The UMC in 2020: God Overrules Our Rules

(On January 1, 2020 legislation went into effect that had passed by 53% at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in February of 2019. This legislation – if obeyed – seeks to impose harsh penalties on those who stand with the LGBTQIA+ community, and drive LGBTIQIA+ clergy, like myself, out of the church.) 

“It is plain to me that the whole work of God called Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His providence. Therefore, I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under ordinary rules of discipline.” – John Wesley, 1771, Letter to Mary Bosanquet Fletcher

Every once in a while, when we have made gods of ourselves and set up our own words as idols, God has to step in and remind us who and whose we are, and who it is that calls us. God seems to prefer to do so by loving people we did not love, by calling people that we would not call, and by using people that we threw away. 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they asked of the colonized form of a middle eastern carpenter. The answer that made them so uncomfortable was ‘yes.’ Not only could good come from Nazareth, but God chose that place exactly because they did not expect – did not want – their Savior to be “one of those people.” Jesus entered the world in such an unexpected way that it frightened the powerful, humbled the proud, and disrupted systems of oppression. 

God likes to use the people we would not choose ourselves to remind us we are not God. 

John Wesley, failed missionary, was just such a person. 

Plagued by accusations of disruption and disobedience to the Order of the Church, John Wesley wrote to his brother Charles in 1739 to explain his resistance. “I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary,” he wrote. The ordinary call, John explained, was his ordination, that moment the Bishop lays hands on our head and says, “Take thou authority.” The extraordinary call is what God commands us to do with our ordination. 

In John’s view, the ones who ordain are not the ones who call, and the ones who ordain are not the ones who have the final word on what we do with that ordination. 

The evidence of the extraordinary call is not an adherence to the Discipline, nor the approval of the Bishop, John explains, rather “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.” 

It is God who calls. It is the Institution that ordains. Yet, it is God – once again – who determines how we are to live out that ordination. While the institution may affirm, honor and even credential our call, the call belongs to God. We must always be ready for that moment when God reminds us of that.

This moment in time, this tiny measure of history, is that moment for United Methodist clergy and laity all around the world. That moment when God is using LGBTQIA+ folxs, and the call God has placed on our lives, to remind us that God is God and we are not.  

We are faced with a choice, all who stand as leaders in the United Methodist Church in this moment. Will we hide in the ordinary, or accept the extraordinary call offered to us in this historic moment in the church? 

John Wesley, himself, never felt like he had much of a choice in the matter. From the beginning of the third rise of Methodism, in the year after John felt his heart “strangely warmed”, he was under constant critique from his colleagues. He was accused of disrupting the order of the church by allowing lay preachers, and later women preachers. He was accused of interfering with the ministry of other pastors, by preaching in the fields of their parishes when he was denied the pulpit.

John was accused of ‘dismissing church order,’ of disruption, of risking schism. Specifically, his Clergy Order accused John of breaking Article 23 of the Anglican Order, their Book of Discipline, which forbade preachers from being sent out without the institution’s authority. 

Frustrated, John wrote to his older brother Samuel, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends.”

With his brother Charles, John could be more transparent than with Samuel, writing, 

“‘But,’ they say, ‘it is just that you submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ True; to every ordinance of man which is not contrary to the command of God. But if any man, bishop or other, ordain that I shall not do what God commands me to do, to submit to that ordinance would be to obey man rather than God.”

John Wesley, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Harriet Tubman and Jarena Lee, found that the way that we answer our call is more than pragmatic – it is also about the integrity in our relationship with God. If we are determined to obey God, we will from time to time be called to disobey man in both his governmental and religious authority. This is inevitable in a world where both our governmental and religious institutions are often tempted to place themselves on the throne.

We are living in just such a moment. A moment when the world seems upside down, because they want us to believe that we are disobedient and rebellious simply because we seek to be obedient to the call from God.

Mary Bosanquet Fletcher knew well this game that Institutions and powerful men play, when she wrote to Wesley in 1771 to plead with her friend to finally have a little backbone when it came to women’s leadership, to stand with them in their right to preach. She used his own words to argue that some of us have an extraordinary call, and we have no choice but to answer it. She held him accountable to give the same grace and flexibility with the Discipline to others that he had allowed for himself. 

Her words – and more importantly, her witness and her fruit – worked. He assented to the fact that she held a truthful claim to the same extraordinary call that he had claimed for himself. Women began to receive license to preach thereafter. 

This is what has always been powerful about our movement – that a group of people so intense and disciplined and focused on Scripture and Tradition, could also be so open to our understanding being transformed by Reason and Experience. 

It was our Order that organized us, but it was Grace that transformed us. It is our Discipline that informs us, but it is the Spirit that guides us. Let us not prioritize the former over the latter.

Woe be to those who make an idol of their own words. Woe be to those who abandon the fruit of the spirit that is self-control, in order to seek control of others. 

Our desire for understanding and control – our desire to be like God in our mind – has plagued us since the beginning, clashing with God’s desire for us to be like God in our hearts. Our lust for order and power clashing with God’s compassion and grace.

Focusing on what LOOKS like a speck in another’s eye, we fail to remove the log out of our own eye in order to see them clearly in all their glory.

Like James and John, men struggle for the seat at the top, bickering like apostles over the seats at the left and right hand of the throne. Even John Wesley struggled with Whitefield, struggled with Asbury, struggled with Garrison, struggled with his brothers Charles and Samuel, seeking to protect the power and control and order that had been accumulated. 

We have always been a stumbling, bumbling crew, that require signs and wonders to believe. That demand that those God has chosen will let us kill them before we will trust their call.

I have stood at the end of a gun, at the edge of a knife, before. The gun-cocking on computer screens did not scare me out of my calling. Warnings to “Go back to the church of Satan” did not make me budge. I know what it is to have my ordinary call interrupted by an extraordinary one. I know what it is to face fear and refuse to give it the final word. 

I have stood on sacred grounds with these Queer feet; held the Holy Book and broken the Bread with these Queer hands; proclaimed the timeless Gospel with this Queer mouth. And God has rendered my witness irrefutable. 

In the words of John Wesley, “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.”

All throughout the world there are members of our LGBTQIA+ community – clergy and laity – living out these extraordinary calls, with great faithfulness and deep sacrifice and profound courage.

The United Methodist Church is made up of many more people who will have to make the choice between protecting their own ordinary call – their ordination and leadership positions – and listening for and yielding to an extraordinary call that is summoning us out of our stable, secure place. Do you hear it?

All of our careers, they have been telling us that it was on our shoulders to save this Institution. What would happen if we choose to save the church instead?

Will you be a true Methodist? Will you rebel, resist, disobey unjust laws? Reject stability and professional advancement when it gets in the way of God’s call? Read, write, and create vociferously? Preach the Gospel with courage and compassion? Care about the health of people’s bodies like you do their minds and souls? Reach out constantly and stay connected? Empower people no one has empowered before?

Will we look threats and cruelty square in the eye and resist harm together? Will we declare that all belong?

Will you refuse to stand under the shelter of a mutilated tree if these LGBTQIA+ limbs are severed?

We build towers. We build walls. We make rules. But God tumbles towers, God tears down walls, and God most certainly overrules our rules.

“But what if a bishop forbids this? … God being my helper, I will obey Him still: and if I suffer for it, His will be done.” -John Wesley, 1739, Letter to Charles Wesley

 

Looking for resources to aid in resisting? Check out the resources for individuals and communities at #ResistHarm. Look into the efforts at All Belong. Find liturgy and add your support to the work of enfleshed. Find resources specific to your context at RMNetwork. Heard about something? Suggest other ideas in the comments section below!!

 

15 thoughts on “The UMC in 2020: God Overrules Our Rules”

  1. Powerful truth. Truth that threatens human power structures. I stand with you, all of you, in this truth. Peace be with you.

  2. Excellent, Hannah! Your calling and your commitment to God and to the rebirthing of the Church is testimony to your expansive inclusion. Thankful to share the journey with you

  3. You’re an incredible prophet! You have further charged my courageous spine to do more extraordinary acts.

  4. This so needed to be said, and is deserving of a much broader audience. I hope you will consider pitching it to some mainstream print media. Also, as one who really appreciates the art of writing, your technical skills are ‘thebomb.com.’ That opening paragraph is perfection.

  5. Many will not read this article, positing that it does not pertain to them. Where they are mistaken, is that anytime a segment of the Children of God are openly excluded from participating fully in the service of God, everyones spiritual future within the church is pulled away from God, and placed in the hands of mankind.

  6. I visited a lot of different types of churches as we moved around the South when I was little. I loved reading my bible and learning about God, and was baptized into the Southern Baptist Church at 13. As a young woman, I joined the ICOC, because I wanted to be part of a church holding to the 1st Century ideals of Christ’s Church. There was a lot of bible study and fellowship, but the legalism and cult of personality imploded that church cult, and I shook free. Like the bible teaches, those Pharisees killed off my heart for religion. The thought of being a part of organized religion now leaves me kicking hard against the traces. Since then, the hypocrisy and hatred generally spewed by Christians has violently turned my stomach, pushing me further from agnosticism towards atheism, but I did go a few times with a friend to her Methodist Church here in the South. She told me it was inclusive and welcoming of all people, and I was encouraged and felt a small hope there were bastions of Christianity not given over to the politics of hate, that the love of most had not yet truly grown cold. But the world, both natural and spiritual, is falling into very dark times indeed, and 53% of the Methodist Church has committed itself to that darkness.

  7. Hannah, your article is just excellent! Thank you for writing it. I have posted it, not only on my personal FB page, but also on four different FB private Progressive Catholic group pages that I am a member of, all support of which support the rejection of the rule. Congratulations on being on the right side of the Gospels!! I am a Roman Catholic Womanpriest in the Mid-west Region, with an inclusive church in its tenth year, co-pastored with a married priest, in Wauwatosa, WI. We are hosted as “tennants” on the Wauwatosa Avenue United Methodist Church, which voted to ignore this unjust law. We support them and you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s