Watching the live stream and Twitter feeds of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference this week, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t binging House of Cards. What’s become apparent over the last few days of General Conference is that the United in United Methodist Church is every bit the false advertising our tag line proffers (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Something).
See: this story
The predatory parliamentary proceedings, however addictive, have not left me incredulous. Let’s not forget, the United Methodist Church has been united for only a generation and that institutional unity was itself the fruit of a century’s long process of reconciling the divisions wrought by the slavery debate. Ever the trend setters, Methodists split before the nation did in the Civil War and we reunited long after reconstruction. That this ‘unity’ lurks in our not too distant past should serve as a caveat to the United Methodist Church today which is fixed at an impasse over the question of homosexuality. On the one hand, we should not be too hyperbolic in how we laud the supposed unity of our connection; on the other, we should be cautious about again dividing our Church over an issue that will in a generation or more be a head scratching embarrassment to our ecclesial heirs.
The Church after all is not a mutually agreed upon confederacy from which we can uncouple ourselves when it suits our read of the situation. When the Church uses the word ‘unity’ we do not intend- well, we should not intend- the same meaning as the nation does by the United States.
When Christians use the word ‘unity’ we refer firstly to the unity of God, to the triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit in whom there is both difference and harmony, particularity and peace.
This unity is ontological; that is, it is the ground of Being itself. It is the very grain of God’s universe. It reflects the reality of who God is; it is not the result of Roberts Rules of Order.
When Christians use the word ‘unity,’ we mean the unity of the 3-Personed God; therefore, for Christians unity is always a gift of God for its the fruit of the God whose immanent life is marked by a constancy of gift and exchange. Whereas unity, in the Christian sense, might appear mysterious, abstract, or elusive, disunity in the Christian world is not so at all.
Disunity, as the proceedings at General Conference have exemplified, is not equivalent to diversity. Nor is it the same thing as sin though, as Herbert McCabe argues, disunity is connected to both diversity and sin.
Our divisions in the United Methodist Church do not arise from Christians failing to follow Christ fully.
Our divisions derive from Christians so fully following, in their way, their commitment to Christ that they become blind- willfully so, I’d say after so many iterations of the same debate- to the faithful following of others.
In striving to be faithful to the authority of scripture, say, or in striving to be faithful to Christ’s gracious inclusion of all, we discover that we’re divided.
Those proposing a moderate, ‘third way’ solution appear to want to ameliorate these divisions with a euphemism. Diversity. Needing my pension and my health insurance as I do, I’d like it to be true. Diversity, as Paul teaches, is a good and needful characteristic of the Church, but I’m not sure the indictments and mistrust I see splayed out in 140 characters on my Twitter feed are analogous to Paul’s eye // ear illustration.
Diversity reflects the creative intent of the Creator.
Division happens when faithful people become so fixed with their own way of following that they lose sight of their more
fundamental ontological unity. Or, more nearer to the matter, they become so fixed in their way of following that they discover that the other has lost sight of their more fundamental unity– lost sight of, the indictments always go, God.
When such divisions emerge, the temptation is to disavow diversity. To demand uniformity. Of belief. In practice. This is a move, McCabe argues, towards sin. The real sin in our disunity is not what happened in the past that we’ve inherited; it’s what’s happening now, in the present, in our (intractable) failure to heal the divisions between people who are, on both sides, only concerned, intensely so, for the truth of the gospel as they apprehend it.
What’s so sad about what I see at General Conference is that the divisions of good people are leading inexorably, not by malice but by well-intentioned folly, to yet another division. Which is but another denial of the one Spirit into which all of us, liberal and conservative, were baptized.