A week ago at this time I was preparing to lead Bible study with a wonderful and diverse group of people. Every Tuesday evening people white and black, wealthy and poor, conservative and liberal, LGBTQ and straight, gather to hear what God’s word says to their lives today. Being a part of this group is a rich experience and one of the highlights of my week.
At this time last week I welcomed people to Bible study while glancing down at my phone. On the small screen was the livestream of General Conference 2019. Four days of Roberts Rules were quickly coming to a culmination and THEE vote was about to happen. In reality, the vote was a foregone conclusion. After watching days of preliminary votes and parliamentary procedure it would take a miracle to have a different outcome. The miracle didn’t happen, the previously unexpected did. One minute before Bible study, the United Methodist Church democratically voted to double down on its exclusion and make LGBTQ people modern day untouchables. In the words of Adam Hamilton the so-called traditionalists “won the battle and lost the church.”
I have been to two general conferences and have seen how things work. I can vividly remember tears running down my face in 2008 when the church voted once again for exclusion. But I never imagined we would make it worse. Yet, we did.
In the days that followed I was in a depression malaise. I first came to the United Methodist Church in 1998 believing in the motto of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” It is the church that shaped me, formed me, and sent me in to ministry. I have often said if it wasn’t for the United Methodist Church I don’t know if I would be a Christian. And now, 21 years later, I felt like I was discovering that the church was not what I thought it was.
I half jokingly Facebook messaged my former boss asking if I should update my LinkedIn profile. Fortunately, my current boss reminded me of the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung who published a short book, “Why I am still a Christian,” in a world where the church had a waning influence on culture.
Below, in bold, are Kung’s answers to this question. My responses follow each of his three points as to why i am still a Methodist.
So, why am I a Christian (Methodist)?
1. Kung: First of all, simply because—despite all my criticisms and concerns—I can nevertheless feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.
Henneman: Like Kung I am humbled to count myself among the eternal priesthood of all believers. I get to walk side-by-side with Kierkegaard and King, with John of the Cross and John of the Free Store, with the dead saints of old and the living saints of the streets. Nothing spiritually nourishes me more than living side-by-side with people in an inclusive and diverse community. I get to experience that at the United Methodist Church For All People every day.
2. Kung: Because I would not dream of confusing the great Christian tradition with the present structures of the church, nor leaving a definition of true Christian values to its present administrators.
Henneman: Someone recently asked me what I thought John Wesley would say about our recent general conference. I believe that Wesley would be furious to find the very thing he fought against continued in his name. Wesley got himself in trouble because he overstepped ecclesial boundaries. He went out to those who the church excluded. He oriented his life around sharing the good news of grace in Jesus Christ with all. Church institutions have a bad history of devolving from spiritual movements to frozen bureaucracies. It breaks my heart that the United Methodist Church has taken this path, but historically it is not surprising. And most importantly, it is not who God is. Institutions may exclude, but God always includes. I am still a Methodist, not out of denominational loyalty, but because it is ultimately God who has called me to widen the circle of love to include all people, particularly those marginalized by the church. I will continue to live in to this calling within the United Methodist Church.
3. Kung: In brief, because—despite my violent objections to what is called Christian—I find in Christianity a basic orientation on the question of the great Whence and Whither, Why and Wherefore, of humanity and the world: a basic orientation for my individual and social self. And at the same time I find in these things a spiritual home on which I do not want to turn my back, any more than I want in politics to turn my back on democracy, which in its own way has been, and is, no less misused and abused than Christianity. But admittedly, all this only hints at the decisive factor. I must make myself clearer still.
Henneman: It is within the United Methodist connection of personal piety and social holiness that I most clearly see the lived out vision of God’s kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven”. The arc of justice is too long and too slow for my liking. Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, King did not make it to the mountain top, and I may never see an international church where ALL people, and especially my LGBT sisters and brothers, are fully affirmed, heard, respected, and honored. But I do get to witness a foretaste of that at the United Methodist Church for All People and will continue to work from the inside until the global church can exhibit the same radical hospitality as the local church.
In the words of my Lutheran heritage: here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.