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UMC General Conference Delegates' Built-In Institutional Bias

With another Annual Conference season wrapping up for U.S. United Methodists, we have seen yet again the good, the bad, and the ugly of The UMC's connectional polity. As in every year before General Conference, elections dominated AC agendas.

Many others have spoken passionately and eloquently about the need for balance among GC delegates: an equal number of men and women, sufficient inclusion of ethnic minorities, a chance for younger people to serve the Church in this way, etc.

Delegates and visitors at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader and Bishop John White are on the screens. Photo credit: Kathleen Barry/UMNS

Delegates and visitors at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader and Bishop John White are on the screens. Photo credit: Kathleen Barry/UMNS

I want to make a different point. Having observed several GC delegation election cycles (both up close and from afar), I notice a bias that (to my knowledge) few people have commented on or found problematic.

General Conference delegates skew hugely toward clergy's interests and the interests of the Church as an institution.

First, consider the clergy delegations. I would love to see solid data on this, but anecdotally it seems that district superintendents and conference staff are hugely overrepresented. Now, it may be true that these clergy are uniquely more qualified to be GC delegates because of their inside knowledge and their more visible and prominent career success. But I have met enough layfolk (and clergy) who view many of these positions with skepticism and feel that the people who hold these jobs have enough authority and prestige day-to-day that clergy delegations should not stack the deck with cabinet members and church bureaucrats.

But my main point concerns laity, not clergy. How many lay delegates are clergy candidates, employees of UM churches/entities, or the spouses or children of clergy? Though all of these people are, in fact, laypeople, they bring a very different perspective than laypeople with no vocational or financial interest in The UMC as an institution. Their desire to serve and lead is admirable. But it is foolish to think that, in the aggregate, the dozens (or 100+) of current and future church employees, as well as clergy's close relatives, are the same as laypeople who lack such intimate connections to the institutional church. The UMC should think about what difference, if any, these insider lay delegates make at GC.

These issues are quite different from the usual concerns about demographic representation. They are also somewhat separate from concerns about lay and clergy delegates who are elected quadrennium after quadrennium. People should understand the arguments for and against having the same delegates attend many General Conferences. I am inclined to think there is value in having experienced leaders who know the process and can teach first-time delegates. But, of course, the presence of so many veteran GC delegates prevents new people from being elected in the first place.

While there are, of course, other factors, name recognition and reputation seem to matter most. Perhaps this is what helps so many clergy relatives and well-known seminarians get elected to lay delegations. The Church should be aware of this dynamic and consider the implications.

One constant knock against mainline churches is that they often seem less compelling, creative, flexible, and innovative in their disciple-making because so much money and energy is consumed in nursing along an institution. In my view, so many insider lay delegates may tip the balance at GC too much toward institutional maintenance.

A final note: I am not a United Methodist. Everything I have said here could be completely wrong. Like untold millions of people raised in UM churches, I never made my way back to The UMC after I left. I study and write about institutional Christianity. My primary frame of reference for the observations above is the Florida Annual Conference, which I attended a few times in the mid-2000s. I still maintain an interest because I have a number of clergy friends there and in other jurisdictions. I have observed similar dynamics in other annual conferences. I wish nothing but the best for The UMC as it strives toward Wesley's goal: "To revive the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land."


Quick Thoughts on Political Polarization and the Catholic Church

Today and tomorrow at the University of Notre Dame, an ideologically diverse group of Catholic leaders is gathering to discuss how political polarization affects the Catholic life in the United States. Under the theme, "Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal," the conference has the potential to start conversations, improve thinking, and change the tone of political engagement by laypeople, priests, and religious.

Though I am not Catholic, I am increasingly convinced that, compared with secular political ideologies and other churches' political teachings, the Catholic Church's social teaching is the most comprehensively and authentically "Christian" ethic, and the one most oriented to the common good. The Catholic Church is at the heart of ecumenical Christian consensus on political issues.

Other ethical systems are much more bound to specific eras, locations, and political or economic frameworks. Yet Catholics, like all Americans, experience the effects of ideological and partisan polarization. It's too simplistic to naively hope that a Christian Democrat party will magically emerge in the United States. (Would today's partisan Catholics support a "Catholic" party even if one existed?)

Our two-party system is a reality that is unlikely to change any time soon. Party loyalty is strong, usually fixed by early adulthood and relatively stable across the life span. Partisanship is much more strongly correlated with ideology than with ethno-religious identity, as in the past. Catholics must figure out how to be faithful citizens in a partisan framework that challenges them more acutely than it challenges many other religious adherents.

Conservative evangelicals can be faithful Republicans because their churches affirm social/sexual conservatism but are mostly weak (if not silent) on matters of economics, deferring to markets and accepting (if not outright sanctifying) the way The Market distributes resources in society. Mainline Protestant denominations' political teachings line up neatly with the Democratic Party's platform across a range of issues.

Orthodox Christians, black Protestants, and moderate evangelical traditions also cut across the two major parties. But since the Catholic Church is the largest and most universal, I am especially interested in how the Notre Dame conference shapes Christian engagement with the realities of partisan and ideological polarization in the Church.

I am not very proficient at Storify, twitter essays, or even blogging, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

I may not have the opportunity to write more about the #UnaEcclesia conference. But I send my best wishes to all who participate. I look forward to studying and discussing how Catholics embrace (and challenge) partisanship.

Thoughts on a Walker Percy Passage from 'Love in the Ruins'

Ever since my brother gave me a copy of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book during a tumultuous period in my life, Walker Percy has been one of my absolute favorite writers. Percy was without parallel in his keen perception of the modern self's estrangement from itself. He understood the fragmentation and alienation that changes in technology, economics, and morals would bring to American society. What I find so stunning is that Percy arrived at these conclusions and distilled them in his writing at a time when others were just beginning to recognize them. Many of the cultural and social phenomena I study and write about are things that Percy intuitively grasped 30, 40, 50 years ago.

When I finish a Percy book, I tend to read it again and again rather than move on to the next one. But last week I began reading Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (1971) for the first time. In the span of 50 pages or so, I repeatedly paused to re-read, read aloud, or tweet out poignant passages.

Usually I light up most when Percy hits on what he considered the theme of his literary work, "the dislocation of man in the modern age." But a passage that struck me in Love in the Ruins was when the main character and narrator (Dr. Thomas More) recalled a happier time, before his daughter (Samantha) died and his wife (Doris) left him for a "heathen Englishman."

The best of times were after mass on summer evenings when Samantha and I would walk home in the violet dusk, we having received Communion and I rejoicing afterwards, caring nought for my fellow Catholics but only for myself and Samantha and Christ swallowed, remembering what he promised me for eating him, that I would have life in me, and I did, feeling so good that I’d sing and cut the fool all the way home like King David before the Ark. Once home, light up the charcoal briquets out under the TV transmitter, which lofted its red light next to Venus like a ruby and a diamond in the plum velvet sky. Snug down Samantha with the Wonderful World of Color in the den (the picture better than life, having traveled only one hundred feet straight down), back to the briquets, take four, five, six long pulls from the quart of Early Times, shout with joy for the beauty of the world, sing ‘Finch ‘han dal vino’ from Don Giovanni and ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name,’ conceive a great heart-leaping desire for Doris, go fetch Doris, whose lip would curl at my proposal but who was nonetheless willing, who in fact now that she thought of it was as lusty as could be, her old self once again, a lusty Shenandoah Valley girl, Apple Queen of the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester. Lead her by the hand beyond the azaleas where we’d fling ourselves upon each other and fall down on the zoysia grass, thick-napped here as a Kerman rug.
— Walker Percy, "Love in the Ruins" (1971)

So much life and joy in this passage! One could argue that God needn't be a part of someone feeling such deep and abiding love for family and connection with the universe. But here, in Thomas More's case, Percy shows that sharing in the divine life can be the source of immeasurable joy.

(Also, not a bad argument for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.)

As the novel progresses, we see that Thomas More is mostly lost and miserable when he lives apart from God (as a "bad Catholic"). Dr. More slides into a life of drunkenness and womanizing. Though he never stops believing, he cannot be forgiven because he lacks contrition and purpose of abandonment.

As someone whose Christian upbringing was more often dour than ecstatic, it is hard even now for me to imagine that the kind of joy Percy describes here is humanly (or divinely) possible, let alone what God actually intends.

Love in the Ruins is brilliant. Highly recommended, and all the more so if you, like me, have experienced spiritual malaise.


Where Jürgen Moltmann Found Hope

Where Jürgen Moltmann Found Hope

I have not heard much from theologian Jürgen Moltmann in recent years. Presumably he is, at age 88, enjoying his retirement in Tübingen. Yet I was not surprised to see a recent report that he has been corresponding with a death row inmate in Georgia, Kelly Gissendaner, who will be executed Monday, March 2 for recruiting her lover to murder her husband, Doug Gissendaner, in 1997.

This New York Times article explains how Ms. Gissendaner completed a theological studies program on death row. One of her teachers, Dr. Jennifer McBride, put her in touch with Professor Moltmann, with whom she began a regular correspondence.

For a number of reasons I could discuss at length, Moltmann has been a significant influence on me and my study of Christian theology, which I have pursued either full- or part-time my entire adult life. It also happens that one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard involves Moltmann, and I wish to share it here.

I heard the story from the Reverend Dr. Paul Wesley Chilcote in 2006 or 2007. When Chilcote was studying for his Ph.D. at Duke under the Reverend Dr. Frank Baker, he had the opportunity to meet Professor Moltmann, who was giving a series of lectures at Duke Divinity School. As a relatively undistinguished person who has been fortunate to meet a few prominent people -- some of whom became mentors and friends -- I can relate with Chilcote's excitement at meeting the legendary Protestant theologian. The story Moltmann told Chilcote is one I shall never forget:

While introducing myself to [Jürgen Moltmann] more fully, I explained that I was working in my doctoral studies with Frank Baker. He interrupted and said, ‘Oh, I’d like to share a story with you about Frank and Nellie Baker.’ And I sat back to take it all in.

Moltmann said that during the Second World War there was a German prisoner of war camp on the northeast coast of England. A young pastor and his wife served a small Methodist circuit close by. They felt called by God to reach out to these foreign soldiers in some way. They were filled with compassion and concern.

So they went to the commander and asked permission to take a German prisoner with them to church each Sunday – to share in Word and Sacrament – and then to eat their Sunday dinner together in their home. It was agreed. So Sunday after Sunday, a steady flow of German soldiers worshiped and ate with the Bakers in their home throughout the course of the war.

This world famous theologian paused, looked at me intently, and said. ‘One of those soldiers was a young man named Jürgen Moltmann. And I want you to know that the seed of hope was planted in my heart around Frank and Nellie Baker’s Sunday dinner table.’

The brilliant mind who gave us 'A Theology of Hope' in our time found hope in the humblest and unlikeliest of places. May it be so for each of us. And for Kelly Gissendaner. And for Doug Gissendaner's family.


Southern Baptists' Martin Luther King Problem

Yesterday, on the holiday honoring the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a tweet from a Southern Baptist seminary administrator caught my attention.

How nice! At a time when many white Christians in the South remained virulently racist and most of the rest were shamefully timid, these three Christian gentlemen welcomed Dr. King to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's campus in Louisville, Kentucky.

While thousands of Southern Baptist pastors vehemently opposed integration, the forward-thinking men of SBTS were on the Right Side of History.

But what do today's Southern Baptist leaders really think of the Reverend Dr. Henlee Barnette, the legendary Baptist ethicist who taught at Southern from 1951-1977? Probably not much.

Here are some thoughts I tweeted on the matter:

The SBC is justly proud of its academics, ethicists, and activists who prophetically denounced racism and called on white Protestants to repent of their sinful, discriminatory attitudes – attitudes that many perversely derived from the Bible itself. But how many of these leaders (and their proteges) survived the denomination's purge of moderates in the 1980s?

Henlee Barnette would not be allowed to teach at SBC seminaries today. So why, exactly, do Baptist elites want to celebrate him? Did he invite Dr. King to Louisville in faithfulness to a Bible he did not believe in and a God he did not know?

Barnette did the right thing because his theology and biblical interpretations were right. Southern Baptists can't have it both ways. Maybe the Reverend Dr. Barnette was right about a few other things, too.

For All the Saints (w/ Videos)

All Saints' Day has long been one of my favorite holy days. No matter how closely I have hewn to the church or how far I have wandered, I have always, at least in some small way, marked this feast day.

All Saints' is an important solemnity in the Catholic Church, but it is widely ignored in low-church American Protestantism. The mainline, middling United Methodist congregation of my childhood tended not to emphasize the day. As I encountered a more robust liturgical Protestantism in my student years (most prominently at Boston University's Marsh Chapel), I learned to appreciate the theology, comfort, symbolism, and continuity that the church's observance of All Saints' Day represents.

I do not pretend to understand with precision what "the communion of the saints" means, or "the blessed rest of everlasting peace" or "the glorious company of the saints of light." But it does mean something to me.

Several years ago, I made a YouTube video, setting images to a recording of the magisterial hymn, "For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest." I tried to thoughtfully select images that were true to to the plain meaning of the text, even if many modern hearers have reservations about the militant/triumphant language and the spiritual/material dualism. The recording I used, a performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, omits several verses.

The video below, taken from the funeral of President Gerald Ford at the Washington National Cathedral in 2007, includes more of the verses composed by Anglican Bishop William W. How and first published in 1864. The hymn begins about a minute into the video, but it is worth watching from the beginning in order to hear the Prayer of Commendation and the Blessing as proscribed by the Book of Common Prayer. The audio quality is not spectacular, but the images are poignant. Note the Ford children holding each other and their bereaved mother, First Lady Betty Ford. Note also President George W. Bush and three living ex-presidents (and their wives), witnessing to their faith. The civil religion and public display of devotion may trouble some. But I find it compelling to see great men and women bowing their heads in reverent acknowledgement: "All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."

Here is the text of "For All the Saints" as most commonly sung in Anglican and high church traditions. Three other stanzas are usually omitted.

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!