Commentary: Navy reserve chaplain decries church polarization

The Rev. René P. Lawson. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Lawson.
The Rev. René P. Lawson. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Lawson.

As a Naval Reserve chaplain, I have had the good fortune to witness firsthand how people of different faith traditions can come together for the common good. It is truly inspiring to see officers and enlisted men and women, both young and old, and people of different backgrounds come together to worship.

As a Protestant chaplain, I have held Protestant services in military settings that have included a representative number of denominations. Chaplains are committed to inclusiveness in order to fulfill the larger mission of serving the spiritual needs of the community.

Cooperation is required under the auspices of Professional Naval Chaplaincy, a standard of conduct for chaplains. That means all individuals operating under this standard will work together for the larger mission. This practice of cooperation occurs every day, at sea and on land.

The larger question for me is why our United Methodist Church cannot conduct ministry with the same spirit. Why is our church so divided?

I find it both disheartening and confusing to see the polarization within the church, particularly in regards to the current discussion on human sexuality. It is disheartening because of the pain with which some congregations struggle on the matter of how to be in ministry with LGBTQ people. It is confusing because of the negative positioning occurring within certain segments of the denomination. Where is it written that all Christians must agree in regard to theological positions? Where is it written that all United Methodist members must agree on every social issue?

Why can’t the church just “agree to disagree,” yet continue with its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? How can the church transform the world when so much divisiveness is present? All people have their own filters and ways of looking at life. Those who agree with one another tend to congregate with each other and form social groups. The sin of this arrangement occurs when one group feels compelled to impose its values and viewpoints upon another group of people who may not hold the same beliefs. Why impose? Why not just respect other positions in life, even if they are different?

I recall these questions from “Catholic Spirit: A Sermon by John Wesley”: “Where are even the Christians who ‘love one another as he hath given us commandment?’ how many hindrances lie in the way! The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they cannot all think alike and, in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike; … But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

As a military chaplain, I have learned important lessons on cooperation and respect for diversity. The Professional Naval Chaplaincy standard, according to the Department of the Navy Strategic Plan for Religious Ministry 2014-19, “embodies the Chaplain Corps’ commitment to deliver religious ministry characterized by cooperation, tolerance, mutual respect, and respect for diversity.” Military chaplains of all branches understand the enormous cultural representation of their people. Military personnel come from a variety of backgrounds that may or may not adhere to religious practices. Those who have religious backgrounds generally represent a number of faith groups.

Chaplains learn to minister to all people of all backgrounds. They cannot be selective about whom they choose to serve. If a chaplain is asked to conduct services beyond that chaplain’s denominational capability, then a request is made of another chaplain who can conduct such services. Chaplains are faithful to their denominational practices and beliefs, but they also have a great respect for chaplains of other faith groups.

It is truly inspiring, for example, to see Lutheran, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Mormon and United Methodist clergy working together to fulfill the larger purpose of serving those in the military. “Cooperation without compromise” is a common slogan within the chaplain community.

As a parish minister, I do not see that spirit occurring in our local congregations. What puzzles me is why our United Methodist Church struggles to follow the same pathway. Why can’t churches, pastors and lay leaders simply conduct services they wish to offer with respect to other churches and colleagues who may take a different position? It is understandable that some discipline and order are necessary to keep the church from running amiss, but does the church need to stifle its ministry altogether because of the difference of opinion on human sexuality? Is that really the most important issue for our church?

I personally favor the Council on Bishop’s vision for the church because it gives congregations and pastors the freedom to serve where needed, when needed. It offers a sound solution for cooperation and respect among the global United Methodist Church. Best of all, it offers a way forward in our commitment to be a witness of God’s grace to all people everywhere.

Lawson is senior pastor of St. Philips United Methodist Church, Garland, Texas. He is a captain in the Naval Reserves and serves as the deputy regional chaplain for Navy Region Southwest, San Diego, California.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To get more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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