In or Out?

Living organisms and organizations have boundaries. There is always some sort of line demarcating X from not-X. Some of these markers are positive, some negative.

This is an unpopular reality for some. We shout “No boundaries!” as if everything flowed indistinguishably into everything else. We preach, “Don’t judge!” as advice against the identification of boundary markers or the transgression of boundaries markers.

Frank Schaeffer was just defrocked for his unrepentant stand against an official United Methodist stand. This looks like an instance of an organization (the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference) policing a boundary. They are saying, in effect, “We need leaders who operate within the recognized and agreed upon boundaries of our organization. Since you reject those boundaries you cannot any longer be a leader here.”

Some United Methodists (majorities in some locales) think the official United Methodist stand is wrong. A bishop in one such locale (Southern California) is working to enact a different set of boundaries and is inviting Schaeffer to come serve in her conference. In addition to rejecting this particular boundary marker, she is also rejecting the process of boundary making in the United Methodist Church through General Conference action, describing it as “wrong in its incessant demand to determine through political processes.”

Another boundary transgressive event, rooted in the same cultural flashpoint, is also in the news. In the Duck Dynasty brouhaha, the boundaries are the opposite of those in the UMC. Where one judicatory in the UMC has performed an exclusionary act in line with the official United Methodist position on homosexuality, A & E has also performed an exclusionary act in line with its position on homosexuality. Both organizations have made judgments about what goods they will stand for and seek to propagate. Both organizations are being judged and misjudged for what they’ve done.

The first mistake is that the boundary policing events are seen as abridging rights. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the US Constitution, so these two Americans ought to be able to freely express themselves. Well sure. Both have freely expressed themselves. Neither is in any trouble at all with the government for what they’ve said. The first amendment has no bearing at all on speech acts within organizations. The United Methodist Church is free to specify both acts to be performed and acts to be refrained from. Television networks have the same freedom. If these organizations did not have these freedoms, the boundaries between the State and non-state would have failed.

Having a right to say or do something does not mean that saying and doing particular things does not result in consequences. In both of these cases consequences are perfectly predictable.

A second problem area that may be peculiar to the United Methodist incident, is that the identification of and action against a transgression of United Methodist boundaries is itself identified as a transgression of a more important boundary, that of grace, love, and inclusion. If, for example, “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors,” is our de facto doctrinal statement, then it can be argued that expulsion of a man who exhibited perfect conformity with those virtues is nonsensical, inconsistent with our deepest values, and ultimately blasphemous.

Some who complain about A & E’s action against Phil Robertson have reasoned similarly. A & E is staking out a liberal position, it is said. Liberalism is all about being open-minded and accepting. How come, it is then asked, open-mindedness only goes one direction? Aren’t they contradicting the very values they profess?

I’m not a member of the church of A & E. I’ve never seen the show in question. I don’t have a stake in adding to the publicity promoting all those multimillionaires. But I am a member of the United Methodist Church, so I’ll conclude by focusing solely on our own in-house issue.

I’ve never been a fan of taking our marketing slogan (“Open Open Open”) as a doctrinal statement. I’m not even in favor of it as a marketing slogan. On the one hand, the way it has been read is to be a total rejection (can I say “exclusion?”) of all exclusion. As I said above, it is impossible for an organization to refrain from acts of exclusion without ceasing to be an organization. Boundaries are ineliminable features of the existence of organizations.  As long as the United Methodist Church wants to exist as an organization, it has to have boundaries and it has to enforce those boundaries.

We have two challenges. Most obviously, our question is about this particular boundary marker. If our warrant for choosing our positions is something like “We will recognize whatever moral position our broader culture recognizes as definitive of justice and therefore our own official position,” then the outcome will be obvious. If, on the other hand, our preferred warrant is something like, “We will recognize whatever moral position has represented the plain reading of scripture in the past as definitive of justice and therefore our own official position,” then the outcome will probably also be obvious. But what if both warrants are overly simplistic and misguided when taken in isolation from other warrants and forms of reasoning?

That brings us to the second challenge. What are we to do in the interim, assuming we have no easy solutions ready to hand? The preferred option for both sides would be that the other would surrender. I don’t think that’s likely. Another option, talked about for years, is some sort of “amicable separation.” While some things could be divided amicably, I believe this solution is also overly simplistic. We’re a fragmented and broken church, full of fragmented broken people (and I’m not just talking about the people who disagree with me). Though “sexuality” is our current major fault line, it is not the only fault line or even the only significant one. It is also the case that people change their positions vis-a-vis “sexuality” over time. Suppose we amicably separate next year. Will the resulting institutions (and why think there will only be two?) be monolithic and stay monolithic for long? How long until we need another amicable separation?

Utility demands we resolve this issue sooner rather than later. People are suffering the consequences of exclusion. People are suffering from the consequences of including misguided leaders who lead them astray. We must stop the suffering. We must act now. But why does utility have to be our trump value? My preference is to wait – to integrate also the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The wait will not be easy. The work of discernment will be hard. It may take decades – even centuries.

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This entry was posted in Church & State, Clash of Civilizations, Culture, Current events, Politics, United Methodism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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