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.
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!
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.
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…”
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-complex. We 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?”