söndag 23 april 2017

The (hopefully) only post on the state of the United Methodist church

Considering the size of the Methodist church in Scandinavia I wonder if anybody cares about what happens to it, except for the few people who currently call it their ecclesial home. Of course, this only applies to Norway, Denmark, Finland and the Baltic states. There is no Methodist church in Sweden. But no matter which country you consider it is a small church with hundreds, not thousands, in attendance every Sunday.
But since I am a pastor in the Methodist church (of Norway) it concerns me and there is currently a lot going on in the worldwide Methodist church, so here are my thoughts on the matter.
If you don't care about the Methodist church, or this particular debate that concerns every single church in the world, you can stop reading now.

As you might imagine, the Methodist church is in the middle of a very common but traumatic and dramatic struggle for its survival. It seems as if lots of Norwegians and Danes and Finns and Balts go on and live their lives just fine without darkening the doorsteps of our churches. I have grown up in the Methodist church and all my life I have heard of how people are getting more "spiritual" and less "religious"...or how there is a "re-christianiazation" happening...all the while our church has lost more members and influence and "steam", if you would. Most of the Methodists I know are tired and not a little confused as to how this downward trend can be reversed. Not everybody, to be sure, but many...myself included.
Scandinavia is the least Christian area of the western (if not the enitre) world and the secular pressure to keep religion private (as if that was possible) combined with a host of philosophical and relational opposition makes it very, very difficult to preach and teach and live Jesus Christ, not to mention that the main church in these countries is usually an uber-liberal former statechurch with massive influence and huge media exposure but usually without an evangelical flair...to say the least.

In this harsh spiritual climate there is a church called the Methodist church...and she is struggling mightily. She might not make it. She might disappear. So you would think that most efforts and money and time and prayer and work would be focused on how to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ and how to convert more/new people so they would (want to) become members and thus save the church from extinction. You would think...

...but it is not. The Methodist church is currently fighting a brutal civil war over whether or not its own Discipline and Beliefs are actually true and real and important or if they are not. I'm (of course) talking about homosexuality. Currently, the United Methodist church does not consider homosexual practice "compatible with Christian doctrine"...i.e. sinful. It has been democratically decided for over 40 years and yet it is the issue that takes almost all of our time and effort these days. Lots of people think that our current belief is wrong and harmful and should be changed. We spend a lot more time on this issue any other issue, including trying to figure out how we can get our "natives" converted.This issue hovers like a dark cloud over everything the church does and we simply don't know what will happen when the rain finally falls. Will it split the church in two or wash her clean?

Some people, the vocal minority, argue that this is a matter so important that no matter how it affects the church it has to be resolved along progressive lines, i.e. full inclusion of LBQTGI people and conmensurate actions and behaviors. It is all about, they say, that "God is love" and how "Nobody is incompatible with God" and that we should "do no harm" and so on.
The majority argues that the Bible is clear and that homosexual practice is sinful in the eyes of God and can not be condoned or approved of. God is loving and holy and just and some things and some behaviors and some actions and some thoughts are sinful and wrong and under the wrath/judgement of God. End of story.

However, the matter has gone far beyond reasonable debate and hostility, open defiance and deep distrust are now everywhere, even to the point of being unable to share Communion together. It has come to the point where those who write public letters for the Progressive side and those who write letters for the Evangelical side sound like they're talking about two different religions, Gods and beliefs. It is all the same words but radically different understandings. When Progressives and Evangelicals talk about, for example, the "love of God" they say the same things but mean very different things. Most important doctrines fall under this definition and it is becoming very clear that the United Methodist church (as she is officially called) is very, very divided.

This, my friends, is a tragedy of historical proportions and no pious wordplays or "think positive and let's spin this" will work. It's a disaster and I don't think it is going to get any better anytime soon. It's going to get worse.

It's currently about the church's supreme court and its upcoming vote. It will soon vote on whether an openly lesbian woman and pastor living with another woman in "marriage" can be elected bishop. This will be decided by the end of April and it will, either way it goes, start the inevitable. There are no winners here because no matter what the vote is the "losing" side will have had enough.

Sidebar: I suspect that the election of a lesbian bishop was a "Hail Mary" attempt by the progressive side of the church. They knew the election would force a vote in the Judicial Council and they knew that since the General Conference would never vote "Progressively" on this matter this was their only chance. A "yes" vote by the Council would buy them some time, and momentum, going into the next General Conference (or special conference). It seems to me that the election was an attempt to figure out how to be able to "negotiate from a position of strength". I could be wrong.

If the Council votes "yes, she can stay." the Evangelical side of the church will have had enough. Schism will become a reality, period.
If the council votes "no, she has to go." the Progressive side of the church will be in an uproar and, with few options left, start looking towards some sort of "amicable split".

No matter how you look at it, the court's ruling will thus set in motion the dissolution of the UMC as we know it. This, however, aligns rather well with what the church's commission on "A Way Forward" has been alluding to. This commission is working on finding a way forward in the midst of this whole debate AND they have alluded to allowing more regional leeway and independence. In other words, let churches or conferences or jurisdictions decide what they want on a range of issues, perhaps all of them save for "Jesus is Lord" and other givens.
Again, good-bye to the UMC as one church and hello to "lots of churches/conferences that are loosely connected in some vague sense while at the same time doing and believing what we want".

I left Sweden and moved to Norway because I think that is an inadequate and poor way of being a church. Trust me, lots of things happen when you switch out connectionalism (what the UMC is now) to congregationalism (lots of congregations holding vastly different views but being joined by the lowest common denominator) and most of them are bad, in my opinion.

I really wish there was some solution to all of this that could heal our divisions and allow the UMC to regain her former glory, unity and strength...that would allow us to be One church in belief and practice. God is a God of hope but in this case I just don't see it.

Do you?

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