General Conference faces the challenge of turning perspectives into programs, convictions into content, principles into polity. It is the inescapable movement from beliefs to practices. Creating the bridge that moves the UMC from one to the other is a formidable challenge–the place where we must be focusing much of our prayer for those charged with this task.
The question embedded in this challenge is how do we legislate a theology of love? No one I know denies that at the core, Wesleyan theology is a theology of love–offered by God to us through grace, for the purpose of salvation. No one I know denies that our theology of love is focused in the two great commandments (loving God and loving others) and that whatever life together as United Methodist Christians means, it means living in love.
But what does that look like in terms of polity? Can there be a polity of love that institutionalizes our theology of love? Well, since 1744 in England and 1784 in North America, we have believed there can be a polity of love, and the people called Methodist have woven a threefold tapestry that intertwines what to believe, what to teach, and what to do. From May 10-20 in Portland, it is time to do it again. If we use our heritage as a guide, we can gain some insight for uniting loving and legislating.
First, conviction. Delegates must gather convinced that everyone is a Christian seeking the best for the denomination they all love. Roots of bitterness and suspicion will divorce love and legislation, making the deliberative process one that creates “winners” and “losers.” Instead of this, there must be profound respect among and between delegates–a disposition that clings to the belief that all delegates share the same end (expressed in our mission statement) even as they work to create the polity to fulfill it.
Second, conversation. In the historic Minutes of Methodist Conferences there are stated questions followed by formulated answers. The Q&A format reflects the practice of Christian Conferencing. It is always the best way to discern God’s will for the collective body. But the Q&A format does not show all the talking that went on between the “Q” and the “A”–tons of it, hours of it. If we stop talking, we stop loving, and when we stop loving, the legislation produced will be lessened in both substance and tone.
Third, commitment. Delegates must hold firm in their valuing of unity over schism. Any division erodes the Gospel in some way, weakens the witness of the Church to the world, and cheapens the language of love that is left over after a split occurs. If delegates hold to the higher value of unity, they will find a way to preserve it: “where there is a will, there is a way.”
Fourth, consensus. The historic Q&A process always produced an “A” that reflected a consensus of some kind. No one got everything. Ensuing legislation was proscriptive rather than prescriptive. It told the Methodists what to do not how to do it. Loving legislation implies various applications–not lock-step conformity in every detail. Loving legislation is the body’s way of saying, “This is what we aim for together and commit to work toward until we meet again.” Loving legislation expresses intent, preserving consensus.
Fifth, contextualization. Methodism has always been geographically and culturally diverse. The “A” in the Q&A process was always enacted differently in one place than in another. Methodism is not a “one-size-fits-all” denomination in theology or polity. It is always in some way a “local option” enterprise, and continuing that reality is even more important given the global makeup of the UMC today. Loving legislation allows for contextualization.
All this occurs in a learning atmosphere–the experiential component of the Wesleyan hermeneutic. Whatever is created in Portland will be tested around the world. We have never believed we could separate plenary debate from practical divinity. So, we re-gather every four years to keep the refining process going. On the basis of actual practice, we will be able to sort out wheat from chaff. It is the Methodist way–the way of putting ourselves up for review quadrennium after quadrennium.
Drawing on our heritage, it is possible to envision a conjoining of the two elements potentially separted: love and legislation. It is the union that gives light and life to a multi-million member denomination dispersed all over the earth. Let us pray that our delegates will unite love and legislation for our good and God’s glory.