As I continue to read articles, books and pray about the part of the body of Christ known as the United Methodist Church, I continue to believe that it is the ways we interpret and understand scripture that drive us apart instead of being able to hold ourselves together. Do no harm continues to resonate. Today I offer my most recent experience in Kenya as a reminder that we are people of the Middle Way–holding together through ongoing kind and loving conversation a variety of viewpoints as we strive to have the faith that Jesus the Christ had in God, and as we strive to love each other as Christ loved.
While training United Methodist pastors in Kenya in February 2013 (I also did the same with a separate group in September 2012) to be licensed local pastors during a question and response time, I was asked this question, “What does the Book of Discipline say about which wife you serve Holy Communion to? Only the first wife or all the wives who are present?” Paint me stunned and wide eyed with disbelief inside as on the outside I maintained a passive and quiet demeanor.
My response: “The Book of Discipline we use in the U.S. does not address this issue. Polygamy is illegal is the U.S.” By the way, the only Book of Discipline that the Kenya United Methodist Church loosely uses is the 1988 Book of Discipline from Portugal that has been translated into Swahili so I was told by one of the District Superintendents in the training. In the UMC Kenya a tent canopy with plastic chairs is a church or a POD storage unit where furniture, maybe an altar table and a few paraments are stored is a church where the worship service happens outside and around the open POD unit. All of the structure and polity of the institution of the church with committees, buildings/facilities, and a permanent place of worship and all that comes with is not the “normal” of the UMC of Kenya.
Back to my response to the question…
Disbelief was registering on participant’s faces. They know their scripture. For them, the Bible is memorized, Genesis to Revelation, in their head and heart. A literal interpretation of the Bible is all the majority of these pastors know with an eighth grade level education. Seminary is a luxury and extremely costly. They know that polygamy is practiced in the Bible, and several of the pastors have multiple wives.
These Kenya pastors cannot believe or understand that UMC pastors in the U.S. would be accepting of homosexuality. Their literal interpretation of the Bible tells them that is wrong. By the way, female pastors were present, accepted and respected as UMC Kenya pastors without hesitation. Paint them stunned and wide eyed with disbelief inside as on the outside some of them worked to maintain a passive and quiet demeanor as I do my best to explain to them that not all UMC pastors in the U.S. are of the same mind on this complex issue while reminding them that homosexuality is not illegal in the U.S. although polygamy is illegal.
My response to the Holy Communion question was that I would serve all the wives Holy Communion in what ever order they cam to receive Holy Communion. I learned that, of course, there’s a “pecking order” or hierarchy among the wives. Some of the pastors agreed with my response–Holy Communion in the UMC is open to all people who come to Christ’s table as we have an open table–and some of the pastors did not agree. We still were connected and respectful of each other as I did not tell them they were WRONG or misinterpreting scripture. I sought to understand their culture, their experiences and their way of life and to hold us together by doing know harm while teaching and responding to their questions.
Many of us who are divided over the issue of sexual identity due to our understanding and interpretation of scripture would likely be just as divided over the issue of polygamy were it an ongoing discussion and legal in the U.S.
Today, I thought I would just share this for discernment and thought especially for my connectional clergy who are calling for schism.
Come Holy Spirit come and fill the hearts of your faithful.
Here’s a photo of the POD church, UMC Kekopey, that I mentioned: