to agree on this proposal would have scuttled the whole deal. The 57 percent was a compromise between progressives and centrists, who wanted a two-thirds vote, and traditionalists, who wanted a simple majority.

The idea of an annual conference decision on alignment actually came from the Commission on a Way Forward. The Connectional Conference Plan provided for two conferences within United Methodism, one traditionalist and one progressive/centrist. Annual conferences could vote to align with one or the other, carrying all their local churches with them into that alignment (unless the local church disagreed and took steps to align differently).

This same model was used in the Indianapolis Plan and later in the Protocol, so it is an idea that was broadly accepted across the ideological spectrum.

The reason for having an annual conference vote is to respond to the plea the Commission received from many clergy: “Don’t make my local church vote.” If the annual conference votes on alignment and the local church agrees with the annual conference decision, there would be no need for the local church to vote, thus avoiding the potential divisiveness a local vote might precipitate. Those who do not want annual conferences to be able to withdraw would be mandating a vote by all local churches in that annual conference that wanted to withdraw. Allowing an annual conference to withdraw would minimize the number of congregational votes in that annual conference.

Part of the “grace” alluded to in the name of the Protocol is the idea that all groups want any denominations that emerge under the Protocol, as well as the post-separation United Methodist Church, to be as strong and vibrant as possible, set up to succeed, rather than fail. Not allowing an annual conference to withdraw could cause that annual conference to become non-viable as it remains in the post-seperation UM Church. If a significant percentage of an annual conference’s congregations withdraw to join a new denomination, it would leave that annual conference unable to continue functioning, and it would probably be folded into a nearby annual conference, losing its identity.

For instance, the Northwest Texas Annual Conference recently voted by about an 80 percent margin to endorse the Protocol and indicate that it would vote to withdraw and join the Global Methodist Church if the Protocol passed General Conference. If the NWTX Conference were not allowed to withdraw, it could lose more than half its congregations (perhaps as many as 80 percent) to the GM Church. The congregations that would be left would almost certainly not be able to maintain a viable annual conference in the UM Church. The remaining congregations would undoubtedly be reassigned to a nearby annual conference, defeating the whole purpose of not allowing an annual conference to withdraw. Such an outcome helps neither the UM Church nor the GM Church and does not create strong and viable entities to continue ministry and mission in a geographical area.

The question of what percentage vote would be required for an annual conference to withdraw is a sticky one. Those who argue for a two-thirds majority vote say that any major decision by a unit of the church ought to be made by a supermajority vote. Anything less than a supermajority could mean that a church moves forward without the full support of its members, resulting in an adverse outcome.

On the other hand, those arguing for a simple majority vote say that we live in a democratic society, where people are used to accepting the will of the majority. For a small, one-third minority of the church to block the will of the majority could cause major disruption in the church and resentment by those in the majority. (This happened to a large congregation in Houston whose recent attempt to leave the Presbyterian Church fell just a few votes short of the required two-thirds.)

That is why the compromise of 57 percent seems to fit the bill. It is greater than a simple majority, assuring that the decision by an annual conference to withdraw has solid support in the conference. Yet it is not so high as to allow a small minority to block the will of the strong majority. As with many of the terms of the Protocol, this compromise holds in delicate balance competing values. Any attempt to move the percentage one way or the other would upset the delicate balance and potentially damage the entire deal worked out by the various groups.

Some traditionalists perceive attempts to change the percentage or to disallow annual conference withdrawal as an attempt to coerce churches to stay in the UM Church. Any church should be made up of a coalition of the willing, not a coalition of the coerced. One value underlying the Protocol was to provide the fairest and most straightforward way for local churches and annual and central conferences to align with those with whom they desire to identify. Closing the door on some of those pathways undermines the basic values espoused by the Protocol.

Attempts to change the provision allowing annual conferences to withdraw also smacks of a double standard. In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, 28 U.S. annual conferences voted not to abide by the recent changes in the Book of Discipline. Annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction and Denmark began exploring the option of disaffiliating from the UM Church. But now that it is traditionalist annual conferences that would be withdrawing, some want to make it harder or even impossible for that to happen. A good rule of thumb is to treat others as one would like to be treated. If the ability of an annual conference to withdraw from a church that it can no longer support is fair for some, it is right for others with a different perspective.

What about the money?

The other issue raised is whether in Hamilton’s words “the resources are there” for the UM Church to pay out the $25 million to the new denomination. “Does this make sense today like it did before? And for some people it didn’t make sense even then.”

Some consider the $25 million as a subsidy by the UM Church to the new denomination. But the participants in the Protocol saw it as a fair way to allocate the resources that all United Methodists – including traditionalists – have contributed to the church over the past 200-plus years. The amount was not calculated based on the current income of the UM Church, but on unrestricted liquid assets available at the end of 2018, which amounted to $120 million. Of that amount, one-third ($40 million) was to go to the new denominations formed under the Protocol. Traditionalists agreed to contribute one-third of their share ($13 million) to maintain the ethnic ministries and Africa University at their current levels. That left $25 million for the traditionalist denomination and $2 million for a potential progressive denomination.

To take away the $25 million is to say that traditionalists have contributed nothing to the church over the decades. Whereas, in fact, traditionalists have been strong supporters of the mission of the church and contributed to the assets that the church has built up over the years. Allocating $25 million is only a recognition of that fact. It would also allow the new denomination to support ministry in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe where parts of the church indicate their intent to join the GM Church.

To be fair, if the unrestricted liquid reserves of the UM Church have been significantly reduced by the end of 2021, that is something worth reexamining. On the other hand, perhaps the reserves have increased, and the amount should be greater than $25 million. All traditionalists seek is to be treated fairly and with respect.

In the final analysis, these questions are about grace and preserving the possibility of future reconciliation – perhaps not reunion, but at least the possibility of cooperating together in ministries of mutual interest. We can release and bless one another as we go our separate ways. Or we can fight for every last nickel we think we are owed, creating further animosity between different parts of the Body of Christ. A return to conflict was what the Protocol was designed to avoid. We have the chance to show the world a different, more Christlike way to resolve our differences and bring honor to the name of Christ.

​​​​​​​Parsing Protocol Questions

God In Our Secret Moments

By B.J. Funk – 

“It is always just possible that Jesus Christ meant what he said when he told us to seek the secret place and to close the door,” C.S. Lewis observed in God in the Dock.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “And when you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they will be seen by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6, NASB).

When my two sons were little boys, I gave them each a drawer at a table in their room. That drawer was theirs only. I called it their Special/Secret Drawer. They were young – ages five and three – and it gave them joy to have their own special place. Their own crayons, their own stamp collection, etc. I don’t know why it worked so well, but it did.

At that same time, I had my own Special/Secret Drawer in our guest bedroom. Into that drawer, I stuffed page after page of my hurtful marriage. I wrote a lot about my pain, my broken heart, and also a lot about what God was teaching me.  I read books that I knew would give me spiritual strength. 

The book I clung to was Dennis Bennett’s book, Nine O’Clock in the Morning.  Bennett, an Episcopal priest, found himself in a spiritual wilderness. Along with his wife, Rita, he shared the fire that led to a longed-for renewal. This now classic story tells how the Charismatic Movement began and swept into churches across America. 

I was in a spiritual wilderness. I could not sleep. I lost weight rapidly. I cried to the Lord for help. 

The title of Bennett’s book is taken from a New Testament episode and the words of the Apostle Peter right after the Holy Spirit descended on the small group gathered and waiting for the Lord’s guidance. When they came into the streets, they were swaying and stumbling and so they were accused of being drunk. Actually, they were woozy with the power of the Spirit. Peter corrected them.

“These men are not drunk, as you suppose,” he said. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15). Then Peter explained that the prophet Joel had prophesied this very thing, that God said through Joel that he would, in the last days, pour out his Spirit on all people. That’s when the church was born, and three thousand people were added to their roll on that very day.

I began meeting the Lord each morning before the boys got up. There, he bathed me in love. I learned that, as C.S. Lewis said, Jesus implores us to pull away and go to God in secret. He would reward us. 

That marriage lasted five more years before my husband divorced the boys and me. I include the boys in that statement because, by his choice, their dad has not seen them in thirty years. 

But that’s not really the point of this article. I believe that my special times with my Lord in those early morning hours were the real reason I didn’t hit bottom five years later. The Holy Spirit had become real to me. And in all of the feelings of loneliness and betrayal that would come to me again, I knew I would make it. I threw away everything in that drawer.

In many churches, the Holy Spirit is ignored or feared. Yet when we ask him to baptize us with his Spirit, we find a life with Jesus that we had not known before. And by the way, he has never required me to do anything that would embarrass me. He is a Gentleman. My walk with him is between a Gentleman and a Lady.

Oswald Chambers says, “The Holy Spirit makes real in me all that Jesus did for me.” The United Methodist Church needs the power of the Holy Spirit to invade our lives with depth, joy, and power.  And we would all welcome a 3,000 member surge. Dear Lord, let it be.    

B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace.

​​​​​​​Parsing Protocol Questions

The Ill-Conceived Plan to Seize Mt. Bethel’s Assets

Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bethel.

By Thomas Lambrecht —

In a dramatic and unprecedented move, the North Georgia Annual Conference has initiated action to seize control of the assets of the largest congregation in the conference, Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. The conference cited “exigent circumstances [that] have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church.”

This action comes as an escalation of a months-long conflict over Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s attempt to replace the lead pastor of Mt. Bethel, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray. The bishop’s attempt to appoint the Rev. Dr. Steven Usry as the new lead pastor and move Ray to a conference staff position did not follow the Book of Discipline’s requirement for consultation with Ray or Mt. Bethel prior to making the move. The congregation’s leaders and Ray believed the move would be highly disruptive to the largest congregation in the annual conference that employs 300 staff, including a Christian day care, pre-school, and K-12 Christian Academy day school. This was especially true in light of Mt. Bethel’s stated intention, as a congregational member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and host of the 2018 WCA Global Gathering, to separate from the UM Church and align with the new Global Methodist Church following the enactment of the Protocol in 2022. Therefore, they asked the bishop to reconsider her decision. Instead, the bishop filed charges against Ray, causing him to surrender his clergy credentials. Mt. Bethel then hired him as its “Lay Preacher and Senior Administrator.”

At the same time, Mt. Bethel filed a formal request for disaffiliation from the UM Church under the new process established by the 2019 General Conference. The bishop has refused to initiate the process of disaffiliation and imposed a unilateral condition on such disaffiliation that Mt. Bethel must be “in compliance with the Book of Discipline” before she would consider moving ahead with the process. There is no such requirement for “compliance” as a precondition for disaffiliation, either in the Book of Discipline or in the North Georgia Conference policies and procedures for disaffiliation.

Closing the Church

Under ¶ 2549 of the Book of Discipline, an annual conference can “recommend the closure of a local church, upon a finding that: a) The local church no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized or incorporated (¶¶ 201-204); or b) The local church property is no longer used, kept, or maintained by its membership as a place of divine worship of The United Methodist Church.” Clearly, Mt. Bethel continues to worship and serve as a United Methodist congregation, even during this dispute over the pastoral appointment. They do not fit the criteria that should trigger the closure of the church.

Further in ¶ 2549, “At any time between sessions of annual conference, if the presiding bishop, the majority of the district superintendents, and the appropriate district board of church location and building all consent, they may, in their sole discretion, declare that exigent circumstances exist that require immediate protection of the local church’s property, for the benefit of the denomination. In such case, title to all the real and personal, tangible and intangible property of the local church shall immediately vest in the annual conference board of trustees who may hold or dispose of such property in its sole discretion, subject to any standing rule of the annual conference.”

This latter provision gives the bishop, cabinet, and district board of church location and building authority to unilaterally close a local church that is no longer meeting, if “exigent circumstances” exist that would threaten the viability of the local church’s assets. For example, if the church’s congregation stopped meeting and ceased maintaining the building in good working order, the conference could step in to protect the integrity of the building. This provision was never intended to be used as “punishment” against a local church for disagreeing with the bishop. In addition, this provision is rarely used, mostly with small, dying churches. It has never to my knowledge been used to close a congregation of the size and vitality of Mt. Bethel. Even some progressive leaders are publicly aghast at what they see as an abuse of episcopal power.

“Exigent circumstances” means “requiring immediate action or aid; urgent; pressing.” There is nothing about the Mt. Bethel situation that requires immediate action. There is no evidence that any of the church’s assets are in jeopardy of being lost, damaged, or misappropriated. All the church wanted was to be left alone to continue its excellent and effective ministry in Cobb County until the passage of the Protocol enabled the church to realign with the Global Methodist Church.

The bishop does not really want to “close” Mt. Bethel. She wants the church’s ministry to continue, but under the direction of the annual conference trustees, rather than Mt. Bethel’s duly elected lay leaders. She is therefore perpetrating a legal fiction (the “closing” of Mt. Bethel) to justify her seizure of the church’s assets and usurping control of the congregation’s ministry.

As for the “exigent circumstances” the conference is relying upon to “close” the church and seize its assets, the bishop made a number of allegations about how the church is disobeying the Discipline. Mt. Bethel has refuted all of those allegations, including providing documentary evidence. The church even acknowledged its willingness to accept Usry as an appointed pastor to the church, while continuing to operate under the direction of the church’s duly elected lay leadership. The bishop and conference leaders failed to respond to the church’s reply, moving instead to seize the church assets. Those assets are worth in excess of $34 million, according to annual conference reports.

When it comes to “exigent circumstances,” Mt. Bethel has led the annual conference in many measures of healthy vital ministry in the last five years, including total membership, attendance, giving, missions, and others. If Mt. Bethel is in such bad shape that the conference needs to intervene, the bishop should just stipulate that the whole North Georgia Conference is in “exigent circumstances.”

Acting Out of Love?

Ironically, the bishop and conference say they are “acting out of love for the church and its mission.” Mt. Bethel’s statement in response points out, “While she claims she is ‘acting out of love for the church and its mission,’ enlisting attorneys and the courts to seize assets is a strange way for a bishop to show her love for one of the healthiest churches in her conference.”

The statement continues, “The people of Mt. Bethel Church will do all in their power to resist the aggressive actions against their church, and they will do all they can to restore the reputational damage Haupert-Johnson is inflicting on many local United Methodist churches that simply want to do ministry without the drama of her intrusive and threatening actions.”

Haupert-Johnson caused this crisis through her “hastily initiat[ing] an ill-timed and an ill-considered move that not only jeopardizes great ministry and missions at Mt. Bethel but also the health and reputation of her entire annual conference,” the statement alleges. In response to her failure to follow the required consultation process, Mt. Bethel leaders filed two complaints against Haupert-Johnson that are currently in the process of adjudication through the church’s complaint process. Rather than wait for those complaints to be resolved, Haupert-Johnson has chosen to press forward with an escalation of the conflict, moving it into the secular legal realm.

In response to the bishop’s abuse of the ¶ 2549 process, the church has filed a third complaint against Haupert-Johnson. However, it is likely that this conflict will wind up in secular court before any complaints can be resolved, due to the bishop’s precipitous action to try to seize the church’s assets.

Not only did Haupert-Johnson cause this crisis, she did so contrary to the “truce” agreed to by most United Methodists in the aftermath of the Protocol’s release – a truce intended to last four months but now stretched out to 32 months by the time General Conference meets. As requested by the Protocol, there has been a moratorium on the filing of complaints for pastors performing same-sex weddings and ordained clergy who are partnered lesbians and gays. There was to be an equal moratorium on the closure of churches. Traditionalists have kept our part of the truce. We are waiting for Haupert-Johnson to do the same.

Haupert-Johnson’s actions over the past four months were taken within less than 18 months of the anticipated General Conference meeting to enact the Protocol and allow for “reconciliation and grace through separation.” It was entirely unforced and unnecessary. Is she now planning on also contesting the right of churches to vote to leave under the Protocol once it is passed?

A Way Out

There are ways out of this crisis. One would be for Haupert-Johnson and the annual conference to stand down and discontinue their actions to try to seize control of Mt. Bethel. She could allow Mt. Bethel to continue its vital ministry as it has been, awaiting the action of General Conference on the Protocol in 2022.

Another way out would be for the bishop and conference to respond to Mt. Bethel’s twice made offer to settle the conflict through a process of mediation. The church is willing to work toward a mutually agreeable resolution through mediation, rather than resort to the confrontational process of civil court proceedings. Thus far, the bishop and conference have failed to respond to the church’s offers of mediation.

The real question in all of this is whether Bishop Haupert-Johnson will proceed with a heart of peace or a heart of war. This language comes from the book The Anatomy of Peace, a book promoted by Haupert-Johnson. That book, and its advocacy for resolving conflict through a heart of peace, guided the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and has been touted by bishops as the way we should treat one another during this liminal time of waiting for the Protocol to be enacted.

A heart of war is evidenced by people who are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to meet and hear the other side’s views, those who demonize their opponents, those who use their power to intimidate and force their will on others, and those who seem incapable of thinking, “maybe I’m wrong and could learn something by listening to the other side.” The spirit of “reconciliation and grace” demonstrated in the Protocol was arrived at by people on all sides of the conflict with a heart of peace and a willingness to find an amicable way forward. The Protocol calls upon all United Methodists, and particularly those in leadership, to exercise that same spirit of reconciliation and grace.

Washington Post article following the 2019 General Conference includes the following quote, “‘I think this is a spiritual exercise,’ said Haupert-Johnson, who favors a split into two denominations, saying she believes population demographics mean Americans will increasingly be under the thumb of African voters unless they split. ‘How do we go about this in a way that you know is of God, led by God? … How do we sense that the Holy Spirit is leading the church now? … If the Methodist church has to get leaner and nicer, I’m all for it. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.’” We wish the bishop would live up to her own words.

So far, throughout this conflict with Mt. Bethel, Haupert-Johnson has not displayed a heart of peace, but a heart of war. She has been bound to get her way at any cost, even at the cost of damaging the largest congregation for which she has been given a shepherd’s care. She has demonized the Mt. Bethel lay leadership and is using her power to try to force her will upon the church. She has been so determined to get her way that she has been willing to change her story several times in various public statements and videos as to the rationale for her actions. And she and the conference leadership are so determined to have their way they have disregarded all attempts by Mt. Bethel’s leaders to pursue a negotiated resolution to this conflict.

To the amazement and consternation of seasoned members of the annual conference, Haupert-Johnson’s unnecessary conflict with the lay leadership of Mt. Bethel is ensuring that this conflict winds up in civil court. While no court process can have a guaranteed outcome, Mt. Bethel has a strong case. The bishop has violated church process with regard to the initial appointment decision, as well as with her abuse of the Discipline in trying to seize the church’s assets. The church has a process for resolving such disagreements through complaints, which are in process now. Courts are historically reluctant to get in the middle of intra-church conflicts and may dictate that the status quo be preserved while the complaints are pending. In addition, Mt. Bethel has applied for disaffiliation through the church’s own process. The court could mandate that the church’s process be followed, allowing Mt. Bethel to disaffiliate and preserving the assets of the church until such process is completed. Even if the court decides to hear the case, given the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, it could be years before the case even comes to trial.

This whole situation was caused by Haupert-Johnson herself. She precipitated this crisis through her initial, ill-considered appointment decision and through her stubborn refusal to compromise or engage in dialog. Now, she appears to be using the crisis she created as a pretext to try to take control of the largest congregation in her annual conference.

Time will tell whether the bishop and North Georgia Conference want to continue with a heart of war to coerce faithful congregations and damage vital ministry. For the sake of the church and the cause of Christ, a better way must be pursued.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

​​​​​​​Parsing Protocol Questions

AJC: North Georgia Conference seizes assets of Mt. Bethel UMC

In an extremely rare move, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church has seized the assets of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta amid a fight over who should be its senior pastor.

The conference announced its stunning decision in a statement released Monday and said it was “acting out of love for the church and its mission” and to “preserve the legacy of the Mt. Bethel church and its longstanding history of mission and ministry.”

The conference’s board of trustees will assume management of the church. Mt. Bethel, located at 4385 Lower Roswell Road in Marietta, has one of the largest congregations in the conference.

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the eight district superintendents “have unanimously determined that ‘exigent circumstances’ have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church,” according to the statement. “Given this determination, all assets of the local church have transferred immediately to the conference’s board of trustees of the North Georgia Conference.”

To read entire Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, click HERE.