Wesleyan Wisdom: Can United Methodists learn from Pope Francis?

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

Regardless of our age or station in life, we need from time to time to read something  of a different genre or posture from our own opinion and journey.  One also needs to hear the counsel of others who have a different perspective, a different view—micro or macro—of the  prevailing winds.  Nearly an octogenarian, I make sure to avoid the myopia of my own lens and to seek the  hindsight, insight, foresight of persons who see life differently from me.

My almost obsessive concern just now is how to develop vital congregations in such numbers as to change the direction of the “flotilla” of United Methodist churches, and in so doing avoid the “death tsunami” or fiscal insolvency of our beloved denomination.  To contribute to helping midwife a new direction, I must get out of my “rabbit hutch.”

Last week I spent three days in the Southwest Texas Conference.  While there I had conversations with laity, clergy, conference staff, and district superintendents about their perception of the “state of the church.” En route I had conversations in New Orleans, Houston and San Antonio.  Coming home, I had conversations in Dallas and met at length in another state with one of the “deans” of United Methodism who has been a longstanding “shaker and mover” at General Conference.   Arriving home to read eleven days of emails, I must add their pluralistic voices to the brew! Now I must cogitate on what I saw and heard.

One night in a motel room, the secular news of the world featured Pope Francis.  It is no mean feat for a Christian spokesperson to make prime time on the evening news of most networks!  Some reporters picked up on the Pope’s reiteration of the Catholic Church’s stand against abortion.  However, others said,  “Francis urged his pastors to focus on being merciful and welcoming rather than insisting only on such divisive, hot button issues as abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.”  A voice from the Vatican was quoted as saying,  “The pope is not condemning his predecessors…” What he is saying is, ‘We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the boundaries. We’ve spent a lot of time talk about what is sin and what’s not.  Now let’s move on.  Let’s talk about mercy.  Let’s talk about love.’”  Dublin Archbishop Diamuid Martin, predicts that the pope’s message will be hard to put into action because “there is a tendency to get ‘trapped’ into the right and  wrong, white and black of Catholic teaching. He’s saying, ‘Let’s move in another direction.’”   Is not this true of United Methodism on social justice issues?

Maybe Adam Hamilton’s book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,  will save us from our “my way or the highway” diatribes! That would be a miracle!  Those who fly the flag of liberalism consistently use the derogatory term, “fundys” when referring to their sisters and brothers who are conservative.  They tend to equate some of our theologically conservative movements with political groups  such as  “Tea Party.”  By the same token so many conservatives throw words like “leftists” into their caricatures and associate church movements with political leaders like our president, making derogatory comments about both.

One of the wisest men in our beloved church said to me  with a lot of sadness that he has given up on General Conference after a long career of being both delegate and observer. He hears a lot of strident speakers, and does not see many pensive  listeners.  The language of so much of the proposed language for Book of Discipline changes comes either from General Board staff or as hasty overnight “re-writes.” Far  too much time is spent on ceremony and organized protestations rather than on substantive debate of issues before the church. General Conference’s physical arrangement has nothing comparable to “the well” of Congress where all members present are focused on the speaker. Delegates seldom can see speakers from the floor.  Most floor debates are tangled in parliamentary minutia that Pope Francis calls “small minded rules.”    We often have done what Jesus warned against: “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” The bottom line is a widespread loss of faith in the ability of General Conference to re-vision the church “to serve this present age.”

To all of these, I must  say, “Let’s listen to the pope!” We cannot afford to dismiss profound words like “mercy,” “love” and “grace” as being trite or overly abstract.  There is a praxis element  in each.

As I prayerfully pored over my notes, I thought it time to re-read Mr. Wesley’s sermons.  In “The Unity of the Divine Being,” Wesley preached, “True religion is right tempers towards God and man.  It is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence: gratitude toward our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow creatures.” Let us never allow the words of Jesus become trite: “Love the Lord…and love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Albert Outler wisely interprets Wesley as prompting us to “transfer our concerns from argument about faith in Christ to faith itself and to its consequences.”  Outler calls Wesley’s a “distinctive  sort of doctrinal pluralism—one that stands an equal distance from dogmatisms on the one extreme and indifferentism on the other.”

We often quote II Kings 2:15 and call it the “catholic spirit,”  but seldom do our homework about the respective journeys of Jehu and Jonadab.  The Kingdom of Israel had been divided  in 722 B.C. and Jehu was anointed king by Elisha in about 842 B.C.—eighty years later.  Jehu was like U. S. General George “blood and guts” Patton.  Jehu was a man who loved war and the philosophy, “to the victor goes the spoils.”  On the other hand Jonadab belonged to a religious sect that  according to Wesley “drank no wine, built no houses, sowed no seed, planted no vineyards and dwelt in tents.”  How totally different were these two men!  Yet  it is from  them that the Bible elicits the conversation, “Is your heart as mine?” and the response, “It is.”  Then comes the line we long ago committed to memory:”If it be, then give me thine hand.”

So it is that Wesley does not define the “catholic spirit” as agreement on such religious differences as church polity, baptism(even to the extreme anti-sacramentalism of the Quakers), the Lord’s Supper, or mode of worship. He says categorically, “Let all these things stand by….”  The central issue is “Is Christ revealed in thy soul?”  He pushes on, “Is your faith filled with the energy of love?”  Then the horizontal dimension of the catholic spirit: “Is thy heart right with thy neighbor?”

Were he addressing our General Conference, Wesley would say, “Give me thine hand” does not mean ‘be of my opinion. I do not expect it nor desire it. Nor will I be of yours.  I cannot.  Keep you your opinion, I mine.  I do not desire to debate points, only “give me thine hand.”   He then delineates what he means:

  1. Love me as a companion in the Kingdom and patience of Jesus
  2. Commend me to God in thy prayers
  3. Quicken me in the work God has given me to do
  4. Love me not only in word but in deed in truth.

Fearing he will be accused(as he was!) of anti-nomianism(“love God and live as you please”), Wesley warns against “calling yourselves of a catholic spirit because of your muddy understanding.”   He virtually castigates  those whose “mind is in a mist  because you have no settled consistent principles, but favor jumbling all opinions together.”   “Go first and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ and then  shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”

He warns against those who have no loyalty to any congregation, but “rambles hither and thither,”  He warns against a narrow mindedness and says that a Christian of the catholic spirit will have “his heart enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not know—this is the catholic spirit.”

My mama had a saying, “Talk’s cheap, ole ‘Do’ is the man.”  The issue before United Methodism is not “can we?” but “will we?” as we seek unity in the midst of our diversity.

Let me challenge you.  If you would lead yours toward being a “vital congregation,”  lay aside the polemics and debates of what the pope calls our present “hot button issues.”  Let us flesh out the relationship of mercy, love, and grace with our opinions, our caucus loyalties, and our sheer prejudices.

I sat today in a surgical waiting room—the man whose son was having a kidney removed, his grandson and wife, and his grand-daughter who is gay.  T hey are my kith and kin.  All except me are Southern Baptists.  We prayed and held hands, we hugged and cried on each other’s shoulders, we hung on  the doctor’s words about the surgery and prognosis.  It  was no time to debate homosexuality; it was time for those of the same heart to join hands.  I loved what Rick Warren said in answer to Peers Morgan’s question last week about the son who had committed suicide.  Rick answered, “No he was not gay but if had been, he would still have been my son and I would still have loved him just as much.”

Charles Wesley gave us our theme song:

“To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill
O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.”

 William Merrill accented Wesley in the 20th century:

“Rise up, ye saints of God, have done with lesser things,
Give heart and mind and soul and strength to serve the King of kings!”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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