As the Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church meet during these weeks, the challenges we face as a denomination become more apparent. And the fact that we are not agreed as to how we should deal with them is equally clear.
But running through the conferencing process is the thread that says, “Stay united!” The sentiment is longstanding, but it has acquired fresh illustration and impetus. I mark the UM Communications’ study in June 2014 as a resurgence of this momentum, where 90% of the laity surveyed in all five Jurisdictions said, “Do not divide!” If we can remember as clergy that we serve the Church (99.9% of which is laity), and refuse to “preacher-fy” the issues, we will see that we have already received our marching orders. And in that commissioning, I see these clarion calls…
(1) Forget the labels. We are a united church, so we must act like it. Every adjective (e.g. conservative/progressive) must go so that the noun ‘Christian’ can reign. We have entered a conciliar era as the Church has before, and that is an era of holy conversation not hubric contention. A conciliar era means we come together claiming our primary identity, not our secondary ones. Camps, cliques, and caucuses must yield to the remembrance that we are one in Christ Jesus.
(2) Defeat divisiveness. Contentious spirits must give way to the fruit of the Spirit. Plans that express or imply separation and exit must be rejected–whether they are publicly presented or secretly held. Back-room maneuvering must yield to prayer-room intercession. We must allow the Gardener to prune us of this kind of “dead wood” thinking, so that we can bear more fruit in the coming harvest (John 15:2).
(3) Figure it out. Maintaining unity is always harder than choosing schism because it requires a longer amount of time, a greater engagement of energy, and a different kind of discernment. It calls everyone to humility, a recognition that no camp has 100% of the truth, a receptivity to differing views, a relinquishment of looking for a guru to save us, and a rock-solid conviction that even though maintaining unity is really difficult, nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:27).
(4) Follow through. We already recognize that our policies and polity (except for the Restrictive Rules) are dynamic realities–always developing and maturing. This means we must not be swayed by those who would have us believe “it’s now or never.” That kind of panic is built on a perfectionism that has never been true in the Church, and must not be accepted as truth now. Instead, we aim to make progress, trusting that in the Spirit, growth is incremental, that (as E. Stanley Jones said) we are “Christians under construction,” and that God is not finished with us. Follow through is a mindset which creates a wisdom community–a community that believes one thing leads to another, and that God will give further light as we journey together into the future, if we are walking in the light of love now. We are under no pressure to “get it right” immediately; we are under grace to journey faithfully and be a learning community that responds as Reality unfolds.
We do all this as Christians who share Jesus’ prayer that we be one (John 17:21), who believe with Paul that Christ must not be divided (1Corinthians 1:13), and who stand with the Wesleys who, in their lifetime, resisted schism and gave reasons for doing so (1758).
We exhort ourselves to “stay united” because we recognize that unity is a biblical virtue, and that schism is not. We refuse to approve building our future house on schism sand. Instead, we build on the good foundation of faith which affirms we are better together, and that God can and will do above what we can ask or imagine.