All Shall Be Well

posted on January 10

Wellness … In All Manner of Things
Reflections on The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace
Through Separation

“…all manner of things shall be well.”
-Julian of Norwich, Showings

I’ll begin by admitting I hate the word “separation.” It speaks of family brokenness, wars, and the end of life. My parents “separated” in 1986, and it will always be a painful memory. I don’t embrace separation as a concept, but sometimes it happens.

When I came into the ministry of Superintendency, I did so at an auspicious time. Friends and colleagues remarked, “Wow. You want to say yes to that NOW? In this season of arguments around human sexuality?” I answered “yes” to the Bishop, to them, and to you at my installation on August 26, 2018. I still say “yes.”

I have the joy of worshipping in many diverse environments, of watching you all reflect on and fulfill the spiritual needs of your communities. I enjoy being the Superintendent for every church and for being here for everyone who needs my support. It is a daily joy and delight, and I feel that God is using me as an “ambassador for Christ”, which Paul calls for in 2 Corinthians 5:20.

All that being said, I still don’t like the word separation … but as I read the Protocol of Reconcilation and Grace (Council of Bishops Press Release) last Friday morning, my spirit felt peace. I sensed dawn approaching after a long night of what we have called “the middle time.” Nothing is settled, nothing is yet voted on involving this Protocol; it was not an act of General Conference. But we all realize that the protracted conversations about human sexuality have left us emotionally drained, and the Protocol comforted me a bit last Friday morning.

I have never been a delegate to General Conference, but I have trusted the process since I first became active in the UMC in college. I grieved with the crowd at the end of February 2019, when they came home from St. Louis tired and divided. I met a few of our delegates at the airport when they arrived back in Greensboro, and I could see in their eyes that they were worn, and that the ministry of reconciliation had not been a part of their experience. It had been painful to watch the live stream, and their faces at the airport confirmed the angst. In a media interview I granted afterwards, I reflected on this middle time and referred to our story as a journey that was somehow not yet complete.

As I did my daily work for the remainder of 2019, I did wonder sometimes what would be next. I never dwelt upon it, as I am a person with the spiritual gift of faith. I knew God would find a way. And I do trust the concept of holy conferencing, even though I don’t think St. Louis was our finest hour in that regard.

What I didn’t know was that some of our most respected denominational leaders had reached out to Kenneth Feinberg, arguably the finest “ambassador of reconciliation” in our country. Himself a Jew, he has no stake in this – yet he helped us pro bono. Even though we probably could have afforded his services (yes, it is that important to our mission that we resolve this), we are so divided we probably could not even have agreed upon the expenditure itself. Yet he and several skilled colleagues gave themselves to us, and a protocol is now available. A miracle lies in their coming together to ask. Feinberg’s only interest is that he too is a religious man and has a heart of peace. Jesus instructed us to “look for the man of peace.” (Luke 10:6) I’m grateful that our leaders had the spiritual compass to seek him out, and even in their divergent views, to quietly and covenantally receive the help they needed. I sense that what happened behind closed doors at the offices of Kirkland and Ellis, LLP was holy conferencing in its finest form.

That said, I am becoming more comfortable with the word I hate, separation. If you have been having conversations in the church about human sexuality, that’s good. Keep having the conversations. Work your way through them in ways that do no harm to those in the room with you. God is not threatened by us using our minds or even wondering, “What would Jesus do?” As for Jesus, he was silent on this subject, despite the variety of lifestyles that existed around him in the first century. It was simply not important to him, or to the sacred memory of the early church, when compared to communicating the true art of discipleship. The “hill he died on” was not that hill, but it was the hill of all hurt and pain – the sinfulness that we all share as human beings estranged from God without him. He never picked on one group, and he never picked out one group for which to die. God is not afraid of our using scripture, tradition, experience, and reason to make informed decisions; indeed it is a Wesleyan premise. God never intended for us to “check our brains at the door” upon entering theological conversation.

I am thankful that separation is not mandatory; nothing in this protocol forces us to separate. Deep in my heart, I sense that there is trust and a mutual understanding of the essentials. That really matters. You know I want the best for you, and for you to grow and thrive as a church that truly meets the spiritual needs of the people around it. My seasonal consultations this week have illustrated to me that we agree on all the essentials. When the topic has surfaced, it has been in the context of “getting through this” together. What a blessing!    

The 14th century English anchoress Julian of Norwich had her own struggle with the pain that we call the middle time, and she, too, wondered if all would be well.

In her thirteenth showing, Christ offered her a comforting answer to the problem of human brokenness:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.'

“These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.” (from Julian’s Showings)

My prayer is that we can stop blaming other human beings, stop obsessing on the words of other human beings, and most of all, not allow our arguments to eclipse the mission of the church and the needs of the world.

One of my joys as a Superintendent is that I am not alone. The connectional structure of Methodism provides me with worldwide opportunities for mission, jurisdictional context for culturally sensitive outreach, conference support for my daily work, district ministry resources, and a Bishop and staff who truly care. Bishop Paul Leeland reminded us in his words last Friday to embrace a few activities before doing anything else. I call your attention to the first two, which are action verbs:

Holy conferencing always begins with a question about identity. Who is Jesus? (And consequently, who shall Christians be?)  Identifying Jesus as Messiah (the only one who could truly save them) was a turning point in the nascent unfolding of Christianity. The disciples came to see Jesus as the only true hope. Our legacy is that we are people who need a Messiah. Advent recently provided rich reflection time for us; its stories of longing are still fresh in our hearts.

Jesus is still our only true hope. It’s not Kenneth Feinberg, as wonderful as he is. It’s not anyone who signed the Protocol. It’s not any Bishop or any cabinet member. It’s not your current pastor or even one spiritual leader in your congregation. It’s Jesus.

He’s the one who was identified as Messiah, and later proved himself to be such, who spoke the words that gave birth to his church, who hoped we would be built on a firm foundation. In the theology of Jesus, rocks are for founding movements, not for throwing at other people.   

We can decide what we will “bind” in this time, and what we will “loosen” our grip upon in this time. (See Matthew 16:13-20 for this whole story.) There are eternal consequences to those decisions. For me, the most important thing is that we witness to the love of Jesus Christ, whatever that looks like in our historical context in the 21st century and in our ministry context in the Northern Piedmont District. Anything else is just a negative witness to our world. The world needs us to finish up this bitter argument and focus more together on its transformation.

Praying for you to:

  1. know that “all will be well, in all manner of things.”
  2. become an “ambassador of reconciliation” in your own right.
  3. quench any flames of unkindness. Pray for all to find the kindling of the Holy Spirit as a warm and guiding light towards joyful living in Christ’s name.  

Please know I am here for you to answer questions for you, to ask questions with you, and to help you and your church fulfill its mission in the community in which you are both placed. I am for you, and I am for your local church.  
Love and Peace to All,
Bev Coppley
District Superintendent

All Shall Be Well