United Methodists have been abuzz this week reflecting on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s hints at his plans for the Anglican Communion. While we don’t have the full details, it seems he is going to go in the opposite direction of his predecessors: rather than trying to keep everyone at the table, Welby is floating the idea of loosening ties in the connection in order to prevent a full severing. If they can’t be a true communion, the idea seems to be, let’s try a confederacy. I especially liked the unnamed source quoted by The Guardian, who said this was not a divorce, but “more like separate bedrooms.”
Classic teaching on the nature of the church holds that there are four marks of the true church, as confessed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:
- Unity: the church is one, a body of diverse parts under a sole head, Jesus Christ
- Holiness: the church is set apart for God, called out of the world for the sake of the world
- Catholicity: the church is universal, not just one congregation, but existing across spans of space & time
- Apostolicity: the church is built on the foundation of early witnesses to Jesus Christ, and only exists when she is in continuity with their message
This definition is reflected in our own doctrinal standards; the “four marks” are included in Article V of the EUB Confession of Faith: “We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic.”
I was recently conversing with an Episcopal friend of mine about the future of our two churches, and it occurred to me that the United Methodist Church is actually a more “catholic” (i.e. “universal”) body than the Anglican Communion. Why is that? The Anglican Communion tends to rely on national borders, while the United Methodist Church crosses them. United Methodists in Malawi get the same vote as United Methodists in Wisconsin. Every four years the whole church comes together, not as a variety of national churches, but as a whole church, under one Discipline, enforced (theoretically) by a single Council of Bishops, held in check (sometimes tediously so) by one Judicial Council. For all our problems at the general church level, it’s a truly beautiful thing that we are a worldwide church rather than a conglomeration of national churches.
I am not against re-arranging our polity in some manner so that we can release some pressure and go about the work of making disciples (and I don’t want to delve into all those options here). I do believe it’s worth pausing to realize the choice we are making, though. We are essentially choosing one mark over another. In the name of unity, and because of competing visions of holiness, we entertain compromising our catholicity. That may be a necessary choice, but it is not one we should take lightly.
And then there’s that final mark, the one we haven’t really considered: apostolicity.
Do we really, as a worldwide communion, have a shared vision of what our message is? As others have recently pointed out, the best structure in all of Christendom becomes moot if those who live within that polity don’t have a shared understanding of its content (that is, its vision or telos). This is the deeper issue that may truly divide us, but one with which we have not even started to wrestle because we are too busy having superficial arguments over sex and schism.
Being a person of faith, I believe it is very possible that the Spirit will move afresh and give United Methodists in 2016 a way to live together despite our differences over sexuality, albeit in separate bedrooms. We may well sacrifice a degree of catholicity, so that we can be united despite competing notions of holiness.
That still leaves the fourth mark, though, and with it serious question unaddressed: What is the message of Jesus? What is the content of “the faith once and for all delivered,” (Jude 1:3) and how do we share that message with the world? We could have a supernatural intervention in Portland and still be left with haunting questions that Wesley addressed at the very first Conference: What to teach? How to teach it?
I hope we can find a way to live together. I believe we can, and we should. But we should also remember the conversation we are not having, which is the conversation we will eventually have to have if we seek to truly be a church: who is the God we worship, and what would that God particular have us do?
That’s the hard conversation need to have, and I confess a degree of trepidation at the prospect. Why? Because, as much as we are pretty forthright about different ideas of polity, structure, order, and holiness, if we seriously address apostolicity we might well find, beneath these superficial shouting-matches and name-calling, we actually worship different deities altogether.
For all the bluster and identity politics, the back-room deals and histrionics, there simply can’t be a church without Jesus.
The second stanza to one of my favorite hymns, UMH #545 for you worship nerds out there, speaks to me here:
Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.
The church can be elect (called out, holy) from every nation, over all the earth (catholic), and one (united), but all of that matters little if she forgets her (apostolic) charter: “one Lord, one faith, one birth.” (paraphrasing Ephesians 4:5)
The Missio Dei has been entrusted to the Body of Christ, and that Body is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. To my United Methodist neighbors, near and far, friends and critics, left, right, center, and everything else: are we drawing nearer to the true church, or moving away from it?