Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jesus Calls Us to This: An Argument in Favor of the Methodist-Episcopal Full Communion Proposal, "A Gift to the World"

In October an updated version of the United Methodist and Episcopal Church Full Communion proposal was published, entitled, A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness. You can read the proposal itself online here.

As I suspected, there has been much hand-wringing by several of my colleagues who are distressed by a move to full communion with the United Methodist Church and who believe that this proposal is  theologically flawed.

On Facebook, when I bemoaned that once again I seem to be in favor of something many of my friends seem to hate, one person asked me to share why I support this movement and, specifically, the proposal for full communion which now exists. I started writing a comment, but that quickly got too long. Instead, I want to offer this reflection.

Prolegomena—In Favor of Ecumenism
The first thing to say is that I am a strong advocate of ecumenism. I spent six years representing The Episcopal Church on the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. That work remains some of my favorite work I have yet done as a priest. I withdrew from that appointment when the National Council of Churches reorganized because it seemed the Faith & Order work that would be done going forward wasn't the best fit for me. At the same time, I still believe the NCC and other ecumenical bodies are doing important work.

I believe this for two reasons.

First, division in the body of Christ is a sin for which we must all repent. Even though the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was not always a full-throated supporter of the ecumenical movement, he insisted that division and schism were not the Christian way and that work needed to be done to heal that division. He was not a supporter of women's ordination when the question came to the Anglican Consultative Council, but after it became a part of The Episcopal Church he knew of an American priest who left the church and joined a dissident movement over they issue. Ramsey was massively opposed to this entrance into schism and told his friend just that.

While the church remains in a divided state, no one part of the church can claim a full and true catholicity.

Second, I have seen in my own ministry the fruits of ecumenical work. I have seen congregations from the Lutheran and Episcopal churches who have come together and been able to discover vibrant and faithful ministry. In my own parish, I have been tremendously enriched by our Priest Associate, a Lutheran pastor who has helped me grow in my first decade of priestly ministry. The coming together of our churches, the interchange of our ministries, through the Full Communion agreement we have with the ELCA has been a tremendous gift to us as a church.

I also believe that the way in which ecumenism takes place, we can never merely ask one church to adopt another practices or beliefs. Rather, the riches of the ecumenical movement has been the discovered convergence through difficult theological wrestling. The primacy of baptism in the 1979 BCP is a great example of the way in which ecumenical conversations surrounding baptism led to a refining of our own understanding and practice in the Episcopal Church.

To return to Ramsey, we have to remember that the church is not yet fully and perfectly that which God is calling it to be. As Ramsey wrote in The Charismatic Christ,  “So the sacramental order of the Church witnesses to its historical givenness and witnesses also to its growth to-ward a future plenitude when, partly within history and partly beyond history, the Church will become perfectly what it is already.”  This idea of combining the historical givenness of the church with its future growth toward plenitude was not Ramsey’s own creation. Here he notes his debt to the work of Yves Congar who had envisioned Christian unity not as a process of “returning to Mother Church,” but rather “as the converging of all Christians upon a goal which will be a Church different from any now visible yet in continuity with the Church as once founded.”

So, I believe in ecumenism and I believe good ecumenism will not only enable each tradition to bring the riches of its history to other communions, but it will also result in the growth, change, and movement towards greater faithfulness in those traditions.

Now, to the proposal itself, and my own reasons for supporting it.

We Share Core Doctrine
One of the fundamental questions with which anyone must approach questions of full communion relationships is whether or not you believe the differences between two churches are church-dividing issues. That is, is the difference of perspective so significant that it warrants us living in continued schism. Over the course of bilateral ecumenical conversations, those leading both of these conversations have come to the conclusion that our difference are indeed not church-dividing issues. That does not mean our difference are not important or that we don't need to have further conversation. Rather, it says that these differences do not rise to the level that we should live in division from each other.

This is undergirded by the theological statement Sharing in the Apostolic Communion, issued over twenty years ago as the result of international dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Anglican Communion. At that time, the document noted that we share the core doctrine of the Christian faith and do not need further doctrinal assurances from one another.

Some people have strangely claimed that the United Methodist Church doesn't affirm the Nicene Creed. This claim is based upon a movement to have it formally added to the Book of Discipline, a moment which died in committee for reasons no one can articulate. However, we should remember not only the point above (where we have already said we agree on core doctrine), but we should also remember that the United Methodist Book of Discipline gives its own requirements for full communion, one of which is "a mutual affirmation of one another’s membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church 'described in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the church’s historic creeds'" (¶431.1).

We Share in the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted
This has been one of the major sticking points of those outside the conversation. There are some Episcopalians who continue to insist that the historic episcopate must, by definition, include the manual transmission of apostolic authority through the laying on of hands through the centuries. I would commend to those who hold such an understanding (one that I believe to be anemic and theologically and historically deficient, by the way) John Burkhard's excellent book Apostolicity Then and Now.

Burkhard is a Roman Catholic theologian and his book did tremendous work in articulating a nuanced understanding of apostolicity that is based upon the best of Scripture, theology, and church history. He cites authorities no less impressive than Joseph Ratzinger to advocate for an understanding of apostolicity that is more than the strict historical apostolic succession. Apostolicity must be seen within the context of the apostolicity of the whole church, including origin, doctrine, and life—historic succession can be one aspect of that apostolicity and it is far from a guarantee of that apostolicity.

Furthermore, those who insist that the historic episcopate must include apostolic succession have no argument upon which to base their claim. The phrase itself is notably absent from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Indeed, its absent from the Book of Common Prayer itself! It was virtually unknown in Anglican circles before the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century—and even then, was never broadly shared or affirmed officially in any way. Our church has never made apostolic succession the basics of any of our ecumenical dialogues. And lest Anglicans get too high on their horses with this question, let's remember that it was a strict understanding of this question that led Rome to call our own orders invalid because of the loss of strict manual succession in the Edwardian times.

Furthermore, this document does not eliminate the role that historic succession plays as a part of the historic episcopate. All future episcopal consecrations will include at least one Episcopal bishop, along with a Morvaian and ELCA bishop. Thus, over time, the Methodist church will also now share once more in the historic succession—even as they already currently share in the historic episcopate, adapted for their own churches needs and ministry.

I would also note that Tom Ferguson has rather strongly argued that the insistence upon apostolic succession is not only problematic historically and theologically, it has tremendously unfortunate sexist and racist overtones that need to be acknowledged.

We Affirm the Ministry of Four Orders
Once again, there is a strange claim by some that Methodists to not affirm the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. I find it unsurprising that those who make this claim ignore that our prayer book is clear that there are four orders of ministry, and that the ministry of the baptized is the first order in the Outline of Faith.

Both TEC and the UMC have worked through a revival of the ministry of deacons. I find any criticism of the UMC revival to be a significant amount of pointing out specks of dust and ignoring the plank in your own eye. In our own church we are still struggling through this revival, evident in the massively different expectations, formation processes, and practices surrounding the diaconate. It was not until I was the Chair of the Commission on Ministry that I fully realized how very little the average Episcopalian—including the average priest!—truly understands about the history and theology of the diaconate.

The UMC has not held onto the practice of the transitional diaconate (that is, one is ordained a deacon before being ordained a priest). But, once more, we need to be clear that this was not the practice in the church for centuries. There are theological and practical reasons both for it and against it, but it cannot be seen as a church-dividing issue unless we plan to divide ourselves from the early church! (And, furthermore, the UMC official statement on this question states clearly that Christ is present in the elements.)

The UMC has chosen to use the word "elder," that is the translation of Presbyter/Priest, in its own articulation of the one who is ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. However, it is clear that the office itself is the same. Sure, most UMC elders probably don't have the same understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as I do—but I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who don't as well. Once more, since the Elizabethan settlement Anglicanism has allowed for room for disagreement on this question. We cannot reject their elders as inauthentic without also rejecting the orders of many of our own colleagues and entering into a quasi-Donatist world where the validity of sacraments becomes a question of each person's personal views.

The way in which the episcopate has been historically adapted (one of the specific allowances of the Quadilaterial) in Methodism is instructive. Here I will quote from the document itself,
Following the American Revolution, The Episcopal Church adapted the office of bishop to its new missional context: bishops were elected by representative bodies (Diocesan Conventions) and exercised oversight in conjunction with clergy and laypersons. After the American Revolution, Methodists also adapted the episcopal office to the missional needs of their ministerial circumstances and settings. Early Methodism adapted the office of bishop as an itinerant general superintendency, and the name of the largest Methodist body incorporated the word: Methodist Episcopal Church, reflecting this choice of episcopal governance. The United Methodist Church includes among its antecedent denominations the Methodist Protestant Church resulting from a merger in 1939. The Methodist Protestant Church incorporated the Methodist episcopacy at that time as it did not have the office of bishop in its structure. In 1968, The United Methodist Church was created through the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which also had bishops, at which time the churches’ episcopacies were brought together into a unified whole. 
In The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church, bishops are consecrated by other bishops and ordain presbyters/elders and deacons. They exercise oversight in a specific geographic area—the diocese or annual conference—and in conjunction with clergy and lay persons.
Sure, there is also an apology on the Episcopal side for the ways that some in our church have claimed that Methodists don't have valid orders. But that seems like a pretty good thing to apologize for, given the ecumenical consensuses that have been reached at this point in our life.

Some have very oddly claimed that there is a big problem because the UMC do not understand the ministry of bishop and presbyter to be distinct ministries.

Well shit. I suppose this person never read a lick of early church history, wherein the terms episkopos and presbyter are used interchangeably in Scripture and the monepiscopate (as we know it) gradually developed as the primary presbyter in the area, with the added authority to ordain other presbyters.

In our own church, bishops and priests are not entirely distinct ministries. After all, the prayer book is clear that the bishop functions as the primary presbyter at celebrations of Eucharist and Baptism. The ministry of a bishop is inextricably bound up with the ministry of the priest. They aren't distinct in our own church.

What Really Hangs People Up
You know what all this leaves us with? Grape juice or wine.


Methodists use grape juice and Episcopalians use wine. Each do this for important theological and historical reasons. However, let's also be clear, lots of Episcopalians actually use port—a fortified type of wine that wouldn't have existed in the first century. There are also Episcopal churches that do use grape juice—a nonalcoholic fruit of the vine that did not exist in the first century. An extreme condemnation of any of these modern variations of fruit of the vine is historically anachronistic and delves into the odd Roman insistence upon technical specificity (very out of step for our Anglican tradition), which goes so far as to articulate what percentage of wheat must be in bread for it to be called bread.

Do I prefer the use of wine? Absolutely. In fact, in our parish we use actual red wine—you know, that tastes like the sort of wine you might drink at dinner.

But to return to the refrain of this entire essay, is this a church dividing issue? God, I hope not.

Sure, this full communion proposal will have problems. We'll have things we will need to work out. Most significantly, the UMC is currently wrestling with the place of LGBTQ Christians in their body. I hope we'll all join in praying for our brothers and sisters in this struggle—knowing that we didn't do all of that wrestling perfectly or well in our own church.

But I sure hope this thing passes. Because Christ prayed passionately for his followers to be one. And as for me, I see it to be my call as a disciple of Christ to work toward that end, not against it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Questions for Huizenga and answers from Davidson

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

It has now been over one year since the citizens in Michigan’s Second Congressional District have had an opportunity to meet with their representative in a public forum.

There may be a significant reason why Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, is so hesitant to show up in a public forum in his own district.

After all, it was at a town hall in February of last year that the citizens of our district were introduced to the person who is now running as his opponent, Dr. Rob Davidson. For a good 15 minutes, Davidson and Huizenga debated on the question of health care.

After that experience, many who were in attendance encouraged Davidson to run against Huizenga for Congress. And that’s what Rob has been doing.

He has been out meeting people and knocking on doors. The sheer number of public events he has held has been unheard of in our district. On Aug. 27, Davidson challenged Huizenga to a series of seven debates, one in each county which makes up our district. It was all crickets from the Huizenga office, but Davidson plowed ahead — eager to engage with the citizens of our area. On Sept. 10, instead of the hoped-for debate with Huizenga, Davidson hosted a town hall meeting to a standing-room only crowd in Holland. He held a second town hall on Sept. 29 in Kentwood.

Rep. Huizenga has had ample time during congressional recesses to meet with his constituents. However, in the absence of a public forum, he appears to spend his time primarily cultivating his donor base. He has not given us, the citizens in the Second District, the opportunity to ask him questions in public about the choices he has made while supposedly representing us in Congress.

If I had the opportunity to ask Rep. Huizenga some questions, I would have a few that immediately come to mind. Why does he talk so much about how it is Congress who makes laws for immigration and then fail to actually do anything productive to solve our broken system and protect families? Why did it take him weeks to speak out against the policy of forced family separation? Why did he support the president’s original ban on refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries? Why is it that he has accepted over $1 million in corporate dollars, including a significant amount from banks that are not even in our district? How is he ensuring we don’t lose the regulations put in place after the Great Recession to protect our country from risky decisions in the financial sector? Why hasn’t Huizenga worked for common-sense bipartisan gun reform, advocating for policies that enjoy broad support across the political spectrum, including universal background checks and red flag laws that keep firearms away from domestic abusers?

And the question I have that hits particularly to home is what exactly is he doing to fix our struggling health care system? Sure, he sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but when the American Health Care Act replacement failed, it seems he has not done much else. While Congress has been in a state of inaction, health care premiums continue to rise. West Michigan Christians who serve on church boards have seen first-hand how the continued increase in health care premiums for clergy and lay employees has continued to make it harder to devote a congregation’s financial resources to the important ministry to which we are called. As a committed Christian himself, I’m curious how Huizenga is working to alleviate this burden which every congregation, church board and pastor feels.

It has been reported that Rep. Huizenga has finally accepted Dr. Davidson’s invitation to debate. Our own Grand Haven Tribune secured this agreement, with a debate planned for Oct. 30 — one week before the General Election. Another debate is planned earlier, on Oct. 15 in Newaygo County. I suppose there is nothing like waiting to the last minute.

No matter what political views you hold, if you are able to attend one of these debates, I would encourage you to do so. If not, try to find a way to engage them online. Listen to what each candidate says. Ask yourself who will better represent all the residents of our district.

And Rep. Huizenga, if you’re reading this, maybe try holding at least one public town hall before the election so that your constituents can ask you the questions that will be on their hearts and minds when they go to the polls Nov. 6.