Avoiding Rudeness is Only Half the Battle: Whitefield, Wesley, & the Future of the #UMC

George Whitefield portrait, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eulogy

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.

Some Examples

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.

The Book

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.

The Why

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.

4 comments

  1. Good article, Drew. The relationship of Mr. Wesley and Mr. Whitefield, as expressed so honestly and respectfully in that funeral message, is especially revealing of Mr. Wesley’s propensity to speak with both undiminished love and unvarnished truth since George was a Calvinist and we know just how much John abhorred that theological system.

  2. Excellent article! As a frustrated life long lay person I spent 4 long and disheartening years listening to every voice I could find in the United Methodist Church–my extensive listening began with GC2012 and ended shortly after GC2016. By the time GC2012 was over, I was appalled at how badly the church was mired down in theological plurality–my image of the church was as a gianormous square raft with umpteen oars lining each side and each oar was paddling the best it knew how. Post GC2012, I was stunned when a progressive called the decision to maintain the current stance re homosexuality an evil one. Shortly after that I ran full tilt into what I call progressive fundamentalism: I am right and you are absolutely wrong. At some point my view of the church became as water spilled on the floor trying to go every direction at once, a situation that rendered any kind of coherent leadership from the Bishops impossible–the best they could do was keep all the theological balls in play. By the time GC2016 rolled around, the disobedience by progressives was occurring with regularity , the traditionals were organizing and demanding action from Bishops who seemed incapable of responding. By the time GC 2016 was over my image of the church was cats with their tails tied together. I was also stunned how, when on their home turf, how differently Bishops reacted to their own call for a “cease fire”/moratorium re sexuality. And then there was that whole Way Forward process.

    Bottom line is, you are right in that nobody will name the problem: we are drowning in theological plurality. And although I currently only monitor 3-4 websites on a regular basis there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the United Methodist Church is experiencing a schism as John Wesley defined it: “love grown cold”. As a denomination we are most definitely not better together.

    There is also another aspect to all this that Bishops turn a blind eye to: we are not the first denomination to go down this path. Shortly after GC2016 an Episcopalian observer predicted what the Bishops would propose for a Way Forward–The one Church Plan; she already knew that The United Methodist Church is on the exact same path as the Episcopal Church.

  3. Thank you for sharing this quote. I find it difficult to speak the truth in love as there are many who are deaf to the truth when spoken. To make the mark, it is necessary to get their attention which sometimes calls for a bit of rudeness.

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