Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Don't Exclude Any Who Should Be Included

My story reflects my conviction that we err when we exclude others because of our provincial religious thinking

Wesley's Chapel in London -- a place of inclusion
for many whom the Church of England excluded
by institutional intention and/or neglect.
When I was installed as Senior Pastor at West Morris Street Free Methodist Church in December, 2003, I invited several of my friends and fellow ordained clergy who were not Free Methodist.  I wanted those who had tracked with me through years of my Indianapolis-based journey in church and community service to share in this special occasion.

Several of my clergy friends attended. There was the Rev. Richard Hamilton, Pastor Emeritus of North United Methodist Church.  There was Father Larry Voelker, Pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church and my spiritual director.  There was the Reverend Darren Cushman-Wood, Senior Pastor at Speedway United Methodist Church--a good friend.  There were others with whom I had developed rich fellowship.

All went well in the installation service until the presiding Free Methodist Conference Superintendent invited only Free Methodist ordained clergy to come forward to lay hands on me in a prayer of blessing.  I had no prior knowledge that he would do that.  I was shocked.  I was angry.  But I was in an awkward position as I moved out of the pew and into the aisle to kneel at the front altar rail.  I was not in charge of the ritual.  But if I had known earlier that my denominational representative would make that exclusion, I would have not consented to it.  I would have, in fact, insisted that non-Free Methodist clergy be included, if for no other reason than it is symbolic of the church being one and of my sense of Christ's inclusive grace.

I can't remember a thing of the Conference Superintendent's prayer.  I certainly couldn't pray.  All I could think about were my fellow ordained clergy and friends who had been summarily dismissed and disregarded.  It ruined the installation for me.  After the benediction, I made a bee-line for my excluded pastoral friends and apologized profusely.  I told them that I didn't think the Superintendent's statement and actions reflected anything of the spirit of Free Methodists.

To this day, I do not know why that Conference Superintendent did that.  Maybe it's how he sees things.  Maybe it reflects his worldview.  Maybe it reflects his sense of ecclesiology.  Maybe he sees clergy from other denominations as secondary.  Maybe he felt like only Free Methodists should be the ones welcoming and blessing me for that particular assignment.  Whatever his thinking, his words and actions made this indelible impression on me: that was not right.

That was the first of numerous red flags regarding statements and decisions that would follow in subsequent years that diminished my confidence in that Superintendent in particular and in ecclesiastical leadership in general.  While my sense of confidence in ecclesiastical leadership in general has waned, my sense of confidence in some specific Christians and those the Superintendent excluded that day has continued to grow.

Nine years later, I muse about this.  I have forgiven him for his unwisdom even as I have rejected expressions of Christian leadership and Christendom that reflect such smallness, however justified.  I have continued to try to express and reflect in my own relationships with people of other Christian communions and of other faiths my confidence that, whatever our differences and distinctions, we meet on common ground in our love of God and care for a hoping, hurting humanity and world.

I challenge those who have been designated or elected leaders in the church, or those who desire to be so, to lay aside their own notions or preferences regarding clergy or members of other denominations or communions and act in the largest, most magnanimous sense of grace on all occasions. May we all find that grace has, does, and will include more than our own little grasp on grace can right now fathom.

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