As General Conference approaches, the various plans being put forward regarding human sexuality make it appear that the decisive factor will be which theological view is finally adopted as determinative. And while I believe theological conversations are essential in a discernment process, I do not believe they are the pivot on which the future of the UMC turns.
The pivot is not a theological position, it is a value–namely, whether unity is a higher value than schism. To say it another way, if we have the will to stay together, we can find a way to do so. If we lack that will, we will find a way to divide.
Francis Asbury recognized this in 1792 when he urged the 8-year-old Methodist Episcopal Church in America to carefully consider the dangers of divisions and how to “cure” themselves of the temptation to promote such. [Happily, Abingdon Press has recently republished Asbury’s book, ‘The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions ‘ Go to http://www.cokesbury.com, and search by this title to find out more]
Asbury knew, as do we, that any theological position is exercised by the will of the person or group that holds it. Whatever the will is, a theological position can be found to justify it. History shows that the Church is always able to find theological language to do what it wants to do.
The Church has been able to hold together deep disagreements throughout its history–because it wanted to. At the same time, separations have happened when the will to stay together was lost. In both cases, theological language attended the decision and the resulting ecclesial systems which emerged.
Of course the discernment of the ultimate value is always connected to conscience and conviction (e.g. Luther’s, “Here I stand, I can do no other”), and these elements are intertwined with theology. But in the end, the final action is forged in the crucible of a decision relative to the scale of values regarding the preference of unity or schism in a given situation.
If the delegates at General Conference believe unity is a higher value than schism, then we can anticipate some plan for remaining together. If not, we will see some plan for separation. In either case, theological language will be used to justify the ideological and institutional manifestation. But however it is worded, the preference for unity or schism will reflect the deeper and final influence of will.
So, in the end, the pivotal question at General Conference will be, “What do you want? Unity or schism?” and the old Chinese proverb about the bird in our hand will come true once again: is the bird alive or dead? “It is as you will.”
Truth is indeed the ultimate value . . . “I (Jesus) am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus is the Truth. As recorded by the beloved disciple, just prior to going to the cross Jesus the Truth prayed that his people would be unified in the love of the Father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23). It seems reasonable to at least posit that unity was not merely a “penultimate” value for Jesus the Truth. Praying that Jesus the Truth will be glorified at the UMC General Conference to come . . .
I think it is important to keep in mind that truth is the ultimate value and unity is the penultimate value and not the other way around. Unity at the expense of truth is not unity at all.
“History shows that the Church is always able to find theological language to do what it wants to do.” This quote epitomizes modern “doctrine free” Methodism. Do the majority want to repudiate the Apostle’s Creed? Go for it, we can put together some sophistry to justify that! Do the majority want to switch from the Bible to Koran. Go for it, we can find some Methodist theologians that will endorse the Koran as a later, better revelation! No wonder United Methodism is in decline. If Methodists can believe anything they want and live any way that they want, is it any wonder that the majority want to sleep in on Sunday? But, at least those sleeping in on Sunday will have unity and that’s what’s important.
Well said, Steve. Unfortunately, there will be those who perceive “winners” and “losers” regardless of how things go at the conference. The church I serve has been diligently praying for God’s will for the UMC in the upcoming General Conference. Without their praying, I would be at the point of “I don’t care!, Just get it over with!” Decision one way, I retire; decision another, I keep serving a few more years. It’s all in God’s and our delegate’s hands.
Grace and Peace
Continuing to learn from you Pastor Steve. Continuing to hold the Church in prayer.
Peace and mercy be with each of us.
You’ve nailed the issue. Now to see where the delegates stand.