Covenant, schism, and unity

July 01, 2014

*The following message from Bishop Bruce R. Ough was written for and delivered at the 2014 Minnesota Annual Conference clergy session. It is being shared with a wider audience at the request of some individuals within the conference.

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ, risen and ascended.

I want to share with you this afternoon some very brief thoughts about covenant, schism, and unity.

We are a covenant people. And, everyone in this room is in covenant with each other and the whole.

I recently shared with those to be commissioned and ordained this year that there are multiple facets to our covenant relationship.

First, and foremost, we are in covenant with God—a covenantal relationship initiated by God. This is a covenant maintained by God’s faithfulness toward us more than by our efforts to obey Wesley’s admonition “to stay in love with God.”

Second, we are in covenant with all clergy members of the Minnesota Annual Conference. This covenant is given expression in our Wesleyan rule of life, our United Methodist Discipline, and our own ethical code, written and unwritten.

Third, we are in covenant with all other United Methodist clergy in our global connection and with the Church Universal and all those set apart as pastors and priests in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, you are in covenant with the bishop, particularly those of you who have been ordained to word, sacrament, service, and order. By virtue of your ordination to order, you extend the “episcopa”—the spiritual and temporal oversight—of the episcopal office to all the various places you are appointed to serve. You are in covenant with the bishop to order the church, maintain the unity of the church, and to preach and teach the apostolic faith.

Although this listing is incomplete, lastly, I want to mention the various covenants you have with spouses, loved ones, family, and friends. Those covenants are also to be maintained and nurtured and are never intended to be sacrificed for the sake of the many other facets and demands of our covenantal lives.

At the heart of our being in covenant with one another is God’s initiating, unconditional, universal, unrelenting, and uniting love and Jesus’ prayer that we will be one “so that the world will believe” (John 17:21-22).

Covenant is relational. It is a gift to be received, a gift we cannot deny. Covenant is Spirit-born and Spirit-driven and Spirit-maintained. Paul got this right when he wrote to the Ephesians:

Accept each other with love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2b-6)

And, covenant has a purpose; it is intentional. It not only serves to bind us to the one God and to all members of the one body, but it is, in the words of Eugene Peterson in The Message, to “give the godless world evidence that God sent Jesus and to show that God loves us in the same way God loved Jesus.”

The very nature and purpose or intent of God’s covenant with us is under immense pressure within The United Methodist Church. The talk and actions related to schism have reached a fever pitch, driven by the 42-year-old debate over homosexuality, same-gender marriage, and scriptural authority. This heightened energy around schism is fueled, in part, by the dynamics of our highly political global church polity. Individuals and groups on opposite sides of this debate are actively working for separation. Many are now openly stating that schism has already taken place; all that remains is division—dividing up the people, assets, episcopal leadership, and governing structures. Several formal and informal groups are preparing legislation for the 2016 General Conference to facilitate an amicable division of The United Methodist Church. Others are simply prepared to practice ecclesial disobedience on a scale that would overwhelm the capacity of annual conferences to manage the potential consequences. Some are advocating for more church trials. Others, including myself, view church trials as an affront to discerning a way forward.

In the process, this debate is reducing covenant to purely a governance or political issue. The more conservative folks claim that the covenant is about upholding the current disciplinary language on all matters related to human sexuality and same-gender marriage. The more progressive folks claim the covenant is about biblical obedience to Jesus’ radical love ethic. Both arguments are incomplete and make a mockery of covenant based in the mysterious power of God’s love and Jesus’ prayer for unity.

I have recently read Douglas Hall’s book, Waiting for Gospel:  An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant Establishment. In reviewing the book for The Christian Century, Walter Brueggemann focuses attention on Hall’s claim that both evangelicalism and liberal piety have dumbed down the faith and reduced the gospel to either ethical urgency on the one hand, or pre-occupation with public issues of justice on the other hand. In doing so, they have not paid attention to the mystery of God in the life of persons.

Hall claims the culture around us is waiting for gospel—and that the culture is not waiting for the tired clichés, compromises, and conflicts of the institution, but for the news of God’s transformative grace and mercy. Likewise, he claims the church (or any of its factions) does not possess the gospel, but must always wait to receive it again in fresh, contemporary, radical terms of gift and task.

Schism is the way of the world—of the culture. Schism would be one more example of the disestablishment and demise of the Christian witness, a witness that increasingly offers no compelling response to reality. Schism is unacceptable in the Church of Jesus Christ. Schism is unacceptable in The United Methodist Church!

Last week I was in a judicatory heads’ meeting in which we talked briefly about the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation. The ELCA bishops shared their distress because they do not know whether to lead their people into a season of celebration or into a season of repentance for having not maintained the unity of the church.

One reason, among several, that so many covenant relationships and denominations, including The United Methodist Church, are strained or depleted, in decline or despair, is that there is so little reliance on the Holy Spirit. We need some Holy Spirit breakthroughs! It is the mystery—the Spirit-energy—of God’s redeeming work that ultimately unifies, compels, and sends. Authentic unity and rich covenantal relationships are ultimately fruits of the Spirit rather than fruits of correct doctrine, structural sameness,  church rules and law, or even (if Bonhoeffer is to be believed) liking each other. Authentic unity flows from the presence of the Holy Spirit. Authentic unity is incarnated in Christ and made real in the loaf and cup. Authentic unity is expressed in loving God and loving our neighbors.

It makes some of us in this room very uncomfortable, but the boundaries of the Church have always been charismatic, not canonical. Thus, we know where the Church is, but not where it may be operating beyond our sight or knowledge. We have to admit that while we are here this afternoon, the Spirit is at work outside these walls—perhaps outside the Church. The boundaries of the Church will not likely be defined or discovered in this room because we do not control the boundaries of the Spirit’s work.

Increasingly, I have trouble with using the word “unity” to describe what we are trying to maintain. In our Western-world view, unity tends to indicate structural sameness. Perhaps what we are really trying to achieve or maintain is koinonia—Christian community and relationship. Perhaps what we are really trying to achieve or maintain is covenant—being bound to one another through God’s initiating love and steadfastness.

The history of the Church, recorded for us in the Book of Acts, is instructive to me and to our current reality within the Minnesota Conference and The United Methodist Church. Christians and Gentiles came together as one when two conditions prevailed. First, a leader or leaders filled with the Holy Spirit proclaimed Jesus’ expansive, extravagant, and unconditional love. Second, the community of believers, again inspired by the Holy Spirit, affirmed that the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the “other” would never be forgotten or excluded.

Our own Wesleyan renewal movement is a prime example. It arose, as you know, in response to the deplorable conditions of the poor in mid-eighteenth century England. And, it was led by John and Charles Wesley, formed and inspired by (1) the Spirit’s movement within the Holy Club, (2) at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street, and (3) in the decision to preach in the fields, wharfs, and mines.

The witness from Acts, chapter 11, of Peter recounting his vision while in Joppa to the believers in Jerusalem, is instructive to us. You may recall, Peter gets called on the carpet for baptizing some Gentiles in Caesarea. Can’t you hear them saying to Peter, “What do you think you are doing, rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”

Peter goes on to tell the Council at Jerusalem that when he began to address the “outsiders” in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit fell on “them” just as it did on “us” the first time. And, he recalls Jesus’ words:  “John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Peter concludes with a penetrating question—a question that often haunts me, but a question that I believe must guide my, and our, efforts to maintain unity, affirm covenant, and express our common witness in Christ. The question is: “If then God gave them the same gift God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Who was I that I could hinder God?

This question has the same effect that Jesus’ scribbling in the dirt had on the explosive situation where the men were poised to stone the woman caught in adultery. Space is created. Holy space is created. We need such a space in our rush to judgment, schism, and division with The United Methodist Church.

Space enough for us to look again, look deeper for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Space enough to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Space enough to let the Spirit bless us with the gift of one heart, one mission. Space enough for the Holy Spirit to inform our doctrine and our decisions. Space enough for the “other” to be included. Space enough to remember we cannot change or withhold God’s covenantal love toward us or anyone else. Space enough to exercise the pastoral office. Space enough for the reign of God to break forth, so that the world may believe. Space enough to exercise the pastoral office.

I conclude with these prayerful expressions of hope:

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace, will be found in our fire—our passion—for the gospel and what Pope Francis calls the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace will be found in our ministry with the poor.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace will be found in remembering it is God’s work, not our political and caucus agendas or theological camps, that we are called to.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace will be found not so much in knowing and protecting what we believe, but in loving and living what we believe.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace will be found when we earnestly and collectively pray for, and submit to, the powerful and unifying gift of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our unity and the fullness of God’s covenant grace will be found when the first thought on our minds and on our lips is: “Who am I to hinder God, if God gave the same exact Spirit-gift to them as to us?”

Perhaps, just perhaps, the only question we need to ask one another is the one John Wesley stated in his sermon on The Marks of a Methodist: “Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.”

Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058