October 9th, 2017

pirate ship

Aboard the good ship UMC

The Church has often been compared to a ship. Even our church architecture reflects this, with the nave, or seating area of the sanctuary named after the Greek naos, Latin navis, meaning "ship." Aye, the Church is the barque of St. Peter, with the cross for its mast, driven by the wind of the Holy Ghost. A fine image.

Now, I have frequently used the term "mutiny" to describe what is going on in The United Methodist Church these days, as progressive radicals attempt to seize control of The UMC by their disobedience to the ordinary rules and procedures of The Discipline. But you can also describe what is going on in terms of the fabric of a sailing ship.

A ship of the Age of Sail had miles of rope used to both hold it together and manage it at sea. The ropes that raised, lowered, and trimmed the sails to catch the wind were called halyards, sheets, and other things. "Learning the ropes" was what sailors called their training in seamanship. You had to know which rope to lay hand to, and which way to pull it -- in teamwork with many others -- in order to handle the ship. This was the running rigging.

There was also, however, the standing rigging. These were the ropes that held the ship together; they were called stays and shrouds. They kept the masts firmly in place and balanced the tension both laterally and fore-and-aft. If they broke, whether because of too much tension or because of enemy fire or from wear and tear, the masts would immediately begin to wobble. Then, any pressure of the wind on the sails would pull the whole jumble of masts, spars, sails, and whatnot apart. Down it would all come, rendering the ship, at best, a drifting hulk, incapable of independent motion; at worst, the loss of the top hamper might damage the hull or even capsize the vessel.

The standing rigging of The UMC is the dogma, the institutions, and the ministry relationships described in The Book of Discipline. The running rigging of The UMC is our established procedures for conducting business and doing ministry. The whole, bewildering maze of rules, Orders, forms, meetings, officers, Conferences and so on is as difficult to master as learning the ropes on a sailing ship. Well I remember my early days in the pastorate, struggling to learn what I had to do. Forty years later, I still meet lifelong lay United Methodists who have no idea what many of those paragraphs in the BOD are for, or which one they should pull on to make the congregation go where they want it to.

The mutinous progs, by insisting that they will not follow the rules about ministerial relationships and conduct -- by electing and installing a lesbian bishop, by ordaining and appointing and routinely dismissing charges against or requiring "just resolutions" which amount to no consequences for "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" in the ministry, by passing resolutions of non-compliance with the BOD, by performing prohibited same-sex marriages -- have effectively cut the shrouds and stays that hold the ship together. This makes the plaintive bleat of the "centrists," who keep saying that we need to quit worrying about what other people do, and instead concentrate on doing ministry -- that is, working the running rigging in order to catch "the wind that blows where it wills" -- not only fatuous but dangerous. Once the standing rigging is damaged, any attempt to make sail will simply pull the ship apart.

The progs and centrists complain that we evangelicals and orthodox have sex on the brain. I would retort that it is they, not we, who have made sexuality the principal issue to be argued about for the last forty years. But let that go. While the most obvious damage to The UMC is being done by those pushing for their vision of LGBTQ empowerment, the actual fraying of the standing rigging has been going on for a long time.

When was the last time your congregation had an honest Charge Conference presided over by a DS or traveling elder who actually called for business to be done in a business-like way? This is our primary means of connectional accountability for the local church, and it has been turned into a kind of mass rally of many congregations at once at which all the "boring paper work" is de-emphasized and all the "exciting" stuff the DS wants to talk about is promoted. We don't believe in Charge Conferences any more, so more and more responsibilities are being heaped upon Church Councils, which now must operate as if we had a congregational form of government. And then the Powers That Be wonder why local UM churches want to operate in ways that the BOD forbids.

For that matter, when was the last time your Annual Conference session actually received and acted on ordinary items of business? Ours has become a trade show, a convention. It is not desired that the members of the Conference, both clergy and lay, actually vote on anything. Voting is divisive. Far better to let the Conference staff do everything and just take a voice vote once to authorize everything. Then we can spend more time on speeches and seminars conducted by The Usual Suspects invited by the bishop. Then, because everyone understands that their time is being wasted, we have to keep offering more spectacle and family entertainment foofaraw to get people to attend.

The AC lost interest in maintaining boards and committees long ago, so they don't really have much volunteer structure any more, either. The staff can do all that, too. We don't really need or want anybody's input. And there are no budgets for individual committees, either. So only the stuff the people in the inner ring want gets done. And all those offices The Discipline requires? Well, we'll elect people to them, but put them all on one "Table," where they can fight for the few resources we make available for them to do all those things The Discipline contemplates getting done.

Meanwhile, the General Boards and Agencies don't believe in our UM structure any more, either. They can't get Conferences and Districts to respond to them, so they don't do training for Conf and Dist chairs of this or that any more. Each agency recruits its own local agents and credentials them to go make something happen wherever they are. They point to all these people they're supposedly doing ministry with and through, but these local Ministry Specialists of various sorts are mostly anonymous or ignored.

All across The UMC, everyone says, "we need to approach this in a Wesleyan way," but the essential structures and institutions John Wesley created, including the Conference and connectionalism itself, have been ignored to the point of decay. Nobody believes in The UM way to do things any more in The UMC. Our bishop can't even use the correct title for District Superintendents; everybody is just making it up however they want.

The standing rigging of the ship is in shreds and tatters. Until it be repaired, we dare not attempt to sail it any faster, lest it simply come apart and we founder utterly.

Excursus on The Woman in Revelation 12

I mentioned recently that I've been working on a commentary on Revelation for some time. It has been much delayed. Here is a section I just drafted, though, containing certain of my thoughts.


The Woman and the Dragon are described as a portent, a sign never before seen, heralding the last days. This sign is given in the heavens, and is the heavenly counterpart of the Two Witnesses’ testimony on earth. Before the execution of God’s final judgment on creation, we are to be given a last explanation of what has moved God to do this.

The Woman is “clothed with the Sun,” that is, wearing it like a cloak about her. This probably refers to her being surrounded by the shekinah, the glory of God. It doesn’t come from her, as it does from the Risen Christ – she is not, herself, divine – but divinity has enfolded her, and her borrowed glory is little less than that of the one who has bestowed it upon her.

She has the Moon “under her feet.” This is a common expression showing the conquest of something, of its subjection to the one who is over it. Psalm 110, a Messianic psalm, contains the promise of God to his Chosen, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” (Ps. 110:1). On the other hand, “feet” is a common Biblical euphemism for the lower part of the body. The seraphim in Isaiah’s vision (Is. 6:2) have six wings, but only use one pair for flight; another pair shields their eyes from looking directly at God (a demonstration of their humility – they are not guilty of pride), while the third pair covers their “feet,” meaning the lower part of their bodies. Angels are not sexual creatures, so far as we know, but in Isaiah’s vision nevertheless display a creaturely modesty before their Creator. This euphemism also shows up in the story of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 3), where Ruth sneaks onto the threshing floor to “uncover his feet.” This is another way of saying, “got into bed with him and offered herself to him as a sexual partner.” She does so not because she is wanton, but because she wants Boaz to fulfill the Levitical law of replacing her dead husband and giving her children. Seeing that the Woman in Revelation is pregnant and in the act of giving birth, an interpretation that took account of the sexual euphemism would not be out of court.

And this is the Moon, the Moon that by its monthly waxing and waning has always been seen as a symbol of womanhood. So perhaps instead of a footstool, we should see this image as a birthing stool. This is the Woman who has willed her own Necessity, and thus has been freed from subjection to it. The one who says, Ecce, ancilla Domini -- “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord” (Lk. 1:38) is freed from the curse pronounced upon her ancestress in the Garden (Gen. 3:16). This is not strange; the only way anyone is freed from the necessities of our human reality – of sin, of sexuality, of hunger, of aging, of death – is to freely will for oneself the will of God as pronounced for oneself. (To be able to do that freely while under the compulsion of necessity is the mystery of grace.)

She wears a crown – a stephanos, a crown of victory, not royalty – of twelve stars. Twelve is the number of the People of God, and stars standing for the children of Israel appear in Joseph's dream (Gen. 37). She is not the Queen of Israel, but she is certainly its representative, its heroine. Her victory is the victory of the People of God, and all their hopes are focused and transmitted through her.

At this point, the resemblance of the Woman to Mary the Mother of Jesus is obvious. But she could also be taken as the representative of Israel, the nation from which Messiah comes, or even the Church. And she could also be taken as Eve – Eve as she should have been, or Eve redeemed – indeed, as Woman in a redeemed and redefined Humanity.

In any case, she brings forth a son “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” Except he does not immediately proceed to do so. Instead, her child is “caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.” Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, and is not yet returned to fulfill his destiny to rule the nations; meanwhile, the People from whom he came and who center around him – Israel/the Church – must hide from the devil, though assured of God’s protection, until the judgment. The 1,260 days is half of seven years, i.e., the whole time between the Resurrection and the Return of Christ.