Is There a Theological Way Forward for the United Methodist Church?

For the past 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been discussing human sexuality. Our current Discipline is clear on the sacred worth and human dignity of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or relationship status. What we are debating now—in the days leading up to a called General Conference that could very well decide the future of our denomination—is whether or not the Church will bless same-sex marriage relationships, and whether or not the Church will license, commission, and ordain persons who are, as the Book of Discipline phrases it “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

One thing that has been disappointing to me as I listen to and observe our denominational conversation, is how, for lack of a better way to put it, political this debate has become. I haven’t come close to reading every word written on this issue, but most of what I have read, or heard, or seen is focused on delegate counts, procedural rules, constitutional amendments, and how the standing rules might be deployed at General Conference to give the advantage to one side or the other.

I’m not naive about the inevitability of politics. I fully understand whenever two or more Methodists are gathered together, a committee will form—and this can be a good thing. Humans are political creatures, and the organizational abilities of the United Methodist Church are well-known in ecumenical circles. If you want something organized, ask a Methodist. The problem with being so organizationally focused is we can begin to see every issue as an organizational issue. People don’t agree on marriage and sexuality? Here are three ways to organize ourselves out of the problem. It’s just the way we approach things.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am in no way denigrating the incredibly dedicated work of those tasked with finding a way forward for our denomination. They were given an extraordinarily difficult set of tasks and parameters. I think the work they produced is of the highest quality, and it should be carefully considered by all United Methodists as well as the General Conference. The Commission on a Way Forward’s final report does include a great deal of deep theological work. Primarily the Commission’s work is in the vein of ecclesiology—the nature and mission of the Church.

However, in the midst of this debate, I have not seen much written to engage theologically with the nature of marriage itself. The conversation has, for the most part, assumed some in our Connection are going to bless same-sex relationships, some are not, and we must find the best way to navigate this reality.

And, yes, this is certainly the practical situation facing the United Methodist Church in the coming months, which General Conference 2019 is tasked with figuring out. I still think there is something to be gained from a serious attempt to articulate a particularly United Methodist understanding of marriage, and why or why not it could include provision for some among us officiating same-sex marriages.

I know we all believe marriage is important. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be debating the future of the United Methodist Church primarily around this single issue. I believe something this important deserves theological treatment. United Methodists (and in more general terms, Evangelical Protestants) have shied away from making very many theological claims about marriage. In the process, we have ceded the definition of marriage to the civil authorities, leaving a very important question unanswered: What is the difference between civil marriage and a Christian marriage?

In the next several paragraphs I will offer my attempt at an answer.

In civil marriage the persons who enter into the marriage contract are recognized as a new societal unit for a variety of purposes: taxation; inheritance; health insurance and other medical benefits; the adoption of children; establishing the legitimacy of children born as a result of the union; financial matters and the ownership of property. The list could go on. A Christian understanding of marriage must go beyond simply these legal implications and present a theological case for marriage. United Methodists understand many of these legal issues to be part of the covenantal nature of marriage, however, we view marriage as more than a legally binding agreement. To put it another way, we believe something happens in marriage that makes two people more than just two individuals sharing a house. One way to describe this is to say Christian marriage is sacramental. It is inextricably intertwined with baptism.

Confirmation, ordination, marriage, anointing of the sick, and reconciliation are not considered Sacraments in the United Methodist Church. They are, nevertheless, important aspects of the Christian life. These sacred actions are, in important ways, remembrances of our baptism. Sacramental theology is, by its very nature, a theology that interrelates numerous aspects of the Christian life. This is particularly important to keep in mind when we discuss marriage, because here we are not only intertwining theological concepts, but also legal and societal concepts as well.

In sacramental (Christian) marriage, as in civil marriage, the persons who enter into the marriage covenant are recognized as a new societal unit. We call this new unit a family, and in this family, the husband and wife are co-equal and complementary partners who are considered to be one flesh, utterly inseparable save by death (Mt. 5:32, 19:6, Mk. 10:9). Such a union is a re-membering of the created order in the Garden of Eden (Ge. 2:23-24, quoted by Jesus in Mt. 19:4-6). The marriage relationship also has theological implications for the whole Church. The wedding rite, and the marriage itself, is an image of the relationship Jesus has with his Church (Eph. 5:22-23, Re. 19:7-9).

A Christian sexual ethic has always encompassed the idea of covenant relationship between the partners. The covenant relationship of marriage is a unique way of living out the baptismal covenant between Christians and the triune God. The primary covenant relationship in a Christian’s life is the baptismal covenant that unites the Christian with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Christian Marriage is the joining together of two baptized persons into a covenant relationship for the mutual edification of the partners and ultimately—especially in our Wesleyan understanding—mutual sanctification. (It is, however, important to acknowledge there are marriages blessed by the Church in which only one of the partners is baptized.)

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, goes into detail on his views on marriage (you can find the whole discourse in chapter 7). The majority of Paul’s statements on marriage take the form of strongly worded advice for both the married and the unmarried to remain in their present state (7:25-28). Paul also offers advice to married couples not to deny one another sexual companionship except by mutual consent (7:1-7). Paul shifts from advice to command when he discusses the dissolution of a Christian marriage (7:10-11). In short, his command (actually, the Lord’s command, as Paul states quite clearly in verse 10) prohibits divorce.

Paul echoes the commands of Jesus regarding adultery and divorce (Mt. 5:27-32). Paul also describes marriage in terms of mutual sanctification. The marital relationship (in addition to creating covenant families, providing for companionship, and other benefits) provides a sanctified outlet for sexual desire. Paul asks married couples to be kind and generous to one another in their physical relationships in order to avoid various temptations to break the covenant. Jesus disallows lustful looking, and Paul suggests an appropriate sexual relationship in the context of Christian Marriage provides a way of pursuing holiness as Jesus commands.

All four gospel witnesses as well as the New Testament epistles clearly teach a Christian sexual ethic which precludes non-covenantal sexual encounters. In fact, the teachings of Jesus lead us to understand even nurturing impure desires in our heart of hearts is no less than tantamount to adultery. Christian Marriage provides for the mutual sanctification of the partners not least because it provides a covenantal relationship within which it is appropriate to express and act on sexual desire. To sum up, a Christian, sacramental view of marriage is far more expansive than the civil definition. Christian marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about us becoming more like Jesus. In a larger sense, Christian Marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about the redemption of the cosmos, participating with Christ in reconciling all things (including sex) to God.

The decision we face is whether or not Christian Marriage (sacramental marriage) should be made available in the United Methodist Church to persons who are in same-sex relationships. The decision we reach will ultimately depend on the way we choose to interpret what the Bible says about the meaning of marriage. Even if we don’t realize it, we will as a denomination be making a declaration on the nature of marriage. Whatever our practice becomes will define our theology of marriage.

My hope in writing this article is to offer a pause in the political wrangling about what our practice as a denomination might become. This piece is offered as an invitation to contemplate what marriage means for Christians. Ultimately, I hope contemplating a theology of marriage might inform our practice of marriage, and lead us to a theological solution to the current impasse. If nothing else, such theological contemplation can perhaps lead us to better understand the positions of those who hold opinions different than our own.

There are a number of questions I have purposely left unanswered in this brief offering, such as: Is it possible to define marriage using gender-neutral language? Does our denomination’s general practice of allowing for divorce and remarriage have any bearing on our conversation about same-sex marriage? Can we responsibly baptize and receive into membership persons in same-sex relationships while at the same time denying them marriage and ordination?

These are questions I am personally wrestling with as my own theology of marriage comes into focus in light of the situation in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps these questions will help spark theological engagement on this issue, and give food for thought and conversation among United Methodists. I am praying for the future of the United Methodist Church, that it will remain united, offering a strong Wesleyan expression of the catholic and apostolic faith and the great theological tradition we have inherited with it. I believe doing theology is a form of prayer, and I hope you will join me.

Breathing New Life into an “Old” Eucharistic Prayer

In the current United Methodist Hymnal, there is a seldom-used (at least in my experience) rite for the celebration of Holy Communion. “A Service of Word and Table IV” is a service that draws heavily on the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren liturgical traditions which in turn share common DNA—through Wesley’s Sunday Service—with the English prayer book tradition going all the way back to 1552.

The Great Thanksgivings provided for the modern United Methodist services of word and table are by and large based on the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus both in structure and language. These are excellent prayers, but they do represent a shift in our Eucharistic praying away from the Anglican roots of our tradition and some of the English distinctives that Wesley and the earliest Methodists maintained. I imagine that is why there is a “Rite IV” included in our current hymnal. It offers some continuity with the United Methodist Church’s foundational liturgical tradition.

The thing is, Word and Table IV is not widely utilized. So, while the rite exists as a document that provides some historical continuity, it’s essentially a museum piece—a relic of a bygone era that serves mostly for the sake of curiosity.

One of the great strengths of the liturgical forms given in the current hymnal is the highly flexible struture of the Eucharistic prayer. It’s exceedingly easy to write custom propers within the framework offered by the rites in the United Methodist Hymnal. This incredible flexibility is displayed in a couple of ways. “A Service of Word and Table II” (page 13 in the Hymnal) provides an essentially complete Eucharistic prayer with two places where a pastor or liturgical writer may insert seasonal or occasional propers. (For the liturgy geeks who may read this, those places are the preface and the post-Sanctus.) In other words, this prayer may be used as is—as a somewhat briefer form of the Great Thanksgiving compared to Word and Table I—or may be modified in the appropriate places to “customize” it to the occasion at hand. An even more flexible, customizable format for the Great Thanksgiving is found in “A Service of Word and Table III” (page 15 in the Hymnal). Word and Table III provides only the congregational responses for the Eucharistic prayer along side a few “cue words” that should appear in the prayer offered by the presider, along with some rubrics. In essence, one can write an entire Eucharistic prayer within this framework. So long as the basic structure is left intact and the “cue words” are included in the appropriate places, it should be possible to write an entirely original Great Thanksgiving that is still recognizable and usable by United Methodist congregations.

One of the reasons I think Word and Table IV is underused today is simply that it does seem so anachronistic, particularly in its use of archaic language. But there is a lot of rich theology in this Eucharistic prayer, and Word and Table IV offers a visceral sense of connection to the deep Anglican roots of our church that should not be easily overlooked or discarded. In case it isn’t clear, I love this Eucharistic prayer, and I wish it could be used more frequently.

Then one day, it occurred to me that an answer was right in front of me. (I really wanted to type “‘rite’ in front of me” but I restrained myself.)

Why not use Word and Table III as an opportunity to reintroduce this old Eucharistic prayer to a new generation? So that’s exactly what I did. What follows is my “update” of the Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table IV. I have updated the language to remove archaisms and ordered the prayer such that it fits into the structure of Word and Table III. In my adaptation, I have tried to retain the character and thought patterns of the older prayer while modernizing and “tightening” the language. I have also taken the opportunity to strengthen the epliclesis (in line with the epicletical langauge of our more modern prayers). Regarding the epiclesis, there is an interesting problem to be tackled. The older prayer positions the epliclesis right before the Words of Institution. However, the rubrics for Word and Table III state that “The pastor invokes the present work of the Holy Spirit …” after the Verba. In the prayer as I present it below, I’ve kept the epiclesis before the Verba as it is in the older Eucharistic prayer. I hope that I may find forgiveness in the rubrics for this minor deviation.

I think the prayer is fairly cohesive with the epiclesis either before or after the Words of Institution, but it seems to have more internal sense when the epiclesis remains in the older position. Depending on how you choose to position the epiclesis, the resulting prayer will resemble either the Book of Common prayer 1552–1662, or the Book of Common Prayer 1928. Either way, the prayer looks an awfully lot like the Book of Common Prayer, and therefore shows how thoroughly Anglican our worship tradition is.

Oh, one more thing. I haven’t adapted any proper prefaces for this prayer yet. I think it would be very easy to adapt the language of the seasonal prefaces provided in the Book of Worship if you wanted to use any of those.

The prayer is provided for your use below. I think it would work well as an option for any United Methodist Eucharistic Celebration. What do you think?

The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, O Lord, Holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

Here the pastor may add a preface proper to the season.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, because of your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by the one offering of himself, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; and instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until his coming again:

Hear us, O merciful Father, we humbly pray; and bless and sanctify with your Word and Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, that we, receiving them according to his holy institution, in remembrance of his passion, death, and resurrection, may be partakers of the divine nature through him:

Who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, “Drink all of this; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Accept, O Lord, this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and grant that, by the merits and death of your Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and your whole Church may obtain forgiveness of our sins and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice, humbly praying that all who share in this Holy Communion may be filled with your grace and heavenly benediction.

And although we are not worthy, because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice, we ask you now to accept this our true and proper worship, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.

God With Us In Bread and Wine

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In Evangelical circles, it’s not unusual to be asked if you’ve invited Jesus to come into your heart. As a young person, I never quite knew how to answer the question. Sure I had prayed the prayer, but I didn’t have any way of really knowing that Jesus had taken up residence inside me. I wanted his presence with me always, but I couldn’t figure out how I could be certain Jesus was with me.

I think it’s common for an Evangelical to feel some sort of angst about his or her relationship with God. I remember feeling as if I’d been left to discover it on my own. The only guide was how I felt. I found myself second guessing nearly everything about my relationship with God—I could never seem to find any peace, any assurance that Jesus was with me.

In my young adult years I was introduced to the sacraments. A good deal of my spiritual formation in those years took place in Anglican and Roman Catholic settings. Discovering that I could experience Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist with objective assurance that he was there was like being shown a globe for the first time. I had perspective; I could see where I was in relation to the spiritual world around me. God was no longer somewhere out there waiting to be found. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was with me, in me, through the mystery of the bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood.

I’ll never forget a Mass I attended in my early twenties, at St. Paul’s Church, near the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. As the priest held up the bread during the fraction, he recited the familiar words of the Agnus Dei. But instead of saying simply, “The Lamb of God …” he added “This is Jesus. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was there.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, God meets us where we are. The humble elements of bread and wine communicate the flesh and blood of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Jesus, who poured out himself for the life of the world, offers us the food and drink of unending life in him. The holy mystery of Eucharist is also the mystery of the Incarnation: that God would deign to abide with humanity.

In all my life, I never would have imagined knowing God was as simple as eating and drinking. How gracious is Jesus — how gracious is our God, who reveals himself in bread and wine?

Today, whenever I’m asked if I have invited Jesus to come into my heart, I answer with a heartfelt “Yes. Absolutely.” And I invite him anew each time I receive Holy Communion.