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A Catholic Spirit Reconsidered

A Catholic Spirit Reconsidered

The Bishop's Blog


I served as a pastor of local churches for twenty-eight years.  Over that time I would occasionally notice the absence of a formerly active parishioner, and a thought would cross my mind: I wonder where that family has been lately? I would then encounter her at the athletic field, or him in a grocery store, and we would  begin to have an inevitably awkward conversation. There would be an awkward pause, and then a brief conversation.  “We’ve decided to find another church”, they would tell me.  And then the reasons for leaving would unfold: a contentious relationship, an unpopular social position, an unmet expectation in worship, a judgment—harsh or restrained—about someone’s morality.  


In a culture that teaches us to self-identify according to real or perceived preferences, I understood. And yet, as a pastor, I always hoped for something more. Now, as a bishop, this drama is repeated on a larger stage. The situation involves the expectations of clergy and laity, movements and obstacles related to justice and the desire to be unshackled from institutions, even as those same institutions supply the resources we want, need and have come to expect. 

I’ve read the literature on our need for community—in a book like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone— and the powerful forces that undermine it—in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. I have experienced the joy of unity and the beauty of diversity. And I have known their painful absence.   


So what motivates us to live in community? And whatever might inspire us to stay in community, or remain as one denomination, as a United Methodist Church, alongside those who hold starkly different positions than us on matters that are of  such great importance?

   A helpful source for us, as followers of Jesus, is his parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30). We sometimes yearn for a vineyard that would be more holy, just, or pure if those with whom we have conflict are no longer present. There was evidently a temptation in the early church among the Zealots or the Pharisees or in the Qumran community to define communal discipline by weeding out “followers of the evil one.” In Jesus’ teaching, we are urged not to undertake any kind of weeding out or uprooting. This is finally and in time the work of God. In the vivid image of Jesus’s parable, we grow together, wheat and weeds, in the church. This is a call to live together, patiently aware of our own imperfections and those of others. At times we live together in the midst of an experience that is moderately discomforting; and at other times, our relationships are strained by matters that go to the core or who we are and who we aspire to be.  


In our denomination, the matter that is most divisive is the conversation around human sexuality, which is at times framed as an issue and more often lived in family and parish relationships. I should insist here that I am not characterizing the straight person as the wheat and the gay and lesbian person as the weed, or progressives as the wheat and conservatives as the weeds, or vice-versa! I am reminded of the wisdom of the Nobel Laureate Alexandre Solzhenitsyn: 


                            "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.

  To say that the wheat and the weeds grow within each of us is to acknowledge our acceptance of grace and our need for confession. The warning about removing the weeds from the wheat is not to become passive or complacent. Rather, in removing the weeds, we will also uproot the wheat. How does one speak out of conviction about one aspect of a person’s life, without doing harm to him or her, or to a family? None of us is one-dimensional, and none of us can be reduced to any issue! If we can be reduced to any common experience, it is surely our need for the grace of God.   


To add complexity, the seed (God’s word) speaks differently to each of us, and the shallowness of a local church’s soil can be a function of the desire to be relevant or the steady stream of messages in the social media that distort the still, small Voice. Most leaders in our denomination would agree that we are not in a place that positions us for the substantive conversation that is so often needed. Contributing factors to this environmental condition are the lack of deep spiritual formation in many congregations, inadequate theological formation of youth and their parents, weakening denominational infrastructures (support for camps, campus ministries, church-related colleges and theological schools), a market economy whose mobility diminishes  long-term, trust-filled relationships and a surrounding culture that is increasingly secular, materialistic and individualistic. 


The difficulty in having a mature conversation around issues of human sexuality (or racial profiling or “stand your ground” laws or immigration) is shaped in part by the shallowness of our spirituality, the weakness of our congregational life, and the fragmentation of our communities, and now, it seems, our denomination.    

And so we are tempted to flee from those who challenge us. The “homogeneous unit principle,” which came in for ridicule in the church-growth movement, turns out to define us when we simply want to hang out with people who think, vote, pray, and behave like us. This may not be a conscious decision. It simply requires less energy to stay in our own small tribes!  


And yet, perhaps we hope for something more. And yes, perhaps the Gospels call us toward the creation of something better. So we live together, wheat and weeds.  The church is never a static institution.  It is always changing.  At its best, the church is a kind of “greenhouse” where we are planted, cultivated, pruned, and thus transformed. To live together is a gift of grace, to remain in a real church in a local context, and not in Bonhoeffer’s description of the community that is our “wish dream”.  It is to participate in the means of grace with other sinners who are also invited to the gospel feast. This is an essential activity in our maturing as disciples until the harvest where God is both a gracious and just redeemer. So we discern, judge, and evaluate; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in a sermon on this parable, “while we have to judge, there is a judgment beyond our judgment, and there are fulfillments beyond our fulfillments”. 

The practices of humility and patience, from a human point of view, can seem somewhat passive and even indifferent, particularly when the energies that flow toward opposing convictions threaten to fracture the community.  And yet, we trust in the slow and steady shaping of providence, we hope for what we do not see, and we “grow side by side until the harvest” (Matt 13:20).  


So back to the church and human sexuality.  I would encourage Christians who cannot accept those in our communities who identify as gays and lesbians, in orientation or in practice, to place the judgment of them (and all of us) in God’s hands. As the Apostle Paul asks in Romans 8:34, “Who is in a position to condemn?” And I would encourage gay and lesbian Christians to be patient with their brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked their journey. This is not a justification for continued injustice. And yet it is also true that sexuality itself is a mysterious, complicated, and emotionally-charged subject. Rational conversation and dialogue will emerge only if those who disagree come to the table hearing the admonition of James: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (James 1).  I am encouraged that some are seeking to recover the model of E. Stanley Jone’s roundtable in India, which held the conviction that “God is trying to speak to us, and God will use all of us to construct that message”. 

As Methodists, we have understood this to be our way of life, with God and with each other.  In “The Character of a Methodist,” John Wesley commented that “as to all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” And in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” he insists that “orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best a slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part at all.” His sermon on the “Catholic Spirit” is focused around a question and an answer taken from 2 Kings 10:15 (KJV): “Is your heart right with my heart? . . .  If it is, then give me your hand.” Wesley’s interpretation of this verse of scripture is worthy of our reflection:  


 “If it is, give me your hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not. I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot; it does not depend on my choice. I can no more think than I can see or hear as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine, and that as steady as ever. You need not endeavor to come over to me or bring me over to you. I do not desire to dispute those points or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only, “give me your hand.” 

He likens the catholic spirit to the universal spirit or universal love, and concludes:  


“lastly, love me not in word only but in deed and in truth. So far as in conscience you can (retaining still your own opinions and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand.”   


Join with me in the work of God!


    Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Tom Langford, one of my professors at Duke Divinity School and a resident of this community, addressed the Council of Bishops in a lecture entitled “Grace Upon Grace”.  His theological exploration led, in the end, to the question of homosexuality.  He speaks of a grace which is “the reach of God even to those who are alienated from God”, he interprets the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (Jesus thou art all compassion!) and I Corinthians 13 (grace bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and grace never fails).  And then we concludes with a dialogue between this grace and the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage.  


He cautions us to begin with humility, noting that each side of the debate “often claim the moral high ground”.   He then invites us to “quiet down, recognize the awesomeness of God’s grace and be humble”.  This humility grants us the time and space to seek God’s will, which is imperative for a matter with such complexity.  He writes:

“The issue is so complex that it cannot be quickly resolved.  Perhaps United Methodism can become the exception and await the guidance of God.  It may be that in the end we shall not reach consensus.  It may be that we shall not be held together in the Body of Christ by agreement, but by love.”

And then he notes that there is precedence for such a time of waiting, praying and being in relationship with one another.  He mentions other moral issues on which Christians do not agree, among them war, divorce and abortion.  He then concludes:

“If we can stay together, it may be only with tension and disagreement over the nature and implications of homosexuality to separate the Body of Christ.  If we can stay together, it may be only with tension and disagreement, but until we know more and understand the will of God better, we may by grace have to learn to live with fellow Christians who disagree with us.”


So we grow together, the wheat and the weeds.  Every now and then, in the first century or in the twenty-first century, we have an impulse to uproot and purify the community, to surround ourselves with those who resemble our own vision of where God is leading us.  It is a natural human impulse.  Jesus must have sensed it, in his own community, and so he gave the disciples and us, a parable.   


“Let the weeds grow a little higher”, Jesus says to us.  It makes no sense, in morality or in agriculture, and yet, in the Kingdom of God, it is the higher way.  “In uprooting the weeds you will do harm to the wheat.  In destroying what you perceive to be evil in your neighbor, you will do harm to the community and to yourself.” 


So whatever might motivate us or inspire us to live in community?  I think this is precisely why Jesus taught this parable, why John Wesley reflected on the “Catholic spirit”, why Tom Langford struggled with the Council of Bishops, fifteen years ago in his lecture, why the question emerges in these days.  


There is no grand answer, but there is guidance for us:  


 We let the weeds grow a little higher,   trusting in the providence of God.  We let the weeds grow a little higher,  remembering that the Lord is our judge.  We let the weeds grow a little higher,  grateful for the patience of the One  who has begun a good work in us,  and, the scripture promises, will be faithful to complete it.  Amen.  


Sources:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.  Thomas Langford, “Grace Upon Grace”, Vision and Supervision.  Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Wheat and the Tares”, Justice and Mercy.  John Wesley, “A Catholic Spirit”, “The Character of a Methodist”, and “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”.    

+In grateful memory of Dr. Thomas Langford of Duke Divinity School.