Almost two weeks have passed since the Uniting Methodists made public their vision for institutional unity in the midst of our fractiousness. As usual, I’m late getting to the party, but now, finally, I have dutifully considered their statements, as I have with the WCA and others and so, some thoughts.
The vision statement of Uniting Methodists draws the denominational picture as a dichotomy. On the one side are the polarizers. Whether “traditional” or “progressive,” they polarize. (If only they knew!) To be fair, the Uniting Methodists statement doesn’t name names. They put the problem abstractly, lamenting the “harmful polarization that…has infected the church.” They tell us, “We are not interested in being another combatant in a denominational tug-of-war.” Polarization requires polarizers. The polarizers are engaged in a tug-of-war. They must be opposed.
Enter the Uniting Methodists with their call for unity. What serious, committed United Methodist disciple of Jesus Christ could possibly resist this call? Who in her/his right mind would be against unity? Yet I remain diffident, unconvinced and, to be honest, angry. Explaining why requires my telling you some of my story as a United Methodist elder.
I have been a United Methodist all my life. I’m also a preacher’s kid, which means that the United Methodist congregations my father served were like family. The UM Church is family. Always has been. I have studied our doctrines. I agree with and uphold them. I was ordained elder in 1988. I continue to engage the Wesleys and Methodism, historically, biblically, theologically, philosophically, devotionally. I did a PhD in religious studies, focusing on John Wesley and Methodism. I go again and again to sermons, treatises and hymns, to the stories and people of our Wesleyan family.
In 2008, I was endorsed as an episcopal candidate, one of two that year, by the (then) Kansas West Conference. My fellow endorsee (shout out to my sister, the Rev. Cheryl Bell) and I questioned our delegation about the wisdom of endorsing two. They convinced us that they had prayerfully considered that question and had decided to move us both forward. So we did.
As part of the interview process, the (then) Kansas East delegation told me that they would not endorse me. (Kansas West and East had this practice of jointly endorsing.) Their reason? I was a “polarizing” figure. Of all the reasons not to endorse me (and there were plenty), that one totally baffled me. It also smarted. Here’s why.
In my old annual conference, I was “known” as an evangelical the liberals could talk to. I had graduated from Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, by no means a bastion of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. I appreciated my education, though at times I struggled. I got a good dose of process, feminist and liberation theologies, along with living in an ethos that was, at times, openly hostile to my theological convictions. I wanted to learn from this “liberal” environment and I did. Saint Paul helped me to understand the beliefs and values of folk who did not see things as I do. I came to the annual conference, then, with a real desire for people of differing “camps” to talk to each other, to have serious, honest dialogue, in order to figure out what unites us! Hence my utter disbelief at being called a polarizing figure.
For as long as I have been a United Methodist elder, I have sought and worked for honest conversation. In the early ’90s, I helped to organize a conference-wide event that we called “Beliefs and Boundaries.” The purpose was entailed in the name: to engage basic theological topics and to have discussions around tables to get a sense of what unites us. Or doesn’t. The logical complement to unity is boundaries. Not a single traditionalist, conservative (pick your label) I know desires disunity or wants to exclude anyone. Not a single one! But if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission. If unity matters, then beliefs matter, as do boundaries. This point is logically inescapable.
I also helped to organize a conference-wide event on sexuality some years later, in the late ’90s or early 2000s. Again we organizers sought to bring people of divergent viewpoints together for learning and honest discussion. We had presentations from experts in the fields of medicine and psychology. We had guidance on scriptural exegesis. We talked to one another. We drew no conclusions.
One more example, much more informal and on a smaller scale: Though I have forgotten the year, I also helped to gather a group of about ten United Methodist clergy in our annual conference to spend an afternoon together talking about what core theological commitments we actually share. After about two hours’ discussion, the only point we could agree on was this: on the first Easter morning, something happened. We could not agree that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. Just something.
(If anyone who participated in that discussion happens to read this blog and remembers it differently, please feel free to comment. I’m pretty confident my memory serves adequately.)
I’m trying to show, by my sharing a bit of my own experience as a “conservative” (I just don’t like this misleading label), evangelical, orthodox, classical, Wesleyan believer, that I’m every bit as interested in the unity of the church as the Uniting Methodists. I know that my experience is that of just one person, but over the years I have talked to plenty of people who position themselves as I do and feel the same frustration. We’re constantly being told that we either don’t understand or that we have bad motives that we probably don’t recognize or that we want to “exclude” people or that we’re engaging in slippery slope fallacies. Ad nauseum.
So, yes, I’m getting a little sick of the calls for honest conversation. They sound hollow and disingenuous to me. In the social media era, I have studiously avoided, for the most part, online polemics, so, on several occasions I have communicated privately, in an honest attempt to make clear my concerns and to ask the questions that I think are desperately important but that we seem not to address in any of our public debates. In almost every case, I received no response. Not just unsatisfying answers, but no answers.
I yearn for the unity of the church every bit as much as the Uniting Methodists, but on what grounds? By what measures? I’m looking for more than false dichotomies and platitudinous generalizations. And some of the leaders could start by answering their mail.