This is a follow-up to RMN's letter to Dean Love at Candler School of Theology.
- By Matt Berryman -
When I was discerning a call to ministry within The United Methodist Church, part of the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual milieu out of which my call bore fruit was my own lifelong United Methodist identity. It began through faithful church attendance under a mother and father who believed in the gospel. Perhaps even more relevant was my mother’s intense commitment to the church as a youth and music director during my formative years. That commitment fertilized the ground of my own call, flowering into rigorous attendance in worship, youth events both local and connection-wide, musical training, and yearly trips to Lake Junaluska for Music and Liturgical Arts Week for as long as I can remember. I was exposed to some of the best preaching and worship leadership that expanded my vision of humanity to include folks who were not readily visible to me within the fairly homogenous southern culture in which I was raised. It was the broad purview of the church’s connectional system that stimulated my thinking, my imagination, and therefore, my questions regarding difference, identity, and finally, my own homosexuality.
While the connectional church expanded my own perceptive capacities and my exposure to a gospel for all, paradoxically, it was the same church that negated and disaffirmed my own existence and value as a gay man and my LGBT family. The paradox was no more intense than in the church’s proclamation in baptism and its deeply inconsistent proclamation in ordination—both sacramental rites of grace announcing the universal call of God on the whole of creation to Christian discipleship in the most mundane and the most formal of ways. Notwithstanding the inconsistencies between the church’s theology of baptism and the church’s theology of ordination, I went to seminary at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. I chose Candler because of its stated commitment to a gospel for all people, to a church that lived into this gospel, and for its clear and unobstructed vision of inclusion.
I am so grateful for the Candler School of Theology. I will never be able to repay this school for teaching me to acknowledge and celebrate ambiguity in human life and therefore in Christian theology. Candler celebrated the multiplicity of voices within scripture and human life while announcing in no uncertain terms that, where scripture finds itself in tension with the uncompromising tendency of the gospel toward inclusion for the whole of the cosmos, letter must finally submit to Spirit. In other words, Candler taught me how to read scripture in a way that prioritized the sovereign Word of God—sovereign even over the words of scripture. For Candler’s consistency, commitment, and uncompromising valuation of Spirit over letter, I will forever be grateful.
However, there are times when we all forget our way. In awarding its Distinguished Alumni Award to a voice who has consistently and unabashedly worked in ways that silence the gospel voice of inclusion for all, Candler has succumbed to the tendencies of the letter instead of prioritizing Spirit, living out the implications of words instead of standing under the Word made flesh. For even in a richly ambiguous and complex world, the gospel is still true. The voice that beckoned in rich theologies of baptism, that rang true in classes of Old Testament and New Testament, in gracious theologies of ordination offered at Candler continue to be heard in redeeming and life-giving ways. But, for whatever pragmatic and sensible reason, this recent announcement of the Distinguished Alumni Award is an unequivocal accommodation with worldly privilege and power. It is an accommodation that compromises Candler’s voice—a voice that invited me, a disempowered gay southern United Methodist college student, to take a further step toward the service of God through ongoing commitment to The United Methodist Church.
In my ministry and life, when I am at my best, I look for the best in others, give others the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately do not turn myself over to a hermeneutics of suspicion—a hermeneutics quite tempting for those who are oppressed and afflicted by the majority and the highly privileged. So, I will follow that same path here and join my voice with the voices of the Sacred Worth LGBTQ student organization at Candler, LGBTQ United Methodists and their allies, and LGBTQ persons everywhere who no doubt have reason to be very suspicious of this unfortunate yet pragmatic compromise.
This breach of Candler’s long-standing commitment to an intellectually defensible grace-filled theology for the church and world can be remedied. Candler can acknowledge and integrate this misstep for the well-being of all. In that spirit, I invite Candler to renew its practice of gracious engagement with precarious voices while refusing to ordain them with honorific titles. I invite the Candler School of Theology to become a Reconciling Seminary and live into its own core values more deeply so that a clear and consistent message of inclusion and justice will find its way into the hearts and minds of those wounded by this decision. Finally, I invite Candler School of Theology to remember its “baptism” and to remember its “ordination” for the transformation of the church and the world.
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Matt Berryman serves Reconciling Ministries Network as executive director. Prior to joining the staff of RMN, Matt spent three years in law school at the Florida Coastal School during which time he worked for churches, law firms, and LexisNexis as a legal editor. From 2002-2009, Matt served United Methodist congregations in the Jacksonville area of the Florida Conference. In addition to serving churches in the United Kingdom, he has led training events and workshops for The United Methodist Church, The Fund for Theological Education, Emory University, and the Fellowship of United Methodists for Music and Worship Arts. He received a B.A. from the University of South Carolina and a M.Div. from Emory University. Although he loves the heat and sunshine of Florida, he anticipates growing to love the charm of cold weather living in Illinois and the perfection of the snowflake! Matt loves an outdoor concert, a good idea, and his ten year old son, Aidan.