I just finished the section on The Early Church, to c. 700, and in this section, Mr. McGrath, discusses the evolution of the Celtic church and how very different it was from the Roman-British church that existed at that time. In reading this section, I was struck by the similar parallel that I see happening today in Methodism. Let me quote directly from the book, to help you better understand what I’m talking about:
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Irish church was monastic, with the Abbot rather than the Bishop being seen as pre-eminent…The Irish monastic model came to be seen as a threat to the Roman model of the episcopate, in which the government of the church resided firmly in the hands of the Bishops. None of the Abbots of Iona ever allowed Bishops to ordain formally then, rejecting the need for any such ‘official’ recognition…Abbeys were responsible for the pastoral care of the churches which grew up in their vicinity. The Roman Episcopal system was thus marginalized. The Celtic church leaders were openly critical of worldly wealth and status…”What result did we Methodists clearly see coming out of General Conference? A lack of trust in our Bishops due to the obsession with numbers and money (metrics). It is my opinion that the statement that came out from the New England Conference delegates is a reflection of that reality. It doesn’t mean that I agree fully with their statement, but it does mean that I can better understand where they are coming from! We have a group of churches who sincerely believe that they should be able to minister as they see fit, without being impeded by the hierarchy of the church. But they also expect to receive the support and resources that come from being in a connectional system.
I agree that our system is too top heavy. I think our Bishops would agree with that as well. I acknowledge the fact that there are distinct differences between conferences. But I also believe that there should be an expectation of common beliefs of theology between each conference and each church. Call it Methodist Ethos, call it common theology, call it whatever you want, but I believe that the message should be consistent. Just as there are practices in the Catholic church that make it distinctly Catholic, there are also practices in the Methodist church that make it distinctly Methodist. Being part of this connectional system does not give us the liberty to pick and choose, but that is what some would like to do. And I think the driving reasons behind this, are because of a lack of trust and an underlying belief that “picking and choosing” will “fix the problems” that we have heard about for so long!
For more years than I care to think about, we have heard nothing but the bemoaning of our denominational decline. And plan after plan has been put forward to “reverse the trend” of our impending “death tsunami”. On one end, we have metrics, and vital congregations and elimination of guaranteed appointment. On the other end, we have the call to allow individual churches to minister as they see fit. Proponents of the various positions are equally sincere, they truly believe that they have a plan that will work! They truly believe that this will fix the problem. But the vast majority of these plans end up being “sound and fury signifying nothing”. Why?
If I had to put a finger on it, I would have to say that what we are looking at the wrong things. We have created our own 21st century idols, hoping that they are the answers to all our problems. Believe me, I am fully aware that this will not be a particularly popular message for people to hear. I also know that some of you probably think I’ve gone off my rocker-how could I possibly make a leap to that sort of opinion?! Hear me out, please. In modern society we tend to think of Idols, as little carved figures made of wood or gold or precious stones, that people bowed down to, and how utterly foolish ancient people were to think that they held power! But as Wesley pointed out in one of his sermons, sin can be far more subtle. Idols can be things that we least suspect. (See John Meunier's post "Giving the Devil His Due)
I was reading in Ezekiel and I saw some things, some idolatry, that the Lord pointed out to the Prophet and I was amazed at how similar they are to things that we do today. Let’s take a quick tour and hopefully, you will see what I am talking about. All scripture quotes come from the Wesley Study Bible (NRSV).
“…Their silver and gold cannot save them on the day of the wrath of the Lord…”Our current thinking is money will save the church. Or, money will save us from disaster. Money involves numbers. Money is neither good nor bad, it is our attitude towards money that turns it into an idol. How do we use it? Is it our top priority? Or is it a tool that we use for good? There is no doubt that we have to be better stewards of money, but our focus on money (and the related bean counting that goes along with it) has become an idol. Like it or not, it is a stumbling block and this is something that Wesley warned about strongly in his sermons.
“…I will put an end to the arrogance of the strong…”I am right, and you are wrong. It’s my way or the highway. How often have we heard this type of position? This is not Holy Conferencing, this is posturing for position. If I say it loudly enough and often enough I may very well wear you down! As someone watching from the sidelines, let me put it to you this way-you are screaming so loudly that I can’t hear you! And quite frankly, if you keep screaming at me, I’m going to tune you out completely. Enough is enough! It is time to talk with each other rather than at it other. Arrogance is an idol.
“…in the entrance, was this image of jealousy…”There’s a doozey! “The churches overseas are growing, yet we put in all the money.” “The (insert name here) Jurisdiction has far too much influence.” “The current church doctrine keeps too many people away and keeps us from effective ministry.” “Those mega churches are being favored over all the rest of the other churches in the denomination.” “Too many churches have become nothing more than Country Clubs concerned with their own well being and that’s why we are not growing.” Remember these little tidbits of quotations, anyone? Oh why can’t I do my job and why are we not growing, we say. It’s because of “those other folks!” It’s not pretty, and it’s not something we like to admit to, but let’s face it, there is strife and envy in our ranks and jealousy is her name.
“…Mortal, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of images?”Ezekiel 8:16
“….between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their back to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, prostrating themselves to the sun toward the east.”
These two scriptures, in my mind, go together. Instead of following the ordinances that God commanded, they instead started following the ordinances of the nations around them. Or, in other words, they started catering to the world in their worship. As Christians, we are called to be peculiar-different and distinct, just as Israel was in their day. We are called to worship the Creator, not the created. We are expected to be different. Yet, we tend to try to do the opposite. Instead of being different, we try to be just like them. Why would someone come to our church if we look just like the rest of the world? Where is our good news message? Sin is real, so is hope. Hope, faith and love-do we offer that to the world at large? Or do we offer much of what can be found in the world because we are busy trying to be like the rest of the world?
It breaks my heart because I honestly feel that we are no different than Israel at the time of their judgment. Not only do we distrust each other, we distrust the message that we are commanded to share. We distrust God and his spirit to guide us and see us through. From top to bottom we are acting no differently then they did. We can see the sad results of that level of distrust when the Lord said to Ezekiel in chapter 7, verse 27:
“According to their way I will deal with them; according to their own judgments I will judge them.”
If that was the end of the story, it would be a sad story, indeed! But there is hope! Why were the Prophets sent by God? As an act of mercy, to give people the chance to repent. That opportunity is still available to us today, if we will choose to accept it. Will we repent of our idols of numbers and money, of arrogance and jealousy and trying to be like the world? Will we repent together, as one body, top to bottom, recognizing that we all played a part in arriving at this point? Will we work together as one body with many parts or will we choose to go our separate ways? Time will tell. But understand, whatever choice we make, we will be judged accordingly. Lord, have mercy! Forgive us our corporate and individual sins and show us your way! Help us to let go of, and move beyond, our 21st century idols. This I sincerely pray. Amen.