Hoping for Better Times after Omaha

When we attended worship at First Covenant Church Minneapolis (FCCM) a week ago, guest preacher Judy Peterson warned that it can be hard to make meaning of an event up close. Sometimes it takes ten or twenty years. That distance can give us perspective is wisdom this historian should know well… but finds hard to apply to his own life.

As soon as the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) emerged from the silence of its closed session to announce that it had voted FCCM out of the denomination — by the surprisingly large margin of 75% to 25% — visceral feelings struggled to coalesce in the shape of words. I drafted and discarded dozens of Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts before deciding that I should stay silent and see what the weekend brought.

(So know that what follows is the first draft of an attempt to make meaning, with a few days’ worth of distance. I’m sure I’ll keep revisiting this in the months and years to come, as I hopefully see things more clearly.)

Sure enough, the next afternoon found me at the wedding of two former Bethel students, both with ECC connections. I don’t know if the officiating pastor was from the Covenant, but I do know that the ministries of my home denomination had done much more than me to shape those two young Christians, and all to the good. Being at the wedding was a necessary reminder that the good work of the Covenant — the whole mission of that church, from its sacraments to its camps and schools to its ministries of mercy and justice — will continue to bless people near and far from the events of Omaha.

Just not as many people. And fewer and fewer of them LGBTQ.

Even as Saturday’s wedding visibly reminded me of the spiritual unity of the Church, I grieved how the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage was splitting the Covenant. (The Omaha meeting also voted to strip the credentials of a retired pastor who had officiated his son’s wedding to another man, plus those of FCCM’s lead pastor, who told a local reporter yesterday that he would no longer feel constrained from conducting such ceremonies.). Moreover, I knew that last Friday afternoon couldn’t help but further alienate queer Christians from the Covenant and the larger Body of Christ. If nothing else, recent weeks have helped me understand how hard our LGBT sisters and brothers in Christ are trying to live in faith, hope, and love. And how difficult the rest of us sinner-saints can make that journey for them.

Needing another reminder that Christian unity can survive historic divisions, yesterday I visited another church in another part of Minneapolis, where my friend Christian Collins Winn, a Baptist pastor, preached to a Presbyterian congregation. Deeply learned, Christian’s sermon sought a biblical basis for what the late French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle called “the power of gentleness.” Deeply felt, it suggested that we can find the “meek” of Matthew 5:5 among the children imprisoned on America’s southern border. That beatitude echoes the language of Psalm 37, which promises that “the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (v 11). Christian pointed out that what makes those people “meek” (or “gentle”) is that they had not only lost their land, but their very identity.

And while that broke my heart for those refugees from Central America, I also thought of the people of First Covenant, who might be allowed to keep their name and building, but have been excommunicated from the denomination that their spiritual ancestors helped to found. And I thought of the friends who still remain in Covenant congregations and keep their Covenant ordination, but know that the Covenant that voted in Omaha is not the same denomination that they once knew. That I once knew.

So for all Christian’s compelling exegesis of biblical gentleness, I still felt — still feel today — the anger that comes with disillusionment and loss. I guess I appreciate that Covenant leaders still use the language of Pietism — and even define it by appealing to a book I helped to write! But at least for the short term, it’s apparent that they have set aside some of the key historic distinctives that our movement absorbed from Pietism.

At Saturday’s wedding, we heard the familiar words of 1 John 4:18, and I thought of the Covenanters who had taught me the Pietist conviction that faith is made active in love. God alone knows the hearts of the hundreds who gathered in Omaha, but it’s hard not to conclude that fear cast out love last week. For fear of opening themselves to an unscripted discussion of God’s Word, the Covenant showed something other than love to God’s beloved. For fear of losing the 75%, it is at risk of losing the 25%… plus many more that would have been drawn to an irenic evangelicalism that preferred living with the messiness of diverse unity to the diminished vitality of uniformity.

As a Pietist, I believe in hope for better times. And I pray that Pietism will yet renew the Covenant Church from within — even as the original Mission Friends sought to call the Church of Sweden back from dead orthodoxy to living faith. But my best evaluation at this point is that the Covenant has — inevitably, maybe necessarily — become an institution, and institutions find it easier to fear the loss of the familiar than to love the potential of the unknown.

It reminds me again of the distinction we drew in The Pietist Option between Pietism as a movement — which can ossify and erode — and Pietism “as a timeless spirit, or ethos.” In that section of the book, I quoted Bethel historian Virgil Olson‘s observation that while it’s almost impossible for Pietism to be “perpetuated” for long with any kind of structure, the spirit of Pietism would reemerge as an instinctive response to any Christianity “that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.” May it be so yet again!

If anyone — in or out of the Covenant — wants to be part of that kind of renewal, I’ll be right over here waiting to join you. For if Augustine is right that one of Hope’s daughters is “Anger at the way things are,” the other is “Courage, to see that they do not remain the same.”

And anger by itself is not only insufficient, but dangerous. So while we wait to see how God is already at work making things new, may the Holy Spirit not only en-courage us Mission Friends, but bring to fruition in all the Church the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control, and (yes) gentleness, against which there is no law.