Bishop Ken Carter ~ A Consistent Ethic of Hospitality: Including the Unborn in our Inclusiveness

Bishop Ken Carter ~ A Consistent Ethic of Hospitality: Including the Unborn in our Inclusiveness

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Bishop Carter preached this sermon at the Lifewatch Service on January 22, 2014 in the Simpson Memorial Chapel, United Methodist Building, Washington, DC.


I want to reflect on three aspects of our witness on behalf of the sanctity and sacredness of life: a coherent social teaching; a consistent ethic of hospitality; and a compassionate witness to and for life.


A Coherent Social Teaching

United Methodists are blessed with a rich and deep theological tradition. We believe that every person is created in the image of God. We acknowledge that human sin disfigures this divine image. The result is alienation, confusion and estrangement. We confess our need to repent, to turn toward God. In the language of the parable, to repent is to come home to the father’s house (Luke 15). That turning, an act of faith and itself one dimension of the work of God’s grace, is met with an unconditional love, the saving (justifying) grace of God. We are saved by grace and not by our works, lest any of us should boast (Ephesians 2). We respond to this gift of saving grace by continuing on the journey toward becoming more like Christ. In this process the image of God is restored. God is love, and we respond by loving God and loving our neighbor. Our response, again empowered by the grace of God, is sanctification. This is the call to holiness, which is both personal and social in its expression.

This rich and deep theological tradition is profoundly biblical and finds expression for us in the writings of John and Charles Wesley and their ancestors. In the truest and highest sense it could be described, to borrow a phrase of the Yale theologian Hans Frei, as a “Generous Orthodoxy.”

Our present ecclesial crisis is rooted in the reality that our theology (what we teach, what we preach, what we believe) is often neither generous nor orthodox. Our current incoherent social teaching is the result of the present theological chaos. We are polarized, and here we mirror the culture, as Methodists so often do, and the result is a division into two theological camps.

One camp has a theology of prevenient grace and social holiness. Everyone has dignity, although here there are unconscious limitations, which we will explore later, and we are called to change the world. In its extreme form this can be an ideology totally void of boundaries, and it leads to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” and what H. Richard Niebuhr defined as “Christ without a cross.” In its practical expression the outcome is a kind of works-righteousness. This works-righteousness is a difficult path, because the world resists all of our efforts to bring about change, and a malaise or depression ensues. This depression, in the words of a wise church consultant, is killing the mainline church in the United States.

Another camp has a theology of repentance, justifying grace and personal holiness. If every person simply said and meant the words of the sinner’s prayer, all would we well with our souls. This orientation takes one aspect of the evangelical movement and separates it from the necessary social and contextual realities that shape us and call for our engagement, a calling that runs like a thread from the eighth century prophets to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the letter of James to the journals of John Wesley.

These theological camps align comfortably (and conveniently) with two dominant political movements, which find institutional expression in the political parties of the United States. But neither captures the fullness of our rich and robust theological tradition as Wesleyans, which includes a grace that is more pervasive than we can imagine, in space and time, and a holiness that is more comprehensive than we are inclined to grasp.

The recovery of a coherent theology of grace and holiness, and a rejection of the partisan political captivity of the church, could lead us to a coherent social teaching. The dictionary defines coherence as have clarity and intelligibility and the quality of holding together. We have a clear and generous orthodox theological tradition as United Methodists. We are in desperate need of a coherent social teaching.


A Consistent Ethic of Hospitality

What would a coherent social teaching look like? I want to argue this morning that it would look something like the tradition, found in the Roman Catholic Church, of a “consistent ethic of life.” As the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin noted, “we must be consistent in our respect for and protection of human life at every stage and in every circumstance.” [1] I do wonder if Methodism could abandon its present partisan political captivity and join the evangelical and catholic consensus in regard to life? In our heritage we are in fact a movement that holds together evangelical and catholic sensibilities. 

This consistent ethic represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend.

A consistent ethic of life cuts across our political proclivities and moves us to the deeper level of values and principles. The gospel is always on the side of life because God is the creator of life, Jesus comes so that we may have life, and the Holy Spirit descends to renew the face of the earth. The gospel always stands in judgment of our tribal affiliations, because our God is not a tribal god, but the One God who created the universe and each of us in his image.

For our purposes, what would it mean for a consistent ethic of life to shape a consistent ethic of hospitality? In the past year I have reflected in public settings on a missional hospitality with gay and lesbian Christians in a sermon at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, on our call to be hospitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are immigrants among us at Asbury Theological Seminary [2], and now on what a consistent ethic of hospitality might mean if it were to include the unborn.

Would not our rhetoric of inclusion be more coherent, possess more integrity and become more cruciform if it were to include all of the strangers, in the language of Matthew 25, whom we are called to welcome? 

What would it mean to reframe the conversation around a consistent ethic of hospitality? I have recently returned to a spiritual classic written by Henri Nouwen entitled Reaching Out.  He traces one of the movements of the spiritual life as the journey from hostility to hospitality. He describes it as a painful search, full of difficulties, and yet, he insists, that “it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.” [3] A consistent ethic of hospitality would call us to welcome the unborn as the stranger. Nouwen continues, “This is our vocation, to convert the hostis into hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” [4]

Two comments: we must acknowledge the complexity in calling women to be agents of hospitality (in making space for the unborn) when they have often been the victims of brutal hostility. We must confess this as a context that is present more often than is acceptable, and violence toward women demands our systematic, communal and individual responses. In addition, we might hear Nouwen’s  reflection on hospitable space as being a reference not only to the unborn child but also the needed discussion that could lead us to a different place in our individual discernments, in our community ministries, in our denominational polity and in our communication with the culture.

An aside: in preparation for this sermon I read carefully, again, the paragraph in the Book of Discipline that was present in 1988, when the Durham Declaration was drafted, and in 2012, the most recent edition. The section (now 161J) has expanded in twenty five years from one paragraph to nine. It is more nuanced and yet it is an imperfect statement. We have not adequately examined what it says about creation, covenant and context; we would benefit from the language of gifts instead of rights; there are aspects to this work in progress for which I give thanks (encouragement of adoptions, lament of high abortion rates, opposition to late term abortion, affirmation of crisis pregnancy centers) and there yet it could be more coherent with who we are. It lacks an ecclesiology, and thus the statement is silent on the role of Christian community  in welcoming children, and it fails to reflect on the contexts of violence and poverty that shapes the lives of expectant mothers across the planet. 

I realize that writing (and revising or not) the Book of Discipline can itself be a hostile act, and perhaps to acknowledge this is one step in the way forward. If Nouwen’s identification of the movement from hostility to hospitality, and the challenge in our social teaching to be more consistent and coherent is one that we are willing to embrace, it may bear fruit in a compassionate witness to life.


A Compassionate Witness to Life 

What would this compassionate witness to life look like? We certainly begin with the goodness of creation, which we affirm every time we baptize a child. Having professed God as creator of heaven and earth, we rejoice that “we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth, through water and the spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [5] In this liturgy creation has merged into covenant, and the visible sign of each is the baptismal water, itself essential to life, from the moment of conception: Jesus, we remember, was “nurtured in the water of a womb.”

A compassionate witness to life names these gifts of God. But it incorporates, as well, that we are people who have at times preferred death to life. And so we renounce our sin, the “spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil powers of this world.” The needed conversation about advocacy for the unborn must take these into account. The moral theologian David Gushee insists:

All who care about life’s sacredness must understand the factors that motivate thousands of women to seek an abortion today, and these must be addressed systemically…In the United States, as long as our cultural sexual ethic is so libertine, as long as our social safety net is so fragile, as long as the relationships between men and women are so tenuous and as long as poverty and hopelessness continue to enfold at least half of the population, demand for abortion will be high, especially among those whose bodies and spirits bear the costs of most of our other social dysfunctions.” [6]

We can and must pay more attention to contexts, among them the violation of sexual boundaries, violence and poverty, and we need not pit these against one another.

A compassionate witness to life never forgets that it is God who gives us the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. One of the remarkable insights of William Abraham, in The Logic of Evangelism, is that we do not place morality prior to initiation, conversion or baptism. [7] Morality – the desire to love God and neighbor, or to attend to the General Rules in the Wesleyan tradition – is made possible through the gift of grace, and is a necessary consequence of that gift.

And so a child is born, and through grace is baptized into the Christian community. The great tradition of generous orthodoxy affirms that at least one meaning here is that these children are not our own: they are gifts of God, and they are also the responsibility of the community. 

Our witness to life can take the form of protest, and that is standing against a body of law in the church and the society.  What I am calling for is a renewed engagement with the very ground of the argument—that followers of Jesus, the One who came to give us life, are called to take up his cross and live cruciform lives, which occur whenever we find ourselves in relation to the “least of these.” The least of these, named in Matthew 25, represent a continuum of persons who find themselves at the fragile intersection of life and death. The justice of this text is aligned with the judgment upon the disciples, ourselves included.

To offer a compassionate witness in word and in action is to come alongside persons in their season of greatest vulnerability. The mission of a radically inclusive church must include the unborn in our inclusiveness. If grace is extended to all, a sign of this divine gesture is welcoming life into communities that have learned the way of the cross, that are journeying from hostility to hospitality.

The protest that is needed in a violent, fragmented and fragile world is the formation of communities of character, where the reality of grace and the possibility of holiness are taught and lived, where individual rights are tempered by membership in the body of diverse gifts. A theology of abundance and not scarcity moves us to boldly testify that these gifts are sufficient for our human flourishing, and indeed the flourishing of every unborn child.

The sanctity of life is so important, and thus we must discover a coherent way, as United Methodists, of bearing witness, in the language of the New Testament, of “giving an account for the hope that is within us” (1 Peter). A coherent social teaching could lead us to embrace a consistent ethic of hospitality, for indeed we are members of the One Body, when one suffers all suffer, when one rejoices all rejoice (1 Corinthians 12). And a consistent ethic of hospitality is possible only as it is set within the context of a compassionate witness to and for life, which we believe to be a gift, a fragile and sacred trust.

May God help us.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Volume One (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2000), p. 433.

[2] See “God Has Bid All Humankind: Generous Orthodoxy and our Mission with Gays and Lesbians in the United Methodist Church” and “Learning to Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land:  Immigration and a Scriptural Imagination”, both posted at

[3] Image: New York, 1975, p. 65.

[4] Ibid, p. 66.

[5] The words from the Baptismal Liturgy are taken from The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), pp 39ff.

[6] The Sacredness of Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), p. 359.

[7] Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  1989.




One Response

  1. This is a sensitive and considered engagement around the issue of the gift of unborn children and the calling of the church to welcome them in all circumstances. Bishop Carter attends to many of the nuances around this most pressing matter before the church–which is something not often done in the public debate–and I hope readers of Wesleyan Accent will read his sermon carefully. This is exactly the kind of strong episcopal leadership we need in the church right now on the difficult matters that face us as a communion.

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