Sailboat #UMC (Guest Post by Rev. Kathy Bryant)

Blade Forumla 16 Catamaran, courtesy Jupiter 405 via Wikimedia Commons.
Blade Forumla 16 Catamaran, courtesy Jupiter 405 via Wikimedia Commons.

The United Methodist Church is at a turning point in history. Churches in the Methodist tradition have been at a number of these points, such as 60 years ago when we received women into full ordination. Now, we have a new set of issues and concerns, and voices from both sides are beginning to talk about divisions in the church. I do not want the church I love to split. Our witness to the world will be best served by remaining together, in love and service to each other and the world. However, if we were to create a new structure in which we kept the Wesleyan tradition and did not remain the United Methodist Church, how would it look?

This past week I was invited to envision the future of the church as a house with two tables, where currently we have one. In this image, one table retains and enforces the current language of the United Methodist Discipline, and the other moves to a more progressive position in consideration of LGBT persons. Both tables remain under the same Methodist roof. This image is deeply troubling to me because the strongest witness of our church in the world is the open table where we share Communion together.

What if we thought about the United Methodist Church as a sailboat?

The Bible is our compass, pointing us towards the true direction.

Wesleyan tradition is our rudder, steering us in our journey.

Our worship, where our lives come into contact with the living God, are our sails, raised on the mast of faith.

The Spirit of God, the wind that propels us forward and sustains us in the mission of the church, sends us through the world, the ocean that reaches further than the eye can see.

We move through this world right now with one hull, joined together in a single denomination, propelled by the momentum of our calling and structure. Local churches are the crew that do the continual tasks of adjusting the sails and tending to the different ways that God continues to inspire us as we skim through the world.

Regularly, we gather together in our galley, around a single table, the table of shared Communion, the open table that invites all who are hungry and broken to come and feast together. We cannot lose this table.

But what if we need to reorganize our structure? What if we became a church with two hulls? What if we became a catamaran?

A catamaran is a sailboat with two hulls that each run through the water, joined together by the structure of the rest of the boat. It still uses the same compass, the same wheel and rudder system, the same sails that harness the wind and propel the boat through the water. There is still one galley, still one table.

But two hulls.

A ship with a single hull runs deeper; its strength derives from its design. However, a ship with two hulls requires a stronger and yet extremely lightweight structure that can skim over the reefs and rocks that lie beneath the surface, enabling movement to the far reaches of the ocean.

Each hull shares the weight of the whole with the other, while still maintaining its own form. Our structure would be founded on a progressive base and conservative base balancing each other, sharing structure, and gathering at our common open table.

Sent into the world by the power of the risen Lord through the wind of the Spirit in the wisdom of God, the church as a ship follows the direction of the Bible, our living compass. This remains the case whether we have one hull or two.

The mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, remains the same.

The images we use to talk about our future are critical. I offer this image of the church as a sleek and fast catamaran, a framework to use as we consider our witness in the world.

Author Bio:

screen-shot-2016-08-29-at-9-35-39-pRev. Kathy Randall Bryant is a pastor, married to a pastor, and the daughter of a pastor. After Duke Divinity School she served in local church ministry for 5 years as a provisional Elder in the Western NC Conference, now she’s taking a break from full-time ministry to be a full-time mother to her first child. She loves the United Methodist Church in all of its beautiful messiness. Find her on twitter @KathyRandall and more of her writing at KathyRandall.wordpress.com

3 comments

  1. I respect the thinking here, and the ardent desire to maintain whatever passes for unity these days. However, I was taught in seminary never to hang an entire sermon on a single illustration, because illustrations and analogies break down at some point…always.
    In the case of the two-hulled catamaran, with one being progressive, the other traditional, comparison with anything remotely concerning a “solution” for the UMC’s problems blows-apart; which, by the way, is what happens to a catamaran when the two hulls do not move at exactly the same speed, and in the same direction. That never happens in physics, and it will not satisfy either the progressives, or the traditionalists in the UMC tent.
    Amos understood this: “Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?” Amos 3:3 (NLT)

  2. As a sailor and a practical theologian, I beg to differ with Russel and name this is a good analogy; I love the way Rev. Bryant from my own WNCC has taken the ancient tradition of symbolizing the church as a boat. Russell, it is the structure of the frame is what keeps the two hulls going in the same direction. One cannot go without the other on a cat boat. They are joined together. They do not split if the structure is sound no matter how strong the forces of the wind which propels it.
    Russell is correct about one thing–that there is a point where the forces from outside could flip a boat over (all boats have a tipping point). An experienced sailor knows either by prior experience or by instinct where this tipping point actually is and luffs the sails just slightly or steers the boat slightly into the wind (the wind has to be at an angle to the wind to fill the sails and propel the boat) to avoid tipping it over. Unfortunately, we do not have experienced sailors steering the UMC or worse. So the problem with the analogy and for the UMC is who is trying to steer the boat. Those in the WCA and Progressives seem to be fighting for control over the rudder rather than trusting local churches in their own context, to determine their own interpretation of Wesleyan Tradition and to steer the boat for their local context.
    However, here comes the worst part; it seems to me, the real problem is so many people on both sides simply want to crash the boat, the catamaran and go back to the old fashion, single hull sailboat. There is a reason why America’s Cup boats have largely become multi-hull boats (read catamarans). It is because they are faster from point a to b because they skim the water rather than plow the water like many of the traditional single hull boats. This is at the core of the problem with many of the conservatives and some progressives. They do not want to accept the world has changed requiring the church to change as well, so they want to start over but before they do they have to crash the existing UMC, so they can build their single hull boat.
    The decision about who should be steering the rudder, really should be left up to those who will be sailing the boat into the future, our youth. BTW my form of ministry is actually working with Older Adult Ministry and I still feel this way. The young people of today have I believe already decided the issue of unity for us. If the UMC desires to reach young people, then the church will have to not only be unified, but inclusive. If it does it will allow them a turn and a place at the rudder and will stop fighting to control the rudder or to crash the boat so they can have their historical but less functional single hull boat, without the youth, the older adults of tomorrow.

  3. I have loved his poem for several years and always see a spiritual lesson in it. I think it applies here because there are many things to think about when sailing.
    Underway
    By Gene B Harmon

    Close hauled
    Main tight
    Keel to mast
    Heeling right
    Craft trim
    Creasing wind
    Slow swell
    Jib cleated
    Aft ‘n seated
    Starboard tack
    Nothing slack
    Briny spray
    Underway!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *