I didn’t come into the Church the way most people do. I was a church orphan. My parents (literally) stomped out of the Spencer Methodist Church when I was eleven years old. My wife and I found our way back in as newlyweds attending Indiana State University ten years later. In between, I received Christ as my Savior from the testimony of a friend, who probably didn’t realize I’d followed his advice. I kept waiting for someone to tell me what to do next. (How do you join this chicken outfit, anyway?) But nobody ever did.
But my parents were reconciling with The UMC in their new hometown, and I read a pamphlet their pastor had given the adult new members’ class they participated in. It was the section on doctrinal standards from the Book of Discipline. And there, I read the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the first time. “I’d like to belong to a church that believed that,” I thought to myself. Well, there was a United Methodist church just a block and a half from our first apartment, so there Deanne and I repaired one Sunday morning, and it was in that congregation that we both made our professions of faith. We had got tired of waiting to be invited, and finally just invited ourselves.
I went to seminary soon after, following a lightning bolt call from God. At the time I became a minister, I didn’t have a very deep experience of the Church as a layperson. What I knew, I mostly carried in my head. And since United Methodism doesn’t really have a coherent theology of the Church or a consensus on church tradition, what you carry in your head is pretty much what you are given leave to proclaim.
I was attracted to The UMC because of our doctrine – not the doctrine as stated by every Rev. Tom Dickharry, but the doctrine in the Book of Discipline. I was attracted to Wesley. And since Wesley got his stuff from Anglicanism, I was attracted to Anglicanism. This dovetailed with a lifelong love affair with Old English – the language and the culture. Anglicanism, Methodism, Puritanism were only the latest strands in what I call the English Church Tradition. Ever since Augustine landed at Thanet and set up shop in King Ethelbert’s capital, the English and English-speaking people have been following the same sacred path. Cuthbert, Bede, Dunstan, Alcuin, Alfred, Boniface, Richard of Chichester, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmer, Elizabeth I, John Donne, the Wesleys, Francis Asbury, Harry Hosier, are all in continuous connection with each other. They are not only joined in Christ, but in a particular way of expressing what it means to be joined in Christ. We United Methodists don’t claim apostolic succession, but we believe (or at least, I believe) that we are all part of a great family of believers, sharing a history and mode of expression.
Lest you doubt this, I have a standing bet I’ve offered for years. I could do a Sarum Mass in modern English, and no one would notice anything really odd about it other than more references to the Virgin Mary than we’re used to today. It would seem like something we’d always done – because we have.
In my preaching and teaching and worship leadership, I have always sought to unite our ancient heritage with our present-day life. Not that I want to be all antiquarian or anything, but I think we have cut ourselves off from the past, and this has not only impoverished us, but made us a sucker for all kinds of people selling old heresies under the label “new and improved.”
Is it legitimate that I have taken this approach? Am I offering anything real to my parishioners, or just indulging my fantasy of a Church that doesn’t really exist? In my defense, all I can say is, nobody ever offered me a place in their Church, so I had to make it myself. And I have spent the last forty years offering what I wanted so badly to others who also wanted it. To me, that seemed like preaching the gospel. "Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread," they say, but I'd also say, it's sharing whatever bread you have and not waiting for the official distribution network to awake to their task.
But it’s been hard. I have not been able to make The UMC over in the fashion I would have desired. Not that I ever tried to do anything so grandiose; I’m just saying that the nature of the UMC-as-it-is has been remarkably resistant to all efforts to make it into something else. A lot of the people we bring to Christ and get excited about church seem to fade away when they realize our advertising doesn’t hold up past a certain point.
I see a lot of folks who like the UMC-as-it-is. They’ve profited by it, they’re comfortable with it, they don’t want it to be shaken by visions or lured by dreams. They look at people like me and think we’re trouble-makers. I recognize them. They’re the same people who never got around to inviting me when I was a boy and then a young man.
And I also know that they will do anything to keep their Church, even sell out the doctrine and polity to the progressives – whose idea of the Church is even more of a fantasy than mine ever was, since mine at least was based upon actual Christians’ experience and not just leftist ideology and social analysis. But the progs promise that if the middle of the roaders just give the progs what they want then they can keep something called The United Methodist Church and still pretend nothing’s changed, and that’s what the “Methodist middle” wants. The fantasy of the institutional church supporters is that the survival of the earthly institution is what matters.
So, what do I do if The UMC declares, in no uncertain terms, that “everything you know is wrong” and that disobeying the rules is fine if you’re those guys (but don’t think that you other guys will get to do that after we take over)? Well, I know a lot of people who will simply leave. Some of them will attempt to take their property and connections with them. Even if there isn’t a mass exodus, the experience of other religious denominations that tried to finesse their way past the hang-ups of the orthodox believers points toward a steady decline. Once Elvis has left the building, there’s not much reason to stay; and once the Faith has been made over to be all post-modern and radicalized, there is no “there” there, anymore, to attract, comfort, or transform a lonely or penitent soul.
What will I do? I don’t know. Retire, I suppose. At my time of life, thundering threats to leave or fight or whatever sounds kind of hollow. I can’t see resigning my orders or transferring to something else. I will retire as a United Methodist Elder. Then, I will just – go away. Like St. Anthony going to the desert, I will go and find Christ where I can. And offer him to anybody who is also looking for him. That, after all, is what I have done with my life. And perhaps my fantasy of the Church will turn out to be more real – and more lasting -- than all the buildings and corporate structures and assets of The United Methodist Church.