A Fuddling Cup
When I visit museums, if you pardon the pun, my eyes glaze over when we reach the ceramics exhibits. I’m not as enchanted by bowls or plates as much as sculptures and wall art. I tend to saunter through such exhibits with barely a glance.
But walking through a European art exhibit at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I was immediately drawn to this 1639 earthenware from London called a “Fuddling Cup.”
I thought it was a communion cup for three, or a shot glass for a trio of tastings, but I was soon mistaken. Here is its description:
These three cups are joined by the handles and are also internally interconnected. With phrases such as “Fill this cup and drink it up” inscribed on other cups of this type, the unwitting drinker was deceived into drinking the contents of all three cups, thus leaving the drinker in a be-“fuddled” state.
At first glance, it looks as if one would drink from just one cup, but the drinker would soon discover that they are actually drinking from all three.
In United Methodism right now, there’s a prevailing narrative that we are a church of three separate cups: Progressive, Centrist, and Traditionalist. We are at the breaking point of contention without a common future, and we should separate in some way to drink from separate cups.
- Progressives should drink from their cup of full LGBTQ+ inclusion.
- Traditionalists should drink from their cup of continued LGBTQ+ exclusion in peace.
- Centrists should drink from their cup of prioritizing the institution over inclusion or exclusion.
Many of the plans for our future (see this helpful list here from Rev. Becca Girrell in New England) have us dividing into separate cups, or dissolving the connecting handles altogether.
The prevailing narrative in the church today is that we are three cups, and we should divide to allow each of us to be on our own and seek the fullest expression that cup can provide. Only then can we head into a stronger future with full cups of our own making.
Unfortunately, we will be fuddled indeed if we fall prey to this narrative that we would be better apart than together.
The ceramic trio of cups from 1639 could not be broken into its individual cups and still be useful. The bodies are connected at almost their lowest point. To break them apart is to expose not individual wells, but a common one—whose now separate containers could no longer hold the liquid they once could. Each container, once broken from the others, could only manage a shallow amount of liquid, a tenth of what all three could hold together.
No United Methodist is the product of one cup only. We are all informed, shaped, and share the same water of baptism and the common pools of learning, experiencing, and serving. Our one cup is found on the communion table, not in our individual makeup.
I myself am a progressive who was raised in the traditionalist pools of the Bible Belt, and was educated at Boston University, an experience which oddly I would call more centrist than progressive (at least as marked by the professors in the early 2000s). I was commissioned and ordained by Traditionalist hands. I now serve in progressive Seattle among many exvangelicals (evangelicals who have left the church and returned) and agnostic/free thinkers and retired centrists. I draw from all three pools when I preach, teach, and testify to the power of Christ to transform the world.
And I believe you drink from all three cups too.
There is death in that pot
In Scripture, the prophet Elisha traveled to Gilgal during a famine, and prepared a common pot of stew to save them. The gathered people tried to eat it, but could not, crying out “there is death in that pot.”
“There is death in that pot” is a common refrain for the three encampments in United Methodism as well.
- For Traditionalists, there is death in the pot of LGBTQ+ inclusion (ecclesial death as evidenced by reduced membership of mainline LGBTQ+ affirming denominations). They must break away to keep their well pure, and defund the progressives as much as possible.
- For Progressives, there is death in the pot of LGBTQ+ exclusion (literal death of LGBTQ+ persons by suicide, murder of trans women of color, homelessness, and exclusion). They cannot allow this belief to continue to harm people, either together or apart.
- For Centrists, there is death in the pot of the continued conflict (death of the common mission which saves lives through the institutional and missional common structures). They cannot allow this argument to distract from the mission (which implies LGBTQ+ people are not included in the mission, but I digress) any longer.
By breaking apart from the others, each expression believes they would no longer be threatened by the death in those other pots. Even Centrists see value in cutting out the radical 10% on each end of the spectrum, leaving the 80% to continue the common institutions and missions.
There is death in the pot. But it is in someone else’s cup, not our own. Right?
Throw in something new
We must love them both, those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. For both have labored in the search of truth, and both have helped in the finding of it.
~ Saint Thomas Aquinas
In the scripture, Elisha solved the dilemma of the death in the pot not by throwing it out, but by introducing something new. Flour was thrown in the pot, neutralizing whatever was causing the rancidness of the stew. The people broke the famine and were able to feast. Either by divine inspiration or wisdom from his travels, Elisha knew what new thing would cure the death in the pot.
We can only cure the death in our own pots by allowing the three to mix. I believe each expression has a key gift that comes to full life-giving potency when the flour of the other two cups is mixed in.
- Traditionalists have evangelical zeal to unashamedly share and faithfully tell the story of Christ, but their only-recently-rabid exclusion can only be cured by full inclusion and a rebirth of trust and buy-into common structures that support that zeal.
- Progressives have full inclusion to welcome all people and push the boundaries of who is included, but their hesitant proclamation can only be cured by an evangelical zeal and a generous willingness to work alongside difference for a common mission.
- Centrists lift up common structures and missions to celebrate our shared life together, but their idolization of the institution can only be cured by full inclusion of all to a common life and a willingness to let the movements be valued as much as the institutions.
The fuddling cup shows us that we are better together, yes, but rancidness in one cup affects the others. By breaking apart, we are doomed to our own stewing. But together we can make the other better, cure the sources of death, and restore a common cup that is overflowing with life.
Will we be Fuddled Again?
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? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.
~ John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit”
General Conference 2020 is looking more and more like a repeat of 2019: multiple plans, no frontrunner to craft together, rigid posturing by all sides, and saber-rattling by Traditionalists who believe they hold the votes and purse strings but no responsibility.
By breaking apart, we avoid the rancidness in the other cups, but we find ourselves with diminished capacity and inability to solve our own rancidness. We are not called to be holy solitaries. We would then turn on the margins of their own cups, and the cycle will repeat again.
All of the plans submitted so far separate the cups in some way. My hope is the leaders (not the paid caucus group employees) can come together on a plan that achieves all three above at a minimum and allows us to drink from the same cup together.
Generations of church have found themselves surprised, delighted, and befuddled that we drink from more sides than we think. By breaking up the common vessel, we leave ourselves with diminished capacity, and an inability to solve the death in the other pots, and indeed the death in our own.
Let us add all three back together—evangelical zeal, full inclusion, and common life—and find ways to allow the three cups to continue to be shared, befuddling all who think they know their life is better without diversity, and yet delighting them when they see that three is greater than one.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
I am sure that progressives like me will agree with this. I doubt that any traditionalist will do so. Thanks for not giving up!
Good words to chew on. Thanks.
This is my thinking, but articulated in a much better way. That triple cup(which I have never seen before) is a perfect tool for this discussion.
But to drink from one cup would mean we are all following the same agreed-upon rules. But clearly, the aftermath of GC 2019 shows that the General Conference, which in the past has united our distinct handles together, is now broken. When you have annual conferences and entire jurisdictions only enforcing the Discipline to the points that they fully agree with, what unity do we have as a denomination?
And to quote John Wesley’s Catholic Spirit is to take him out of context. He is not talking about how to get along with other Methodists. We know John Welsey was very strict about all Methodist following the rules agreed too as Methodists or they would not be allowed to attend the love feasts. And he even went so far as to remove people form membership in the societies who were not living according to the Methodist standard.
In the Catholic Spirit, John Wesley is talking about how Methodists are to relate to non-Methodists. Not how we are to relate with one another when we disagree on the agreed-upon order.
You are right. Theological plurality “worked” only when everybody agreed to abide by the decisions of General Conference. (Work is in quotes because I am not sure that 50 years of numerical decline truly defines a successful outcome.) When people no longer live within the clearly established parameters of how any organization is designed to work, then the organization is broken beyond repair. There is no way forward together because we are no longer in agreement as to how the church should function. This is just one more presenting issue of our underlying deep theological divide.True connectivity is found when a group of people hold some core convictions in common–something the United Methodist church may have had on paper but has not had in practice for a long time.
I also agree with the other person who said that the quote from John Wesley from “Catholic Spirit” is inappropriate. One thing I have noted is that many in the UMC are very adept at quoting from the first half of the sermon but seem oblivious to the second half which describes in detail who the person is and is not when they are truly of the catholic spirit. Overall, my sense is that American United Methodists have an incomplete of who John Wesley really was and what he really did.
After trying to work with traditionalists for six years I think the kind of change and compromise you desire cannot be achieved without some sort of institutional division. What you ask of traditionalists they will refuse to give without the passage of a significant amount of time. Took about 90 years after the ME South and ME North split to achieve that kind of reconciliation, and still the racism that fueled the split was accommodated in the reunion. Better to seek a managed split, and maintain relationship via a concordat relationship or the WMC, and strategically through some of the general agencies that meet mutual interests. Leaves the door open down the road toward reunification. The current climate only fuels the extremists to the detriment of those who aren’t dealing with post-evangelicals, atheists and the like, but rather a true representation of what we’ve recognized as big tent Methodism.
It would not be wise to assume that reunification down the road is possible because traditionalists will have finally “seen the light”. For us slavery and sexuality are two completely different issues. Not discriminating against people because of the color of their skin is one thing. The Bible never endorsed slavery it only reported that it existed and rules were put in place on the humane treatment of slaves. Rules that Paul took to a whole other level when he sent that one slave back to his owner. Simply accepting what people believe about themselves is something else altogether. I have discovered that Christianity is not about trusting in who I think I am, but trusting in God’s ability to transform me into the truly human person He wants me to be. I do not claim that I am there, but I continually seek God’s grace to get there.
If I read John’s Gospel correctly, our “fuddling” is Christ’s work, not ours. We may divide as we did in 1844 but we cannot separate. We are collectively the Body of Christ, broken and risen, broken and risen. I assume we will divide in the coming quadrennium, gay liberation will transform global communities where it is only now taking root, and our grandchildren will reunite the People Called Methodist, wondering what all the fuss was about. And in the 2040’s, we will apologize for the harm that we have done, just as we have so often before.
Alex da Silva Souto
Dear brother Jeremy,
I’m afraid your article is is rooted on false equivalencies and assumptions of sustainability, and privilege some of us can no longer afford. It seems to advocate for the “negative peace” Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. so prophetically warned us about. The false unity our institution has indulged was not cheap. Under-represented groups, and historically oppressed populations have paid the price for undelivered promises of reconciliation and a better future.
The imagery of the three cups presumes equality of all parts and you know that it is not true. The cups are not of the same size, shape, or content. To jump to a parallel analogy… it takes one drop of poison to destroy a well.
The “Progressive Cup” has been filled with the blood of marginalized lambs and scapegoats sacrificed for the sake of institutional unity. And some of us cannot afford complacency any longer. It’s not simply a matter of “opinion” and “Biblical interpretation” we can agree to disagree.
In my humble opinion your quote from John Wesley is improperly applied. We could speculate about Wesley’s take on our current conundrum, but we know how he sided on the plight of the economically oppressed, and the evils of slavery. The suffering of his neighbors were not a matter of opinion to Wesley.
Why is the discrimination, oppression, criminalization, and punishment of LGBTQIA+ people, our families, and our allies a matter of opinion?
As you correctly pointed out on your article, heterosexism/homophobia kills, as racism, and the disregard for the plight of the economically oppressed kill.
I suspect that the harms fine onto my community is only understood as a matter of opinion by the ones that can afford “moderate” levels of abuse in their context, or it may be a matter of opinion if the blood is coming from another’s cup not one’s own.
It’s not that Progressives or Liberationists (my own alignment) are not able to love the ones that perpetuate oppression, or the ones that are “neutral” about the suffering of their neighbor, we have been in relationships with oppressors and in partnerships with bystanders of oppressive system since time immemorial. What needs to be understood and hopefully respected is that our love needs to be also extended to ourselves and to the ones being marginalized, criminalized, and punished by the oppressors, and it is time for picking a side. Methodists picked a side when slavery was was argued as a matter of opinion, Methodists (at least in polity) picked a side when racism was argued as a matter of cultural context, Methodists were willing to pick a side (at least in polity) when sexism and misogyny was argued as a being a matter of biblical interpretation.
Here are some question from a analogy that resonates closer to my personal experience:
What would you tell a spouse held hostage in an abusive relationship for 50 years?
Would your pastoral recommendation change if you knew there were many children stuck in that abusive household?
What if every attempt had been made to repair the harm, and eliminate the toxicity in the relationship, but the sacrificing of children, and deeply ingrained violence continued, while the abusing party showed no sign of repentance? Would you counsel the abused spouse and children to stick it out?
Would you advocate for the abused partner to go back to the abuser, dragging the children along with the recommendation that they try to love the abuser a little better?
Sometimes divorce is the only alternative.
Here are my reasons for seriously considering it and my response to the shaming that comes along when one declares that the abusiva relationship is over:
Here are some thoughts of my own considerations of Dissolution and/or Disaffiliation as the way forward after the collapse of the UMC at GC2019.
1. I am not abandoning anyone. I am choosing to follow Jesus in/to the margins along anyone who chooses to journey with us.
2. I am not turning my back on anyone, I am facing Pharaoh and saying “Let our people go.”
3. I am not “burning bridges”, I have more often than not offered myself as the actual bridge.
4. I am not “burning bridges”, I am continuing the work of preventing LGBTQIA+ people from being thrown off or hung from institutional structures.
5. I am not “throwing in the towel”, I am reclaiming my agency to stop the beating.
6. I am saying yes to life and life in abundance, as we live into our Liberation.
7. The possibility of a “Moderate” discrimination, segregation, and oppression in the US is not a reasonable compromise, while our LGBTQIA+ siblings are criminalized, hunted down, and executed in a many parts of the world. Over 70 countries still criminalizes our gender identity and sexual orientation. Just in my own country of birth one queer person is killed assassinated every 16hrs.
8. As people of faith we need to be very clear about what brings about death (corporal and spiritual) and what nourishes life (earthly and heavenly).
9. One must choose where one invest their life energy. “Can’t serve two masters.”
10… I’ll stop right here but the list goes on.
Your words about dissolution are beautifully written and much appreciated.
Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. It lifts a weight off my shoulders and illuminates the path forward.
Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UMC clergy)
This piece nets out to an ecclesiastical rendition of the (late) Rodney King version of the means to tranquility: “Can’t we just all get along?”
Before one presumes to construct an arrangement wherein all parties are satisfied, one is first obligated to explain why the UMC has been in decline since the 1960’s – or thereabouts.
Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is a frivolous exercise in futility, and, with respect, that’s what this article resembles.
“Before one presumes to construct an arrangement wherein all parties are satisfied, one is first obligated to explain why the UMC has been in decline since the 1960’s – or thereabouts.”
I don’t agree with that. It doesn’t really matter how we got to where we are. It would be a ‘nice to know’, but it’s not essential. And even if we had an honest assessment, half of the people wouldn’t agree with the answer.
Human nature is what it is – and to be honest, the vast majority of people involved here don’t care a single whit about the path in the rear view mirror. They know where they stand, they KNOW how they feel, and they won’t need to consider all the backstory in order to figure out the best path forward for themselves.
It doesn’t matter whether they’ve been manipulated, or taught wrong, or whatever the issue is. Because they stand where they stand now, and that’s what really matters.
Teresa Callahan, M.D.
Many thanks to Alex da Silva Souto for bring up the concept of privilege. As I was reading your post, Jeremy, I was thinking how what you wrote represents the privilege of a cis-gender white straight male ordained clergyperson. How is it possible, after the fiasco of GC2019, that you could ask LGBTQ+ Methodists and their committed allies, including your LGBTQ+ clergy colleagues, to continue on in a united denomination by essentially telling them we are all better together? Unbelievable! How can you ignore the harm and oppression our LGBTQ+ Methodist siblings have suffered since the discriminatory language was added to the BOD? I find your optimism for the future of a united UMC to be more harmful wishful thinking and self-delusion than a reality-based assessment of the possible options.