Thursday, July 17, 2008

What unites us?

As I reflect on Annual Conference 2008, Jurisdictional Conference 2008, and especially General Conference 2008, the issue of "true unity" has been running through my mind. After all, the possibility for schism remains real. My opinion is that if the UMC position regarding homosexual behavior is softened, there will be schism. That's not my personal desire, mind you, it's just my opinion of what will follow that kind of vote.

Schism is a kind of heresy, to be sure. The question we will all have to figure out will be: "Who caused the schism; who committed the heresy?"

This leads to another question: "What is is that unites us as the Church?" Specifically, we could ask, "What is it that unites us as The United Methodist Church?"

This is no easy question.

We have so many interpretations (and translations) of the Bible that it would be inaccurate to claim that the Bible unites us. If someone believes, for example, that interpreting Genesis 1 literally is the only legitimate approach to that text, they can hardly be united with someone who approaches it more allegorically.

It would also be inaccurate to claim that we are united by our doctrinal standards. It's extremely rare for anyone during our Annual Conference session to make a reference to our Articles of Religion, for example. John Wesley's sermons may see an occasional reference, but much of this seems historical or, at best, inspirational for many of us. I have been with pastors who have denied one or more of our Articles; it isn't pretty.

While United Methodist clergy do function within the lines of apostolic succession, I don't think that this is what unites us. Most United Methodists aren't aware of the succession and could likely not care less.

Clearly, we are not united by a common liturgy, such as that which unites the Anglican Communion (at least in part). While I have my own preferences ("smells and bells!"), I think the diversity of our worship can be a good thing...from High Church to Southern Gospel to Baby Boomer to Emergent, and everything in between. It can be exciting and all very faithful when planned well theologically, but our liturgy clearly doesn't unite us.

We are not united by a common law or Discipline; for this, I blame primarily the left wing of the Church. They tried to find loopholes in Church law...just as the world would an attempt to salvage the ordained ministry of someone who had admitted to being in violation of the law. In doing so, they played politics with the Discipline, and disregarded the clear wish and intention of the General Conference and our covenant together. That was very dishonest, and demonstrates to me that we are not united by canon law (remember - the issue wasn't was whether or not Church law had been violated).

Our common history doesn't really unite us, especially as we take in more and more folks who are former Roman Catholics or former Presbyterians or former Pentecostals or former atheists, agnostics or pagans. We may know about the history, but are hardly united by it.

It would be wonderful if we were united by a common mission, but, frankly, we can't seem to agree as to what being a disciple means, much less how to make disciples. And with the theological error of adding "for the transformation of the world" to our denominational mission statement, we are less united by mission than ever before.

I'd like to think we are united in and through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. But I'm not entirely certain we agree on who he is, much less what he teaches or the legacy he calls us to live out.

And maybe that lies at the heart of our problem. Our problem isn't primarily ethical, and it's not primarily Biblical. Our problem is primarily Christological. We simply don't know what to say about or do with this Jesus fellow.

The Right Reverend Eric Park wrote in his summary for candidacy as a General Conference delegate, "I am convinced that [one] of the most significant challenges facing United Methodism [is]...daring to live a life that is subordinated to the Lordship of Jesus and the countercultural ethics of the Kingdom of God."

That's it in a nutshell: how do we live a life that is subordinated to the Lordship of Jesus? We have no common understanding of what that means, especially as it relates to Holy Scripture, the Great Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience.

Perhaps, before we have another General Conference, before we discuss any changes in Church law, we ought to find some common ground concerning the person and Lordship of this man Jesus Christ.


wes said...

Keith I agree with pretty much everything you said. However I think with our issue of Christology there may be no common ground, and I really hate to say that. The problem is we have (for lack of a better way to put it) the "Left" side wanting to make an entire Christiology around the social gospel. And the reality for that is that you don't need a divine savior to change the world, you just need a man with great moral teachings. The "Right" side wants a savior, and unless we operate by that our entire ecclesial system will basically be damned.
My opinion is we need both, we need the Christ who cares about the physical well being of the people in the world, and the Christ who saves a sinner just like me. Personally I think that is our Methodist heritage, at least that's what I see in Wesley. Unfortunately I have met to many people in our conferences that would rather capitalize on just one aspect of Christ and not try to hold Wesley's own view of Christ in balance. Personally I blame our seminary education and its emphasis on Historical Criticism rather than on theology, and practical application (which is the perfect union in Methodism IMHO).

Unknown said...

Good observations and summary of how we let so many differences divide. I think your point about unity in the Holy Spirit is right though. Yes, we often work against it, BUT it is the source of unity.

A couple references if you don't mind.

First, we must teach our people to embrace "The Gift of Unity: The Gift of the Spirit"

Second, In sustaining the reality of our common salvation, I think we undersell the importance of diversity as a cohesive agent.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Joe, I agree with you, but I would want to differentiate between "diversity", which is a good thing, and "pluralism", which is divisive. Current denominational leadership largely equates these two concepts (inappropriately), and that inexactitude causes problems.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Wes, you make some good points, but I'm not sure I understand your complaint about the "Right". I tend to resist labeling myself, but I would certainly agree with a soteriological ecclesiology, which I believe to be entirely Wesleyan.

Jeff Kahl said...

I remember reading about a General Assembly of the PC(USA) a few years back, when one of the guest speakers said during a speech: "If we truly believe that God is at work everywhere in the world, then what's the big deal about Jesus?" What was so disheartening was that the comment provoked merely positive or negative emotional reactions from those listening, rather than a serious conversation about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, as you rightly call for.

Thanks for reminding us that "unity" is not an end to be sought in itself...but rather, that we must seek Christ and trust that He will lead us into unity.

wes said...

What I meant about "Right" is that I have often experienced an emphasis on Christ as savior to the detriment of all other forms (i.e. the Christ who leads us in social justice). While the "Left" does just the opposite. Make sense?

smkyqtzxtl said...

We have been discussing with our college students who they think Jesus is and who Jesus says he is. Jesus holds is all in a tension and at the same time the Godhead fully. I am, on a personal level, still struggling with "Christ in me the hope of glory". I plan to share that with the students tomorrow and see what their comments are. As Paul says, "wretched (wo)manthat I am" Most of us forget our wretchedness and forget that we are the arems that are to reach out to it as well. We are neither hot nor cold.....right nor...left.