A Dangerous Time to Build a Church
The Chapel of the Holy Trinity at Staunton Harold is typical English Gothic architecture. What is special is when and why it was constructed.
England was being torn apart by civil war. With the dangerous exception of the neo-Nazi and white supremistist terrorists, our current polarization doesn’t hold a candle to the way Protestants and Catholics grasped for political power and persecuted each other back then.
The construction of Holy Trinity Chapel was a disobedient act of defiant faith in a difficult time. A plaque over the entrance reads:
In the year 1653 when all things
Sacred were throughout ye nation,
Either demolished or profaned,
Sir Robert Shirely, Baronet,
Founded this church;
Whose singular praise it is,
to have done the best things in ye worst times,
hoped them in the most calamitous.
Sir Robert Shirely didn’t live to see the chapel completed. He died in the Tower of London under orders from Oliver Cromwell for breaking the religious and political law.
So, when is dissent or disobedience the most faithful thing a Christian can do?
I’ve been wrestling with that question in light of Peter and John’s defiant act of disobedience in Acts 5:27-42. On trial before the religious authorities for healing a lame man and proclaiming the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, their only defense was, “We must obey God rather than humans!” (Acts 5:29)
The story in Acts has come alive for me in reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963. The Freedom Riders, preachers, and ordinary people whose dissent and disobedience broke the power of segregation reminded me of the faith and courage it takes to obey God rather than human authority.
Peter and John’s witness also took me back to Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity . Curtis Freeman, the Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, points out that the long line of Christian dissenters like John Bunyan in England, Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson in colonial America, or Martin Luther King, Jr. in the ’60’s reminds us that “followers of Christ must learn to live in a perpetual state of tension with the status quote.” He concludes that “Christian conscience must be formed by faith through baptism and participation in the new humanity that has come in Jesus Christ.” (p. 218-219)
When is dissent or disobedience a faithful witness for Christ? It’s never an easy question to answer. The examples that reach back to Acts raise two defining questions.
- Does it bring healing to broken or suffering people?
- Is it consistent with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? (Acts 3:1-26, 5:27-32).
Dissent or Disobedience?
And so we come to this critical moment for The United Methodist Church.
My colleagues and friends who support the “Traditional Plan” that is now church law are being faithful to their interpretation of scripture and obedient to their understanding of God’s will. I suspect the high priest and the council believed the same thing. They were, after all, obeying the Old Testament law just the way Peter was obeying God’s law before he met Cornelius (Acts 10).
I respect their conviction. It’s a conviction I shared until, like Peter, I became friends with followers of Christ who happen to be gay and discovered that some things that are “biblical” are not “Christ-like.”
I also respect the biblical faithfulness and Spirit-led obedience of brothers and sisters whose obedience to Christ leads them to disobey the restrictions in the Book of Discipline which have been made more punitive by the “Traditional Plan.”
Alhough I have not been led to disobey, my sense of biblical faithfulness and Spirit-led obedience calls me to dissent. I supported the “One Church Plan” because it honored the diversity of conviction and culture that is part of our church. With its defeat, I affirm the vision of A Harvest of Joy that emerged from the Uniting Methodists movement.
I have no idea where all this will lead. I suspect we are headed toward some form of separation, which I cannot believe is God’s primary will for the Body of Christ but may become a human necessity.
Like Peter and John, I’m sure we are called to be the agents of Christ’s healing power and to bear witness to the way of Jesus. Like William Shirely, we are called to do the best of things in the worst of times and to hope for God’s Kingdom to come among us in times that are calamitous.
May God be with us.
Grace and peace,