Monday, May 13, 2013

Let's Stay Together #DreamUMC

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the DreamUMC conversation that originated from the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bloggers across the UMC have been invited to answer the question: "Is schism the best future for the UMC?" You can learn more by following the hashtag #DreamUMC on Twitter or visiting the DreamUMC Facebook page.
I deeply love the United Methodist Church. I did not grow up in this tradition, so entering it was a conscious choice. I find the UMC to be among the most faithful expressions of Christian community I've found anywhere. Our polity largely matches with my understanding of how God wants the church to be. This conversation, for me, is certainly important. I believe very strongly that criticism ought not be left to the cynics, but to those with skin in the game. I love the UMC. I want it to thrive. I want it to survive: whole, not split into some fragmentary version of itself.

I should note that the conversation surrounding the topic of schism in the United Methodist Church seems to center on one issue: human sexuality. I'd argue that sexuality is less the issue than the clearest way in which the real issues play themselves out for a variety of cultural reasons.

So before I get to whether the church ought to split, let me briefly deal with what I see as the two real issues that, in my mind, under-gird the schism argument. The two issues are Biblical interpretation and the ways in which we do decision-making as a global church. Perhaps this is a rudimentary discussion, but these basic dynamics seem to drive the whole conversation, so I believe they are worth evaluating.

1. Biblical Interpretation

I do not want to spend too much time on the issue of Biblical interpretation, because the differences in the way we interpret the Bible as a diverse church are pretty clear. But I do want to note that I largely reject the classic "literal-metaphorical" dichotomy we often hear about surrounding matters of Biblical interpretation. After all, the Bible is too complicated to take entirely literally, and it is too full of truth to take entirely metaphorically. There are those who consider themselves to be Biblical conservatives who are in favor of marriage equality, and there are those (fewer, perhaps) who consider themselves to be Biblical liberals who do not feel the need to expand the current definition of marriage.

Still, this issue of Biblical interpretation divides us pretty deeply, and while I don't always think the divide is as big as we make it, we ought to acknowledge it is there. Pretending otherwise does not do us much good. There is a fairly wide spectrum of Biblical interpretation in the United Methodist Church. The differences we have are real.

As it relates to the issue of human sexuality, obviously, the turf has been mostly unmoved for some time. Those who argue for a more literal interpretation believe that human sexuality is to be expressed in a male-female marriage relationship, for (they contend) God set this pattern for humanity. All other expressions of practiced sexuality are incompatible with Christian teaching.

Those who argue for a more metaphorical interpretation believe that the covenant of marriage is less about male-female relations than it is a loving covenant between two people and God. There are multiple expressions of practiced sexuality which are compatible with Christian teaching. I should add, though, that this "camp" would disagree among its members about how many expressions are, indeed faithful. As something of a conservative member of this camp (whatever that means), I would argue that a marriage covenant between two people and God means an exclusive covenant, and that while God may have more in mind for marriage than a legal contract between a man and a woman, there are expressions of sexuality which are, by their nature, unfitting of the Christian witness.

Perhaps I am not being entirely fair to both sides of this argument--I've laid my cards on the table, for what it is worth--but I think this is a reasonable description of the problem of Biblical interpretation. There's a divide. We understand scripture differently. This leads us to the second issue.

2. Decision-making

Different understandings of scripture lead to different understandings of church, which should come as no surprise. Our expressions of church are influenced by our worldviews, and our worldviews are influenced by scripture.

The issue as it relates to schism surrounds how we can authentically live out a scriptural worldview in a church with multiple scriptural worldviews. The church has always acknowledged, of course, that not everyone believes exactly alike. One thing I have always appreciated about the United Methodist Church--indeed, one reason I chose to become a United Methodist--is that we acknowledge that we are allowed to disagree, if charitably.

The problem is not that we cannot disagree. It is that we (those churches in the United States) believe we are the standard against which others can disagree. In other words, we are being gracious with others but becoming hamstrung in our own privilege.

I have written before of the ridiculous ways in which the US churches allow other churches to deviate from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, all the while allowing those deviating churches to constrain churches in the United States who do not have an option to deviate. I do not mean to use this language of deviation perjoratively; it is important that churches in different cultural areas be able to adapt to their cultural contexts. The Book of Acts is full of examples of the early disciples allowing for such deviation.

The problem is that we assume everyone else has a cultural context, but that we (the United States churches) are the be-all, end-all of Methodist Christendom. We are the context from which everyone else deviates, at least in terms of the way we see ourselves (and the way in which our polity behaves).

Basically, everyone else has a culture. We do not. How progressive of us.

You see the issue. In the name of openness, we're privileging ourselves.

Here's the solution: give the US, with its unique cultural heritage and needs, the same abilities the conferences outside the US have. Let the US make room for cultural differences: in polity, in social standard, in praxis.

We've got to, well, decide, one way or another, about how we're going to decide before we can resolve the schism issue. Right now, we seem to be living into an unsustainable system of decision making that exists for a whole host of ideological reasons but no good theological or practical reasons. We're afraid to give the US the same courtesy to deviate that we give the rest of the world, because we are afraid of what the US will do with such a privilege. But part of growing up is offering new responsibility in the hope that, the foundation having been laid, good (if difficult) choices will come.

So do I believe schism is the best future for the UMC? No. The church is too important, and living into Global Christianity is too important. We must, however, figure out how to live together in a way that is fair to everyone and that does justice to the promise that all people are God's children.

Nor do I believe that schism is coming regardless of whether it is the best future. I believe we are headed for one of two futures. Either

1. The church allows for cultural differences, even in the USA, and we actually do the difficult work of figuring out how to be a global church (instead of a church that talks about how wonderful it is that we bend over backwards for all those other people on other continents),
2. We'll continue on an unsustainable course, built on an outdated model of cultural sensitivity which is in fact predicated upon cultural bias and ideological warfare, and, like a top-heavy tower, we'll topple.

It is my prayer, of course, that we are headed towards the first future. I actually believe this future is not only possible, but probable. There will be some pain--there is no such thing as an ecclesiological epidural--but if we decided to put in the work, I believe we will find ourselves working toward a more faithful version of church all over the world. The DreamUMC conversation has been a good launching point, but it is merely a conversation. Let's now do the difficult work of figuring out how to continue to become the church, even in this brave new post-Christendom, globalized, twenty-first century world.

1 comment:

  1. I have a difficult time understanding this part of point #1:

    "I would argue that a marriage covenant between two people and God means an exclusive covenant,"

    I have heard this language before from people who challenge traditional teaching on same-sex intercourse and same-sex marriage. Why hold on to the "exclusive" vein of NT reflections on sexuality while re-interpreting the prohibitions on same-sex activity?

    If anything, the OT & NT as a whole give much more leeway on the "exclusive" nature of the marriage covenant -- I'm thinking of the polygamy that is so much a part of the Pentateuch -- than it does to the concept of same-sex covenants.

    Thanks for any help you can provide in helping me understand the thinking.