September 2016 – Graceful Controversy

September 2, 2016 | | News, Bishop's Relay Column

I am intrigued when two words with different meanings are put together:

  • deafening silence
  • irregular pattern
  • serious joke
  • accurate estimate
  • lead from behind

Phrases that use contradictory words cause us to think about the meaning.

The Bible uses this same technique to challenge and deepen faith and understanding.

  • Whoever wants to save their life must lose it – dying to live
  • We are made perfect in weakness – perfect weakness
  • The first shall be last – last place winners
  • You must be born again – second birth

With this article, I begin a three part series looking at what seems to be opposites as we consider what’s next for The United Methodist Church.

  1. Graceful controversy
  2. Contemporary tradition
  3. Generous orthodoxy

There are some who feel The United Methodist Church is on the brink of schism because of our differences concerning LGBTQ people (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer). In May 2016, General Conference voted to organize a Special Commission to identify a helpful way forward with consideration to important theological beliefs and differences concerning the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians.

Today I want to talk with you about, graceful controversy.

Recently I wrote a letter to GNJ clergy and lay leadership about the election and consecration of Karen Oliveto to the office of Bishop in The United Methodist Church. Bishop Oliveto is a self-avowed, practicing lesbian. I have received numerous messages about my letter. Some indicate they’re leaving The United Methodist Church because of the election and consecration of Bishop Oliveto, while others wonder why it has taken The United Methodist Church so long to move in this direction and if it does not change its policy, they will leave the denomination.

Humanity in general, has never been very good at controversy and rarely approaches graceful controversy. After all, controversy by its very nature is oppositional. In controversies, people try to convince each other to their way of thinking, dismiss, or even try to destroy each other. History has repeated itself over and over again. In The United Methodist Church, we have had serious conflicts with other controversies – women’s ordination, slavery, segregation, and divorce are a few of them. We have even had deep controversy over whether or not there should be Methodist bishops. On this one, I am glad things worked out as they did.

People like Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jesus are the people who have been graceful witnesses in the face of controversy. They did not avoid conflict or change.  They engaged it.  People did not always come to see things as King, Gandhi, Roosevelt or Jesus saw them, but many people, whether they agreed or disagreed, had an inner change after their engagement.

Today, as we face a controversy about homosexuality, we have leaders who will solve the problem by conducting church trials by the dozens for people who disobey the Book of Discipline. Sometimes, trials may be unavoidable, but they are painful, divisive and hurt the witness of the church. To be cavalier about trials is not graceful controversy and will not help us through this controversy.

Others have sent hate mail and made threats against people. Those who respond with hate will not help us through this challenge if they’re not open to graceful controversy.

Jesus had strong views but was willing to change in the midst of controversy as in the story of the healing of a Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). At times Jesus taught obedience to the law (Matthew 5:17), and on other occasions, he healed people on the Sabbath in opposition to the law. Even God after the great flood changed and said that there would be no more great floods.

Changing church laws does not necessarily change hearts. The UMC changed its segregation policies in 1968 but today racism continues within the UMC. Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in our church. We have not changed yet. Changing a law does not make a heart change.

Compromise is not heart change either.

Compromise on the issues facing us about homosexuality is not the answer. Compromise is like the couple who were going on vacation. One wanted to go to Hawaii and the other to the Bahamas. What did they do?  They went to Oklahoma. It is not compromising that we are called to, but a grace-filled conversation that leads to heart change.  Graceful controversy is not compromising.

Our problem now is our focus on maintaining or changing the Book of Discipline. I see graceful controversy seeking a different change, a change within, a change of the heart. This change begins with our own heart first.

When I talk about heart change and embracing paradoxes people say, “the Bible says…” and others say, our Book of Discipline discriminates and causes hatred. Both of these are true. But I believe there is a greater change God seeks in our church, and I believe engaging controversies gracefully are an avenue to our future.

What does graceful controversy look like in the midst of our differences? Here are some things I have learned along the way.

  1. Seek God and understanding rather than winning.
  2. Understand that just because people disagree with you or your interpretation of the Bible doesn’t mean they’re bad or wrong.
  3. Bathe the controversy in prayer and seek the Holy Spirit’s discernment.
  4. Seek solutions through a deeper relationship with God and with others, especially with those that do not agree with you.

I am sure you can add to this list. Grace in the midst of controversy turns fear into trust, enemies into friends, and hopelessness into possibility.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops is forming a 20-person Special Commission to look at how we will move through our differences, our paradox.  I want to engage disciples across GNJ who would like to participate in a conversation that gracefully looks at our controversy and shares GNJ’s input with the Special Commission. In the coming weeks, you will hear more about how you can participate.

Today the church is working through a variety of controversial matters, not only LGBTQ. In GNJ the conference seeks to support congregations in the midst of controversial conversations. I invite you to change the tenor and tone of the conversation by entering into the controversies gracefully. We have people who are ready to assist your congregation and facilitate controversial discussion. To learn more or to have a trained facilitator work with you contact Nicola Mulligan at NMulligan@gnjumc.org.

Keep the faith!

John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey