Let’s keep things basic. For the moment, rather than wrangle over who really is or is not Wesleyan/Methodist, let’s discuss the basics of Christian faith. For Christianity to be a meaningful descriptor, it must have some defined content. There are faiths that are Christian and others which are non-Christian. Some boundaries demarcate the faith of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox followers of Jesus from non-theists, agnostics, and others.
But of course, this is postmodernity, and we are tempted to erase every line drawn by the past.
Robin Parry and Andrew Walker describe our situation comically:
“It would be absurd for a member of the Communist Party to declare to his comrades that he no longer accepted the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninism but that he would stay in the Party. It would be simply odd for a Republican president to stay in office having publicly renounced free enterprise altogether. At the very least we would want to insist that, if a woman tells us that she is a radical feminist and yet believes in the desirability of patriarchy, her position is inconsistent and logically untenable.” (10)
And yet, there are Christians, both in the pews and in the pulpit, who routinely and publicly denounce the basics of the Christian faith as recognized for 2000 years by the ecumenical church. We are told one can be a Christian without believing in a divine or resurrected Christ, or even God. The United Church of Canada has a “non-theist” pastor. One PCUSA pastor has publicly celebrated his atheism. Such doctrinal maladies are quite common in the UMC as well. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the content of theological education at most of our 13 denominational seminaries (and many of the other schools which
deform our clergy).
And yet we pretend as if our divisions are about politics or ethics, rather than something far deeper. Indeed, the Commission on a Way Forward has audaciously claimed to find unity in the creeds (see p. 7), despite the fact that the same General Conference which gave us the Commission rejected petitions (one of which this author submitted) to make the Nicene Creed an official doctrinal standard, on par with the EUB Confession, Wesley’s Notes and sermons, and the Articles of Religion. Of course, it is simply not the case that what we call doctrinal standards function that way in the church at present; though the language of the 1972 Discipline stating these documents were not taken “literally and juridically” was removed in 1988, practically no church, pastor, educational institution, denominational agency (including the publishing house), or bishop is held to them. Over a decade ago, Bishop Sprague explicitly denied the resurrection of Christ in writing, and was not found to be violating his teaching office. (Bishop Ough, current President of the Council of Bishops, had a hand in this.)
This is why the Nicene Creed still matters.
No other statement of basic Christian beliefs has comparable historic or geographic reach. It is the basic starting point for conversations in the World Council of Churches for a reason – there is nothing else like it. The Creed is thus not merely a historical statement, like a kind of theological museum piece, it is a means of grace gifted to the Church universal to help preserve the gospel and lead people to reconciliation with Christ. As the Orthodox say, the Creed is not a mere statement of personal belief – “creed” coming from the Latin “credo” for “I believe” – but a symbolon:
“A symbolon was one half of a broken object that could serve to verify the authenticity of its other half when the two were put together. In the same way the creed served as a symbolon to check the genuine Christian compatibility of the beliefs of those who professed to be followers of Christ.” (72)
The Creed only serves as a source of unity if it functions as a symbolon. There is a great deal of theologizing to do within the playground of Christian teaching, but (to borrow an image from Chesterton) any school that cares about its children puts a fence around its playground. Going outside those bounds doesn’t condemn someone to hell or make them a terrible person, it simply means they are no longer in the playground (like a feminist who is suddenly in favor of the patriarchy).
The current leaders of the Way Forward have made many statements about the importance and validity of individual autonomy (by both congregations and clergy), under the name “the local option.” Certainly a degree of local autonomy matters in any Christian communion.
But until we stop having a local option on the basics of Christian faith – the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Jesus, and the worship of the One God who is revealed as a Trinity of persons – nothing else in the United Methodist Church matters.
Giving prominence to the Nicene Creed, not merely as a historical foundation, but a symbolon, would be a faithful way forward.
Source: Deep Church Rising by Andrew Walker and Robin Parry.