Response to IRD (Institute on Religion and Democracy) Commentary

As we read the IRD report on our Kairos CoMotion conference, it reminded us of book reviews where the reviewer criticizes the book for not being the book that the author never intended in the first place (but the reviewer wanted written). The IRD wanted this to be a different conference than it was intended to be, and thus, found it wanting.

What follows is the IRD Commentary with an overly brief affirmation of the conference we offered. We pray for the wisdom of the Counselor Jesus sends the Church.

 Accusation
 

Affirmation

Commentary:
The Endless Battle Against Exclusiveness
Chris Regner and Mark Tooley
March 11, 2002
 

Kairos CoMotion Affirmation
An event called "Kairos CoMotion" attracted over 300 mostly United Methodist people to Madison, Wisconsin, in February 2002.  The stated objective was to combat "a growing exclusiveness in the United Methodist Church."  To judge by the remarks of Kairos CoMotion speakers, countering such "exclusiveness" would require United Methodists to jettison almost every settled doctrine of Christian faith.  

"The dream was and is to bring together a visible, active community of progressive Christians from a variety of perspectives and places with a variety of gifts and graces. We rejoice that this event brings us together and helps move us from isolation and invisibility to community and celebration." (Kairos CoMotion Welcome)

Likewise was Jesus accused of jettisoning "almost every settled doctrine" of his day (Luke 6).

Even so, at the end of the conference there were still some attendees who complained of feeling "excluded."  This is an ironic result of a gathering that featured three United Methodist bishops, as well as best-selling Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.  On the surface, the Kairos CoMotion crowd did not appear to be a collection of Earth's most marginal, ignored, powerless citizens.  

Inclusion is an on-going issue not solved, once and for all, by our event. We intentionally planned for an open sharing of experences to indicate where more work still needs to be done. This is positive action, not negative "complaining."

We were and are followers of the Christian explanation of the experience of GOD - no further "appearance" is needed.

The conference seemed focused on one particular form of "exclusiveness":  the denomination's continued refusal to convey its blessing upon homosexual activity.  When the conference program spoke of "many being left out and left behind" by United Methodism, the group in mind was practicing homosexuals who were demanding that they be ordained to office in the church and that their relationships be honored as "marriages." From this perspective, church prohibitions on such ordinations and weddings "exclude" persons by implicitly calling them to repent of particular sins.  

The conference "was" focused (not "seemed" focused) on celebrating the many gifts to the Church of what has been variously called the prophetic, Wesleyan "social holiness", social gospel, liberal, or progressive reform movements.

This limited reading of the conference is rebutted by the variety of workshops and the content of the presentations.

By extension, Kairos CoMotion cast suspicion upon any church teaching that might imply that some beliefs were false and some behaviors wrong.  Yet this radical form of inclusiveness was not carried through consistently.  For example, there were no expressions of distress about the "exclusive" effect of traditional Christian admonitions against greed and gossip.   The phrase "by extension" leaves the reviewer free to go wherever their bias takes them and to offer whatever "gossip" they desire. Certainly issues of greed were prominent in the workshop on economic justice and affluence led by Bishop Jesse DeWitt. Certainly we did not cover all possible topics.
The conference was organized primarily by clergy in United Methodism's Wisconsin Conference.  Conference organizers said their aim "was and is to bring together a visible, active community of progressive Christians to [bring] us together and move us from isolation and invisibility to community and celebration."   8 laity and 6 clergy planned the Kairos CoMotion event. This event was from the grassroots up, not any imagined conspiracy from the clergy down.
Featured speakers at the event included United Methodist Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader of Wisconsin, retired United Methodist Bishop Judy Craig, and Bishop Spong.  Other notable presenters included Larry Pickens of United Methodism's Judicial Council (the church's highest court); Susan Laurie, a self-identified lesbian and staff member of the Reconciling Ministries Network; and Greg Dell, a Chicago United Methodist pastor and prominent pro-homosexuality advocate.   And many more.
Although it was advertised as a non-denominational Christian event, much of the worship and some of the program material made Kairos CoMotion seem more like an inter-faith conference.  Quoting widely from Eastern spirituality, the conference manual offered blessings for food from the Zen, Chinook, and Christian traditions.  The Zen Food blessing read:  "Innumerable labors have brought us this meal.  We should know how it comes to us.  In receiving this offering, we consider whether our practice and virtue are deserving.  Desiring the natural order of mind, we should be free from hate, greed, and delusion.  We eat to support life and practice the will of the Divine."   

Karios CoMotion was advertised by and primarily oriented toward progressive Wisconsin United Methodists. We were glad people from other traditions also found out about and found value in our event.

We affirm inter-faith dialogue.

We find that in being firmly grounded in our own experience of GOD does not require us to bad-mouth the experience of others.

The Chinook blessing read, "We call upon the Earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it teach us, and show us the Way.  We call upon the land which grows our food, the nourishing soul, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and ask that they teach us, and show us the Way."    Amen.
After these other invocations-departing at multiple points from basic Christian beliefs-the suggested Christian blessing was rather bland:  "Be present at our table, Lord.  Be here and everywhere adored.  Thy creatures bless, and grant that we may feast in paradise with thee."   "Bland" appears to be in the eye of the beholder. It would be interesting to know how many United Methodists were taught this prayer in our churches, homes, and camps. It would seem the IRD is dismissive of this part of our tradition.
The conference also offered a labyrinth for attendees to explore.  The program described the maze-like walkway-a recent fad among New Age mystics and some Christians groups-as "a spiritual tool, for the mind, body and spirit to be one in prayer and meditation."  Conference participants were informed that "the labyrinth is intended to offer a mindless path so that your soul might journey safely."  The soul's need of Jesus Christ to achieve a safe journey was not mentioned.   

The ancient labyrinth constructed in the floor of Chartres Cathedral can hardly be called "New Age" and is very definitely part of the larger Christian tradition.

We bring to a labyrinth experience who we are. As we are Christians, Jesus Christ is present.

A reluctance to make Jesus Christ the chief focus, and a preference to speak in terms of self-empowerment and self-actualization, was evident in several presentations. Bishop Rader challenged the audience to assert their own identities against all authorities, secular and religious.  "We have been warned" not to challenge but simply to obey, she complained.  "We've been warned not to challenge our government or its unjust economy or its military policies....  We've been warned not to talk openly about sexuality.  We've been warned not to say that we believe The Book of Discipline is sometimes incompatible with Christian teaching.  We've been warned not to say that we are gay or lesbian."  

We affirm that Jesus Christ is our gate to his chief focus, GOD.

If you will go to a longer report about Bishop Rader's sermon you will not note a "complaining." You will note a strong affirmation that does "focus" on Jesus: "As Christians we take up the Jesus walk. We live with people Jesus lives with. We challenge the systems Jesus challenges. We focus on the God in which Jesus found purpose and meaning."

Imploring her hearers to defy these warnings, Bishop Rader quoted Jose Hobday, a New Age mystic and one-time teacher at the University of Creation Spirituality, to the effect that everyone must "take a step into yourself" and "take a step into mystery."    Sister Jose Hobday, Franciscan, has been dismissed by the IRD simply by refusing to acknowledge her religious vocation.
The worship leaders then picked up on Bishop Rader's theme by launching into a song entitled "And we shall rise at the sound of our name."  Participants were asked to shout their own names.  The conference concluded with participants picking up a necklace comprised of string and a shard of pottery.  Each was then anointed with oil, applied in a circular (rather than cruciform) motion on the forehead or hand.  

All hymns used at Kairos CoMotion can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist resource, The Faith We Sing.

"Love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19, 22:39, Mark 12:31-33, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8) We affirm the importance of loving yourself.

The sign of the cross is important. It is not the only sign of faith.

Most controversial among the Kairos CoMotion speakers was Bishop Spong.  Although Spong rejected belief in a transcendent God as a myth, he insisted, "I am not an outsider, I am a deeply believing Christian."  He claimed to hold a version of Christian faith that had been adjusted to modern science and tailored to modern sensibilities.   Spong says the Christian experience of GOD can best be spoken of in contemporary terms and within a current world view. This is not "adjusting" the faith to science, but speaking about the "God experience" in today's language and imagery. This actually increases the liveliness and significance of our experience. You can see how the IRD report "adjusts" what Bishop Spong said by reading our longer reports. (Presentation One and Two)
For an apostle of inclusivity, Spong was strikingly contemptuous of many Christians. His lecture rehearsed the misrepresentations and mockeries of Christianity that are familiar from his books.  For example, the bishop endeavored to debunk the scriptural account of the ascension of Christ:  "You and I are 21st century people, who live in a space age.  We know that if Jesus rose far enough from this earth and went high enough he didn't get to heaven, he got into orbit.  And the idea of Jesus being in eternal orbit does nothing."  Spong argued that it would be physically impossible for Christ to return to heaven, as he would have to attain "speeds faster than light."    Some Christians do disagree with Bishop Spong but the claim that he misrepresents or mocks their understandings does not correspond with our experience of his presence. That he draws clear distinctions between differing explanations is undeniable. At the same time, he highly affirms and values the traditions which were true to their way of understanding the world and desires the same integrity, within the context of the 21st century, be true today.
Bishop Spong dismissed any doctrine of biblical authority as "a form of human idolatry."   He reduced Jesus to merely "a first-century Jewish experience of God."  Indeed, personal experience was the only religious reality that Spong recognized.  He warned against trusting "anybody's explanation of that experience, which is always warped and twisted by the time in which we live and by the way we perceive reality."  The bishop's presentation was received warmly by the Kairos CoMotion crowd.   To respond to this list of wrongful accusations would take more space than currently available. Read the longer reports and compare for yourself the differences. Suffice it to quote Bishop Spong, "You are not letting God go, you are letting ancient explanations of God go." Once the experience of God can be separated from the explanation of the experience, we can warmly receive a larger appreciation of and working relationship with God.
Fear of exclusion was a common theme throughout the conference.  Worship and "praise" were designed to be non-offensive.  Many of the songs or were quite vague about the object of worship.  Lyrics included: "Water, River, Spirit Grace / Sweep over me, Sweep over me / Recarve the depths / your fingers traced in / sculpting me, in sculpting me."  Worship leaders repeatedly called upon a generic "Spirit"-not the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Christian Trinity.   

We affirm a celebration of inclusion is always in order. Our design of worship and praise was intentionally just that and used United Methodist hymnody. The accusation of "non-offensive" motivation is as offensive as it is inaccurate.

By what words do you translate the "Spirit" language of John 16? There are many options if one takes references to the "Holy Spirit" more scripturally and less creedally.

Bishop Craig spoke on orthodoxy and tradition.  She implored the audience to live "a faith appropriate to our time," setting aside the ancient creeds.  "Contending with heresy is what helps keep orthodoxy alive," Bishop Craig asserted.  "We are saying of the tradition and orthodoxy that IT IS the heresy."  Denying the common Christian belief that God is permanent and unchanging, she said she prefers to live in "a tradition that is new every day."    People will have to decide whether orthodoxy is oriented to the experience of God or to the explanation of that experience. If the former, as Kairos CoMotion affirms, then tradition can be new every day. If the latter, as IRD affirms, then old explanations from a previous world view need to reject any progress. We affirm a living God who is creating a new earth and a new heaven.
The bishop explained her own personal creed. "I do believe Scripture reveals essential knowledge of the God of the universe, and I do believe the work of Jesus is critical to the work of my life," she Craig said.  "Now let's see what particular words have I left out?  Salvation, propitiation, atonement.   I'm working on those words maybe someday.  I didn't talk about final authority"   In dealing with a living tradition or "living stones," Bishop Craig affirmed,"It is more demanding to create a movement than to live in an institution.... But for me that is the call of Jesus, a journey that makes sense in my time and place, building on the teachings that have brought me thus far, but not resting on them as if they are all I need."
Questioning the authority of traditional Christian teaching was a theme common throughout Kairos CoMotion.  During a workshop on homosexuality, retired United Methodist pastor John Kruse alluded to the irony that many conference leaders were on church payrolls:  "The church is one of the only institutions that pays people to subvert it."   The workshop referenced was on a variety of faithful responses to General Conference 2000 decisions regarding people who are sexually oriented toward their own gender. At issue was General Conference decision-making and its consequences, not homosexuality.
Another workshop addressed strategy for empowering homosexuals in the church.  Greg Dell explained that pro-homosexuality forces are modeling themselves after the evangelical Good News movement.  The goal is to create a "church within a church," he said.  This para-church group could provide enough clout to force United Methodism to affirm homosexuality.     The Church Within a Church and Clergy Alliance movements say their vision "is committed continuously to create and support faithful communities of grace, mercy and justice, where sacred space and sanctuary empower persons to be those who God created them to be." This is not simply about homosexuality, but inclusive of all.
Dell explained that this church within a church would also serve as a contingency plan to break away into a new denomination should its lobbying attempts eventually fail.  The leaders of the group laid out their strategy and invited the laity to take an active role in building the movement.  The mission "is not about accepting despite differences, but about celebrating as God created."   We affirm the celebration of God's creation, including each of us in our own uniqueness. We affirm God's presence with each person. We acknowledge the church, as an institution, has sometimes put up more barriers than it removes. We applaud every attempt to be more inclusive.
But there were complaints that even Kairos CoMotion had not been inclusive enough.  In a panel discussion, Judicial Council member Larry Pickens lamented the lack of racial minorities at the conference.  Out of over 300 people, only a little more than a dozen were non-white.   We agree that Kairos CoMotion was not inclusive enough. We pray we have helped move the church toward being simply inclusive, without the modifier "enough." There will never be enough inclusiveness until we are a healed and whole community.
During an open microphone session, many audience members expressed their grievances to conference organizers.  There were complaints about not recognizing Asians, not making the conference accessible to those who do not drive vehicles, not giving enough responsibility to senior citizens, failing to have awareness of those with mental disabilities, and a lack of focus on teen pregnancies.   We affirm the need for continued airing of grievances for we are not yet one in Christ and all that means. May we learn to put the aggrieved in charge of implementing needed changes as was done in Acts 6.
These demands for recognition, with little reference to Christ, portrayed the church as simply an array of special interest groups, each one contending for its own share of the pie.  They reflected the focus of the entire conference-on power and which groups have access to it.  Kairos CoMotion encouraged participants to see themselves as "excluded" victims and then to seek out the political means to attain "inclusion."   We affirm that we gathered to celebrate. As was noted in our opening statement. "when progressive folks gather, people get nervous. When we point out troubled places, we are called troublemakers. When we advocate for the full inclusion of God's people, we are called divisive. When we take seriously the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, we are called radical."
Undoubtedly, the organizers of the event sincerely believed that they were doing the church a service by taking this approach.  Many of the attendees may have had valid claims of mistreatment.  But Kairos CoMotion pointed them toward a path that would never lead to inclusion.  It never asked the crucial questions:  What body was it in which the participants wished to be included?  And how was it that outsiders could be brought into that body?    The body of Christ is made up of many parts. The lesser parts are to receive the greater honor and not all are expected to be on the same page at the same time for we all mature at different rates. This debate is the equivalent to Peter's struggle to receive the gentiles of his day. We shall see if God's tablecloth can still inform us about holiness (Acts 11).
If it was the Church into which participants wished to enter more fully, then surely they needed to cultivate a stronger faith in the head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Above all, they needed to hear Jesus' first and enduring invitation:  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" and then "Follow me!"   This is truly the most inclusive message ever heard.  Ignoring or minimizing that message, while stressing political power plays, is a recipe for continuing exclusion.  

Along with Bishop Spong we affirm,
- we are Christians
- we live in the 21st century

Along with Bishop Rader we again affirm,
- "As Christians we take up the Jesus walk.
- We live with people Jesus lives with.
- We challenge the systems Jesus challenges.
- We focus on the God in which Jesus
             found purpose and meaning."

   

 

[Additional side-by-side responses are available here.]

 

Comments welcome