Does our future as United Methodists lie in returning to the global Anglican communion whence we came?
Here’s a reflection that comes to us from a friend of the podcast, Reverend B. Parker Haynes:
As The United Methodist Church has been consumed by an idolatrous focus on sex over the past decade, the Church has failed to see that in a few years this conversation will be null and void. The future of The United Methodist Church is in doubt, not because it is considering moving from an orthodox position of sexuality to a heretical one (the traditional view), or because it has oppressed LGBTQIA Christians and its position on sexuality is antiquated, patriarchal and hetero-normative (the liberal/progressive view). Instead, I offer that the future of our Church is in doubt because we have forgotten who we are. That seems like an overly simplistic and naive statement that cannot possibly get at the heart of the issue. But let me suggest that the central reason we are where we are is because we can no longer identify what it means for any of us to be a distinctly United Methodist Christian. What is at stake in the 2020 General Conference and beyond is not whether we will take a traditional or progressive position on sex, but whether or not we can reclaim our story as United Methodists.
The Church in the Modern Age: A Story Forgotten
Perhaps the most significant reason we have forgotten our story is because of the rise of modernity. Former United Methodist and now Episcopalian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has said that the project of modernity is an attempt to produce a people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. In other words, modernity is an attempt to convince people that since we are rational, enlightened and autonomous individuals, there is no story, no narrative and no tradition that determines our lives except the one we choose for ourselves. Yet despite modernity’s attempt to be story-less, it too is a story. Modernity did not arise out of darkness ex-nihilo; it is a tradition that traces its roots to Christendom. But it is a story and a tradition that is false because human beings do not get to make up their own story; we have been “storied” through being formed as a community called the Church. We have been created, redeemed and sustained by the Holy Trinity. Our past, present and future have already been decided for us.
Ronald Beiner has sought to articulate the way liberalism, which is produced by modernity, has been able to convince us that we are a story-less people whose only identity is the one we create for ourselves. In his book “What’s The Matter With Liberalism?” he argues that in liberalism, we cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad because human beings are reduced to individual consumers in which the freedom to choose is itself “the good,” meaning the true way of living our lives to the fullest. Therefore, nothing should restrict my freedom to choose how I live my life, including my own sexual preferences.
At first glance, this seems to be a traditionalist victory in the opening skirmish. But the problem is that liberalism is the air we breathe; we are all liberals. We all make up our lives believing we can define for ourselves what it means to be Christian. Conservatives, traditionalists, progressives and liberals all live in what Charles Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity.” No one can tell me how to live my life or what to believe. In order to be authentic to who I am, I must figure those things out on my own. Even those of us who claim orthodoxy and submit to the Church’s teachings and the Book of Discipline first came to this understanding through a liberal trajectory. Traditionalists, like progressives, choose the ethics and biblical interpretations that fit their narrative rather than a wholesale subscription to historic orthodoxy. The reality is that we cannot go back to the pre-liberal, pre-modern era. To believe that we can defeat liberalism and reestablish the traditional values of the premodern church is exactly to believe the lie of modernity. We are not in control, we do not make up our lives and we cannot go back in time.
Virtue As A Way to Remember Story
This is not to say that all is lost. The true liberation of our enslavement to liberalism is not tighter restrictions, or more rules about who can do what as the Traditional Plan lays out. Liberation will only come through a return to the practice of virtue in the Church. As Christians, it is Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who unites us into a common life and has given us shared practices that compose our fundamental identity as a whole, which we call the Church. The penalties and restrictions of the Traditional Plan cannot form us into a common life because we no longer acknowledge or render authority to the Church as our common life. One of Methodism’s best theologians, Stephen Long, professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology, has done much critiquing of liberalism, but has also noted that the Traditional Plan turns the Church into a nation-state that attempts to enforce laws, which are then enforced by authorities. However, the Gospel of Jesus is not a coercive message that forces others to believe in God; it is a persuasive one that seeks to articulate God’s love for the world. We cannot participate in a common life together through coercion. Relearning virtue, on the other hand, can reconstitute us as a community with shared practices that united us as the Body of Christ.
Aristotle first articulated the idea of virtue thousands of years ago in Athens. For Aristotle, the virtues were the practices that held together the common life of all Athenians. Rather than trying to determine how you would act in a certain situation (the starting place for most modern ethics), Aristotle believed you should focus on developing character through habituated excellence (virtue) that would give you the skills necessary to act rightly in that situation. Furthermore, this character would help you to lead a truly good life, good not only for yourself as an individual, but good for the community as a whole. For Aristotle, the individual and the community did not have a different telos, as if what is good for me is not necessarily good for all, but rather what is good for me is good for all and vice versa. Thus, our chief end is to develop the kind of character through the practice of the virtues so that, rather than competing against one another through violence, we might engender a common life together.
In modernity, we do not live in a world that values virtue, much less one that cultivates it. Such a statement is proof since Aristotle had no conception of “value” as we use it today. That we use the word “value” to describe the things that are important to us demonstrates that modernity has created a world in which everything can be seen as an investment that has a price and can be bought and sold as a commodity in a liberal market economy. Thus we cannot even begin to return to virtue unless we, The United Methodist Church as a whole, can form the kind of habits that will produce people who can articulate that rather than being creators of our own story, we have been storied through the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. We did not make ourselves Christians, we were made by others. We did not make up the tradition, we received it from others. Our belief in God is not an individual choice that gives meaning and value to our life. Instead, since God raised Jesus from the dead, we cannot do anything but believe and live in the community of saints.
Formed Through Liturgy
In order for us to cultivate virtue that will allow us to engender a common life as the community of saints, we need to first develop habits that will lead to the development of virtue. I suggest that these habits must be most significantly developed through our worship. James K. A. Smith has written extensively on worship as the arena through which our desires are properly shaped and directed toward God. There is no more effective habit-producing mechanism than liturgy. Liturgy is not only found in the Church’s worship, but everywhere from an NFL football game to a presidential address at a U.S. military base to a concert of a popular rock band. The liturgy found in the Church’s worship as the gathered Body of Christ centers around the eucharistic table to consume the Lord Jesus must be the liturgy that habituates us, shapes our desires, and lays the foundation for our story as United Methodists.
Unfortunately, in The United Methodist Church today, a majority of us have forgotten why the celebration of the eucharist is central to our community. Liturgy is a bad word in some congregations, and at the very least an outdated term that will hinder church growth. It is argued that today our worship needs to be relevant, entertaining, or a “fresh expression,” not boring, old or traditional. Most of our churches continue to celebrate the eucharist only once a month even though modern transportation has long allowed ordained clergy to lead worship every Sunday. When we shape our worship to be exciting, entertaining and only occasionally include the eucharist, we are creating habits that shape our story as a people who worship the god of modernity who caters to individualistic desires and provides optimism in a world of suffering.
One possibility of cultivating the kinds of habits through worship that would develop virtue might be to emphasize services of Word and Table with weekly communion. I would also suggest an emphasis on the Book of Worship or the Book of Common Prayer as a whole as a way to pattern our worship. Although it has been argued that one of the beauties of Methodism is our diversity in worship and style, I would argue that is an attempt to allow entertainment or excitement to form us. In actuality, there is much flexibility and room in the liturgy and a service of Word and Table can be adapted to appropriately reflect culture or the season of the year.
A counter argument might be that more liturgical traditions like Catholicism or Anglicanism are suffering decline similar to The United Methodist Church, and we must not be foolish enough to think that we will instantly be sucked out of our denominational struggles. Modernity and liberalism have formed us so deeply that it will be a long and difficult journey home and we will lose many along the way. But if we can develop the habits and virtues the early Church once had, maybe when we get to the end of all this chaos, we will at least be formed enough to know how to move forward and where the God of Jesus Christ is calling us.
The Future of Methodism: Returning to the Fold
As Methodists, we rightly celebrate John Wesley as the leader of our movement. Despite the number of references to Wesley today among Methodists, we forget many of the most important aspects of his ministry. Wesley remained an Anglican priest until he died and never wanted to start a new church outside of the Church of England. His intent was to reform the Church and reinvigorate it with the Holy Spirit. The question must be asked: When will the reformation be over? Where we stand today, we have lost more than we have gained. For most of our Methodist Christians in America, our Anglican heritage is unknown. Our distinctive theological emphases, worship practices, ecclesiology and social ethics are so muddled that most of our seminary students should not pass board examinations, but they do because of our growing need for clergy. How many of us can articulate what is it that makes Methodists distinct from Anglicans? In what ways are we more aligned with the Spirit, faithful to God’s call or ethically pure? We have lost sight of Wesley’s vision and forgotten our story as Methodists.
Our future lies in returning to the fold of the Anglican Communion. This does not mean that we must abandon all Methodist distinctives or emphases; we can seek ways to rejoin the family that allow us always to remember our heritage. But we can no longer remain separated and divorced from the Church that birthed us. We have forgotten our story because in many ways it has come to an end. Many of our protests against the Church of England have been heard and acted upon. There is no reason to continue protesting when the reforms have been conceded. Wesley never desired for us to exist as an end unto ourselves. It may be argued that the Episcopal Church has suffered a church split and declining membership so why would a move toward liturgy and unity better our chances? If our greatest need is numbers and increased church membership, then unity will not help. But if our greatest need today is remembering our story, who we are and why we began, then unity is the only answer.