travelin' through this world of woe;
but there's no sickness, no toil nor danger
in that bright land to which I go.
Retired from a full career of ministry in The United Methodist Church, I now contemplate the chaos and possible ruin of that denomination with sorrow. And I thought I might set down, briefly, an account of my pilgrimage and my hope amid the weariness and tears of the present.
I am a church orphan. I used to call myself an adult convert, but an increasing awareness of how my parents' stomping out of the Spencer Methodist Church in 1964 affected me has caused me to change my appellation. The cause of the disruption isn't important now; suffice it to say that I spent most of my youth in only minimal contact with organized religion. My Scoutmaster, a Baptist minister, had a great effect upon me, but he never pushed me into a commitment I wasn't ready for. In the meantime, nobody came looking for me. I was never invited to be part of a confirmation class or a youth group. I never attended church camp. What I knew of the gospel came from Scout camp chapels. The Scouts, at least, wanted me and valued my participation; the Church never did.
My first semester in college, a friend who had been converted to Christ through the offices of Campus Crusade the year before witnessed to me. As a result of his explanations, one evening all alone in my dorm room I accepted Christ as my Savior and promised to follow him all the days of my life. I began to read the previously untouched Bible I had been given in 5th grade. A year later, I fell in love and got married in a rush (another improbable story, but we are still married). And during those two years in college, I met and befriended quite a number of religious people. The president of the Newman Center (Catholic student ministry) was a friend, the daughter of a Lutheran (Missouri Synod) pastor was another. I knew people in Campus Crusade and the Navigators. Not one of them ever invited me to their church. I kept waiting for someone to ask me. My new wife had also managed to grow up in church without ever being invited to make a profession of faith. We now waited for someone to invite us to something, to answer our questions, to help us figure out this church thing.
Meanwhile, my parents were reconciling with the (now United) Methodist Church. They were taking part in a new member class, and the pastor had given them a published excerpt from The Book of Discipline containing our doctrinal standards. I read the Articles of Religion, and thought, "I'd like to belong to a church that believed that." There was a UMC just up the street from our first apartment in Terre Haute, so one Sunday morning we walked up there and crashed the doors cold. We had grown tired of waiting to be asked, so we asked ourselves. Deanne was baptized and I was confirmed in that church. And it was from that church that I headed off to seminary, still vibrating from the lightning-bolt call of God that I wasn't expecting.
Just as I knew next to nothing about the culture of the church we had joined -- just its official beliefs -- so I knew next to nothing about the history and reputation of Asbury Theological Seminary. I didn't know what an evangelical was. I had never heard the word "sanctification" in spoken modern English. I had examined their course catalog, and it looked challenging. In the end -- honest to God, folks -- I went to Asbury because it was close. And it was there that I first encountered Southern-fried evangelicals. At this point, I should point out that, though I tried with all my might, I never really fit in with the evangelical crowd. Oh, I was orthodox as St. Peter. I ate up all the theology and Greek and everything else Asbury had to offer -- and I believe I got the best theological education available in the US at that time. But I finally realized, only after years of contemplating it, that I am not an evangelical, and really can't be.
Evangelical has three primary meanings. The first need not concern us, which is, "evangelical" as a synonym for "Protestant." This is its usage in Europe, and among Lutherans. But for everyone else, evangelical means either a particular theology -- especially a theology of the Bible -- or a particular religious sub-culture. Well, I never really fit into the sub-culture, and I have to confess that I think that the theological niceties of how evangelicals view Scripture are a bit off. I believe the Bible; I can't say that I believe in the Bible, not the way they do. So, I usually refer to myself as (small-o) orthodox. Remembering the Articles of Religion, which Wesley cribbed from those of the Church of England, I look back over the whole history of Christianity among the English people, and I see there the church I want to belong to, and to which I want to invite people. Which is why I often say that I am really just a tenth-Century Anglo-Saxon priest, born slightly out of his due time. Methodism is just the latest flower of that hardy shrub, the English Church Tradition.
When I began my ministry in the clergy of The UMC, however, I made the acquaintance of colleagues who had traveled a very different road from mine. No doubt each of us follows a very personal path into the ministry, but given the in-out-of-left-field path I had followed, mine was more nearly unique. Others seemed to follow several well-worn ruts. There were lots of clergy who were PKs (parsonage kids, children of clergy). Not saying that they inherited their calling, but certainly they were following in a path blazed for them by others. There were those also who had been very active in youth ministry and then went to college and got active in college ministry groups. These all seemed to know their way about, and what to expect.
Some of them were evangelicals. And some of them had started out that way, but their seminary education (in the "best" schools, the modernist ones) had stolen their reason to believe. They still had the feelings, they still had the ingrained habits, but they could no longer articulate the simple faith they started out with. They always seemed to be a bit strained to me. And there were the liberals -- or, as we call them now mostly, the progressives. However they had started out, they had come to believe in a religion where politics was the true spirituality. They used all the words the orthodox of different stripes used, but they meant subtly different things by them. They were mostly interested in what changes in society the church could achieve. When I finally understood what they were selling, I pitied them, poor hollow things as I thought them. Later, when I saw how they played inside baseball with church politics, I resented them.
Meanwhile, I did what I knew to do. I taught the faith, and I gathered the outcasts. I made sure to give the invitation to believe and belong to those who, like myself, had never quite figured out the way in -- without neglecting those who had always been there and needed my ministry, too. I offered people Jesus, and I offered them myself, to make together the Church which is of all time and which is greater than any earthly denomination. And while I was doing that, I took care to really believe what I was saying, and to keep my vows. I obeyed the rules, even when I didn't like them; as I obeyed those set over me, even when I didn't much respect them.
And so now I find myself retired and I wonder: where do I belong? Still and ever, the church orphan. And perhaps more so, if The UMC commits sexual apostasy and disembowels itself at the upcoming called General Conference in February, 2019. All through my career, I knew that if that day ever came, I would have to leave The UMC. I could not in good conscience serve a church that had so twisted its own official beliefs and turned the Scripture on its head to justify its worldly goals. But as a retired pastor, it doesn't matter where my credentials are from. I can attend anywhere, serve anywhere. Nevertheless, I grieve the ruin of so much that was good and that I thought I could continue to take pride in. And if The UMC becomes an alien and hostile environment, then where will my church home be?
Even after forty-some years, I'm still just a wayfaring stranger. Perhaps I will end up like Taliessin in Charles Williams's poem, "Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass." It is said that Lancelot took a hermit's vows. In the poem, the Round Table is gone, Arthur is taken away, Llogres has been conquered, all the hope and glamor of Camelot is destroyed. The now-penitent Lancelot offers his prayers as Taliessin, once the King's Poet, comes to the door of his chapel. In his mass, all the great figures of the past are seen as they are in eternity, and the failure of Llogres is seen against its ultimate achievement in the kingdom of heaven. The Company that had once celebrated the common life of Christ amongst themselves is again present. But after the vision passes, there is only Lancelot at his prayers, and Taliessin continuing on his journey. Wherever he goes, the Company lives, even if only in the hedges and highways, and God's work will continue, whatever great institutions may fail.
Fast to the Byzantine harbour gather the salvaged sails;
that which was once Taliessin rides to the barrows of Wales
up the vales of Wye; if skill be of work or of will
in the dispersed homes of the household, let the Company pray for it still.