The Filter is Now Off: A Call for a Commission on Theology and Ecclesiology

As a 2009-2012 Board member for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW), I was privileged to serve as the secretary for the Board of Directors, a member of the Global Issues Team, and a monitor for the 2012 General Conference.  At the request of the GCSRW staff and board, none of the monitors blogged our true opinions of the issues facing General Conference, from restructure to global issues to human sexuality, for fear that our words would be twisted and used against the Commissions on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) and Religion & Race (GCORR).  If we let one politicized statement slip on twitter or blogging or in a protest demonstration, we feared that the worst would happen: the General Conference would reject the work of women and people of color by torpedo-ing the agencies charged with monitoring, advocacy, and research.  That fear was legitimate, but should not have scared us into not using our voices more passionately and widely.  This is the problem inherent with having a prophetic voice “accountable” to the people to whom we are prophesying.  But after this morning, the filter is now off.

Today we turned our back on the least, the last, and the lost—on the disempowered, the disenfranchised, and the culturally ignored–in the name of “saving money” and “streamlining structure.”  We placed more power in the hands of those who already have it.  We valued “membership & money” (crudely put: “butts in pew and bucks in plate!”) more than “mission” (structuring ourselves as the church we would like to become, not the church that we already are [cue debate on proportional representation.]).  We turned our backs both on making disciples for Jesus Christ and on the transformation of the world.

Most importantly, we showed that our need for restructure was not a need to reduce and reorganize the boards and agencies of the church, but rather a need for intense theological, Biblical, and ecclesial (what it means to be church) study.

Therefore, I move that we create a Commission on Theology and Ecclesiology, to guide us in our work and to ensure that everything we do is done with both love and care.

If I have a second, I would like to speak to it.

The (all-male) leaders of the Top-100 Churches* have frequently stated that “our problem is our methodology and not our theology.”  Why then have we silenced any deep theological or Biblical reflection in our methodology’s new structure? 
*Top 100 defined in “membership,” not by the more elusive category of “discipleship.”

A Commission on Theology and Ecclesiology would have focused our discussion Biblically, ecclesially, and theologically.

Biblically:

This was our Ezra/Nehemiah moment: when, lost in the thrall of building a structure, we sent away all of our foreign wives, the people of the land.  We rejected those without riches or without the same understanding of “purity.”  We chose exclusion over relationship.  We have not yet seen Isaiah’s vision of ALL the nations streaming to God’s Temple.

Women were the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 23:9-10) but their words “seemed to the [male apostles] an idle tale” (Luke 23:11, NRSV); this pattern of Jesus’ call and the church’s hesitation to affirm women’s voices has continued down to the present age.

We heard the Syrophoenician woman, the Canaanite woman, crying out for scraps to fall from the (Connectional) Table.  In response to the pleas of this hurting woman of color begging for her child’s future, our actions responded not with healing but with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say that women and people of color deserve less than the dogs.

If Noah’s story is the paradigm for the Church as the Ark of Salvation, then we need equitable representation of all of Creation, two by two of the geese, the lizards, the sheep, the ducks, the doves, the women, the men, the old people, the young people, the poor people, the rich people, the Africans, the Europeans, the North Americans, the Filipinos, the Palestinians, the indigenous cultures… all need to be included on this ark!

Denominationally:

We are a church built on grace.  With John Wesley, we claim prevenient grace that declares that “NOTHING can separate us from the love of God” (see Romans 8, which was affirmed by only 56% of the General Conference delegates yesterday), neither belief nor practice, neither sexism nor racism, neither poverty nor sexual orientation, neither language nor ethnicity… nothing can separate us from God’s prevenient (coming before) love.  God loves us and woos us and chooses us, again and again and again.  “When we turned away and our love failed, Your love remained steadfast…”

We are going on to perfection in love.  This presumes that we are not perfect yet, that we need to be held accountable for the way we fail to love God and each other.  This is the monitoring and advocacy roles of the GCSRW and GCORR.

Full disclosure: I don’t know how to love my neighbor when it is currently VERY hard for me to love other members of the Body.  The man sitting next to me says that this is why learning to love others within the Body of Christ is the first step to truly loving our neighbors.  “See how they love one another!”

We are a connectional church.  The locus of our denomination is NOT the local church.  The “local church” does not have a place in our polity:  local churches are only missional outposts that are constituted as charges (either by themselves or with other congregations), and these charges need the district superintendent as a symbol of connexion even in what would be thought of as “local church” matters.  To make the “connection” accountable to the local church would make us a congregational polity.  Instead, in our polity history, conferences (charge, district, annual, general) are accountable to each other.  I’ll let Ben Gosden take over in explaining why vital congregations are not a magical solution to our problems.

Ecclesially:

Let’s face it, folks: life in the local church is disappointing.  Anyone involved in a church split, sexual abuse of minors, adultery by church leaders, lawsuits between church members, destructive gossip, fiscal irresponsibility/embezzlement, violations of pastoral trust, or blackmailing the church through the withholding of worship attendance/money, knows that local churches are dangerous places to be.  Churches still refuse to accept a female pastor or a pastor of a different race/ethnicity; clergywomen of color remain the group most vulnerable in the appointment-making process.  All of this means that it is hard for me to look at a local church—any local church—and find hope in it without looking to something bigger beyond it.

For the past nine years, while I have walked with family & close friends going through the above named situations, I have looked to our Connexion for signs of hope.  The Connexion for me has been embodied by my campus ministry, seminary, GCSRW/GCORR, our Social Principles, and our Wesleyan theology.  In the past, when I have looked for hope on the general (global) level, I have always found it.

Now those sources of hope have been ripped away.  For evidence, see the systematic defunding campus ministries, the attack on the seminaries, the new University Senate, the new, defunded/disempowered “Committee on Inclusivity,” the reactionary statements in the Social Principles, the inability to reach consensus that nothing separates us from the love of God, etc.

So I can’t find hope in the local church.  I can’t find hope in the general church.  What then does it mean for us to be church?  From where will my help come?  I have to turn to this intangible Body of Christ.  I have to put my trust in THAT, even when it feels like grasping at nothing.  Lord, in your mercy….  Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine…

My boyfriend Adam, a doctoral student in historical theology, writes, “In following the chaos and embarrassment that often overtakes GC, I’m reminded of why Augustine’s anti-Donatist theology of the church is still so important… If all we have to have faith in is the church that is manifest is these broken human systems, then we have nothing to have faith in…”

Theologically:

It is NOT our job to save the Church.  This has been the rallying cry of those in favor of restructure: “The church is dying!  We must save the church!”  Like Peter, we rush to the soldiers with the swords and begin chopping off ears—anything we can chop, really—in a vain attempt to prevent the death of the church (err, Christ).  The church has already been saved (through the resurrection of Christ), is being saved (through the working out of our salvation through ongoing discipleship), and will be saved (when we will feast at the heavenly banquet, perfected in love).  We are operating out of a denomination-wide savior-complexWe need to BE the church not to SAVE it.

————

That’s my speech in favor of a General Commission on Theology and Ecclesiology.

I am sure there will be two speeches against.  Theology/Ecclesiology are a waste of money and take too much time, and their careful study does not promise to “save” the church by getting bucks in the plate and butts in the pew.

But before we vote, let’s have a moment of prayer.
Let’s sit in silence and wait for the Holy Spirit.
Then let’s hear from those who are the least, the last, and the lost.
Let them help us answer the question:
“Who are we?  Who is God?  And how do we structure ourselves in light of these questions?”

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23 Responses to The Filter is Now Off: A Call for a Commission on Theology and Ecclesiology

  1. John says:

    Finally, someone mentions theology and in particular ecclesiology. We are underfunded in this area more than we are short on money. BTW, ecclesiology is the one source of input that only 3 books on church health actually use

    • La Peregrina says:

      What are those three books? I’d be interested!

      • John says:

        1. What’s Theology Got to Do With It?: Convictions, Vitality, and the Church
        by Anthony B. Robinson, (has a chapter on ecclesiology and church health)

        2. The Measure of a Healthy Church: How God Defines Greatness in a Church by Gene A. Getz, Michael J. Easley, (measures a healthy church by scripture instead of my statistics)

        3. Discipled Warriors: Growing Healthy Churches That Are Equipped for Spiritual Warfare by Chuck Lawless (builds upon the book to Ephesians)

        4. A great article from a blog on Ephesians and Church Health @ http://leadingfromthesandbox.blogspot.com/2009/07/ephesians-and-church-health.html

        5. I’m currently writing a book, An Ecclesiology of a Healthy Church.

  2. Jay says:

    I dare you…. By the way, you could point them to http://www.missionalmethodist.org if they need a starting point.

    Call me . . . I’ll run your strategy. I’m hanging in the newsroom.

    -jay

    • La Peregrina says:

      Hi, Jay. Not sure if I’m really following your comment, but I am happy for you to re-print this with attribution as long as you let me know where it’s going. fb is quickest way to get in touch.

      And all y’all: pay attention to what the Missional Methodist Manifesto is doing!

    • La Peregrina says:

      Also, I unfortunately can’t advocate for this from the floor because I’m not a delegate. But I would love for someone else to propose such a commission!

  3. Sage words from a young, female Pastor with a family history in Methodism going back many generations. Diane, I am proud to know you and will consider you one of my Pastors if you don’t mind.

    • La Peregrina says:

      Thank you so much, Vince. I have been honored to know you through GCSRW/GCORR and I trust that our ministries are “not dead yet!” (do I get bonus points for alluding to Monty Python?)

  4. pastormack says:

    Given all the things we disagree on as a worldwide body, we want to get together and decide matters of theology and ecclesiology? I think we should simply start with enforcing the Articles and EUB Confession, or the Apostle’s Creed for that matter.

    And it is uncharitable to think that changing the bodies that discuss and act on the issues of women and ethnic minorities is somehow a direct affront to all of them. I think the legislation was trying to put into effect what has been obvious: we have many redundant organizations and personnel that our resources can no longer fund. The joint reaction against the combination of GCSRW and GCORR is evidence of how aligned the two organizations are and thus how much sense it makes for their work to be combined (and likely strengthened in the process). At some point all of this has to be about the mission of the church and not every entity we’ve ever had preserving its own fiefdom in the bureaucracy.

    Also, if you want to have a church built on grace, a good way to begin that is probably not telling the thousand member delegation representing the whole church that a majority of them are, on some level, sexist and/or racist.

    • La Peregrina says:

      Thank you for joining the conversation. I pray that combining the work of anti-sexism/anti-racism (represented by GCORR/GCSRW) will result in intentional discussions of intersectionality of discrimination based on race, class, gender, age, language, geography, etc. See the daily DCA for more examples/definition.

      Unfortunately, the “Committee on Inclusiveness” is not designed for intersectionality. It is only nominally a safe place for women and people of color. Victims of sexual harassment/abuse have nowhere to go. The advocacy and research functions of GCSRW/GCORR have been eliminated, along with the funding necessary to do the work.

      “Monitoring” is like an audit; internal-only audits result in the breakdowns like we’ve seen in Walmart de Mexico. Organizations need an external audit to ensure fiscal/legal/inclusive responsibility.

    • La Peregrina says:

      Also, I would LOVE to discuss Articles of Religion et al. I worked in a bilingual (Spanish/English) church in seminary and did exciting research regarding the role of saints in contemporary United Methodism. I don’t see a Commission on Theology & Ecclesiology setting law (i.e., venerating saints is good/bad) but rather convening conversation and then guiding confession.

  5. Pingback: COMMENTARY: I rise for a point of personal privilege… » GC2012 Conversations

  6. Carole Hoke says:

    Ah, refreshing words, and truth.
    I would hope this gets to the floor! Thank you.

  7. Jarell says:

    This was amazingly spot on with how I feel about this. Thank you for being brave enough to write it out.

  8. Dave Whitlock says:

    Thanks, as upstate NY laity, getting just bits and pieces of Tampa stuff, very interesting

  9. I am a retired pastor presently serving as an interim pastor till conference time. I am also a retired Air Force chaplain and a female pastor who was ordained in 1971. I feel as though I have some perspective on the church that I love, and I think you are absolutely spot on. Our problems are spiritual not structural. We have fashioned our church after modern businesses for lots of good reasons – we are concerned with the same stuff – guaranteeing our continued existence. That is NOT what the Kingdom of God is all about!

  10. Excellent commentary. Most powerful parts are “NOTHING can separate us from the love of God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. If we took those things to heart and soul, so much would be taken care of. God knew all this would happen when He put the church in the hands of humans. The Church is God’s and God will see that the work comes to fruition. In the meantime, it is going to be our struggle to continue to figure out how to develop and accept and embrace and spread that Love while on earth.

  11. Rev. Anna Hosemann-Butler says:

    Thank you for this. How can I help?

    • La Peregrina says:

      Pray! I know a small group of people is going to work on whether this is something we could begin implementing in annual conferences prior to bringing a legitimate proposal for next GenConf. (I have doubts abt AC implementation so let me know if you have any suggestions in that regard!)

      Also, Go to missionalmethodist.org (link in earlier comment) and see if that is a decent framework. Many of the people who have approached me abt implementation (Jay Vorhees, Ben Gosden, others) were framers of that document.

      Dios le bendiga!

  12. cslewisburg says:

    Eloquently argued- proud of my big sister.

  13. Ok. I’ve read everything here. I’ve been a member of a local Methodist Church for 50 years with active involvement. It pains me to say that the church is dying, and more painful because the reason is lack of fidelity to biblical truths by church hierarchy. And even more painful because I have a daughter soon to be entering the ministry. But all I’m reading here suggests some kind of hysteria I’m having trouble tapping into. I know as a male I’ll be granted no credibility here, but Christ liberated men and women, and that’s all that matters to me.

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