“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This is not only one of the most famous lines in the classic film The Princess Bride, it is also very much on my mind when I ponder the situation facing United Methodists today.
Well-meaning United Methodists, in the wake of General Conference, continue to speak of “unity,” but I do not think it means what they think it means.
Many of the speakers in St. Louis were defending the One Church Plan based on “unity.” Bishops and other leaders prayed for “unity.” In the aftermath of General Conference, I hear whispers of young clergy organizing to ensure that “unity” wins out in 2020. Advocates of the Connectional Conference Plan were fewer than I’d hoped, for this offered the most unity with diversity of any of the plans presented. Alas, the hardest path was also the right path, and it was the road not travelled.
Stanley Hauerwas says the worst enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality. Too many sermons, for instance, are filled with cloying banalities that go nowhere. Put differently, sentimentality is anesthetic. It feels good, but ultimately numbs us to reality, and always wears off. This constant call for an amorphous unity strikes me precisely as sentimentality.
Let’s be clear: the unity of the church is crucial for our witness and mission. I take John 17 seriously. But the unity to which Christ calls us is not a mere institutional unity, as if what matters to our Lord is making sure the home office keeps all of her franchises. The unity envisioned in the New Testament and in our classic statements of faith such as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith is a unity in teaching, order, and vision, not a shared logo and marketing campaign.
In 1744, the first Methodist conference in London focused on three questions:
(1) What to teach
(2) How to teach
(3) What to do, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice
Judged by this standard, United Methodists have not been truly united for years. Our system of governance is no longer functioning. The issue is not a disagreement; we’ve had disagreements since the uniting conference in 1968. Those disagreements can, and did, live together so long as there was a common understanding of how those differences get negotiated and resolved. When those very systems break down, however, because significant swaths of church leadership hold, teach, and practice opposing views of Christian discipleship, sexual ethics, and ecclesiology, we are no longer unified. Moreover, promises of disobedience, withholding apportionments, separate ordinations and communion tables, and other expressions of defiance – however understandable due to contextual differences, felt harm, and injustice – further erode our common life. One can be very sympathetic to those acts of conscience and still recognize what they mean for the larger system. Not only do we have mutually exclusive beliefs about what to teach, how to teach, and healthy discipline, we also do not (since the debacle of the GC2019) agree on a legitimate path back to a unifying vision. We were not united coming into St. Louis, and we are less united now.
Unity is a noble goal, but we cannot make this sick body well unless we first acknowledge an illness. Our question is not whether we can avoid a schism; our question is whether we can A) reverse our present de facto schism or B) move toward a de jure schism that is as respectful as possible to all parties involved. The alternative is the status quo: continuing to maul one another while trashing our public image to boot. Option A strikes me as highly unlikely, and B is preferable to the status quo.
I’ll close by looking back into Methodist history. When geography and politics (both ecclesial and otherwise) conspired to separate the American Methodists from John Wesley’s structure in Britain, Wesley did not seek to retain control over his spiritual grandchildren (though he did still seek to have some influence). Instead, he made provision for their oversight and care, ordaining Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as General Superintendents (read: bishops). In his letter to the ‘American Brethren,’ Wesley then blessed the American Methodists to begin something new:
“They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.”
Wesley’s response to the changed circumstances of the American Methodists should be a model for United Methodists today. Let us stop finger-wagging and blaming, and instead confront the brutal facts: we are united in name only. Sentimental paeans to unity do not change this. We should stop harming each other in the name of a unity that has not existed for years. As of this writing, there are hopeful signals from the Western Jurisdiction and from Adam Hamilton that something new may soon be birthed. I am hearing rumors, also, from multiple Annual Conferences (outside of the WJ) of plans to function henceforth with greater autonomy. My prayer is that our leaders do not stifle such movements, but embrace the creation of new wineskins.
The world witnessed the people of God at their worst in St. Louis. Surely now a new form of unity, one that gives respective parties space to operate without being punitive, is no longer “inconceivable.” Let us continue to be united, but in a fashion more akin to the World Methodist Council than our current organization. I echo Kent Millard and David Watson on this point. I love my Quaker, Catholic, and Baptist friends, though I have theological differences with their traditions; just so, the various United Methodist factions will love each other better in the future, as neighbors, than we are, at present, as roommates.
In the categories popularized by the Arbinger Institute, hearts at peace will now seek a path for United Methodists to set one another “at full liberty” simply to follow Jesus as we each, according to our different visions, desire. Hearts at war will seek a repeat of 2019, stubbornly choosing paths that have already proven to be dead ends.
A loosened structure – a new kind of unity – with space for various fresh expressions of Methodism, is preferable to a coercive and brutish unity.
P.S. Since I first drafted this piece, Adam Hamilton has come out with an even stronger statement, suggesting that either a new structure or a cleaner break are now viable options.