What to Make of Recent UM School Hires?

Two United Methodist-related schools have gotten some attention lately because they have hired non-Christian chaplains.  Emory University’s new Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Gregory McGonigle, is a Unitarian.  Shenandoah University in Virginia has added Hanaa Unus as Chaplain and Muslim Community Coordinator to their staff, which is headed by the Dean of Spiritual Life, the Rev. Dr. Justin Allen. The university’s announcement notes that she is the first non-Christian clergy person hired in Shenandoah’s almost 150 year history.  These actions at two UM-related schools  have caused some consternation in UM circles.  Since I serve in a similar position at another UM-related school (Southern Methodist University), maybe a few thoughts from my end will serve a useful purpose.

Every UM-related college or university with which I am familiar, to one degree or another has a religiously diverse student body.  Research universities or substantial liberal arts schools certainly do.  Long gone are the days when Christian colleges had only Christian students.  They come from all over the world and from many different backgrounds to study with us.  Right now there are more than a half million international students attending US schools, the vast majority, not surprisingly, from China and India.  Exceedingly few are Christians.

Not all religiously diverse students are international, not by a long shot.  Although the USA is demographically still predominantly Christian (a fact that UM-related schools should not forget), the religious landscape is shifting.  This means that religiously diverse, native-born American students are also coming to our UM-related schools.  For example, my office provides institutional support for the Muslim Student Association.  A good number of their members are of Pakistani descent born and raised in Texas.  Think about that.  I am not from Texas.  Who belongs here?

How does a school affiliated with a Christian denomination respond to these demographic facts? To answer that question requires thinking theologically, which, unfortunately, does not happen as much as it should.  The key question is: from which theological viewpoint do we do this thinking?  Note: I used the singular, “viewpoint.”  Some people prefer the plural, “viewpoints,” but it is impossible for a school to operate in its institutional mission from a plurality of commitments.  A singular viewpoint inevitably dominates.  More to say on this point later.

Thinking theologically about these demographic facts, we can start with simple Christian hospitality.  More than hospitality is needed, of course, but we can start there.  If you have ever lived abroad, you were fortunate if you had local folk who welcomed you and helped you navigate the cultural particularities of their country.  At a very basic level, then, hospitality is key.  This is especially so for Christians.  College leaders, knowing that bright, young students come to our campuses trusting us to provide good support and resources, are responsible to think about what these students need to thrive while with us.  Most are away from home for the first time.  It’s a crucial developmental season.

To think “Christianly” about the kinds of students coming to our church-related college campuses is a crucial theological task.  When Christian faith-related schools provide appropriate support and resources for non-Christian students, they are providing basic hospitality in making sure that students can practice their faith.  Schools in the Christian tradition should do so enthusiastically as an expression of the love of Christ for all people.

But the responsibility does not stop at hospitality.  More importantly, schools are places of learning.  This point, too, should be rooted in sound Christian theology at a church-related institution, if we want to make sure we know what we are doing.  For students (and faculty and staff) of various religious perspectives to live and work together and engage their faiths honestly with one another is a powerful learning opportunity.  Christian students talking with non-Christian students will have their faith challenged, yes.  Time and again, I have had Christian students tell me that those challenges, which unsteadied them temporarily, ultimately strengthened their faith and sparked spiritual growth.

Thus, Christians can reasonably conclude that a church-related school that hires non-Christian chaplains is working to offer welcome and hospitality.  They thereby serve their school’s educational mission in a profoundly important way.  Providing this support does not automatically signal that a school is moving away from its founding faith or endorsing another faith.

Or does it?  This leads to a second concern.  When does theological commitment to religious pluralism overtake the demographic facts of religious diversity?  It takes some careful thinking to discern the difference.  This point is especially important, but does not get adequate attention.

The higher education environment has been undergoing changes regarding the role of faith on campus.  Secularism no longer dominates.  Although there is still plenty of influential secularist thinking around, the attitude toward religion has gotten – shall we say – friendlier, in certain respects.  Many educators recognize the positive role that religious faith plays and the need to treat faith respectfully.  Many have realized that the secularist belief that religion would eventually disappear as people gained knowledge simply is not happening.  A number of related books and articles have appeared, of late, such as Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen’s No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education.

The preferred alternative to secularism on college campuses, though, is pluralism and right here the picture gets dodgy.  That word – pluralism – gets used in two divergent ways, sometimes without proper awareness.  It often refers to the demographic fact, as I have mentioned.  But the other way, subtly tied to the first, is ideological in nature.  It is to think of religions as nothing but limited expressions of the human quest for transcendence and meaning.  In this way, whereas we can purportedly respect all religions equally (the fairest attitude to take) we can also regard religious expression – and here I include “spirituality” –  in all its variety as having the same human starting point, with humans ultimately “making” the meaning they find in their respective faith tradition.  Thus, religion is finally a human construction with, again, lots of variety and competing but ultimately untestable claims.  So, faith.  Not knowledge.

Religion understood this way certainly has an important but limited role to play on campus, mainly in terms of developing students’ personal values.  The specific dogmatic beliefs of each such community has nothing to do with a school’s educational mission.

We need to recognize that this viewpoint is based in a kind of background way on theological beliefs: that “God” (however understood) is ultimately unknowable and that all theological claims – including Christian ones – are therefore limited human constructions.  They might, as such, provide brilliant insight into reality, but in the same way that any great myth illuminates our experience of reality.  Among the great world religions, so this view goes, it would be arrogant presumption to privilege one faith over another in the public domain.

This is the largely unrecognized but nonetheless theological assumption dominant in higher education and influential in church-related higher education.  In practical terms the theology of religious pluralism marginalizes the specific doctrines of particular religions.  In a school affiliated with the Christian faith, this dogmatic assumption can functionally, if not conceptually, replace the school’s theological moorings with alien beliefs.

Earlier I said that some singular vision will take pre-eminence in a school’s ethos.  If a United Methodist-affiliated school hires non-Christian chaplains to provide hospitality and support to its non-Christian students, they are doing the right thing.  If they recognize the educational benefit to Christian students and indeed, to all students, of rubbing shoulders with people who think and act differently, while warmly embracing the truth values in the religious particularity of their church affiliation, they keep faith with that tradition.  I am convinced that this admittedly fine balance between openness in the educational mission coupled with firm theological integrity of a school’s religious affiliation is the best kind of education.

If, however, the UM-related school has adopted the dogmatic assumption of religious pluralism as its reason for hiring non-Christian chaplains, then those chaplains represent the new faith that the school is promoting and its affiliation with the church has no real meaning.  Every school should know what it’s doing.  And the church should, too.


The Next Methodism Needs Bishops

With the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s proposal to disaffiliate from one part of The United Methodist Church and join with another part in a different geographical area, we have more evidence that the denomination as we know it is kaput.  It is but one of several such indications.  Many in our denomination are talking about what’s next.  I have run across the opinion several times, recently, that future Methodism must rid itself of bishops.  I disagree.  Here are some initial thoughts.  I welcome your feedback.

I’ll frame my task by reference to the classic marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  I know that a variety of emphases may be given to these terms, so I’ll clarify how I understand them and then move to a few particulars.

  1. “One” entails a unity of belief and practice summarized in the classic creeds.  It requires visible, concrete communities of shared doctrine and practice, who recognize other communities as fellow travelers, joint heirs.  It does not require institutional unity.
  2. “Holy” refers to both the mission undertaken to proclaim Christ as Lord and King and to embody, by his grace, his character.  External focus plus internal integration in light of Christ’s holiness.  “Holiness of heart and life” to use a Wesleyan phrase, goes with “set apart for mission” to serve the oikonomian of God under Christ’s rule and authority (a la Ephesians 1).
  3.  “Catholic” refers to the whole church.  A Wesleyan/Methodist expression must consciously pursue catholicity, recognizing and joining with other Christian communions in common witness, even if we are not part of the same ecclesial organization.  The church catholic stretches around the world and through time and across many denominational expressions.
  4. “Apostolic” means rooted in and bearing witness to the message of the Apostles and, by extension, the whole Gospel as found in Holy Scripture.

This summary is inadequate, but I move on.  The point is that, assuming these marks as a framework, as well as scriptural grounding in the function of ecclesial oversight, bishops are critical to a new Methodist instantiation. Why?

To answer, let me point you to the first chapter of Kevin Madigan’s (Harvard Divinity School) book, Medieval Christianity: A New History.  It gives a very helpful summary of the earliest centuries before getting to the book’s main interest, which deals with the church after 600 and up through the 1400s.  One section of the opening chapter is called “Normative Christianity: Creed, Council, Clergy.”

“Normative Christianity” sounds troubling to some.  I commend the chapter to you.  It gives a sense of why “normative” is inevitable and, speaking practically, necessary.  In this context, bishops played a pivotal role.  The church was dealing with a major challenge from – using an umbrella term for several movements – Gnosticism.  One of the major Gnostic beliefs was that Jesus had revealed secret knowledge to his apostles that only the select, initiated few could have and that this knowledge was the source of salvation.  Here’s what Madigan says, “Arguing against the Gnostic idea that revelation was secret knowledge passed down by charismatic teachers, the proto-orthodox argued that, to the contrary, it had been transmitted by the apostles to their successors, duly-appointed bishops” (p. 14).

I’m convinced, therefore, that, for two major categorical reasons, the next Methodism needs bishops.  One is practical and one is, for lack of a better term, “spiritual.”

Practical – As the Madigan quote shows, there has to be someone ultimately responsible for guarding the faith.  Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died a martyr in 107 CE) argued that the ministry of oversight needs finally to reside in one person, a mono-episcopate.  This view goes against our democratic sensibilities, but let’s face it.  In every group of leaders, one with noticeable authority and wisdom emerges as the go-to person in a dispute.  If you don’t have a recognized leader of this sort, then disagreements become interminable and corrosive to the body.  We need a “buck stops here” leader.  The bishop fills the bill…

…as long as this other quality is firmly in place.

“Spiritual” – I put quotation marks around “spiritual” to gesture away from conventional notions and point to something much deeper.  For help I turn to Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity.  She discerns three types of authority embodied, not just in the office, but in the person of bishop and in persons who became bishops.  They were exemplary Christians.  Many of them were monks and had practiced the highly disciplined life of the monk.  Though like any human being they had quirks and infirmities (and some apostatized under extreme imperial pressures), they were holy, godly people, and the wider public knew them as such.  They literally embodied the Gospel and holy living.  They had the wisdom of experience in dealing with challenges, including demonic attack.  They had the character, the gifts, and the wisdom, to lead.

These bishops could stand up to worldly powers.  They commanded the respect of the people.  They led with their lives.

We need godly leaders, both clergy and lay.  We also need “buck stops here” leaders who have the spiritual chops to lead.  They know God.  They are filled with the Spirit and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit as well as the requisite spiritual gifts.  They know and can effectively convey the faith once delivered to the saints.  They firmly uphold ecclesial life according to the marks of the church.  Along with other leaders, they guard and defend the faith and keep the church aimed at apostolic mission.  As leaders, they serve.

For practical and spiritual reasons, we need bishops.  May God meet this need in the new Methodism that, by God’s grace, will emerge.


A Church’s Lost Integrity

I recently tweeted that American United Methodism no longer has integrity.  This observation came from reading a number of public statements by various United Methodist leaders and groups after General Conference 2019.  (If you are trying to keep track of who is saying what, for my money the best and most up-to-date source is “UM Fallout: A Compendium,” at Chris Ritter’s blog, People Need Jesus.)  A person asked me to flesh out my comment about lost integrity.

First, a definition: Look at a dictionary and you’ll see that “integrity” has two or maybe three meanings.  One says something about moral uprightness and honesty, treating the word in relation to individual character.  The other refers to organization or structure. “Integrity” in this sense refers to the quality or state of being sound or whole or undivided.  It is this latter sense that I intended.

A building has integrity or does not.  If the foundation is solid, if the frame is adequately squared and plumbed and the joints are solid, if the roof doesn’t leak, then one would judge that the house has integrity.  A ship deemed seaworthy has integrity.  A healthy body has integrity.  In these cases, having integrity means functioning properly according to intended purpose.

By this definition, The United Methodist Church does not have integrity.  Numerous bishops, annual conferences, agency executives, pastors, and lay people have publicly stated that they will effectively ignore the recent decisions of General Conference.  By these reactions they indicate that the body that speaks for United Methodism no longer speaks for United Methodism.  We are therefore split, not whole.  The framework is not sound.  No integrity.

Here’s a paradox: in order to keep their integrity as ministers, the signers of declarations, resolutions and open letters believe they must defy the church’s decision. And for just this reason, they demonstrate the fact that The United Methodist Church no longer has integrity.

Other even more grievous ramifications have surfaced.  Opponents no longer trust each other (save, perhaps, members of the Commission on a Way Forward who have said repeatedly how opponents became friends even though they remained opponents; I wonder what they’re thinking now).  All talk of goodwill and respectful disagreement has vanished.  Things have gotten personal.  Friendships have been deeply damaged.  And I’m not only talking about relationships among voting delegates.  Plenty of us have opinions and identify with one of the opposing groups.  It is by no means necessary for one to have been a voting delegate to feel the sting of damning judgments.

If you don’t agree with my assessment, try putting the shoe on the other foot.  Let’s say that you supported the One Church Plan and that it passed by a slimmer majority than the Traditional Plan, by a 51% majority.  Would you conclude that the church had spoken?  Take the exact same reactions we’re witnessing now from centrist and progressive United Methodists and put them on the lips and emails and tweets of traditionalists.  How would you feel about the accusation that some small bloc of politically powerful delegates managed to steal the vote by nefarious means?  How would you be feeling right now if you were reading some of the same things being said about your side?  How does the organization recover?

The moral outrage embedded in the language of public statements announcing refusal to comply is often laced with thinly-veiled contempt for people who think about marriage in traditional ways.  By the criteria used by centrists and progressives to characterize statements by traditionalists as hateful, their own statements qualify.  Which makes me wonder: how is it that people who voice such feelings for traditional-minded folk expect traditionalists to be willing to stay in the same church?  Again, reverse the roles.  How would it feel to be on the receiving end of such disdain?

Imagine General Conference 2020.  Unless by some stroke of divine providence that makes the way forward crystal clear, the vote is likely to be close enough that the “losing” side will be able to claim foul, dismiss the whole proceeding as illegitimate, and move to act independently of the decision.  We now have the force of precedent.

Whatever you think of the outcome of GC 2019, public reactions following it show that, from an organizational point of view, The United Methodist Church has lost integrity.  Denouncing the GC  decision and refusing to follow it are tantamount to pulling the house down on top of us.  Again, short of direct divine action, coupled with confession, repentance, and forgiveness, it may be time to recognize that the property has been condemned and move on.

Concerns and Hopes for the College Student Experience

I had the most enjoyable privilege of participating in a panel discussion on the gospel and the university campus, sponsored by The Living Church Institute.  It gave me the opportunity to interact with a group of practitioners who had very provocative viewpoints and good questions to ask.  As a follow-up to the panel, The Living Church (the magazine of The Episcopal Church) published this brief essay and response.

I sometimes say that the field of higher education is like the wild, wild, West.  There are more than 18 million college students in this country, with thousands of schools of several different types to serve them.  It has become an exceedingly competitive market.  Schools face the demand to offer increasingly targeted services while at the same time keeping costs manageable.  They struggle with how to market themselves to prospective students who, with their parents, are savvy consumers.

The big question is, what is happening to students’ faith within this pressure-cooker system?  This brief essay, with a response, speaks to the situation.  If you are interested in any of these topics, I would love to chat.

Here is the link to the essay: https://livingchurch.org/2019/01/10/the-gospel-and-the-university-campus/


Judicial Council Proves We’re Already in Schism

The United Methodist Judicial Council (JC) has issued their ruling on the proposed plans going to General Conference 2019.  They have done us a big favor.  They help us to realize the fundamental rift running through the denomination.

First, a couple of admissions: (1) For the sake of full transparency, I am a traditionalist in theology and morality.  (2) It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, I am no policy wonk.  I therefore gladly take the work of Judicial Council at face value and will not second-guess their conclusions.  We owe them a debt of thanks.

To set the context for what I think needs saying, here is a quick summary of the JC decisions.  They refused to rule on the Connectional Conference Plan to avoid pre-empting legitimate legislative processes associated with that plan’s constitutional amendments.  They did rule on the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.  Both need some modification, but, if you’re of a mind to keep score, I’d say that the Traditional Plan fared worse, though by no means fatally.  The “enhanced accountability” parts of the Traditional Plan received particular criticism for very important reasons.  Those parts, the Council ruled, unconstitutionally single out specific practices rather than making sure that all provisions of the Book of Discipline are applied equally to all members.  We should take comfort in the stipulation that all of us be treated fairly and with due process in the face of church law, but it also raises the specter of how to carry out effective measures of accountability.

The One Church Plan also contains provisions deemed unconstitutional, but fewer than the Traditional Plan.  (Keep in mind, the One Church Plan got the lion’s share of attention in preparation, the reasons for which are themselves troubling.)  One aspect – significantly deemed constitutional – bears notice.  One petition in the plan (#10) stipulates that, to protect religious liberty, a traditionalist bishop who refuses, for conscience’s sake, to ordain openly l/g/b/t/q/i/a ordinands, would have the prerogative to ask another bishop within the College to do so, with two important conditions.  First, this action must be taken, according to the JC ruling, “with the implicit understanding that a bishop from outside the episcopal area will come and preside only if [italics in the original] the residential bishop (1) indicates his or her intention to exercise that right and (2) consents to such an arrangement.” (Emphasis added)  In short, to fulfill these two conditions, a traditionalist bishop must at least tacitly agree that sexuality is a matter of adiaphora, that is, not essential to the faith of the church.  But this is the very contested point between traditionalists and others.

From a traditionalist point of view, questions of sexuality bear directly upon the faith, because they involve basic understandings of human nature and condition (in technical language, anthropology and hamartiology) and the contours of the Christian life, or the life of salvation (soteriology).  That is to say, we ask what aspects of human experience are part of God’s good creation and what are properly deemed sinful?  What activities reflect faithful Christian life and what is not acceptable?  These questions demand answers and traditionalists answer them differently than others.  It may be appropriate to rank these doctrinal questions lower than, say, the Trinity or the atoning work of Christ (tragically and not unrelatedly, Methodists fight about these topics, too), but they are far from inconsequential.  Traditionalists thus do not think that the local church option is a morally benign answer to important questions.

It thus looks to me that, for a traditionalist bishop to accept the aforementioned stipulations, the traditionalist bishop would have to stop being traditionalist.

I am deeply troubled by how the One Church Plan is being sold.  We are told that, if this plan passes, local congregations really will have to do nothing.  UM clergy will have their consciences protected.  How?  To stay with integrity in such a United Methodist Church, traditionalists will have to stop being traditionalist.  (Yes, I do recognize that this problem is of exactly the same nature as progressive UM clergy have had for years.  Effectively, they have had to support a position they find morally reprehensible.)

The Judicial Council response reveals furthermore the irreparable damage of deploying “not of one mind” language that has gotten us to this point. Let’s imagine that General Conference 2019 narrowly passes the One Church Plan.  Let’s say the vote is 51% for and 49% against, an entirely reasonable prospect.  Has General Conference spoken?  Yes, it has.  But wait!  Are we now of one mind?  Now, is it appropriate to exercise accountability?  “Not of one mind” is a Pandora’s Box of difficulties and says much more about us than we apparently realize.

The Judicial Council’s work compellingly shows that our denomination is in schism and has been for some years and if we really want to heal this schism, then (dare I say it?) we have to back up and try our best to answer basic questions.  What is it, actually, that unites United Methodists?  The work of 1968 and 1972 and 1988 is not finished, which leaves us open and gives credibility to some bizarre views on what constitutes “church.”  Consider this one, argued this month before the Judicial Council: “For us, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrines or lines of authority.  It’s defined by connections between people…We hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.” (Emphasis added)

With all due respect to the person who made this claim, it represents much that is wrong with United Methodism. Certainly connections with people are crucially important, but if doctrines and formal structures don’t count, then the connections don’t matter.  If doctrines do not define church, then we don’t know our identity or mission. If we don’t know our identity and mission, we will never be able to agree on what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior and we will never be able to exercise meaningful accountability.  Which leaves us always open to fatal mission drift and loss of identity.  We spin our wheels with all kinds of activity, but at the end of the day cannot really say for sure if any of it matters to anyone, especially to God.

Thank you, Judicial Council, for pressing us to recognize these problems.  Now, may General Conference do its work.  God help us.






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