A Heart Strangely Harmed

Way back in the last century — 1988 to be exact — I prepared a sermon for the 250th anniversary of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience.  When I arrived on Sunday morning and looked at the bulletin, I realized that my title had a typo — instead of “Heart Strangely Warmed” the published title was “Heart Strangely Harmed.”  It made such an impression at the time that I winged it and preached a sermon from the heart, asking people to consider the ways we use faith to do harm instead of good, and that as long as each individual does only what works for them, we will never actually be “the church” — that ultimately we can only be God’s people together.  The concept of a heart strangely harmed stuck with me, and I experienced it once again all over again as I sat through the second day of the Amy De Long trial.  I am not going to comment on the trial itself — that story belongs to others more and better able to tell it than I — but on the state of a church that cannot conceive of a better path toward wholeness than accommodating and assimilating a secular court of law.

The very first consideration is the foundation upon which we operate.  Judaism was a faith of Law, and while Christ did not come to abolish the Law, he did come to reframe law in service to justice.  Grace displaced condemnation; forgiveness displaced punishment, mercy displaced violence; and, accountability displaced brute enforcement.  The one constant in the two spheres was community.  Morality in the pre-modern world had a very simple test: if the act of the individual supported the good of the community, the act was moral; if the act in any way hurt or undermined the community, the act was immoral.  There was none of the quivering Victorian daintiness over individual acts, but the contributions — positive and negative — each made to the common good.  Through the grace of Jesus Christ and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, believers came to know a God of love rather than judgement.  Through Christ, the work of the church became that of reconciliation, erasing the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and the wide plethora of “them.”  Wesley got that in his later life; many Methodists have not.

When it comes to disagreements, United Methodists preferring walking by sight rather than faith.  One of the worst things that ever happened to Methodism was Robert’s Rules of Order.  Once we adopted a trial system, and decades later RRoO, we made clear that when we disagree we would rather be Old Testament legalists rather than New Covenant Christians.  Law is now, and has always been, easier than justice.  RRoO are cleaner and easier (though, not simpler) than concensus-building.  Rules are more definitive than policies which are more definitive than guidelines which are more definitive than working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  We always prefer the path of least resistance, and so it is much easier to adopt secular practices than to do the hard work of Christian living.  It is so much easier to dissect the Bible and interpret the Book of Discipline than to discern the will of God together.  This is the current crisis of United Methodism: we are a people of the Book, but that book is not the Bible.  Who needs discernment when you have a Discipline?

A trial provides a forum where declarative statements of opinion can be entered in as fact, and evidence is used to determine Truth.  Gross hyperbole abounds as individuals make claims for “the Church,” as though the church is a single, uniform entity of one mind and conviction.  Shades of gray are battered into simple black and white.  Any system that adopts trials as a primary form of dispute and disagreement settlement establishes certain constraints:

  1. we will be adversarial
  2. there will be winners and losers
  3. we will nit-pick technicalities and inconsistencies
  4. we will explore each nuance and ascribe intention
  5. we will use language as a weapon to trap, to trick, and to test
  6. we lack the intelligence and creativity to come up with a better way to do this
  7. we lack the spirituality and connection to Christ, so we settle for secular solutions and processes

I have only been to two trials.  At least in the first one we paused once an hour for silent prayer and time to ask God’s guidance in what we were doing.  That was absent from the more recent trial, though we did open with prayer… and scripture was used to score points for one side or the other.  But let me be clear:  I am not criticizing the individuals involved.  My concern is with a spiritual communion that chooses this as an appropriate system for Christians.  When the system is designed to divide rather than reconcile, it raises the question of its purpose.  It is a system that demands winners and losers.  It pretends that whatever result will be “right, good, and true,” when in fact the best we can say in many cases is that we followed all the rules to the letter.  A system of trials produces a very clear outcome — each time it is employed, it further divides and damages the body.  And if this isn’t what we want, why are we holding onto a 19th century practice that didn’t work well then either?

There is a bit of wisdom I have always been too stupid to employ: the longer you talk, the dumber you sound.  It has corollaries in such statements as “doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity,” and the old,

“the more you study, the more you learn;

the more you learn, the more you know;

the more you know, the more you can forget;

the more you can forget, the more you do forget;

the more you do forget, the less you know;

the less you know, the dumber you are;

so, why study?”

A system can only produce what it is designed for.  If a system is producing the wrong thing, don’t waste time tinkering with the wrong system.  Change to something different — completely different.  We use a system designed to win at great cost.  That may be fine for a competitive, cynical, corrupt and caustic world, but it is irreconcilable with a church whose General Rules begin, “First, do no harm…”

15 replies

  1. It seemed pretty clear, as an observer, that everyone involved thought this was a horrible way to address the matters before them. It was remarkable to watch how everyone from the observers in the back of the room to the presiding Bishop did everything possible to humanize the process. Even the hired security personnel were practicing hospitality. While agreeing with you that a trial is a horrible way to proceed, I commend everyone, especially the trial court (jury) for trying to find creative and faithful ways to work within the process.

    • Amen. Everyone involved performed as well as such a limited and inadequate process would allow. I think everyone should be commended as well.

    • AND — the “penalty” certainly, IMHO — was befitting of the “infraction”.
      now — lets get back to the business of Transforming The World.

  2. We have a process to change the rules. The problem comes in when those who have sworn to abide by the rules decide to put their own agendas first and break their word to abide by the rules. These actions default to the judicial process. The current tensions we see are only going to get worse. In my view this is because of a reluctance on the part of our “leadership” to enforce the rules.

  3. Dan,

    Isn’t the trial in this case – and others – a solution of last resort? I thought the UM process called for mediation and other forms of consultation and discussion. Only when these fail do we proceed to trial. In other words, we have trials only when the other ways of reaching agreement and consensus fail.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that, but that is my understanding.

    • It has become our default. When other options are suggested, they are often rejected — sometimes ruled out of order. What should be the step of last resort shas become “the way we do things.” (How unusual…)

      • I suppose I’d want to see the stats on the claim that trials are simply “the way we do things.”

        Specifically what is the percentage of complaints that are addressed, ultimately, via a church trial?

        And I guess I’d also want to see that data longitudinally– and by conference–and then ask what that longer and deeper view suggests.

      • For me this isn’t about stats. The old defense argument in abuse cases that a person “only does it occasionally and is otherwise an upstanding citizen” comes to mind… Only applying a bad solution occasionally doesn’t change the fact that it is a bad solution. Once is enough, This is about relationships, integrity, and spiritual maturity, not statistics. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem — reducing the heart and soul our faith to numbers.

  4. Brother Taylor and ALL

    Brother Taylor may recall that I shared this with the OSL Cyber Chapter in response to Br. John Dornheim (the esteemed gentlemen from the REFORMED LUTHERAN branch of Protestantism) snark about “how we Methodists are treating our Lesbians” (paraphrased) in reply to a discussion about Full Communion with The Episcopal Church………..and I will repeat it here:

    TO WIT “and, as has been mentioned and/or is common “knowledge” as it pertains to publicity “any is good” — the recent media “splash” on how we UM’s are “handling” and treating Sister Amy will have
    consequences — and, as with any change, unintended consequences.
    I too observe that full communion with any other denomination isn’t on the “radar screen” of the S.E. Wisconsin congregation where I serve. For that matter, the trial isn’t either.
    Neither are issues that most of our church community has any interest in.

    In this geographic area, those of us who do have interest in these 2 particular issues are in the definitive minority. (enquote)

    Many eyes are upon us as we deal with this TRIAL — and, with all due respect, Br. Taylor, the legalistic nature of a TRIAL creates winners and loosers — as does the use of RRofO in church meetings.

    Would that we strive for CONSENSUS in all of our decision making process’ — even if a decision can not be quickly arrived at — to the end that “Though We May Not All Think Alike May We Not All Love Alike” –and–that we can be mature enough to “agree to disagree”.

    Todd Anderson

    • Todd,

      Any sufficiently large and complex human social system seems to need structure and law to help keep it coherent as a discrete system. Any sufficiently large network of such discrete systems needs the same, the larger and more complex it becomes.

      Face to face communities or networks of communities need such things less to function well.

      These appear to be truisms– historically and sociologically.

      I can’t think of counter examples.

      So I actually have fewer difficulties with things like Roberts Rules than you or Dan seem to, at least when applied in large, complicated settings with many moving parts, like, for example, General Conference. In such settings, parliamentary procedure, such as Roberts Rules (though other rules that might be commonly agreed to could just as well apply), are really a gift, as I see it.

      I come at this in part because I witnessed what it was like, through a professor I was TAing for, to try to develop changes in the curriculum in a seminary via a consensus model. This took years! I applaud the principle. I just don’t applaud using it when other models could have reached similar conclusions much more speedily, freeing the faculty and administration actually to focus on teaching the curriculum they designed rather than continue to try to agree via consensus on the details of the design itself.

      Trials aren’t necessarily legalistic (a term that seems to be pejorative in most uses). What they are is “legal”– that is, conducted on the basis of referencing some common authority, or law. Some trial processes DO require a consensus and unanimous verdicts. Others require less agreement about how the situation in question fits or doesn’t fit the requirements of the law being referenced. It’s not clear to me that either of these options– consensus or some kind of majority– is necessarily more just than the other. It is clear to me that consensus may take longer where there are disagreements within the deciding body.

      Overall, I suppose I would wonder what alternative model of arbritration you or Dan may propose when other forms of conflict resolution either have failed or may not apply. When it comes to getting to a resolution– at such points– only arbitration can do that, keeping in mind that arbitration– if it is not to be “arbitrary”– must reference some common authority, or law.

      • Br. Taylor

        I can only speak for myself — and as such, would certainly agree that the structure/law parameters are necessary in the — as you put it — “large and complex social structure”. However, in this example (our denomination) structure has — in many areas (read: not in all areas) become a self-serving, protective shell/entity that really does not help in our primary task — transformation of persons.

        In a setting such as GC, I understand — though am not totally amused by the necessity — to proscribe to RRofO. IF the alternate process of consensus you mention in re: cirriculum changes did indeed take YEARS to initiate — I am reading that ultimately, it did “happen”.

        I am not concerned with the extra time consensus takes to reach a common ground or decision. I would submit that because of our human obsession with “chronos” time the suspension of RRofO and replacement with a consensus building process would help to lessen this obsession and perhaps take a broader view — of what it is we are making decisions on. I am clear that this means decision points will take longer to get to — but, really, unless it’s really “on fire” would that matter ?

        Please excuse spelling errors — I just popped into the office to retreive phone and e-mail messages for a minute, but saw you response and did want to craft some type of reply…..



  5. I would respectfully disagree that the system of church trials for dealing with situations such as were present in Wisconsin represents the adoption of a solely secular model for determining how to proceed when covenants may have been breached.

    We actually see strong evidence of this– not as a means of division but as a means of reconciliation– in the several places and over several centuries in the early church.

    My dissertation, “The Teaching of Peace in Early Christian Liturgies” covers this material in far greater detail than I will here (you can read the whole thing, if you like, at http;//twbe.webs.com/teachingpdf.pdf) but the point is this: Christians can and did make good use of this kind of process toward reconciliation and restoration in community, not simply toward creating winners and losers.

    What we know, however, is that mediation does not lead to any lasting transformation when the conflict itself is driven by differences in core values. When that occurs, if you want to move beyond the conflict itself, it’s time for arbitration in some form. And that requires all bodies involved to recognize a common authority beyond their own preferences. The trial. with church law as a common authority, is one such form.

    So from my angle, the question would not be, “How far have we fallen that we’ve become so secular?” or “How can we eliminate the church trial system?” but rather “How can we make use of this, among other processes of arbitration, ultimately as a means of community building rather than as a means primarily to disclose truth and error that may reward or exonerate based upon the former and dole out punishment for the latter?”

    I would note that the efforts of the past two decades or so working at these issues have generally been moving in this more community-building/community-restoring trajectory. We do have a variety of listening processes in place, as well as opportunities for mediation.

    So my sense is as a church we’ve actually taken good strides toward increasing the degree to which such issues involving potential breach of covenant among our clergy are handled in community-affirming ways.

    And so the question now, is, how do we take what we’re learning from these processes and find ways to be sure we remain mindful of them as we engage a trial or other arbitration processes, should it become clear it needs to come to that?

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • It became apparent in both the late 1800s and just prior to World War II that Methodists understood the trial system was grossly inadequate for people calling themselves Christian. Unfortunately, the wisdom recognized just prior to WWII got lost in the war, and the secularization of the church in the 1950s and beyond was an irresistible force. I would also recommend you look at how the content and process of trials has devolved. You might not disagree as strongly if you compare the early trials with the modern ones.

    • Thanks for the link to your dissertation, Taylor. There’s a minor typo that might slow some people down – the semicolon after the “http” ought to be a colon.

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