By Leland Spencer
Among the many things I’ve always appreciated about John Wesley and our tradition as a whole is Wesley’s sermon “On the catholic spirit.” Note the lowercase “c” -- catholic, in this sense, means universal.
In the sermon, Wesley addresses diversity of opinion in the life of the church. He concludes that persons of faith do not have to agree on everything in order to exist effectively in Christian community. He asks, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
Although not original to Wesley, the short way to express the ideas in this sermon is the phrase “in essentials unity, in non-essentials charity, in all things love.”
I believe this. I celebrate this. I do my best to live this. I’ve preached about this, explained it to Sunday School classes, and even talked about it in quotidian conversations.
But I’m beginning to wonder if the catholic spirit has limits. Quite frankly, I’m getting tired of making excuses for hateful, bigoted ideas and beliefs, and I’m more and more convinced that I do precisely that when I tell myself and others that people who agree with the hurtful, violent language in the Discipline are discerning Christians doing their best to be faithful.
In 1844, several members of the Methodist Episcopal Church supported a southern bishop in the U.S. who held slaves. The following year, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was officially organized. Those Methodists were not discerning Christians doing their best to be faithful. They were wrong, and making excuses about “southern culture” or “the times” is nothing more than participation in the sin those Methodists committed.
In 1939, when the MEC and MECS united with the Methodist Protestant Church to form the Methodist Church, a motion for women’s full clergy rights failed. 371 delegates voted in favor of it, and 384 voted against it. The 384 who voted against women’s ordination were wrong. They were not discerning Christians doing their best to be faithful. They let their own prejudices, biases, and fears guide their actions instead of obeying the Gospel.
At that same Uniting Conference, a majority of delegates approved the Central Jurisdiction and legislated segregation into the organization of the newly-formed church. Those delegates were wrong. They were not discerning Christians doing their best to be faithful. They followed their racist ideologies, not Jesus. Those who voted against that plan, including 36 African Americans and the 11 African Americans who abstained (refusing, we might presume, to participate in a process that put their dignity and humanity up for a vote) were right. They followed the Gospel.
And those who voted to put the harmful language in the Discipline in 1972 were wrong. They didn’t just have a different opinion than I do. They were wrong, as were the delegates who have retained or exacerbated the damaging language in each subsequent General Conference. I’m tired of pretending otherwise. My humanity -- and that of all God’s children -- is essential, and I’ve been charitable too long.
I will no longer defend or excuse bigotry in any form or fashion. It is not a sign of faithful discipleship. It is wrong, and I refuse to acquiesce any longer to my own oppression and exclusion under the guise of the catholic spirit. May history find us among the faithful, even if the faithful are in the minority. God have mercy.