Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church

Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church

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Overview

Embracing the Wideness contrasts a generous orthodoxy with the culture wars that seek to drive a wedge between Christians with deep faith convictions. A generous orthodoxy is possible for The United Methodist Church because scripture supports both a confessing movement and a reconciling movement.



In addition to our divergent understandings of holiness in The United Methodist Church, we apparently have two distinct conceptions of church. These two conceptions of church present in American Methodism grew from seeds planted in the earliest practice of British Methodism:


  1. A separatist church, which views holiness as a calling that separates us from the world—“come out from among them and be separated” (2 Corinthians 6:17). Here holiness is a quality that distinguishes Christians from the world.
  2. An activist church, which understands holiness as a movement for change in an unjust world. The boundaries between church and society are blurred, with the “wheat and tares” growing together (Matthew 13) until God’s final judgment.

At times, a denomination is able to hold these two conceptions of church in tension. And at times, as in recent experiences of American Christianity, there is fragmentation and division. The division may finally be the result of clearly articulated values that are not compatible. And the division may also be the result of how leaders do harm to each other.


What great things could be accomplished if we rediscovered orthodoxy in service of the healing, instead of dividing, of our bodies—our churches! Such a generous orthodoxy would help us not to become immersed in the emotional processes that pit people against each other. Such a generous orthodoxy would keep us from becoming stuck in cycles of harmful collusion and escalating conflict. Such a generous orthodoxy would know that the source of our capacity to be healed of our schisms is a miracle beyond our human power or goodness or intelligence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501871566
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Kenneth H. Carter is president of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church and serves the Florida Conference area. He is the author of ten other books, including Pray for Me, A Way of Life in the World, The Gifted Pastor, and Near the Cross.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

GENEROUS ORTHODOXY AND THE PEOPLE CALLED METHODIST

Matthew 18

My faith has been formed by:

• reading the New Testament from beginning to end, one spring

• singing in choirs as a youth and young adult

• serving on mission trips

• memorizing scripture with the Navigators as a college student

• witnessing a public request for forgiveness

• seeing racism diminish in people I admired

• teachers who came along at just the right time

• experiencing the courage of clergywomen who kept going even when no one affirmed them

• opportunities to preach and lead Bible studies in prisons

• traveling to Israel with Jewish friends and learning about the Sabbath from them

• getting to know LGBT friends who were on the same journey of holiness as me

• a spiritual director who had charismatic gifts and taught me about the Holy Spirit

• mentors who encouraged me and opened doors

• a theology of hope and a dependence on grace

• my wife's commitment to mission

• generous people who stepped up when the church needed them, and who blessed people without insisting on recognition

• challenging assignments and calls that seemed impossible at the time

• a few poets and novelists

• friendships

• a denomination that is imperfect, yet has given me and countless others a spiritual home and place to serve

• evangelicals who were apolitical, and activists who were evangelicals

• strategic guides along the way who knew a lot more about leadership and management than I did, and helped me

• being a son and a grandson, then a parent, and now a grandparent

• coming to know that faith is less about where I stand and more about who I am walking with

* * *

In reflecting on this journey, so far, I have an increasing clarity about a Christian faith that is generously orthodox.

The word orthodox here has a distinctly lower case o. It is about my trust in the scriptures, the creeds, and the faith of the church. I am carried along by a great current of Christian tradition that is deep and wide, ecumenical and global, trinitarian and liberationist. It is a faith that articulates the cries of God's people (Exod 3), that breathes life into a valley of dry bones (Ezek 37), that endures weeping in the night but also awakens to a joy that comes in the morning (Ps 30). It wanders in the wilderness (Exod 16), experiences the dark night of the soul (Ps 22), knows a peace that surpasses human understanding (Phil 4), and discovers the empty tomb (John 20).

The word generous is about charity toward others in the body of Christ (1 Cor 13), patience with them in their own spiritual journeys, openness to the possibility that we see through a glass darkly or a reflection in a mirror (1 Cor 13), and humility that we consider others more highly than we do ourselves (Phil 2). Generosity creates a space for reciprocity, giving, and receiving. Generosity acknowledges a dark side to orthodoxy, one that draws too sharp a division and too strong a boundary — and in the process people who worship, pray, learn, serve, and witness together are separated ("torn apart" in the Greek skhizein, schism).

The phrase "generous orthodoxy" was coined a generation ago by the Yale theologian Hans Frei and influenced a number of his students, many of whom would later teach at Duke, where I studied. Frei commented that "we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism — a voice like the Christian Century — and an element of evangelicalism — the voice of Christianity Today. I don't know if there is a voice between these two, as a matter of fact. If there is, I would like to pursue it."

Generous Orthodoxy is the title of a blog by the brilliant Episcopal preacher and priest Fleming Rutledge, who writes,

We cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly, and, indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate use of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.

More recently, "Generous Orthodoxy" was the title of a Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell tells the story of a same-gender wedding in the Mennonite Church tradition, and how that community navigated the claims of received truth and expressed conscience. The story itself is narrated in a gracious way, especially given the medium of popular culture. In his own reflection on the events narrated in the podcast, Gladwell notes that "You must respect the body you are trying to heal."

What great things God could accomplish if we rediscovered an orthodoxy in service of the healing (and not dividing) of our bodies, that is, our churches? Such a generous orthodoxy would help us not to become immersed in the emotional processes that pit people against each other. Such a generous orthodoxy would keep us from becoming stuck in cycles of harmful collusion and escalating conflict.

Such a generous orthodoxy would know that the source of our capacity to be healed of our schisms is a miracle beyond our human power or goodness or intelligence.

Empathy

I empathize with those who do not see or hold the faith as I do. My way is not the superior way or the only way. I believe, however, because of experiences, teachers, relationships, and vocational calling that this is the way God has given me to walk.

Because my faith is orthodox, I can learn from and listen to voices many would characterize as moderate, evangelical, catholic, and traditional. These theological streams have always been life-giving to me.

Because my faith is generously orthodox, I believe that the heart and soul of orthodoxy is grace. This grace is a broad, deep river, a wide reservoir of divine love, a fountain filled with blood that cleanses my unrighteousness and overcomes all of my resistance and rebellion. It is a grace greater than all my sin. And this grace is for all people. Note the words of Charles Wesley:

Teach me to cast thy net aright,
Note the prominence of the word all throughout the body of Charles Wesley's hymns; for example:

"Jesus, thou art all compassion";
Because grace is for all, a generous orthodoxy knows that God can never be tribal. The God of the Bible, the God of the Old and New Covenants, is never tribal. From Abraham to Ruth to Isaiah to Jesus and Paul and the Revelation given to John, the tribal is always an interim form of community on the way to something greater that God is wanting to do. At our best, and at our most biblical, we know this.

Please hear this confession less as an attempt to spin something politically and more as a statement of faith. I have been formed by Sunday school teachers and hymns, seminary professors and books, my conversion and baptism, family and missionaries, pastors and activists, and by friends much more conservative and much more liberal than I will ever be. I simply refuse to give in to the idea that Christian faith and practice in the United States must conform to the same political and cultural boxes that divide us so profoundly. I am pushing back against some of those assumptions and some of the ways we label each other.

Generosity persuades me to believe that the church (The United Methodist Church, the ecumenical church, your church, and my church, the church that will be recreated by the generations coming along) has a better and more faithful future. This is the work of a God who is creating, redeeming, and sanctifying us.

I am neither naive about nor oblivious to our divisions. For this reason, the missio dei in this world includes a careful, patient, and substantive attention to the reconciliation of the broken body of Christ, as a sign and witness of our profession of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all" (Eph 4:5-6). This is the basis of our hope for a church that does not merely reflect the cultural and political divisions of a particular nation, but also bears witness to a deeper identity, one expressed in the latter half of Ephesians 2.

As a practical matter, I am drawn to the gift and challenge of Matthew 18, which has been a resource in the covenantal life of the Commission on a Way Forward. Our experience of escalating ecclesial conflict might look very different if we were discipled in the way of Jesus:

If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you've won over your brother or sister. But if they won't listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. (Matt 18:15-16 CEB)

Stanley Hauerwas reflected on this text as a resource that might lead us to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He observes "that conflict is a part and parcel of Christian unity means that the unity of a church is not a unity based on agreements, but rather one that assumes that disagreements should not lead to division but rather should be a testimony to the existence of a reconciling people."

What if orthodoxy is not the elimination of our differences but the calling to live together faithfully in the midst of them? In seeking to visualize what a generous orthodoxy might look like, in practice, consider a simple drawing of three circles to portray something of where we are as a church in the present moment.

Image of Circles

The three circles are covenant, justice, and unity, and I visualize them as coming together to create an overlapping space, not unlike a Venn diagram.

Covenantal people greatly value the promises we have made to God and to each other in baptism, in ordination, and in consecration. They seek greater public accountability when our covenants are broken.

Those in a search for justice participate in a history that gives greater rights and offers God's grace and blessings to more people. This history includes the abolition of slavery, the recognition of women in ministry, and now the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the full life of the church.

Those who value unity hold the conviction that covenantal people and justice seekers can live together in the church. They do not see the present LGBTQ conversation as a church-dividing issue, and they live in the tension, often at the congregational level, amidst differences that reflect the beauty and complexity of the one body.

My own calling is to seek to expand or grow the space where these three circles overlap. I share passions of justice, covenant, and unity with friends across my own annual conference and the global church. The shared space where justice, covenant, and unity overlap is not a mushy middle! It is the complex place where many faithful people live. It is the practical divinity that flows from a generous orthodoxy.

The vision of the Commission on a Way Forward is to "design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible."

I understand this to be the generative work of our denomination in this present moment. And this generative work is possible through the theological resources of a generous orthodoxy.

In his book Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision, Paul Chilcote describes our tradition as a "place" that is not "either/or" but "both/ and." "The Wesleyan method," he writes, "can be called conjunctive because it seeks to join things together, rather than permitting them to be pulled apart." And so he speaks of faith and works, personal and social, heart and head, Christ and culture, piety and mercy.

This is The United Methodist Church in its most local and global expression. At our best we are connected to each other for a purpose: "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." This mission includes keeping covenant, loving justice, and seeking unity. And it is about growing, expanding, and honoring the space where these three values can be joined together.

The recovery of a generously orthodox faith matters. When we are generous, we are not closed off from each other. This is for our good. When we are orthodox, we are in a right relationship with the God who speaks, is incarnate, and breathes in scripture and in our own lives. This is our salvation. And this is the church's mission that is "spacious, adventurous and unafraid." If we know the history of how God has moved for millennia over the face of this creation, why would we imagine that the renewal, reform, and healing of the church would not be a recovery of how we think about God and how we therefore live in transformed ways with each other? And if we were reading the signs of the times, why would we not trust that this same God was and is in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that God has given us — The United Methodist Church — this ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5)?

A Conviction

I continue to hold the conviction that a generous Christian orthodoxy — grounded in scripture and tradition, faithfully lived and taught by the church at its best — is broad and deep enough to transform the brittle and harsh political and sociological captivity that so easily lures the church with its siren voice. Finally, there is no conservative or liberal agenda worthy of Colossians 1 or Romans 12 or Psalm 139 or Ephesians 2 or Matthew 25. Our own gospel of justice and mercy is like treasure, hidden in a field, waiting to be rediscovered.

CHAPTER 2

CONFESSING AND RECONCILING

Ephesians 2

During the interview for serving as a bishop, and when consecrated and later installed, a sentence stayed with me from the Book of Discipline and Book of Worship:

A bishop is called to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church.

In one moment along the way, I was asked, in front of a large group of committed, invested, diverse, faithful, and, indeed, exhausted Christian people, "Will you accept the call to this ministry as a bishop and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?"

And I responded,

I will, by the grace of God.

As the work unfolded over several years, again and again a passage of scripture, Ephesians 2, connects with this work-in-progress, which is the essence of a Christian life and the grounding for a role and office of a bishop:

You are saved by God's grace because of your faith. This salvation is God's gift. It's not something you possessed. It's not something you did that you can be proud of. (CEB)

Those verses, Ephesians 2:8-9, written either by Paul or someone who wrote, thought, and sounded very much like Paul, summarizes an extended argument about the journey from the old life to the new. In the words of an old saying,

I'm not what I want to be,
All of us once lived in destructive ways, the letter says, and then there is the turning point, in Ephesians 2:4: "But God ..." It is a clue to leave the past behind and focus on the future.

Years ago, I recall watching a televised conversation with the pundit William Bennett, who was campaigning for Dan Quayle, who at the time was seeking political office in the United States. Bennett had been deeply critical of Dan Quayle in an earlier time but had come around, as they say, and so the commentator was asking how all of this could have happened. Bennett reflected for a moment and then responded, "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

All of us used to act like most people in the world do. We followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. "But God ..."

Yes, every saint has a past (this keeps us humble), but every sinner has a future. And that is all about the grace of God, who is rich in mercy. This is the very same God who raised us from the dead to live in Christ. We are saved by grace, through faith, and this is a gift.

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

Foreword Stanley Hauerwas Will Willimon vii

Preface xi

1 Generous Orthodoxy and the People Called Methodist 1

2 Confessing and Reconciling 13

3 So Free, So Infinite His Grace 21

4 Discerning the Movement of the Holy Spirit Amidst Deep Cultural Change 29

5 God Hath Bid All Humankind 43

6 A Catholic Spirit Reconsidered 59

7 We Do Not Lose Heart 69

8 The Local Option, from Corinth to the Present Moment 83

9 Just Resolution as an Expression of Restorative Justice 95

10 Bridges 111

Afterword: To Embrace the Wideness of God's Mercy Is to Be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic 123

Notes 129

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