Commentary: 'Cooperation without compromise' in a conflicted church

The Rev. Bob Phillips.  Photo by Timothy H. Wright.

Recently the Rev. René Lawson, a Navy Reserve chaplain, wrote a helpful article decrying church polarization and highlighting positive ways his ministry in the military had enhanced his hope for our conflicted church. Lawson emphasized the commitment to collaborative ministry, mutual respect and service to all that is part of the military chaplain’s ethos. To that I add an amen. Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit” selections, from which he quoted, strengthen United Methodists theologically when serving in intriguing settings. One of my assignments involved pastoral supervision for ministry to Marines and families from Hawaii to Africa. My “cabinet” consisted of a rabbi, a priest, a Mormon, a Southern Baptist, an Orthodox Presbyterian, a charismatic United Methodist and a Greek Orthodox priest. Diversity, anyone?

United Methodist theology affirms clergy integrity amid differences. I noticed in the military some groups engaged in cooperative ministry reluctantly, even resentfully. United Methodist chaplains embrace cooperation consistent with the Wesleyan claim to be part of the universal church, but not holding the Holy Spirit by the throat for ransom lest others not of our name be blessed. Our theology offers perspective to stay mellow when others would simply melt. One Sunday on Guam, I led the morning Protestant communion service. I used grape juice, but in deference to worshippers from Episcopal and Lutheran traditions, I also had a chalice of wine available. After the service, the hard-cider crowd came to me and asked what was in the chalice. I asked my enlisted clerk, who replied dryly that with the sacramental wine empty, he broke into his private stash of Harvey’s Bristol Crème. No wonder the Lutherans circled around for seconds! I offer this insight from 33 years of ministry in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, 28 of those years on active duty. A long-standing slogan for military chaplains is “Cooperation without Compromise.” Chaplains cooperate and help one another succeed for the sake of service to all. What chaplains must not do is to compromise core convictions. What the military must not do is to ask or expect chaplains to compromise those convictions. That would reduce chaplains to generic clerics procuring favors for promotion and perks, lap dogs to power rather than speakers of truth.

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