Maybe it’s always been the case and I’ve simply not noticed it, but lately I’ve taken a lot of crap (fairly?) for criticizing my alma ecclesia, the United Methodist Church. Honestly, it’s not hard. Critiquing the several-decades- too-late- and-many-dollars-short UMC is like Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes to a besotted night club audience. If the crap I’ve taken is fair so is, I believe, the crap I’ve given. After all, we Methodists are predictable, sentimental and pop-cliche. In typical modernist fashion, we’re enamored with bureaucracy, meaningless legislative gestures and the latest fads which might appeal to seekers- which is impressive since we’re also impervious to change and innovation, allergic to accountability and unaware of genuine cultural trends.
I often point out how our terminology for church governance betrays how we traded in the Gospel for Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead of a diocese (a nice churchy word) we have a district, as though we worked for Dunder Mifflin. Instead of an archdiocese we have a conference, like the ACC. Instead of a proud episcopacy, we have a superintendents, just like the public school system, which ironically is also an unwieldy outdated bureaucracy.
But maybe that’s harsh 🙂
Given my usual prickly posture of critique, I thought I’d offer up an unusual praise. As you may know, I’m reading NT Wright’s, How God Became King. Here’s a previous entry.
Wright’s thesis is that Christians in the West have historically and categorically misread the Gospels. We’ve read them through the cipher of the creeds and our prejudicial understanding of Paul. We’ve read them as modern liberals and conservatives. As a consequence, we’ve missed how the Gospels all attempt to tell a WHOLE story not isolated teachings or vignettes. They attempt to tell the story of how the God of Israel became, in Jesus Christ, King on Earth as he is in Heaven. Wright’s thesis is one that puts ascension not crucifixion or resurrection as the climax to the tale. It’s one that marries worship and social witness in a way I think the usual liberal and conservative options miss.
And that’s where Methodism- actually John and Charles Wesley- come in. Wright cites Wesley as a rare example in the history of the Western Church who ‘got’ both the experience of loving God in one’s heart (worship) and practicing that love in a life of loving neighbor by serving the poor and advocating for justice.
I think Wright’s reading of the tradition is correct as is his identification of this Wesleyan synthesis as we Methodists’ true treasure.