A Way Forward: A Report from St. Louis on Thursday

We are now in St. Louis for the Special Session of the General Conference of United Methodists.  I have invested a great deal in this—not that it is about me, it’s not.  My hope is that there will be clarity this week.  I never would have imagined that I would have served as a moderator of the Way Forward, or be serving as president of the Council of Bishops, or speak before the Judicial Council, or that I would preach the opening sermon to the General Conference, each of them global bodies.  

I was asked to do this work almost three years ago.  Since then I recovered from a serious injury,  the United States elected a new president, I became a grandfather, and my mother died.  And my ordinary work in Florida continued.  I have been surrounded at every step of the way by amazing people.   I believe in teams and the counsel of others and a diversity of gifts. I depend on prayer.

I receive a steady stream of letters.  The great majority of them express two distinct values, and they can be summarized as follows:

+I want the church to love all people.
+I want the church to teach the Word of God. 

If you have read this far we are in some kind of relationship. And so I owe it to you to be honest about my hopes and dreams for the church.

+I want the church to love all people.  
+And I learned this from reading the Word of God. 

I have no desire to distinguish between a church that loves all people and a love for the Word of God.   
  
If you want to quote Leviticus, I can place that verse in the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  If you want to quote Romans 1, I can place that verse in the context of Romans 2 and 3.
   
If you want to quote Jesus’ teaching about marriage, we can place that in a broader context of what he was saying about divorce.  

With eloquence we can quote scripture to each other. Of course, I could do this without love.  And where I have done this, forgive me.  Paul warns me about this in 1 Corinthians 13.  If I understand all mysteries, but do not have love, I gain nothing...

I have given my life to studying, teaching and preaching the Word of God.  Do I understand it perfectly? I do not. 

God has more to teach me, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16). 

As a pastor I have tried to love the people God has placed under my watch.  A bishop is a shepherd.  Do I offer the love of God to all people?  In the words of the hymn, “do I empty myself of all but love?”  I do not.  This is the ongoing process of sanctification. 

Yes, we are deeply divided.  We have done harm to each other.   Some of us are passionate about loving all people.  Some of us are passionate about the Word of God. 

Will the church divide along these lines?  It is an absurd possibility.

Must the church cast out one of these voices?  It is a definite strategy. 

I’m not smoothing over anything.   This is a hard place.  People have been shaped and formed and they (we) will resist change.  Change comes, in my experience, when we look into the face of a child or grandchild or friend who is going through divorce, or a struggle with gender identity, or an addiction or an imprisonment.  

We begin to hope that justice is restorative, that grace is amazing, that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,  endures all things.  We search for a doctrine that sounds more like our favorite hymn or praise song than a set of rules. 

We know about change in our spiritual and theological tradition.  We even know the Greek word for change.   I could write that out for you, in Greek.  And, as one of my favorite Bible professors at Duke would say, that and fifty cents would get me a cup of coffee in hell!

Change comes when repent.  The problem with this is that we want the other person to repent!

But, along the way, we do change. 

When this happens, we begin to reframe the Word of God.  Or, the Word becomes flesh.  And this teaches us something about what we bring to reading the Word of God.  We bring, at our best, a convicted humility.  Wesley’s  Catholic spirit was the ancestor of convicted humility.  Convicted humility was a term articulated by the Commission on a Way Forward in service to the Special Session, and is defined as follows: 

“We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same sex relations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse, and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled. We pray the exaggeration of our differences will not divide us. We also recognize and affirm that as United Methodists we hold in common many more fundamental theological commitments, commitments which bind us together despite our real differences. These also have implications for how we understand and express our disagreements, and for what we do about them. 

“Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of corrections. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.

“We remain persuaded that the fruitfulness of the church and its witness to a fractured world are enhanced by our willingness to remain in relationship with those who share our fundamental commitments to scripture and our doctrinal standards, and yet whose views of faithfulness in this regard differ from our own.”   From Daily Christian Advocate, p. 127 emphases added)

We will do our best work, in St. Louis and also in our local churches, if we can do two things:

+Refuse to see love for all people and the teaching of the Word of God as two separate things.
+Practice Convicted Humility. 

Thank you for your prayers for this work.  Let us love one another, listen for a word from the Triune God, and turn toward each other in repentance and convicted humility. 

The peace of the Lord, 

+Ken Carter
Resident Bishop, Florida Conference
President, Council of Bishops
United Methodist Church


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