The church, as a moral and spiritual entity, must do more than simply avoid rudeness. In John Wesley’s beautiful funeral homily for OG Methodist George Whitefield, he commended the character of his old friend thus:
Meantime, how suitable to the friendliness of his spirit was the frankness and openness of his conversation! — although it was as far removed from rudeness on the one hand, as from guile [and disguise] on the other. Was not this frankness at once a fruit and a proof of his courage and intrepidity. Armed with these, he feared not the faces of men, but “used great plainness of speech” to persons of every rank and condition, high and low, rich and poor; endeavoring only “by manifestation of the truth to commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
There are many calls in the church today of a similar nature…at least in part. Either from Christian virtue or a deep manifestation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, most Methodists can agree that rudeness is a bad thing. Well, of course. But so what? Avoiding rudeness is, in the words of the old G.I. Joe cartoon, only half the battle.
Note that Wesley commended Whitefield not for his niceness, but for his frankness. His friend was as far removed from rudeness as he was to guile and disguise; which is to say, he was not shy about sharing his convictions, but he did so without rudeness.
This eulogy gives us a useful corrective to current UMC debates. There are many calls for more kindness, but few calls for greater frankness. Aside from the internecine mosh pit we call General Conference every four years, the day-to-day life of the United Methodist Church is damaged far more by guile than by rudeness. This is true, at least in part, because many of the calls for greater kindness have the effect (intended or not) of disguising real disagreements, issues, and points of conflict. Even the carefully coached, occasionally obligatory “conversations” we are sold ad nauseum serve to do little than artfully help us avoid frankness.
Case in point: when my Annual Conference elects clergy delegates to General Conference, we do so with nothing to go on but a name and number. Years ago we moved away from the overt politics of platforms, speeches, and campaigns, hoping to avoid the rudeness of overt political machinations. Of course, in doing so we avoided the question of guile, of disguise; politics and elections always go together, it is simply a question of whether the politics are healthy or not.
We have a similar approach, at least in my part of the world, the episcopal elections. It is considered rude to openly run for bishop, which means that people of course do run for the office, they just have to appear to not be seeking the crozier.
We flee from rudeness only to embrace guile. This is a bad tradeoff, as Wesley rightly noted.
Ephesians 4:15 speaks of Christian maturity this way:
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (NRSV)
In the main, United Methodists have so emphasized the “in love” part, we have sacrificed the “speaking the truth” portion. An entire “movement” called the Uniting Methodists is built on this premise: if only we can say little and say it kindly, we can maintain a semblance of institutional confederacy and continue feeding the bureaucratic monstrosity our church has become. They fear rudeness, but run headlong into disguise.
My hope for the church is that in 2019 and 2020 we can speak the truth to one another in love, avoiding both rudeness and guile. Pious paeans to kindness will not move us forward, for this too often masks agendas rather than revealing truth. To be sure, all the fruit of the Spirit should be on display as we converse, vote, and argue – but the same Spirit would lead us into the truth. (John 16:13)
Obligatory Movie Illustration
There is a reason, of course, that speaking the truth in love is a hard bullseye to hit. As Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” This practice is found difficult for for us because we inhabit an institution with leaders whose chief value, based on all available evidence, is survival.
In the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, the narrator, Simon Graham, tells the story of how he ended up working in Japan as a translator:
I came over with the British trade mission, oh, years ago. I was soon relieved of my position. I had a rather unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean.
The most vexing problem in the UMC conversation is not that a handful of people are sometimes rude, but that most of those in power rarely say what they mean.
Why is this? There are a host of reasons, in truth. Surely one of them is that speaking the truth in love may lead to the discovery that we really aren’t united, or that we might actually possess different conceptions of the church, holiness, and authority, or that it is possible we could do one another less harm and do the world more good apart.
If that sounds preposterous, remember that this is the conclusion which Wesley and Whitefield reached in their own ministries. It is quite possible that we are not practicing Whitefield’s frankness because we know well what could result from “speaking the truth in love,” with neither rudeness nor guile.