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UM Theologian: Bishop Sprague, Choreographed Demonstrations Are Ecclesial Disobedience, Try Uncivil Obedience To God

An Open Letter to Bishop Sprague
From: D. Stephen Long,
Assistant Professor of Theology,
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

 Dear Bishop Sprague,

As an elder working within your episcopal jurisdiction to assist persons in their theological development for lay and ordained ministry, I must express my absolute theological confusion at your recent actions at General Conference. To be arrested for an act of civil disobedience by blocking the entrance to General Conference (and if the story was reported accurately this strange act took place during a worship service) makes little sense. To then disrupt the proceedings of the General Conference by lodging a second protest leaves me scratching my head. Help me out bishop, why would the bishop of the church do such a strange thing? Is it sufficient for you to claim the Spirit’s leading? Was the Spirit not present at General Conference but only with you as bishop?

The difficulty with your actions theologically is that you have treated the church’s deliberations as if they were a "civil" affair. By that I mean you have followed the honorable practices of the civil rights movement to protest against the United Methodist Church. This leaves me confused. There was no Bull Conner presiding at the General Conference. There were no fire hoses to be unleashed on the demonstrators. Very little was at stake in your choreographed demonstration. And for you to write a letter from jail to the church based on such a "choreographed demonstration" mocks that venerable tradition of protest, calling it into disrepute. Moreover, civil disobedience can only be aimed at civil society. Civil disobedience was a strategy to interrupt the flow of everyday ordinary life - transportation, lodging, food, wages, etc - because those things were excluded from marginalized persons. Civil disobedience is an effort to insure that the marginalized gain access to those things through granting them rights (a legal instrument that requires the judicial and police functions of the nation state.) What does it mean to bring those same tactics to bear against the Church? Can marriage and ordination be viewed as rights, which must be secured for those who are marginalized? Again I express my confusion. Have you confused rites with rights? Do you understand the Church to be one more social institution within civil society against which we must bring pressure to bear to insure each individual has rights to it? Perhaps I simply do not see the significance of the prophetic gesture you and your allies are making, but civil disobedience against the Church makes little sense. We should not try to coerce it - violently or non-violently - to concede rights over rites. For the church is established by the Holy Spirit and not simply a combination of human wills. Unlike civil society, we do not change the Church simply by coercing peoples’ wills. To practice civil disobedience against the Church therefore makes absolutely no theological sense - unless of course you think the Church is simply one more actor within a greater societal whole called "civil society." Your actions reveal that you must think of the Church in this way. Your actions explicitly subordinate the Church to civil society within the United States of America. This is a very strange doctrine of the Church for a bishop to hold. But since you thought your place was to stand with your allies and protest the Cleveland Convention Center for hosting the General Conference of the United Methodist Church rather than to join with the delegates in worship and discernment within that building, I can only conclude that you in fact think of the Church as one more subordinate social formation within a greater civil societal whole, which is to be manipulated and coerced by non-violent civil rights tactics.

Let us no longer commit the "category" mistake of referring to your actions as "civil" disobedience and let us call them what they are - "ecclesial disobedience." That helps me undo some of my theological confusion. Your protest was not an act of civil disobedience, but ecclesial disobedience. That you were arrested is incidental to such an act; for the Church cannot arrest you. The police just got in the way of you act of ecclesial disobedience. But now we have another problem. People who practice civil disobedience are willing to be accountable for their actions to the civil authorities. Likewise people who practice ecclesial disobedience should also be accountable to the requisite authority. But here is the rub - you are the authority! And we know that no action will be taken against you because you are the authority who would be responsible for taking that action. So I simply move from one confusion to the next. In fact, the United Methodist Church does not have a police force and so we cannot arrest you. (If the presiding bishop rather than the convention center called for the police they too should be held accountable for their poor theological understanding of how the Church functions.) The only recourse we have to challenge ecclesial disobedience is to ban you from the Eucharist. But you of course are the bishop who has the power of ordination to determine who gets to preside at the Eucharist. We know you will never be banned from the table - not even for a time of repentance to seek reconciliation. So let me make a suggestion. Place yourself under a ban. Refuse to participate in the Eucharist, or preside at the table, until you have been reconciled with the persons whom you have demeaned by your self-righteous protest against the General Conference. Identify three or four elders under your care who have strong objections to your actions. Take just them on a retreat and don’t choreograph matters beforehand. Leave the script at home and see what they have to say.

For surely you and your allies are not so convinced of the infallibility of your position that you as bishop seek to stand outside the ordinary means by which our disputes are to be solved (conferencing) and use instead the means the nation-state and or the civil society offer to us - protest, jail, the judicial system? Are you so certain that as a bishop you might not be wrong? Are you so certain that all those United Methodist people who oppose you are homophobic reactionaries who lack all charity? Bishop Sprague I am not asking you to change your position on homosexuality. In fact in my own ordination papers I myself stated that I thought there might be occasions when a same-sex couple could embody what the faithful have meant by Christian marriage. But as I witness the way you and your allies work in this annual conference, I have begun to see that much more is at stake than that single issue. You have helped me rethink my position because I fear that you are imposing a specific theological agenda on us and we cannot adopt your position on the gay and lesbian question before us without also adopting the entire neo-liberal Protestantism you seek to impose on the Church. I fear that you also see us as benighted adolescents whom you need to drag kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. I fear that you are the Anglo-male who has not yet overcome his imperialistic posture. We do not need that kind of paternalistic leadership. And my worry is that you do not yet have an adequate doctrine of the Church even though you are the gatekeeper who dispenses authority and power in the Church. As a theologian within the United Methodist Church this greatly alarms me. Your actions betray a theological crisis within the heart of our Church; we no longer know what it means to be Church. We have become so accustomed to accommodating the larger culture that defines the United States that we simply mirror its tactics in resolving our disputes. This is all your actions have accomplished; you have helped the United Methodist Church disappear more thoroughly into American culture. Gone is any distinctive notion of holy living that would require a different kind of discipline than that used either in the nation-state’s politics or in civil society. Gone is conferencing as a form of discerning the Spirit and waiting upon God.

Bishop Sprague, let me make a further suggestion. In the future rather than using the tools of the nation and/or civil society against the church - civil disobedience - why don’t you try something different? Why not experiment with some uncivil obedience? (Then you might be able to claim the mantle of Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero with some integrity.) That is to say, recognize that the Church is not of civil society; it is of God. Have more faith in it. Pray against its faithlessness and pray for its obedience. Talk to some people who disagree with you rather than surrounding yourself with those who confirm your own position. Fast. Wait upon the Lord for a word in these difficult times. Give us some wisdom rather than making gestures against us that invite the nation-state to resolve the dispute. But please refrain from mirroring American culture and remember that the Church does not belong to you - even if you are a bishop. It is not for you and your allies to impose your will upon it - to force and coerce it to your position violently or non-violently. Remember the prayer that started this whole thing - "Not my will, but your’s be done." Can we seek that without disrupting the flow that makes our lives possible?



D. Stephen Long
Assistant Professor of Theology
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

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