Tuesday, May 01, 2007

You know it's a General Conference election year when...

Recently, an letter was mailed to many lay people in Western PA Conference, talking about some Conference issues and some specific problems the writer(s) of the letter have with several of our Conference leaders, primarily the fact that these leaders have seemed to support the ordination of openly homosexual persons (I will not mention any of them by name). What made this letter so troublesome is that it was sent anonymously.

Our Bishop responded with a letter sent to lay people and clergy in which he announced his disapproval of the letter and his concerns with its anonymity, as well as offering a defense of the Conference leaders who were mentioned in the letter (I note that the Bishop's response has not yet been posted on the Conference website).

Why is this all so troublesome?

* To send a letter of this type anonymously is an act of cowardice. I wish the writer(s) of the letter would have approached the Bishop and the Conference leaders in question personally with these concerns. If the letter was sent by a pastor (or pastors), afraid that voicing their concerns would get them crushed by the ecclesiastical machine, then I would suggest that if they believe in these issues strongly, and believe them to be theologically important for our Conference, then attach your name to it. If you upset the Bishop and get sent to the Gobi Desert, then so be it; if it's important, then it's worth that risk (I don't mean to suggest that our Bishop would make punitive appointments of that type, but the fear may exist).

* The anonymity of the letter forced our Bishop to respond and affirm the leaders mentioned in the letter. The initial anonymous letter thus backfired in that there is now a very powerful, influential voice strongly supporting the leaders.

* I don't believe this letter qualifies as "hate mail", and I really hope that our Bishop doesn't dismiss it as such. Though anonymous, the letter represents real concerns of many lay people and clergy in our Conference. Also, while the positions and actions of the Conference leaders were questioned, I don't believe their personal integrity was attacked. To dismiss this letter as "hate mail" would be a mistake.

* In our Conference, several people have worn armbands during the ordination service, presumably to demonstrate solidarity with those who are unable to be ordained because of their sexual behavior. I don't know all of the people who have worn these armbands; many whom I do know are excellent pastors, faithful Christians, and all around good eggs. I personally think that the ordination service - an extremely sacred, almost sacramental moment - is not the time or place for that kind of political demonstration, and wish they wouldn't wear them. That said, there's nothing in the Bible or our Book of Discipline which prevents them from doing so.

But one of those mentioned in the anonymous letter is now a member of our Bishop's Cabinet. As such, he now represents, in a way other pastors do not, our Bishop, the Discipline, our connectional covenant, and the Church. I pose a question: Is it appropriate for a District Superintendent to wear an armband in protest of Church policy and teaching, at a moment when he or she is representing our Bishop, the Discipline, our connectional covenant, and the Church? Or is the possibility of that sort of protest surrendered during one's tenure on the Cabinet?


The anonymous letter demonstrates that there are many issues festering in our Conference.

Folks are unclear and unsure about our "Believe Again" strategic plan, which hasn't shown (at least publicly) a great deal of progress since last year...

...they are anxious about appointments which, to some, don't seem to make sense...

...they are apprehensive (as always) about budgetary concerns and apportionments...

...they are spooked about the sex issues which pervade Church and culture, and our Bishop's recent attempts to quell anxieties among those on every side of the issue...

...they continue to be concerned about the decline of our churches in western Pennsylvania, which, surprisingly, has increased in rapidity in the last two years.

On top of that, everything in Grove City this June will be politicized, given that we'll be electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

It's never too early to start praying!

28 comments:

Matt said...

Very true, Keith, very true.

Did a different letter go out to clergy? I received the letter that was sent to the laity and was curious if a letter went out to the clergy as well.

I haven't read the Bishop's response, although I am eager to do so.

I was nominated by the Connellsville District as a delegate to GC. I struggled to write my 150 word statement, because I felt that there are so many other issues that the church needs to be focusing on rather than homosexuality. I wrote about mission, about membership, about the judicial council, and finally about homosexuality. Although you'll see it later I said this

"I support the wording of the Discipline. I believe that the church must continue to struggle to understand how to embody God's grace to all people."

It was the best statement that I could make about an issue that I have beliefs about, but an issue that I didn't really want to write about. Tough stuff.

I've been called to pray more and more for this Conference year and for the General Conference. This could be a very painful and politicized process in both places. I'm just praying that God's Kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness may be known in Grove City and that Christ's prayer for us may be a reality.

Keith McIlwain said...

I think your wording is fine, and really hope you get elected; your chances are great. Last time as laity, I guess!

Keith McIlwain said...

And, yes, the Bishop sent us a "response" letter. He may have sent it to laity as well...be watching your mailbox.

Greg Cox said...

I don't think that the DS in question ever wore an armband. Then again, standing in the Pittsburgh District lines, there were many who did. It will happen again, I'm sure, but I will get a different view standing in a different line this year with the Butler district.

Greg Cox said...

My only other thought is this - the devil has a great way of distracting the church from the real issues of decline. Whether people want to believe it or not - Homosexuality is not going to make or break the church. General Conference and those who go better start addressing the real issues of discipleship, disciple making, ministry, ordination, and reversing the decline. As the world continues to grow, we in the US continue to decline. The churches outside the US that grow are ministering to, seeking, and saving the lost! For whatever reason, we are not. Maybe someone should send out a letter that says that!

Roda Zone said...

Keith...very well thought out...very cogent...coherent...articulate and strong. We are in decline because We have trouble keeping the main thing...the main thing. Politics, posturing, and serving agendas is hurting our great church. We are more about making statements than we are about disciple making. As someone who is not serving, I see things more from the lay perspective.

They are looking for leadership with integrity. They are looking for the to be a place of unity. They are waiting to see the church get back to basics. The problem is that no matter who is bishop or who makes up the cabinet, they all seem to fall into the trap of letting politics and institutional stuff override everything else.

Until we break free from this institutional sin, we will be caught up in this spirit.

Keith McIlwain said...

Greg - if "the DS in question" never wore an armband, then I feel badly that he's been misrepresented, and I'm sorry if I have done so (certainly, the anonymous letter made the claim). I also agree with you completely that sex has been a distraction for too long...which isn't to say it isn't important, but to say that there are other issues of equal or greater import. We need to deal with how best to make disciples...bottom line.

Randy - yes, the institutional sin is big. Good people can easily be corrupted by "the machine". I've often said that I love every DS I've met and worked with...it's the Cabinet I sometimes wonder about. Politics can get too important, and, as Greg mentioned, we become distracted by what's important. I fear that the anonymous letter and the Bishop's response both serve in that capacity.

doodlebugmom said...

My comment is about the letter. I am a lay person, but know for a fact every anonymous letter,note, suggestion that arrives at our church is tossed into the trash.

My minister (who was my Stephen Minister leader at one point) told us, if someone does not have the courage to sign their name, the comment cannot be taken seriously. And it's not just because of the content of such letters (has anyone ever gotten an anonymous compliment??) but its all the speculation that goes with it.

Brett Probert said...

I never got the first letter...should I feel slighted?

Keith McIlwain said...

I understand that it was sent to lay members of Conference. Robyn was a lay member last year, so we got one. You aren't missing much; it's not a great letter. But the fact that someone went to so much effort to get it out and that so many people have received it means that the Bishop shouldn't just dismiss it.

Eric said...

Hi Keith.

Here are my thoughts.

First, I agree whole-heartedly that anonymous letters are a sinful distortion of the kind of communication that God intends for the church. Your use of the word "cowardice" in describing anonymity of the letter is absolutely appropriate. I would also use the word "dehumanizing," since anonymous letters normally eliminate the authentic interaction of human souls in favor of a vitriolic venting that is not even relational enough to include a signature.

Second, I agree that services of worship (like ordination) are not places for political statements. Like you, I would have preferred that the armbands not be worn. However, in fairness to the people in question, I am sure that they perceive the issue at hand to be an issue of justice versus injustice. If I were of their opinion concerning homosexuality, I suppose that it would be difficult for me simply to bite my lip and participate in an ordination process that I believed to be unjustly limited. I am simply trying to put myself in their shoes for a moment.

Third, concerning your question about the appropriateness of a district superintendent's protest against church teaching, I think that it would be very difficult and unwise for us to establish an administrative restriction on statements of protest based simply upon the office or position of the one protesting. You are correct in saying that the Cabinet represents the Bishop in a way that other clergy do not. But I do not believe that a superintendent represents our denominational covenant any more or less than I do. Therefore, I believe that there is no need to place superintendents under any kind of a theological gag order. I may not always align myself with their position, but I oppose any legalistic attempts to rob them of an opportunity to speak their conscience.

I suppose that, in the long run, so many of the "festering" issues in our conference have to do with what we are willing to subordinate to the Lordship of Jesus. For example, are we willing to subordinate our fear? Our finances? Our way of "doing" church? Our sexuality? Our agendas? Our personal visions for the "right" pastoral appointments?

As Willimon once put it, "the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep trying to crawl off the altar!" The festering issues in our conference are probably indicative of some of that "crawling."

With you, I pray. I believe...again. And I endeavor by grace to live the kind of life that bears witness to the One who occupies the throne of my heart.

Therein lies my method of preparation for this year's Annual Conference.

Keith McIlwain said...

Eric, I definitely don't think we should seek any "administrative restriction" on the Cabinet regarding political protest at a worship service. My question wasn't "should we make it illegal", but "is it appropriate". Any DS who engages in this kind of activity shouldn't be brought up on charges, or anything...but it may cost them my vote as a delegate to General Conference...I don't like politicizing worship and ordination (and don't even like national flags in sanctuaries, for that matter). That's fair, isn't it? While I appreciate the passion for justice, there are other values which are important as well. Other than that caveat, I agree with your response entirely.

Chris Whitehead said...

What would happen if the collective energy that is expended on all of this was put into developing relationships with people?

The person who wrote the letter is a spinless jellyfish. (Yes, that was very judgmental, and I repent.)If someone is going to make a stand, make the stand. But come on, how much was put into that letter that could have been used to make Jesus known?

The whole line about this being a huge distraction is right on the money. We are distracted. We are dying. We forgot, Jesus is Lord.

Eric said...

Yes, indeed, bud. That's fair.

What makes it complicated, of course, is that, what we might consider "political," some of our other brothers and sisters would merely consider to be "prophetic." One person's political interruption, in other words, is another person's prophetic stance.

That, I suppose, is the heart of the tension.

I find myself in the strange position of being in support of our denomination's current stance while at the same time feeling heartbroken for those who find that stance oppressive. I'm simply attempting to be sensitive to both "camps"--as are you, I'm sure.

Interestingly, my dear friend William Meekins, who did indeed wear an armband at ordination, is as passionate as we are about the danger of national flags in worship. I don't think that he would mind my sharing that.

At any rate, thanks for the conversation.

Eric said...

Just to clarify...

My comment was in response to Keith.

Although, to be fair, Rev. Whitehead is also a very fine lad...and a sharp dresser!

Sorry for not clarifying this in the comment.

Chris Whitehead said...

Now, if we are going to expend energy on talking about being snappy dressers, then I am all in. But the truth of the matter is that Eric is by far the best dressed man I know.

Have you seen Keith's latest picture on his blog? Need I say more?

Keith McIlwain said...

Aww, that's COLD!

Keith McIlwain said...

Let me clarify something: a person doesn't necessarily lose my vote because he/she wears an armband in the ordination service, but a DS might lose my vote for doing that. They have, in my view, a very specific role...it's hard to protest against the establishment when you ARE the establishment.

Chris Whitehead said...

Keith,

It's just a joke. I love you, man.

Brett Probert said...

Just to clarify, I'm confused. My comment is directed at anyone who notices.

Greg Cox said...

Personally, I'm not voting for any DS's more because everyone else will be. The position does not make one fit for attending GC. That may not be true accross the board, but my votes are going to a new generation of individuals who are concerned for the future of the church and for saving souls for Jesus Christ. How's that for political?

Keith McIlwain said...

Greg, I completely understand. I may end up voting for a DS or two, but I agree that we often end up having too many, and they aren't necessarily any better candidates than others.

I will, for instance, vote for Sharon, because I think she does an GREAT job of advocating for our rural congregations and local pastors, and she takes disciple making (and new ideas to help that) seriously.

Prettybird said...

"Men go crazy in congregations. They only get better one by one."
--Sting

Prettybird said...

You guys all need to start knitting. We knitters never have these controversies! We are a loving and peaceful lot and you should join our ranks without delay. Save yourselves!!

Brett Probert said...

Robyn,

Thanks for getting us on the right track. You know what tires me? All this talk about ministry, and no ministry. Can you imagine if we took our conversational energy and turned it into conversional energy? WOW!

Eric said...

A clergy knitting circle, eh?

What an image! A bunch of clergy attempting to engage in something that requires artistic elegance! It would be like Max Starks studying ballet! Talk about the knit hitting the fan!

By the way...

Did Art Vandelay get his district's support for General and Jurisdictional Conference? I really like where he's coming from. He's the best importer/exporter I know.

Greg Cox said...

If only we could infiltrate the election process and get Art Vandelay a five diget number so we could cast votes for him.

Art Vandelay for General Conference Delegate - I'll make the buttons!

Roda Zone said...

None of this is funny...I used to be a latex salesman.