DiscipleChurch Friends and Family:
We are preaching on Teresa of Avila this month.
And believe it or not, the following does have to do with Teresa of Avila and her experience that “nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of our soul…Let us think of our soul as resembling a castle formed of a single diamond, containing many rooms. In the center…is the principle chamber in which God and our soul hold their most secret discourse.”
As an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church, I am not free to act freely on my “most secret discourse” with God in the “principle chamber” of my soul. I “a man under authority,“ referring to the language of Matthew 8.9. I have “authority” to act as an ordained minister only from the United Methodist Church and only under our Book of Discipline. I cannot celebrate communion or baptize or marry on my own authority or under my own personal inspiration by the Spirit; I can do so only under the authority of my Church; I did not and could not ordain myself. When I sought and accepted ordination as an elder in this Church, I swore to abide by its rules and doctrines and standards. If I disagree with those rules, doctrines and standards, even as a matter of conscience and inspiration, I have the prerogative to work to change them within the Church’s framework. But as clergy, I cannot act as a church of one. I cannot arrogate to myself prerogatives and powers I have not been granted. Happily, our Church respects and affords me much freedom in my experience and expression of the Spirit and in my acting and speaking on my own conscience and reason. But there are some things I just cannot say or do or even believe…as an ordained United Methodist elder. For instance, if I were to awake some morning with a burning conviction that Jesus was NOT “the Word made flesh” but was only a really, really good guy, my own view is that then I ought to lay down my ordination from this Church, not just cover it up or speak in code. (Hear this: I am talking only about myself here. I am not talking about anyone else here. Who am I to judge anyone else? I have no one else in mind here but myself.)
I am not speaking here as my father’s son — my father having been a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. I am not speaking here as a former Marine infantry officer, trained to obey hard orders quickly. I am speaking as an individual deeply committed to a community called the Church, and so an individual with three basic convictions. The first conviction is that because the Spirit seeks to create and foster community, the Spirit speaks clearest and loudest within community. The second is that being called to be a committed part of a worshipping community means being called to accept that the community is inevitably going to take some positions that I really would not have it take, at least for now, positions that I am convinced are wrong and painful. The third is that the blessing of “poverty of spirit” which my Lord seeks to bestow upon me would inspire me to the humility to listen attentively and respectfully for the Spirit within that community.
But I also accept that there are some positions that a Church can take as a community that so violate a one person’s conscience and experience of the Spirit that she or he is, within that conscience and experience, compelled to leave that Church. All of us have deeply felt issues. My “deeply felt issues” mostly concern how much of a rich church’s assets it spends upon itself and how much on the poor, and particularly on poor children. But I am still here. And so are you. Years ago, I worked in Washington for a U.S. Senator, who taught me that every politician has two kinds of issues. One kind is the issues he or she will compromise on. The other kind are those he or she will not compromise on. And, he taught me, “The measure of a politician is not so much what those issues are, but which of those issues shrink and which grow, and where and how permanently the politician draws a line between them.” I suspect that church members and clergy are the same way. There are some issues that are so much a part of who each of us are as a child of God that we just cannot compromise on them.
So the challenge is: How do we stay true to our own conscience and our own experience of the Spirit while still valuing community and respecting that the Spirit speaks clearest and loudest within community? I want to suggest to you that there are times when the best way is to speak and listen and work for change–lovingly, respectfully and empathetically–within our community, for as long as we can.
But what does this have to do with Teresa?
Teresa was a true mystic, one of the “Doctors” of the Catholic Church because of her mystical experiences of the Spirit and what she taught us about these experiences. When Teresa experienced God personally in the “principle chamber” of her diamond-like soul, she was in a way a Church of one. There was no institution standing between or even mediating her experience of God, no institution telling her what she could or could not learn or feel in the presence of the Spirit. Her soul was one-on-one with God’s. Like Moses on Sinai. Like Isaiah or Ezekiel in the Temple. Like Jeremiah at his call to be a prophet. Like Paul on the road to Damascus. Like Jesus at his baptism or in the wilderness. We are each a single child of God, independent of the institution of the Church. We all have the capacity, as Teresa did, of experiencing God alone. And when we do, and speak about it, we should not be surprised if our community resists and questions our experience, if it does not comport completely with established doctrine and rules.
Through the centuries of Judaism and Christianity, all religious institutions have resisted and been suspicious of these un-controlled, un-mediated, personal experiences of God. Teresa, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Paul, and, yes, Jesus, were all resisted for their personally received Truths. Religious institutions are uniformly conservative and protective, dedicated to the Ways and the Truths revealed in the Past. In our Church, we believe that those Ways and Truths have been revealed mostly in Holy Scripture.
But the vibrancy and relevance of our Church depend upon our receptiveness to a new receipt of the Spirit, always creating, always birthing again, giving us new insights and new applications in our new time for old truths.
What? Do we think that the Spirit quit inspiring people when the last word of the last verse of the most recently written book of Holy Scripture was written?
So, of course, you have already guessed that I will be asking us this Sunday to consider, in light of the above, the issue of our Church’s prohibition, expressed through our 2012 Book of Discipline, of any of its clergy officiating at any marriage ceremony for persons of the same sex.
I am going to talk about my own acceptance that I simply may not officiate at any such ceremony, that I just do not have the authority to do so. I am going to talk some about the scriptural basis for that prohibition, and compare it to other instances in which the community of the United Methodist Church has stepped away from other scriptural prohibitions and teachings, I believe under the experience of the Spirit. I am going to talk about the ways we can discern when it is the Spirit that is moving us in this new direction, and not just our secular culture or our own personal likes and dislikes.
And I am going to talk about the call for us to stay together as one community despite the disagreements within our community that may become even more intense on this issue.
While I am certain I may not now officiate at such a wedding, I also am convinced that I am as free as any lay person, and am even called, to express my views on this prohibition, in a loving and respectful and empathetic manner.
Your brother, Brooks