Unity in United Methodism

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I’ve been following the conversations about unity during and since The United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The appeal to unity is powerful and appealing. And it is at one level effective because calling for unity is, well, unifying. I am in favor of unity. I want United Methodism to be unified, desperately. I also have a growing concern that appeals to unity in our current moment are often superficial and act as a kind of opiate to numb us to reality. We should be actively working toward unity. But we should not do so in ways that are vague, distract us from reality, and fail to either bring about meaningful unity or address the reasons we are currently divided. Here are two more specific thoughts I’ve had about unity that I’ve been chewing on since General Conference:

1. It is interesting that the value of unity is often used as a rationale for not enforcing the Discipline. One of the basic purposes of polity is to make unity possible. If you took away the presenting issues related to profound disagreements about human sexuality, I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition. I suspect that the appeal to unity as a rationale for not upholding the Discipline virtually guarantees disunity.

2. I find that appeals to unity are typically vague and lack any concrete precision when they are connected to the deep disagreements we currently have about human sexuality. Consider same sex marriage: A group of United Methodists believes that there can be no such thing as Christian marriage that is composed of two people of the same gender. Another group of United Methodists believes that not only are such marriages possible, but that it is harmful to deny people access to same gender marriages. A third group is frustrated by the inflexibility of these two groups. The appeal to unity most often comes from people in this third group. But I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God. As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like. The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention, this is not going to change.

In moments of crisis, United Methodists often fall back on an appeal to unity. The appeal to unity feels good because we are fighting for the church. The litmus test for the value of an appeal to unity should be this: Does it address the reasons we are divided and offer a concrete solution that can bring about actual unity? Leaders within United Methodism need to consider whether appeals to unity that cannot pass this basic test may actually be doing more harm than good in our current moment.

Rule 44 and #UMCGC

To this point, I have seen those who oppose Rule 44 described as extremists, arrogant, leading a misinformation campaign, being afraid of their feelings or the feelings of others, and having contempt for the heart. As one who is opposed to Rule 44, these feel like personal attacks that are inaccurate projections.

Proponents of Rule 44 argue that the proposed legislation is valuable because it will enable all delegates to have a voice and to hear each other’s stories with respect and love. But the most passionate supporters of Rule 44 are not engaging those they disagree with in this way. So, why would we expect this to change when we shifted from discussing Rule 44 to discussing even more personal and contested topics?

For the record, as a professor at Candler School of Theology I really enjoy hearing students, colleagues, and pastors share their stories of how God has worked and is working in their lives. The major thrust of my work to translate my academic work in service to the church has been seeking to equip local churches to engage each other in small groups where they can do life in the deep places and seek profound growth in their love for God and for each other. A major emphasis of my life’s work to this point has been seeking to help The United Methodist Church reclaim actual Christian conferencing. I do not oppose Rule 44 because I am opposed to people sharing their stories with each other. I just don’t believe that General Conference is the time or place where this essential work can be done effectively. To be clear: None of the descriptions mentioned at the beginning of this post accurately describe the reasons I oppose Rule 44.

I oppose Rule 44 because I believe it is based on a deeply flawed understanding of what Christian conferencing is. The initial role out of Rule 44 made it pretty clear that Rule 44 was one of the most visible attempts to bring Christian conferencing to General Conference. I realize that the Commission has walked this back since, but based on my experience with Faith and Order and the Council of Bishops, I believe I am correct that this was the initial intent of Rule 44. Moreover, I have seen multiple people online defend Rule 44 for precisely this reason. I do not believe there is a way at this stage to separate the inaccurate understanding of Christian conferencing from Rule 44 (ie, the impression that enacting Rule 44 would be reclaiming Christian conferencing). And though it may seem irrelevant to some, I remain sincerely convinced that getting Christian conferencing right is extremely important. If it is an instituted means of grace, as Wesley understood it to be, it is the same category as Holy Communion. We would all be appalled if Holy Communion were described as all of the food that is consumed at General Conference. We should be similarly concerned when Christian conferencing is described by the Commission on General Conference as everything that happens at General Conference because it trivializes the meaning and significance of this precious means of grace.

I also oppose Rule 44 because I am convinced that it will not work in practice. We tried something similar in 2012 and it was experienced as harmful to some who participated. With current tensions and the way the debate is framed, there is just no chance that topics like human sexuality can be engaged honestly and forthrightly without someone feeling offended, silenced, or hurt. I have heard from several people who have experience with the initial attempts to introduce Rule 44. Opinion is divided on whether the practice is in fact helpful in accomplishing its own ends. Tyler Best has just written about his experience as a small group leader of Rule 44 (were it enacted). He provides concrete evidence that General Conference is too complicated and too tense of an environment to pull off the best intentions behind Rule 44.

I remain opposed to Rule 44. I realize that my way is not the only way of thinking about this and that you may disagree with me. I do not demand that you agree with me. I would ask that you recognize that I simply disagree with you and that you not attribute more sinister motives to me.

For previous posts I’ve written on this topic that develop my understanding of what Christian conferencing is and why I oppose Rule 44 click here, here, and here.

Edit: Needing a 2/3 majority to pass, Rule 44 failed to receive approval by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. The vote took place on May 12, 2106 with 356 voting in favor of adoption and 477 voting against adoption.

United Methodist Doctrine: That 70s Show?

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Yesterday I wrote a brief update on the Vital Piety Page on Facebook sharing a thought I had about Outler’s understanding of experience while reading his essay “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley.” After reading Outler on the quadrilateral, I then read the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. For years I’ve been struck by the ways in which the 1972 statement’s influence persists, despite its being intentionally replaced with a thorough rewrite that was adopted in 1988 and is still the version in the current BOD. Here are a few quick thoughts:

It is interesting to note the ideas from the 1972 statement that were rejected in the 1988 rewrite that are very much alive and well in popular United Methodist consciousness. The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”

The statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”

The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.”

One way of understanding the creation of the quadrilateral in United Methodism, then, is to see it as a strategy for pitching a big tent and working to ensure that the tent would be big enough for anyone who might come under its cover. To that end, the quadrilateral appeared to be designed to ensure that the method would lead to a variety of conclusions or theological perspectives, not to bring doctrinal unity within a particular faith community. Some United Methodists today would see this as one of the primary virtues of United Methodism, one of the reasons we can agree to disagree and love each other in the midst of disagreement. Others would see this as one of the primary vices of United Methodism, one of the reasons we are not able to find consensus on basic theology or ethics. Regardless of whether you personally love or hate the 1972 statement’s endorsement of theological pluralism, it was intentionally removed from the current statement.

In reading the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” in connection with the 1988 statement, one has the impression that the 1988 statement was a significant rejection of much of what was in the earlier statement. Theological pluralism is no longer in the statement at all. The arbitrary assertion that our doctrinal standards cannot function as standards in any meaningful way is also removed. While “serious reflection across the theological spectrum” is encouraged, the statement makes clear that “the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process.” The statement goes on to affirm that, “We are a Church with a distinctive theological heritage.” It continues: “In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance.” The impatience with systems of doctrine in order to get to ethical living is also much less present in the current statement of “Our Theological Task,” which seems to have a more clear recognition that theological reflection is an essential precondition for ethical Christian living.

The main place where the current statement is worse than the 1972 statement, in my view, is in its understanding of experience. I’ve previously written on Albert Outler’s understanding of John Wesley’s understanding of experience. The 1972 statement says the following about experience:

Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the Church as a whole: the personal appropriation of God’s unmeasured mercy in life and interpersonal relations. There is a radical distinction between intellectual assent to the message of the Bible and doctrinal propositions set forth in the creeds, and the personal experience of God’s pardoning and healing love… This ‘new life in Christ’ is what is meant by the phrase ‘Christian experience.’

This definition bears the clear mark of Outler’s hand. The 1988 statement generally keeps this understanding, but adds to it. Wesley “looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the ‘common sense’ knowledge of everyday experience.” In the specific section on experience, much of the material cited above from the 1972 statement is kept, but it is also added to in ways that are in tension with Outler’s understanding of what Wesley meant by experience as a source for theological reflection. The current statement, for example, says “We interpret experience in the light of scriptural norms, just as our experience informs our reading of the biblical message.” On my reading of Outler, he would have serious concerns about the second half of both of the previous quotes.

In rereading both statements of “Our Theological Task,” I am struck by the persistent influence of a statement that is obsolete. It is difficult to change understandings of doctrine overnight. It also seems problematic when a discarded understanding of the theological task is still influencing and informing the current popular United Methodist understanding of theology. Even worse, the 1972 statement at times seems more influential than our actual doctrinal standards, particularly when neither statement of “Our Theological Task” has ever been understood as a standard for United Methodist doctrine.

United Methodist doctrine exists. But whether it is owned by rank and file United Methodists is, regrettably, an open question.

For much more information on the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” see Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, edited by Thomas A. Langford.

Pursuing Social Holiness Now in Paperback

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Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice is now available in paperback! This is good news because it means the book is much more reasonably priced. The book was initially published in a hardcover edition that was listed at $78. And many of you let me hear about it!

Because of the initial price of the book, I have tended not to promote it too much when I speak within the church. Now that it is available in a more economical format, I want to let you know about it. The retail price for the paperback edition is $35. I know this is still not cheap, but it is about as good as it gets for an academic book. Right now you can save 30% off the paperback edition. Click here and use the promotional code AAFLYG6.

This book is a revision of the work I did for my PhD dissertation and is the product of several years of research and writing on the band meeting in early British Methodism. The book is the only study of meaning and significance of the band meeting in Methodism that has been written.

I’ve been speaking quite a bit over the past few years on the role of Christian conferencing, social holiness, the class meeting, and the band meeting in a variety of contexts. I have focused on the class meeting in my recent writing for the church because the class meeting is the most appropriate entry point for transformation-driven small groups for people who don’t have much experience with them. My recent focus on the class meeting does not mean that I don’t think the band meeting was important too! The band meeting, which was focused on confession of sin for the sake of growth in holiness, was crucial for early Methodism and its mission to “spread scriptural holiness.” Methodists need to know this history and wrestle with its potential relevance for contemporary Christian formation.

Here’s a summary of the book from the back cover:

Kevin M. Watson offers the first in-depth examination of an essential early Methodist tradition: the band meeting, a small group of five to seven people who focused on the confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. Watson shows how the band meeting, which figured significantly in John Wesley’s theology of discipleship, united Wesley’s emphasis on the importance of holiness with his conviction that Christians are most likely to make progress in the Christian life together, rather than in isolation. Watson explores how Wesley synthesized important aspects of Anglican piety and Moravian piety in his own version of the band meeting. Pursuing Social Holiness is an essential contribution to understanding the critical role of the band meeting in the development of British Methodism and shifting concepts of community in eighteenth-century British society.

Here is what some noted scholars in Methodist Studies have said about Pursuing Social Holiness:

This is a brilliant study of one of the foundational institutions of eighteenth-century Methodism…. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of Methodism should give this account careful consideration. This is a book we have long needed.

– John Wigger, author of American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists

This groundbreaking study offers the most detailed account to date of band meetings in early Wesleyan Methodism…. Highly recommended.

– Randy Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, Divinity School

Watson’s work on the band meeting is the definitive history of this practice of small-group confession within eighteenth-century English evangelicalism…. This is a must-have for scholars of Methodism and eighteenth-century religious history.

– Scott Kisker, Associate Dean of Residential Programs and Professor of Church History, United Theological Seminary

I hope you will consider picking up a copy of this book in order to learn more about one of the core practices of early Methodists in their pursuit of social holiness.

Thoughts on #UMCGC and Christian Conferencing (Part 2)

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In my previous post, I discussed my concern with the imprecise use of Christian conferencing in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and the push to reclaim Christian conferencing at the General Conference level. Recent reporting on Christian conferencing leaves me with the impression that the discussion around Christian conferencing has taken a significant step back over the past year. These two UMNS articles [1] [2] have very different understandings of Christian conferencing. Curiously, there is no indication of an awareness of tension between the two or commentary on the shift.

More broadly, I’m not sure United Methodism is currently operating with a collective understanding of either grace or the means of grace that is sufficiently robust. If we aren’t clear about either of these, we cannot hope to be clear about what concrete expressions of means of grace like Christian conferencing ought to look like. Richard P. Heitzenrater’s “The Exercise of the Presence of God: Holy Conferencing as a Means of Grace” is a helpful starting point for a Wesleyan understanding of grace, means of grace, as well as parsing “holy conferencing” and “Christian conferencing.”

While I am discouraged by the recent direction that the discussion of Christian conferencing seems to have taken, particularly as seen in the Advance DCA, I continue to be eager to see The United Methodist Church return to an authentic retrieval of Christian conferencing. So, how can we do a better job of articulating what Christian conferencing is? And where are the best places to work toward a return to this practice?

Andrew C. Thompson’s recent book The Means of Grace offers a substantive and accessible introduction to the means of grace in general, as well as to Christian conferencing more specifically. In his chapter on Christian conferencing, Thompson points out that “fellowship” and “Christian conferencing” are synonyms in Wesley’s writing. For Thompson, “There’s a deeply spiritual component to fellowship, in Wesley’s mind, that makes it centrally about the work of transformation…. Christian believers were gathered together with their hearts open to the work of the Holy Spirit and with a desire to receive God’s grace” (90). Considering the way that conferencing is used in Wesley’s writing, Thompson writes, “Christian conference… is about believers coming together to focus on their faith: to pray, to share their experience of God, to seek advice and to offer counsel, and even to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness” (90).

The recent work of Methodist historians like Heitzenrater and Thompson provides a good foundation for working toward a coherent collective understanding of Christian conferencing at the General Conference and Annual Conference level. Again, because of the current lack of clarity and precision in defining Christian conferencing, the best approach is to focus on teaching on this practice at General Conference and Annual Conference, not implementation. In our current moment, attempting to go straight into practice at General Conference is premature, will most likely waste time, and comes across as trying to manage or control the conversation to people from nearly every perspective.

The best place to begin working toward reclaiming Christian conferencing would be at the district level where you could offer workshops and training. The key place of implementation is the local church, where ongoing relationships are present. Among Methodist historians, there has been a general consensus that the class meeting is one of the best concrete examples of what Wesley had in mind by Christian conferencing being an instituted means of grace.

I have been encouraged by the momentum I have seen building for a retrieval of a contemporary expression of the class meeting. This past Sunday, it was announced at the church I attend that 150 people had signed up to join a new small group ministry that is an intentional reclaiming of the class meeting (and 85 people have already been actively involved in similar groups). This is only one example of the broader interest I am seeing in not just talking about transformation-driven small groups, but in experiencing them. A return to something like the class meeting is something laity are ready for and are responding to in contemporary Methodism. The time seems to be ripe for a deeper engagement with not only Christian conferencing as an instituted means of grace, but also the class meeting and the band meeting as prudential means of grace for “the people called Methodists.”

The specificity of the class meeting as an example of Christian conferencing is helpful for a host of reasons. First, Christian conferencing is a means of grace for everyone, not just General Conference delegates. The primary emphasis for reclaiming this practice needs to be at the local church level and not the General Conference to be sure that all are invited into a practice that is at the core of what it means to be a Methodist.

Second, the class meeting’s focus was answering the question: “How does your soul prosper?” This question reminds us that the key focus of Christian conferencing in early Methodism was on God and peoples’ experience with God, or their search for a deeper experience with God’s presence and power in their lives.

Third, the class meeting was a small group that was intended to meet together for the long haul, not a few times over a couple of weeks. Christian conferencing can occur in isolated meetings, but I do not think that should be seen as the normal experience of Christian conferencing. Christian conferencing is most likely to occur in the context of ongoing community.

One of the reasons I find this to be a difficult topic is because Christian conferencing can occur in a variety of contexts. In thinking about Christian conferencing more over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that I have to say that it is theoretically possible for Christian conferencing to happen at General Conference. It cannot be defined restrictively as a particular type of small group meeting. And yet, I am as convinced as ever that it is foolish to have General Conference be the primary point of emphasis, or the starting point for reclaiming Christian conferencing, in our current moment. Based on the past several General Conferences, we simply do not have good reason to think that genuine Christian conferencing is likely to happen in Portland.

Christian conferencing is a precious part of our heritage as Methodists. It is too important to trivialize or gut of its power as a means of God’s transforming grace. It is not everything that happens at General Conference, as has been suggested by conversations around the pre-General Conference meetings in January. In a time when United Methodism is desperate for renewal, we should absolutely look to our past for guidance. We should struggle to discern where God has been at work in the past in hopes of being renewed in the present. I am all for retrieving Christian conferencing. In fact, my recent book The Class Meeting is an attempt to provide a practical resource for retrieving the most basic aspect of this practice within the local church.

My worry is that we are currently on a course that will disillusion the key leaders of our church with the value of one of our most basic practices. Recent appeals to this practice have not resulted in what I would consider to be Christian conferencing. Instead, there seems to be a persistent tendency to (mis)use Christian conferencing as a way of sanctifying decisions after they have been made that is self-justifying.

To be clear on where I come down on Rule 44: I do not think Rule 44 represents a faithful expression of Christian conferencing. I do not believe Rule 44 would facilitate Christian conferencing.

If we continue in the directions suggested by the Advance DCA, I fear that those who would be most poised to advocate for churches to return to the authentic practice of Christian conferencing will come to have a very negative connotation associated with the phrase. Many already do. The consequence could well be that our key leaders become apathetic to Christian conferencing entirely. Even worse, they might actively oppose attempts to reclaim Christian conferencing based on negative experiences at General Conference that were not actual experiences of the practice.

Much is at stake for the ongoing vitality and coherence of Methodism. May God grant us wisdom and discernment as we continue to work towards reclaiming a practice that is essential for authentic Methodist identity and practice.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Thoughts on #UMCGC and Christian Conferencing (Part 1)

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I was invited by the Committee on Faith and Order to speak to the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church on “holy conferencing” at its November, 2014 meeting in Oklahoma City. The invitation was very encouraging to me, particularly because the working documents that Faith and Order shared with me on their work on the topic were quite strong. I had previously expressed concerns about misuses of the term holy conferencing, where one of only five instituted means of grace in the Wesleyan view had been distorted so that it had become little more than trying to be nice to each other when we disagree. In contrast to previous misuses of the phrase, Faith and Order was working on an account that was more theologically substantive and engaged more robust practices. As I recall, nearly every document they shared with me identified the early Methodist class meeting and band meeting as the most concrete expression of Christian conferencing in early Methodism.

I went to the Council of Bishops meeting with a real sense of optimism. I felt that I was being given the chance to build on this positive momentum and encourage the leadership of United Methodism to reclaim an authentically Wesleyan approach to Christian communal formation. In this spirit, I began my presentation by asking the bishops to consider what would be “one thing that United Methodism could do today that would be most likely to bring deep renewal and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to our church?” My answer was “reclaiming an accurate understanding of holy conferencing in contemporary United Methodism.” But I was quick to add, “everything hinges on getting right what holy conferencing is.”

My basic advice was for there to be preaching and teaching on the concept of Christian conferencing at the General Conference and Annual Conference levels. I suggested that the most productive place to seek to return to this practice would be at the district level and especially the local church. (You can read the manuscript I used in my presentation here.)

I don’t think reclaiming the practice of Christian conferencing should start at the General Conference level because it is asking people to do something that most of them have never done with people they do not know. I don’t think you can take it for granted that people know what Christian conferencing is in contemporary United Methodism. General Conference is not the wisest place to implement Christian conferencing. Rather, it is a prime opportunity to teach people what it is so that they can begin working towards a return to it on the ground at the local church level.

As I read reports of the pre-General Conference meeting in Portland last month, I was initially encouraged to see that the Commission on General Conference featured Christian conferencing prominently in its work. The shift away from “holy conferencing” to “Christian conferencing” is a positive move. The desire to lift this practice up at General Conference is also laudable. However, the more I read about the use of Christian conferencing in the Advance DCA, as well as reporting on it by UMNS and other places, the more I fear that we are in for another General Conference that reinforces the distortions of one of the most distinctive practices of the Methodist heritage.

The Advance Daily Christian Advocate contains guidelines for Christian conferencing, especially with “A Few Sentences on Christian Conferencing” on page 22. There are also several places where there is a proposed language change from “Conference business” to “Christian conferencing”. Perhaps most significant is “Rule 44,” a proposed rule change to the “Rules of Order” that would allow for a group discernment process instead of the usual parliamentary procedure, which observes Robert’s Rules of Order.

In reading through the references to Christian conferencing in the ADCA, my impression is that this phrase is being used to try to have a better conversation about controversial topics. The sentences from The Committee on Faith and Order appear to be a combination of past misuses of the phrase with some corrections and more responsible interpretation. In reading through the sentences, I had a kind of déjà vu experience. Some of it sounded like it came from the manuscript I used when I spoke to the Council of Bishops. Other parts seemed to reaffirm what I critiqued or rejected. In its current form, the document could be used either to support a robust theological vision for reclaiming Christian conferencing or to support a gross distortion of the practice. There is simply not enough precision to rule either out.

In my view, the Advance DCA fails to offer a clear definition of what Christian conferencing is. How do we know when we are doing it? How do we know when attempts to Christian conference are falling short of what ought to be considered an instituted means of grace? Reading through the ADCA, I feel a bit like we are hoping that if we say “Christian conferencing” enough that somehow it will happen. I’m also left with the impression that we still lack a coherent and compelling articulation of what it in fact is.

Clearly defining Christian conferencing is a real challenge, and all the more so because Wesley himself did not offer a clear definition. The one time he refers to Christian conferencing, all he offers are a series of rhetorical questions that could be used to support misuses of the practice.

The need for a deeper understanding of Christian conferencing is one of the main reasons my advice to the Council of Bishops was that General Conference and Annual Conference would be the appropriate contexts for preaching and teaching on Christian conference and the role it has played in our tradition –not trying to engage in the practice itself. If we are not crystal clear on what the practice is that we are trying to reclaim, then we don’t seem to have much hope of succeeding in practicing it at General Conference – the most highly politicized and stressful expression of our collective life together.

Stay tuned: The next post will point towards a clear articulation of what Christian conferencing is and ways to reclaim this practice in contemporary Methodism.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

A Substantive and Accessible Intro to the Means of Grace

One of the many highlights for me from the 2015 New Room Conference was picking up a copy of Andrew C. Thompson’s brand new book The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. The book is a substantive yet highly accessible introduction to the basic habits or practices that Wesleyans have insisted are essential for growing in Christian faith and maturity. John Wesley referred to these basic practices as means of grace.

The book begins with a chapter that defines grace and discusses its integral role in the Christian life. The book is organized according to John Wesley’s s understanding of the means of grace as instituted, prudential, and general. Thompson discusses these as what we learn from Christ (instituted), what we learn from our context (prudential), and what we learn by contemplation (general).

The book is appropriately weighted towards the instituted means of grace, those practices that are based on the teaching and example of Jesus. A full chapter is dedicated to each of the instituted means of grace: baptism, searching the Scriptures, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and fellowship (or Christian conference). Each chapter provides a strong introduction to the Biblical foundation of the particular practice, as well as its connection to Wesleyan spirituality and our daily discipleship. A particular strength of the book is Thompson’s comfort with both the theological significance of each of these practices and his ability to suggest practical ways to more fully integrate each practice into the rhythms of daily life.

Part II of the book focuses on the prudential means of grace, or what we learn from our context. A chapter is dedicated to “Classes, Bands, and Arts of Holy Living” (my favorite chapter!) and Works of Mercy. Part III focuses on the general means of grace, or what we learn by contemplation. And the book concludes with a summary of the significance of the means of grace for Christian discipleship and an exhortation to enter into a disciplined practice of this disciplined way of life. Thompson concludes by reminding us that the means of grace are intentionally ordinary practices that are “meant to be used in everyday, ordinary life. The promise that they hold for us is that they will show us the way from an ordinary to an extraordinary kind of life” (138).

Thompson is uniquely qualified to write this book because he is both a scholar and a pastor. Moreover, both his scholarship and his pastoral work focus on a thoroughly Wesleyan approach to Christian discipleship.

As a scholar, Thompson wrote his ThD dissertation on Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace at Duke Divinity School, studying with two of the giants in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies, Richard P. Heitzenrater and Randy L. Maddox who have written two of the basic texts for United Methodist ordinands on the history of Methodism and John Wesley’s theology. Thompson also taught the required courses in Methodist history, doctrine, and polity at Memphis Theological Seminary for four years prior to being appointed by his bishop to one of the largest local churches in his home Annual Conference. Simply put, Andrew could not be better prepared intellectually for writing this book. And yet, Thompson also has a deep commitment to the local church and clear giftedness for local church ministry, as is evidenced by his recent transition to the senior pastorate. Thompson’s commitment to the local church and to helping laity grow in faith in Christ is clear throughout The Means of Grace.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of the Wesleyan approach to Christian living. The practices this book introduces have been tried and consistently found to be used by God to draw people more and more deeply into the life that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share with each other. There is simply no more reliable path to Christian maturity.

You can get a physical copy or e-copy of The Means of Grace directly from the publisher here, or from amazon here.

[Disclaimer: Andrew Thompson is a personal friend and The Means of Grace is published by the publisher of one of my books. However, I have received no compensation for writing this review. I chose to write this review because I think this is a great book and I hope you will read it!]

“That they may be one, as we are one”

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I had the privilege of preaching in Cannon Chapel October 6, 2015. This is the manuscript I used. As with any sermon I preach, the words I speak are not verbatim from the manuscript.

“That they may be one, as we are one”
John 17: 20-26
Service of Word and Table
Candler School of Theology
October 6, 2015

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that they world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

– John 17: 20-26

 

You have just eavesdropped on a prayer. And it isn’t just any prayer. It is a prayer that Jesus prayed to the Father. And he prayed it to the Father immediately before his arrest and crucifixion. These are precious, moving, words. This morning, I want to ask you to be open to being moved, not only in your intellect, but also in your heart, in your feelings, those places that we are often much less comfortable forming in seminary classrooms, but which are nevertheless every bit as important for the Christian life and for leadership in Christ’s church. In anticipation of receiving God’s word deep in our souls, will you please pray with me?

The church has often struggled to maintain a balance between the values of unity and diversity that are found throughout the Christian faith. Perhaps where this is most fundamentally found in Christian theology is in the doctrine of the Trinity. God is both genuine difference: three. And God is genuine unity: 1. Three persons in one essence. The fact that the Christian understanding of who God is affirms both unity and diversity makes it all the more lamentable that Christians have so often failed to hold this delicate balance, both in thinking about who God is – and in thinking about who we are. If we had more time, we could name a host of examples of the proclamation of Christ being perverted by a drive for homogeneity that was as passionate as the desire to share Christ in love with the other. This has been expressed in the United States in its most basic and tragic form through the simple cliché that 11 o’clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. When unity is put in opposition to diversity, the gospel is always impoverished.

Unity and diversity. Both are important. I hope you hear me saying that. Because, even as I myself often struggle to preserve this tension, I am certain that it is at the heart of who God is and at the heart of the church God has called into being. I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that on Pentecost Peter and others proclaimed the gospel, not in one new language, but in the languages of the people who were present. When the Holy Spirit came, linguistic and cultural differences were not suppressed or somehow overcome. And yet, the Spirit did enable one message to be proclaimed in many languages.

And I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that Revelation 7 invites us to anticipate “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

All tribes. All peoples. All languages. Diversity.

One God. One Lamb. Unity.

For a variety of reasons, many of which are not just understandable, but commendable, but all of which are beyond the scope of what I am able to address today, so-called mainline denominations and mainline theological seminaries at present are most clearly at risk of privileging diversity in a way that undermines the unity to which we are also called. Put sharply, my worry is that at times we see unity as an inherent threat to diversity in a way that makes meaningful unity almost impossible. In my church more broadly, the United Methodist Church, I see this in the suspicion that some well meaning United Methodists have of our doctrinal standards being meaningful. Doctrine, it is feared, is either divisive or enforces a uniformity that is problematic at best. At its most extreme, I’ve seen this in a rejection of the role of the ancient Creeds in United Methodist worship, which have been seen to mark the basic boundaries of Christian orthodoxy that enable true freedom by a deep and wide section of the Body of Christ.

Today’s Scripture reading is an overwhelmingly beautiful prayer for deep and meaningful unity. This passage offers us a vision for unity that challenges us to pursue a more profound unity.

In Jesus’s prayer we see, first, that Jesus really cares about unity. He asks, repeatedly, that we would be one. “That they may all be one” “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In John’s Gospel, as Jesus prays to the Father before the crucifixion he is asking over and over again for us to be one.

Second, Jesus prays for us to be unified with each other like the Son is united with the Father. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

And Jesus not only prays for us to be united in a way that is like the Father and Son are united, he asks the Father that we be brought into this very unity! Let’s make this personal. Jesus asked God just before the crucifixion for you and I to be united with each other and to be brought into the perfect self-giving relationship that they have with each other.

Why? At a very deep level, this unity is intrinsically valuable. We are being ushered into God’s own life! Jesus also connects our unity with our witness and evangelistic message: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus connects our unity with our very mission to invite all people to belief in Jesus.

So how does this happen? I think it is here that good intentions have often gone astray and led to very unfortunate consequences. From this prayer, unity is not a work that we do for God. It is not something that we are asked to impose on ourselves. It is a gift to be received from Jesus and Jesus’s Father. God the Father is active in this passage, not “those who will believe” i.e., us.

How, then, you might ask, is this gift to be received? In the context of this prayer, unity is found in Christ. It is found in believing in Christ, that the Father has given this one God’s “glory.”

I am tempted to end here, without pushing too much farther, because I am a coward and because I am aware that I have blind spots, but do not know what they are. That is the really annoying thing about blind spots, isn’t it? But, I also feel led to ask a question: Could it be that we do not experience the unity that Jesus offers to us because we have grown so accustomed to looking at ourselves and at each other – and we have forgotten to look at Jesus. For a church, as for a Christian seminary, there is no hope for meaningful unity if we are not united in Christ. Could it be that were we to shift our gaze from ourselves and each other to the cross, to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, that in so doing we might be made one? Theologians have spoken of the scandal of particularity: that God was made known in the unique person of Jesus, who entered into a particular time and place, with all that comes with that. It is a scandal! But, it is also the heart of the truth of the gospel. There is no good news that Christians have to offer aside from the particularity that this one is Lord.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus of Nazareth is true God of true God, of one substance with the Father. Jesus is God in the flesh. He is worthy of our worship. And he wants to bring us into the very life of the Trinity. Into the very life of the Trinity. This invitation brings life, and life abundant, and it cannot be accepted in isolation or alientation from others. It doesn’t do away with difference, any more than God’s oneness does away with the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it does bring profound unity. A unity we desperately need and for which a broken and hurting world is desperate.

I yearn to experience deep and meaningful unity with brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than me. And I yearn to experience a deeper unity with the Triune God. In that way, I suppose, I’m a good Wesleyan. It seems that we Wesleyans are always impatient to wait on the deepest promises of the gospel, daring to hope and expect that those very promises are made good already in the resurrection of Jesus and can be experienced in the here and now, not only in some distant unknown future. Surely if we can dare to believe that those who are in Christ can experience entire sanctification, as Wesley’s heirs profess, then we can dare to believe that by the work of Jesus we can be brought into a perfect unity, even as we are not the same. This is not only for Wesleyans! I invite you to believe with me that God wants to answer Jesus’s prayer for us to be made one now.

It is also not something we are able to do for ourselves. But Jesus is able. And Jesus is willing.

Come Lord Jesus! Make us one. Make us one with each other. Make us one with you. Make us one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May it be so. Amen.

Doctrine, Practice, and Unity in The UMC #andcanitbe

A conversation from a few years back has been on my mind today. This conversation began on twitter a few years ago (hence the hashtag) when many Methodists began talking about a desire to see renewed interest in Wesleyan approaches to Christianity. The conversation has been mostly dormant for awhile.

The last post I wrote specifically contributing to the #andcanitbe conversation discussed my hopes for the conversation. I hoped:

  1. To see God show up in amazing ways, to see broken and hurting peoples’ lives changed by the amazing grace of God.
  2. To see an articulation of the gospel in a particularly Wesleyan accent with clarity and conviction for a broader audience.
  3. To have the conversation be focused on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not on ourselves.
  4. To see the Holy Spirit bring together a variety of voices from miraculously different backgrounds, who feel a common leading to articulate a message that is theologically in harmony and not cacophonous.

I am thinking about this conversation today, hoping to see new interest in it. I still desire a sustained conversation about a visible and coherent Wesleyan voice. Over the past few weeks, several posts were written exploring the ongoing value of the Creeds for those in the Wesleyan tradition. (Click here for my contribution, which has links to many posts written by others.)

One of the challenges that is raised when Methodists express an interest in doctrine and the Creeds is that they are inevitably exclusive. The concern is that once you set boundaries for things that people must believe, a boundary is drawn that can be used to force people out of the community. I think this is a legitimate concern. I do not, however, think that this has been the besetting sin of United Methodism. If the extremes regarding doctrine are doctrinal indifference or doctrinal rigidity, the UMC veers much farther towards doctrinal indifference in practice than it does toward a harsh and exclusive use of doctrine.

Moreover, doctrinal indifference is ultimately a greater threat to the Christian faith than is doctrinal rigidity. Unity (sharing a common faith) is literally impossible without doctrine. The gospel cannot be passed down from generation to generation without some basic agreement on who God is, what the gospel is, what the salvation is that is found in Jesus Christ, etc.

Another concern that is expressed when United Methodists are seen to be too passionate about doctrine is that doctrine distracts from the more important task of living our faith. This concern, it seems to me, is ultimately incoherent. What faith are we living out? How should we live it out? Questions like these are inevitably answered based on beliefs. The best understanding of the relationship between right thinking (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxy) is that they are related and dependent on each other. I cannot live the kind of life I am called to live as a follower of Jesus Christ without doctrine. And these very beliefs are not only intellectual ideas divorced from action, they are beliefs that compel the one who holds them to act.

Morally indifferent Christians don’t need to be freed from theology – they need better theology.

United Methodism is desperate for clarity about what we believe and how it informs the way we live. A very helpful initial step was the publication of Key United Methodist Beliefs. Unity for Methodists should be found in both doctrine and practice as both are essential for any people who take on the name Methodist.

One of the ways that United Methodists are united around doctrine is in our doctrinal standards. What if the UMC gave serious attention to our doctrinal standards, seeing them as helpful to formation and not to be feared? What if instead of keeping them at bay, we focused on what we can affirm and how we can be formed by them?

I still desire a sustained conversation about Methodist beliefs. What do you think would be the best way forward?

John Wesley on the Creeds

Occasionally I will see someone argue passionately that United Methodism is not a creedal church. The energy behind this argument has always surprised me, as I’ve tended to see the Creeds as unifying, not just among Methodists but even more broadly among much broader sections of the Body of Christ. The argument that United Methodism is not a creedal church is usually based on John Wesley’s omission of Article VIII “Of the Three Creeds” in his revision of the Anglican Articles of Religion for the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.

I have been heartened to see in the past week a number of posts discussing the positive role of the Creeds for United Methodism. David Watson started by asking whether John Wesley’s faith was a creedal faith? Joel L. Watts then wrote a post on the Wesleys living by the Creeds, and added to it here and here. Andrew Thompson discussed Wesley’s view of the Creeds in conversation with his understanding of the Trinity. Drew McIntyre suggests that it is good news that Christians do not have to work out everything we believe for ourselves. And Steve Rankin argued that the Pietist concern for a lived faith was not in contrast to a concern for orthodoxy, rather it was a concern that orthodox faith be experienced and lived.

The conversation online has prompted me to spend a bit more time looking into what has been said about Wesley’s omission of Article VIII.

The first thing to be said is that there seems to be consensus among Wesleyan/Methodist scholars that Wesley would have affirmed the doctrinal core of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. At a basic level, Wesley was creedal because he was a Christian. And, more specifically, he was creedal because he was Anglican.

So why did he omit Article VIII? In United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center, Scott Jones (now a bishop in The UMC) pointed to three possible explanations for the various Articles Wesley omitted. 1) He may have disagreed with part of the Article. 2) He may have thought the statement was important but could have been better stated. 3) He may have thought the content was unnecessarily repetitive, and so did not need to be included – though he agreed with the content. Jones argued that “Wesley’s removal of the article ‘Of the Creeds’ could indicate any of these three reasons. Without clear evidence, it is impossible to say why he removed the articles he did or made the changes he made” (48).

While there is not a clear answer as to why Wesley removed the Article on the Creeds from the Anglican Articles of Religion, it is equally clear that Wesley did not entirely reject the Creeds, or their use in worship. He included the Apostles’ Creed in the Sunday Service and in the liturgy for baptism, which were sent to American Methodists at the same time that he sent the newly revised Articles of Religion.

The best piece I have seen to date on Methodism and its relationship with the Creeds is a piece written by Geoffrey Wainwright, who is now emeritus professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, titled “Methodism and the Apostolic Faith.” The chapter is in Methodists in Dialog. Wainwright considered the World Council of Churches and its study on the Apostolic Faith. He argued that the Apostolic Faith study is “marked by four characteristics that need to be restamped on contemporary Methodism. The study is: (a) creedal; (b) Trinitarian; (c) ecumenical; (d) homological, that is, in the service of confessing the faith.” (189)

Regarding the creeds and Methodism, Wainwright argues:

As Methodists, we need to recover our creedal inheritance… It is true that Wesley omitted Article VIII (“Of the Three Creeds”) in his selection of the Anglican Articles for American Methodism (we know that he particularly disliked the damnatory clauses of the so-called Athanasian Creed), and that he removed NC [the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] in his abridgement of the Prayer Book communion order in The Sunday Service. He had, however, no quarrel with the substance of the NC, as we shall see; and he retained the Apostles’ Creed in his American service book. The ‘inheritance of the apostolic faith’ and ‘the fundamental principles of the historic creeds’ are part of the constitutional basis of the British Methodist Church. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds figure in the current liturgical books of Methodism on both sides of the Atlantic and in many other parts of the world. We should make better use of them, both in the recitation of them, as a ‘performative act’ of our faith, and in the evangelistic and catechetical tasks of explicating the faith. (191)

Later in the essay Wainwright counters the assertion that orthodoxy was unimportant to Wesley:

Apart from a few ill-formulated sentences scattered in his writings, Wesley did not minimize orthodoxy of belief. When he writes, for instance, that ‘orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best a slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part at all,’ it must be remembered, first, that Wesley was prepared to ‘think and let think’ only in those matters of theological ‘opinion’ that did not ‘strike at the root of Christianity’; and second, that orthodoxy in the stricter sense of doctrine was, for Wesley, not so much unnecessary as insufficient – if it was not believed, experienced, and lived. (195)

I have to admit that as a scholar, it is a bit discouraging to see that someone of Geoffrey Wainwright’s expertise and renown addressed one of the persistent myths among some Methodists so carefully and with such precision – and yet, the myth has continued. Wesley did believe that orthodoxy was essential. He just did not believe that it was sufficient.

If we were somehow able to interview John Wesley and he understood the temporary theological context of United Methodism, I think he would eagerly identify himself as a creedal Christian. Wesley gave authority to the earliest centuries of Christianity in a way he did not give to later centuries. He would not have intentionally rejected the very statements that would most clearly connect him to the early Church and its faith.

I am committed to basic orthodoxy, as expressed with particular precision in the Creeds, because it is unifying and because beliefs inform actions. I care about orthodoxy because it is necessary for orthopraxy.

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