Monday, June 27, 2011

Part I of Sermon "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

I delivered the sermon yesterday, June 26, 2011, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in whose beautiful facilities my own church has the privilege of worshiping on Sunday evenings. The description of the sermon for their bulletin read:

Bishops have been assassinated for liturgies that lasted too long -- fistfights have broken out over the date of Easter -- excommunications galore have been issued through the centuries as people of faith have made decisions about their religious communities. Thankfully, none of these fates await the minister and lay delegation of UUCDC as they travel to Charlotte for the UUA General Assembly! While they are there, Bishop Cravens will reflect on healthy ways religious communities can engage in the holy work they are called to do.

For the reading earlier in the service, from which this sermon draws inspiration if not exactly being an exposition, I chose two biblical passages: Psalm 133 and Acts 2:42-46.

Because the sermon is a more central part of the service in the UU tradition, my sermon was considerably longer than the sermons I usually give, and since there were three distinct sections, I will post them separately (largely because I have not completed committing them to cyber-paper, given the fact that I preach like a Baptist). Here is part 1.

It may seem odd that I am a church polity geek. I love to read blogs by members of various denominations describing the political issues their churches are facing, and I tend to be pretty current in my awareness of those issues in most major (and some minor) religious groups. But I come by it honestly.

I spent a year and a half discerning a vocation to the Atonement Friars, a branch of the Franciscans in the Roman Catholic denomination. During that time, I experienced how that religious institute governed itself, and got at least some exposure to the governance of the denomination as a whole. Before entering, I actually read all of the canons of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law.

Later, I served on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, and served as a Lay Delegate to the Diocesan Convention from the parish, again getting to know much of the inner workings of the Episcopal Church. Also, during that time, I managed to get roped into serving on the board of a Presbyterian parachurch organization as an “ecumenical representative” thanks to the executive coordinator, a friend of mine from divinity school.

About three years ago, with the help of some other members of the jurisdiction of which I am the bishop, I put together the Canons and Policies that govern how we do the Lord’s work church in our own small corner of the church.

But my interest in church polity goes back much further. Given the family into which I was born, I really didn’t have a chance.

My father and eight of his ten brothers were ordained ministers in various evangelical denomination, and one of the remaining two was a lay preacher, and if the other brother had not been killed in battle in World War II, he might very well have preached as well. True story: I memorized my uncles’ names by their denominational affiliation. Uncles Rupert, Luther, and George were ministers in the Church of the Nazarene, although Uncle George resigned when he divorced, and lived out his days as a Southern Baptist layman. Uncles Wilbur, Marvin, and Robert were Cumberland Presbyterian ministers. (Cumberland Presbyterians are basically hillbilly Presbyterians. I come from an Ozark Hillbilly family.) Uncle Ellis ended up as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister as well, after being a Free-Will Baptist minister for a few years. Uncle Vernon, after briefly trying out the Cumberland Presbyterians, became a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in this country. My father was briefly licensed as a Free-Will Baptist preacher, and was ordained a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, but spent most of his career as a Southern Baptist minister, except for a few years during my childhood when he was an Assemblies of God pastor, before returning to the Southern Baptists.

I actually attended my first national church governance meeting when I was three – the Southern Baptist Convention in Denver. My main memory is going to the children’s room and sitting on a box to watch “Jot” cartoons – a church cartoon the Southern Baptists put out. (Not nearly as interesting as “Davey and Goliath”, which I also watched, a claymation program put out by the Lutherans.)

My first serious interest in church polity came at about age 9. My father had decided to leave the Assemblies of God and return to the Southern Baptists. He had a copy of the Manual of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, because a friend of his was trying to recruit him when he found out he was leaving the Assemblies of God (which is also a Pentecostal denomination), and I was fascinated with the history of the denomination and with the rules governing the church. I was also fascinated with the yearbooks of the various Southern Baptist associations and conventions, with their constitutions, bylaws, and statistical tables.

At age 10, my father had returned to the pastorate of a Southern Baptist church, and I had “surrendered to preach” – that is, come forward during an altar call to say that I felt called to become a minister when I grew up. My parents were going to the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City that summer as “messengers”, as the Southern Baptists call their delegates, and it was decided that I, too, should be a messenger, since the church was entitled to an additional one, and they were afraid that the “liberals” were going to take over. I was fascinated with the greetings from Baptist denominations in other countries. I remember singing “How Firm a Foundation” with the tens of thousands of messengers, hearing Billy Graham preach – telling about his experiences in a Communist country, going through all the booths in the exhibitors’ hall. I also remember that one of the votes that was taken was about homosexuality – they overwhelmingly voted to condemn it, with only a few dissenting – who were immediately looked upon with suspicion by everyone else as possibly being gay and definitely not being Christian.

On the way to the convention, we stayed with my Uncle Marvin, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, and was fascinated with the book containing their Confession of Faith and the various polity documents, and requested one, which he sent me later that summer when they went to their own General Assembly.

A few years later, my father decided to return to the charismatic world and did not pastor a church for five years. At some point during that time, we began attending the United Methodist church our next door neighbors attended. I joined, and quickly took to reading the Book of Discipline, the book containing that denomination’s polity. The rule in United Methodism is that the Annual Conferences (roughly like UU districts) and General Conference must be made up of equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates. Each church has a lay delegate for every clergymember serving the congregation. Because there are ministers who are not pastors of congregations, serving in denominational bureaucracy, or chaplaincy, or the like, various annual conferences have come up with ways to make up the difference, and our annual conference let each district appoint two youth delegates, and I was appointed to be one of them for the conference occurring during the summer before my senior year.

In many ways it was a great experience. I attended all but one of the sessions. I enjoyed meeting other people. I bought some interesting books about worship that are still in my library. But I did miss one session – and I stayed away because it was too painful.

You see, when I was about thirteen, I started realizing that I was gay. Unfortunately, around that time, the United Methodist Church was debating the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy. A bishop in Colorado ordained an openly lesbian minister around 1982, and this caused an uproar in the more conservative parts of the denomination, including East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the conference of which I was a part. That conference, like most of the Southern conferences, and some others, passed resolutions by overwhelming majorities condemning this move and demanding that the 1984 General Conference (they are held every four years) ban the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals”, a ban that, sadly, passed and remains in the Book of Discipline and that has been joined by bans on same-sex marriages being performed by United Methodist clergy or on United Methodist church property.

And, while I remain fascinated by church polity and continue to read – for fun – various things about religious communities and how they make decisions, it’s a very important issue, because people’s spiritual lives are at stake. How religious communities go about their work can have profoundly negative – or profoundly positive – effects on people’s lives.

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