Understanding a “Sacred Covenant”

One of the favorite commonplace arguments of the Good News crowd has unfortunately been taken up by the Council of Bishops: that performing the wedding of a same-sex couple is “breaking a sacred covenant” made at an elder’s ordination. But is it? Here is the relevant section of the ordination service. Read it through, and consider carefully what kind of covenant an elder is making at his or her ordination. I’ve put some possibly relevant sections in bold. At the end, I’ve appended some questions for your consideration.

Ordination is a gift from God to the church, and is exercised in covenant with the whole church and within the covenant of the order.

…As elders, you are to be coworkers with the bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and other elders.

Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church: to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead the people of God in worship and prayer; to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ; to exercise pastoral supervision, order the life of the congregation, counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin; to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

Will you be faithful in prayer, in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people? [note that this is the second occurrence of this phrase].

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission, covenant to participate in the order of elders? Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders in order to sustain and build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?

May God, who has given you the will to do these things, give you grace to perform them, that the work begun in you may be brought to perfection.

After reading the above language from the ordination service, what is the covenant that is broken by officiating a same-gender wedding? Is it:

  1. The covenant to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people?
  2. The covenant to teach the Bible as the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
  3. The covenant to accept the order of the United Methodist Church? The liturgy? The (small “d”) discipline? The doctrines?
  4. The covenant to participate in the order of elders, and to build each other up through study, worship, and service?
  5. The covenant to defend the United Methodist Church from “all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” The belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s’ faith and life?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What in the above oath might suggest to you that covenant means accepting the incompatibility clause and subsequent prohibitions because they are in the (large “D”) Discipline?
  2. Given the oath to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people, what is an ordained clergy’s covenantal responsibility toward gay and lesbian persons who wish to marry?
  3. When the incompatibility clause was approved in 1972, did its authors violate any part of the above covenant toward their ordained gay and lesbian clergy peers? What about when additional punitive language was added regarding ordination and same-gender marriage?
  4. The Discipline rejects ordination for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” which has often been called “don’t ask, don’t tell” for clergy. It implies you can be self-avowed, but not practicing (i.e. celibate), or practicing but not self-avowed (i.e. “in the closet). What does this language do to a covenant of mutual accountability among clergy?
  5. Since every General Conference committee that has “studied” the issue of homosexuality has recommended removing the incompatibility language, yet the General Conference has voted to retain it, what does that do to our covenant to “build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?”
  6. Finally, when only 67% of General Conference votes to uphold the idea that “God’s grace is available to all, [and] that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” language borrowed from both John Wesley and Saint Paul, how qualified is that body to address what is or is not compatible with “Christian teaching?” What percentage needs to vote on something for it to be a clear sign of the witness of the Holy Spirit? 51%? 100%?

Growing up in the church, I learned that “covenant” was different from a “contract.” A contract is a legal agreement that says, “if you break this, such and such happens.” A covenant, though, is based on the character of the participants and the shalom of the community. God was faithful to God’s covenant with Israel even when Israel was not faithful, because God’s character was one of “steadfast love.” Opponents of LGBTQ rights would have everyone believe that the covenant to uphold the order, liturgy, discipline, and doctrine of the church is actually a contract. It legitimizes homophobia, heterosexism, and a culture of ecclesiastical coercion using the language of sacred covenant. Using the language of “sacred covenant” to mask thin Biblical interpretation, bad theology, and lousy ethics is itself more harmful to that covenant than any alleged violation of the incompatibility clause.

New Church Update, July 8, 2012

We had a full house last night! Thirty-eight adults and children gathered for our second worship and planning meeting. We talked about the second aspect of our life together as a worshiping community: Devotion.

Devotion is how we love God as individuals and small groups. The word “devotion” shares the same root as the word “vow,” and it’s about how we commit ourselves to loving God with our heart, mind, and strength. There are many ways that we can open ourselves to grace and allow God to change us, but I focused on four: prayer, study, giving, and meeting together.

While a lot has been written about prayer, and there are many ways to pray, my biggest learning about prayer in the last several years has been how to pray with my body. After meditating with Buddhists in South Korea to praying with hand-waving charismatic Christians there, watching Jews rock back and forth at the Wailing Wall and Muslims bow with their faces to the ground in Cairo, I realized I was missing out on something. Most Protestants learn to pray with their eyes closed and their heads bowed, stationary and silent, like people asleep. But God is not just an internal voice in my head. The living God likes physicality, and when I learned to pray nonverbally by bowing, kneeling, feeling the texture of beads, or journaling, it was like I had discovered a new country. I hope people in the new congregation find new power in prayer as well.

Study likewise is not just piously poring over scripture as God’s Word. It means wrestling with a text, arguing with the authors, questioning things that seem like cliched truths and bumping up against the rough edges of scripture. I wish progressive Christians had been reading their Bibles in California during the Proposition 8 controversy, and in Alabama during immigration. I wish more Christians memorized the verses that say God shows no partiality, instead of just the comforting, misquoted ones about personal salvation (“I know the plans I have for you,” for example, is really “I know the plans I have for y’all.”)

Giving. Man, where to begin. People in Nigeria, and Zambia, and Kenya dance their offerings down the aisles of the church with joy. Here in the richest country in the world, we’re embarrassed to ask for offerings in church. Because we don’t talk about money, we have a hard time asking for commitment. Uncommitted people gripe the loudest and give the least. You don’t have to look much further than two recent contenders for the presidential nomination. Each loudly said that government shouldn’t help the poor—that’s the job of the churches. Neither one, according to their tax returns, tithed. (For the record, both Obama and Romney do tithe).

I would not ask such a person to be the president of my administrative board, much less of the most powerful nation on the planet. If you don’t believe in the mission and ministry of the organization you serve enough to give to it, you should find an organization whose mission you can tithe toward. When I give the first dollar of my paycheck away, I no longer work for Visa, or beer, or the mortgage company. I work for God. If my first thought with my money is how to spend it on myself, then I work for all the petty gods of this world.

Finally, meeting together is part of devotion and how we love God. Theresa of Avila said that in order to know God better, one should frequent the company of God’s friends. It is difficult to be accountable to these other things I’ve mentioned without being part of a community. Even Jesus needed a circle of 12 friends around him, and needed their prayers. If Jesus felt the need, I figure I’d better do the same.

After the sermon, we shared communion. In the response part of our worship and meeting, we did some polling about potential names for the new church, and Angela led the group in making various kinds of prayer beads. The word “bead” actually comes from the word for prayer, because they’ve served as a mnemonic device in many cultures for many centuries for prayer and meditation.

I am excited that people seem to be turned on by what we’re starting here, and that they are beginning to dream about the possibilities available to us. God is doing great things.

Church Update: July 1, 2012

On July 1, twenty-seven people gathered at our house for our first afternoon worship and planning meeting, followed by a potluck supper (because you can’t be a real church without potluck suppers!). The vision of this new church is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. “The renewal of all things” is a pretty big idea, so we try to break it down into five aspects of our life together: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness. Each of the five Sundays in July we will gather at 4:30 to talk about one of the five areas.

All of these flow from the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We love God as a community through worship. We love God individually through our devotion. We love our neighbors as a community by doing justice in Birmingham and in the world. We love our neighbors individually through ministries of compassion. Binding all of them together is our witness to what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
We also went about the business of doing business and delegating roles. Over the next few weeks Angela and I will be talking with folks about how they would like to grow spiritually through this new church, and what they can in turn offer to others.
We are so thankful to Trinity and Canterbury UMC for all their encouragement, financial support, willingness to serve, and prayer. God is already doing great things.

New Lessons from God Shows No Partiality

I’ve posted lessons 4 and 5 of the study guide for God Shows No Partiality. For Kindle users, the book is currently a free borrow, and on June 1 it will be free for anyone using a Kindle app for 5 days. Help me spread the word by sharing links and letting any church leaders know about this free resource.