When the holidays are more bitter than sweet

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Commentary by Patrick Scriven

Wise ministry leaders are often cautious on holidays like Mothers Day. In any given congregation there is likely someone who has a complicated relationship with the day, someone to whom they’d prefer to do no harm. As in most things, sensitivity to the diversity present can help us to avoid unintentional harm even as it may open up new ways to celebrate and understand the concept of motherhood.

This past week has left me feeling quite similarly about The United Methodist Church’s ongoing efforts to celebrate its 50th anniversary. While it is undeniable that the UMC has accomplished much good, it is hard (for me) to push down feelings of sadness when I look back at the optimism of the Uniting Conference in 1968.

Just as many celebrate Mothers Day with sensitivity and an eye toward inclusion, a similar approach might be warranted as we celebrate the UMC’s first 50 years. For some, the promise of those early days have never been delivered. For others, the mission has drifted in ways they can no longer recognize. And for perhaps the majority, the celebration will be welcomed so long as there is a good potluck. It’s important to remember that local churches aren’t often driven by denominational politics.

Visions and Dreams

Distinguished Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler preached a much remarked upon sermon at the Uniting Service in 1968 entitled Visions and Dreams. In it, he discusses a number of Christian essentials as he remarks upon the opportunities and challenges of the newly formed denomination. Let me share something he said as he was defining the word “Catholic” in the context of Christian unity.

It [Catholic] means “open” — a community whose boundaries are set by the Christian essentials (the bare essentials at that) in which it is bad faith for anyone to deny full membership to any other save by the canons of faith in Christ and the Christian discipline that derives from that confession. This rules out all distinctions based on race, sex, class and culture — and so also all distinctions based on partisan emphases on this doctrine or that, this form of worship or that, this pattern of polity or that. Here is the plain teaching of Wesley’s sermon on Catholic Spirit — a sermon we would do well to recall and to update in terms that might fit our own condition. A church tormented and befuddled by racial strife is not yet truly “catholic.” A church that can- not manage her global ties without “colonialism” or “autonomy” is not yet “truly catholic.”

This past week revealed a United Methodist Church still attempting to live into, and perhaps even backsliding away from, Outler’s articulation of Wesleyan unity. It found us obsessing again over the ‘distinctions’ and ‘partisan emphases,’ having difficulties affirming shared values (in part) because of trust issues, and even revisiting our colonial impulses. For many who follow the denomination closely, it wasn’t a good week. Amidst the pain, some of us felt like children who had recently lost their mother, others like parents letting go of the dream of having children.

Moving Forward

Despite the denominational angst of late, I hope you will consider some marking of this ‘holiday’ in the life of our church. An anniversary like United Methodism’s 50th can be a great opportunity to look back and celebrate the visions and dreams of the past even as we reflect upon the work left undone. If we can do so with grace, and some sensitivity to each other, we may even be surprised to find ourselves offering God’s healing to someone who needs it.

Finally, if you find yourself fortunate enough to have a female pastor in your church or in your life, be sure they know how appreciated they are this week. As the female bishops helped to point out, by failing to pass two amendments related to the right of girls, women, and other vulnerable groups we missed an opportunity to codify a desire to stand up “for those who are denied the ability to use their gifts to make a difference in the world.”

Hopefully, it won’t take us another 50 years to do so.


Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well said, Patrick. I’m finding it hard to celebrate the 50th anniversary and your articulation of the issue of Catholicity helped me put my finger on my disquiet.

  2. I find it ironic to celebrate the 50th anniversary when we are close to the possibility of dividing the denomination in some fashion. As far as the women’s issue is concerned, I glanced at the voting in Africa and when any conference votes 100% for something, I am suspicious that democracy was not at work. I accidentally went to a union meeting in Detroit one time and goons (that is what they were called) walked up and down the aisle to threaten and intimidate anyone who dared to speak against the leader. I am left wondering if some conferences even voted on the issue or if the supreme leader just announced how they were voting. One thing we don’t have and that is a police force….yet.

  3. One further sad thought. Dr. Outler, who helped shape modern and contemporary United Methodism, was said to have repented of some of his best work in the creation of the United Methodist Church, including the quadrilateral. Hopefully we don’t have to vote on that (again) anytime soon.

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