Sunday, July 18, 2021

An Open Letter to Chris Ritter



Dear Chris,

The United Methodist Church that you and I both love is facing schism. It is a matter of public record that the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), the advocacy group which you help lead as part of their Global Council, has announced that whether or not the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation finds support at our next General Conference, the new breakaway denomination called the Global Methodist Church (GMC) will be formed without delay.

I have not had the privilege of meeting you, though you served as keynote speaker in a rally in Birmingham, near my home, held to gain support for the new Methodist movement that will be seceding from the UMC. I wrote a public letter after that event, indicating personal reasons why I am choosing to stay in the UMC. It surprised me as much as anyone that it went viral, and a response to my letter was written and signed by the North Alabama chapter of the WCA and others who organized the rally.

In the spirit of open conversation, I offer this open letter to you, since you recently published a comparison chart that is being distributed by the North Alabama chapter of the WCA, and I presume other chapters as well. It was a well-designed effort in which you contrasted what will be the post-separation United Methodist Church with the newly announced denomination the GMC.

I can see the appeal of such an exercise. Laity need to understand the issues before us, and the issues are complex. There is generalized anxiety in the church. There are many variables, since there is a strong possibility that General Conference will be delayed again due to the coronavirus, and it is possible that the Protocol will not pass, or that one of the other plans coming before General Conference will pass, or that the Protocol will pass but with significant changes, or that all or part of it will be deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. However, no matter what happens, the GMC has announced that it will withdraw and form as a new denomination. As churches prepare for a journey that may eventually lead to local church decision making, a chart makes it simple and easy to understand.

Most of what you indicate on the chart could be considered accurate. However, there are three major blind spots which force me to deem it a well-designed promotional piece, intended to persuade people to leave our denomination, instead of providing a balanced and complete picture.

First, the sections describing the beliefs of the post-separation UMC on abortion and pluralism are pure conjecture and have nothing to do with the Protocol. Of course, the UMC will continue to have a General Conference every four years. But no changes in teaching on these issues are indicated in any of the Protocol legislation. Speculating about these “hot button” culture war issues muddies the waters, alarms and confuses laity, and makes the chart a biased effort with partial truth, at best.

Second, it is conspicuous that the chart does not address contrasting information that is less of a “selling point” for people you are hoping will join you in the new denomination. For example, there is a section on “congregational fidelity” in the GMC’s Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline by which a local church can be summarily dismissed from the new denomination if their beliefs or practices are deemed unacceptable in some way by governing bodies beyond the local church (this has no parallel in the United Methodist Discipline). There is a subtle but important change in how the doctrine of grace is presented in the new Transitional Discipline compared to the standard, traditional UMC teaching. There is an intentional change in language about laity trials, compared to the same section in the UMC Discipline, that implies laity could be put on trial for their sexual orientation. There is a self-appointed governing body called the Transitional Leadership Council which has an overwhelming amount of influence over the affairs of the church and broad powers it can later bestow on “its successor.” We have no such thing in the UMC. I could go on.

Third, the very nature of your chart implies that this is a binary choice between two destinies, and this is simply a false narrative. The Protocol does not split the denomination into two parts. Rather, if it even passes, it will allow for the gracious withdrawal of more than one denomination, at least one “traditionalist” denomination and one “progressive” denomination, from the main body of the UMC with millions in start-up funding. The post-separation UMC would remain the largest Methodist body in the United States and remain diverse in thought with traditional, centrist, and progressive pastors, laity, and churches. The Protocol does indicate that the post-separation UMC will remove controversial language in the Discipline regarding human sexuality. However, this action does not “redefine marriage” or force pastors, local churches, or annual conferences to make any decisions or follow any practices they aren’t comfortable with. Rather, it is choosing to allow for diverse and contextualized ministry across the country. In contrasting your two projected denominations on the subject of ordination, for example, you use a simple “yes” or “no.” This does not reflect any nuance of what the post-separation UMC might negotiate to contextualize ministry in the future, according to the Protocol itself.

I am not condemning your attempt to provide a chart. I am appealing to the laity of the church to read your chart with discernment. Some may find it helpful, but it is clearly intended to persuade and it does not give an accurate and balanced picture. I have attached a list of more primary sources from a variety of perspectives that should be read in concert with each other. This will give laity a better picture of the whole.

May God bless your new movement so that together, we can reach different people for Christ in the ever-expanding streams of American religious tradition.

Warmly,

Rev. Dr. Steve West
Member of the North Alabama Conference of the UMC

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Resources for Study and Discernment

Factual Resources
Video Overview by Tom Berlin

Primary Resources intended to Persuade
Traditionalist Resources:
The Wesleyan Covenant Association
The Global Methodist Church
Centrist Resources:
Uniting Methodists
UMCNext
Progressive Resources:
Reconciling Ministries Network
The Liberation Methodist Connexion

For readers that are part of my home conference, the North Alabama Conference, there are two grassroots resources intended to persuade that should be read and compared:
New Methodist Movement (traditionalist)
Stay UMC (centrist)

Friday, July 16, 2021

A Meditation on Sauty Falls



“A Meditation on Sauty Falls”

by Steve West


The water keeps coming.

It keeps coming, coming, coming.


Across the span of history in a way that’s timeless ... from my limited perspective, anyway ... it keeps coming.


Sometimes it’s bigger, louder, and faster. Sometimes it’s smaller, quieter, and slower.

But it keeps coming.


It’s not only the seasons that affect the flow. Year by year, there are changes. They are so subtle you can’t see it. But I trust it.


Sometimes a stone or tree falls in, and the water finds a new way to flow. Sometimes it carves out something entirely new as a result. Sometimes it takes a really long time.


Then sometimes it’s own creative tendency to make crevices of natural flow is reason enough to find new paths. Sometimes, part of the water ventures away from the central flow. That’s okay too. It’s just another part of the beauty.


When people like me come along to have a look, or take a picture, it’s stunningly breathtaking. But the flow is always secretly, subtly changing.


The water keeps coming. It never stops. That’s how it blesses the world.


Why? Because it’s living water.


It’s Living Water.


That’s what it means to me to be part of God’s Church.


This is a picture I took during meditation time after hiking to the falls in Buck’s Pocket State Park.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Coming to Communion in an “Unworthy Manner”




When I posted the attached picture on Facebook, I got a question from a friend. I succinctly responded to what I think is one of the biggest misinterpretations of Paul’s communion theology today. I thought it would be good to share it here as well.

Here was his question:

And what is your take of the following passage:1 Corinthians 11:29-31 Modern English Version (MEV)29 For he who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and unhealthy among you, and many die. 31 If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.

Here was my response:

That’s  a great question and the scriptural context makes the answer very clear with what Wesley called a “plain reading” of the text. I studied this in my doctoral work.

Paul is not talking about some sense of individual worth or personal morality as many have imagined, but rather he is talking about ethics within the community. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 is that there were divisions in the community (the whole book is about that starting with chapter 1), and in that very chapter 11, Paul was criticizing the way these divisions were made evident even when they gathered at communion (“when you gather, it’s not the Lord’s supper that you eat, for one goes hungry while the other is drunk”). They were not sharing their food and wine, they were not regarding one another with love, they were quite comfortable with the difference in status they had from each other.

What he saw at the communion table becomes a prism through which he looks at the lack of love for each other beneath the surface. He goes on in chapter 12 to teach them how each of them have different gifts, like parts of the body, therefore they should appreciate each other as valuable. Then he says “let me show you an even more excellent way,” and he goes to chapter 13 into the “love chapter” in which he describes what true love is (we like to read this at weddings but what he was addressing was spiritual arrogance and church conflict ... “if I speak in the tongues of people and angels but do not have love, I am nothing but a noisy gong”.) Then in chapter 14, he directly addresses the spiritual arrogance they had against each other. Chapters 11-14 should be read as one block of teaching.

Clearly, when Paul wrote what you quoted he was talking about how they treated each other without love and appreciation and a sense of community. That’s what coming to the table in an unworthy manner is. Not some human line drawn in the sand over what you believe or don’t believe, or what sin is bad enough and what isn’t.

Those who exclude people who earnestly seek God from the table may be the ones guilty of not coming to the table in a worthy manner.

He replied:

I've never heard of any of us Methodist Pastors excluding anyone, have you? 

I responded:

No, the open table is central to Wesleyan theology, you are right.

However, I have heard of Methodist ministers excluding people from membership or attendance or baptism, whether back during the 60’s or in recent days, and that is by proxy excluding them from the table. This is against our Discipline not to mention wrong.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Systemic Racism and Collective Responsibility

Here is a recent post written by my cousin, Warren Hamby (the son of my Uncle Warren). It is a tribute to my courageous uncle, especially relevant for these times when there are those that deny the reality of systemic racism and collective responsibility.

A little more than 50 years ago, in Jackson, MS, a member of our church who was active in the Civil Rights Movement was a victim of a house bombing by the Ku Klux Klan. He and his family escaped death only because they had minutes before retired to bed. My dad, his pastor, read a statement from the pulpit the following Sunday. Here is part of his courageous statement.

"What had he (Bob Kochtitzky) done (to provoke this)? He had kept the integrity of Christian witness as a sensitive Christian in a society not yet willing to such a witness. He had taken seriously the convictions that were imparted to him by the teachings of the church school and the witness of the pulpit of this church. He had dared to go beyond the respectable acquiescence of the polite forms of Christianity that so often characterize the poor witness of most of us.

"The truth of this is so profound that it turns the question around so that it becomes, not what he has done, but what have we done to prompt this kind of violence?

"Let us not draw a small circle of guilt, for we are all indicted. The so-called decent and responsible people of our city, state and section are the Sauls at whose feet lie clothes of the whole affair. Upon our consciences the whole matter must rest. Justice, Brandeis once said; 'The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.'

"Who is to blame? Every pulpit where justice and mercy and goodwill have not been enough proclaimed; every alleged Christian who has thought more of his or her prejudices than of seeking the will of God and the spirit of Jesus Christ in attitude and behavior; every newspaper that has defended indefensible positions and voiced its own prejudices; the responsible elected officials of city and state who have been more concerned with expediency than integrity--here, my friends is the accumulated and collective guilt that is ours."

That pastor was my dad, the Rev. Warren Hamby, Sr. To honor him this Father's Day, I could list his good qualities and tell you how much I admired him, but I think the words I quoted above speak for themselves. And tell you how much I miss him since he has been gone from this life, words fail me. There are no words.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Church of All-Embracing Love



Here's a word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote this in Germany during the rise of Nazi power. It is amazing how much it applies to our times:

"A church of faith - even if it is the most orthodox faith that faithfully adheres to the creeds - is of no use if it is not even more a church of pure and all-embracing love ... It is of no use to us for us to confess our faith in Christ if we have not gone first and reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters, even to the godless, racially different, ostracized, and outcast. And a church that calls a nation to faith in Christ must itself be the burning fire of love in this nation, the driving force for reconciliation, the place in which all the fires of hatred are extinguished and prideful, hate-filled people are turned into people who love."

From "A Testament to Freedom" p. 249

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Does prayer change things? Or does it change me?

A parishioner showed me a beautiful devotional by Oswald Chambers that has a thoughtful statement in it about prayer. I believe it, and it reflects some of my lifetime journey of spiritual formation. Prayer is a gift of God, not something we "do" for God, or to try to get God to "do" something. Prayer is a gift of communion with divine love that can transform the human heart, perfecting us in love and maturity of faith. The traditional theological word for that is "sanctification."

I've always been bothered by the phrase "prayer changes things," not because I don't believe in prayer, or because I don't believe God can do anything God desires to do. On the contrary, to me the implication of the phrase limits the importance of prayer to a way we can get God to do the things we want. Of course, God can do the miraculous, and I think intercessory prayer (praying for others) is both important and lifegiving. Moses is a wonderful example of the power of intercession. It's not an incantation, it's conversation with God that can sometimes leave a glow on your face.

Chambers says it well here.

It is not so true that "prayer changes things" as that prayer changes me and then I change things; consequently we must not ask God to do what He has created us to do. For instance, Jesus Christ is not a social reformer; He came to alter us first, and if there is any social reform to be done on earth, we must do it. God has so constituted things that prayer on the basis of Redemption alters the way a man looks at things. Prayer is not a question of altering things externally, but of working wonders in a man's disposition. When yo prayer, things remain the same, but you begin to be different.