You remembered us when we forgot you.
You followed us even when we tried to flee from you.
You met us with forgiveness when we returned to you.
For all your patience and overflowing grace…
We praise your holy name, O God.
-Covenant Renewal Service, The United Methodist Book of Worship
In the British parliamentary system, in which whole parties are voted in and out of leadership in a given election cycle, the party out of power is referred to as “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.” It is understood that the opposition party or coalition disagrees with the present government on any number of topics, but is nonetheless “loyal.” That is, whatever ideological disagreements are present, the loyal opposition still respects the form of government and how the present government came to be in power.
In the United Methodist Church it is hard to spot something akin to a loyal opposition, whether one looks left or right. Of course, it’s easy to find opposition. The caucuses occupying both wings in the church often talk as if they would rather see the church split than the other side “win.”
Many shy away from the language of covenant as a cover for the status quo, if not outright injustice. Others seem to treat it as little more than a synonym for “enforcement.” Both of these are sadly truncated perversions of the biblical concept of covenant. As James Torrance has pointed out,
“Theologically speaking a covenant is a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally. So the word was used of marriage in the English service book of 1549 and retained subsequently in the traditional forms of marriage service. A bride and bridegroom promise to love one another ‘for better for worse…’ i.e. unconditionally…It is precisely this which makes a covenant so different from a contract.”
Covenants are bonds of love that are, by definition, unconditional. Calls for schism in our denomination, whether in the name of a liberal/modern notion of “rights” or a quasi-fundamentalist demand for lockstep, uncritical biblical adherence, mistake the covenant that binds the people called United Methodists for a contract:
“A contract is a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result. It betokens a mutual bargain, a compact, a business deal, grounded on certain terms or conditions with some future state of affairs in mind. It takes the form, ‘If….if…then…’, as in the business world, etc.” (1)
God is in the covenant business. Contracts are made to be broken. Covenants are not. Both lay and clergy members of The United Methodist Church are members by virtue of covenants made at baptism, confirmation, and possibly ordination. We vow that our loyalty to Jesus and our ministry among his servants will be carried out in this particular segment of the Body of Christ.
I am under no illusions that one should, in the name of covenant, accept any and everything that the UMC believes or represents. We have too wide a variety of official statements and too great a diversity in intellectual/spiritual commitments (not to speak of geography) for this to be possible. There are many recipes for good gumbo, after all. But the covenant does mean that any and all opposition should have the character of a ‘loyal’ opposition: our opposition is in the name of the betterment of the church, and if she is wayward, our prayerful labor is oriented towards her return to fidelity. I believe that if this approach were taken in our current church debates, they could be much more fruitful than they are at present.
I saw an excellent example of just such loyal opposition in a recent lecture by New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. During a Q&A following a lecture at Fuller seminary, he was asked what needed to change in the Roman Catholic Church to address the pedophilia crisis. His response:
“I think we need to have, first of all, women priests. That’s the first step. Even more than having married priests, we need women priests. The sexism of Roman Catholicism, I have said – in print – is a sin against the Holy Spirit. The refusal to acknowledge that God gifts women with gifts of ministry and leadership is, I think, a refusal of acknowledging the experience of half of humanity, and how God has worked through half of humanity. So, I am a very loyal Catholic, but I am a back-bencher. I speak out constantly on these matters, and, not because I am not fond of my community, but because I love it passionately and I think it needs to reform.” (2)
Johnson aptly names the difficulty and also the beauty of loving one’s community, even in its unfaithfulness, enough to passionately struggle, pray, and wait for reform. Perhaps there is no greater example of God’s patient fidelity than in the book of Hosea. The prophet is commanded to go and love his wayward wife, just as God will woo Israel back to himself, despite her chasing after Baals and the like. The narrative is summarized in Hosea 3:1 (NRSV):
The Lord said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”
So, let there be opposition. Semper reformanda, and all that jazz. But let it be a loyal, covenant, imaginative, God-shaped opposition. If God can love us in our infidelity and mad pursuit of other deities, so much so that Christ was sent to us “while we were yet sinners,” then perhaps we can imitate that same faithfulness to our particular appendage of the Body of Christ. After all, it is a covenant, not a contract.
P.S. After beginning this post, I discovered that over a decade ago a work was published by a group of UMC leaders titled, The Loyal Opposition: Struggling With the Church Over Homosexuality. I have not had the chance to read the work, but I fear some have moved from struggling “with” the church to struggling against her.
[1. James B. Torrance, “Covenant or Contract? A Study of the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth Century Scotland.” Scottish Journal of Theology / Volume 23 / Issue 01 / February 1970, p. 54 (emphasis original). I owe the insight about the distinction between covenant and contract, as well as this particular reference, to Douglas Campbell of Duke Divinity School and his outstanding work on Paul.
2. “The Body in Question: Response,” Given at Fuller Theological Seminary’s 2010 Payton Lectures. Accessed: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/spirit-body-corinthians-new/id380159569?mt=10 (see question beginning at 25:55.)]