Will The Real United Methodists Please Stand Up?

Everybody has a diagnosis.  The bishops, the wise persons, the know-it-all bloggers like me; everyone know what’s wrong with the United Methodist Church.  Diagnoses are not in short supply.  Even people with little or no connection to Methodism can tell you what’s wrong with Methodism.  We need more this, less of that, and none of the other.  This, that, and the other usually include making more disciples for the transformation of the world, some form of holiness, and getting back to the purest form of Methodism ever practiced.  In identifying problems, (lack of real commitment to Orthodoxy, too many conservatives, or confusing social justice with social holiness) we easily begin to offer solutions.  Depending on who’s spotted the problem, their solutions will often be the only workable, feasible, theologically grounded, and Biblically sound of fixing what ails Methodism.  They’ve got the answer.  There’s no need to argue.  Sit back, bask in their brilliance, and be happy you’ve had the opportunity to see genius do in 140 characters or less what Saint John Chrysostom did in volumes.

Here’s what I’m finding:  among all of these competing voices, I don’t hear anyone speaking for a United Methodism.  In fact, I’m hard pressed to find anything resembling a “United” Methodism.  A quick survey of the issues (along the broad lines of conservative/liberal, progressive/orthodox) finds countless individual versions of self-made Methodism; all of which the authors would like to impose on a global denomination.  Granted, I know my ideas are unique to me, a white male, rooted in white privilege, living in a first world setting, in the wealthiest country in the world.  Yet, I’m not going to assume that anything I believe about this church is going to become a one size fits all version of global Christian Orthodoxy in the mold of a 19th century, colonialist mission program.  The dominant discussions about Orthodoxy, scripture, and covenant are driven by the personalities, individuals, seminaries, life experiences, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and churches which all formed their proponents.  Ego driven theology betrays the idea of scripturally formed unity.  To embrace a “united” vision of Methodism, one must accept that the church has and does speak with one voice.  We are fighting for a version of the church made in our own image.  That’s not unity.  It’s idolatry.  You can quote patristic texts until you’re blue in the face and sing the Nicene Creed in Byzantine Greek in every rural Methodist church between here and Atlanta, but if your church is your theology simply filtered through a bit of out of context John Wesley, you’re in a cult, not a church.

Have those who question the “unity” of the church ever accepted the legitimacy of any General Conference, the Social Principles, or anything that unifies the existing United Methodist Church?  I think history would show many of them have always been unhappy with the modern idea of Methodism.  Methodism, in the eyes of many, has also been in the process of renewal, being called back to some state of Wesleyan perfection. That’s the best possible analysis of our current dilemma. Here’s another: we’ve been in a circular firing squad for at least thirty years. To the impartial outside observer; we’ve never had anything right, we’ve always been deficient at discipleship (according to the Bishops), and have always needed to “catch the spirit”. Something is always wrong with how we rethink church. Being “United Methodist”, for those threatening to now leave Methodism, has been in name only. For those committed to the idea of unity, Methodism is an damaged ship in need of constant course correction. We keep harping the on same themes of denominational renewal. Somewhere, the church as a whole stopped listening. Now we see, no one agrees on the right heading, the name of the boat, or from which direction the wind is coming. Is it any wonder we have trouble attracting crew to a floundering vessel? Perhaps it is time to abandon ship? Did anyone remember to bring the lifeboats?

Hymn 363 asks the question “And Are Wet Yet Alive?”  I would ask, “And Are We Yet Methodist?”  Satisfied that we’ve never truly been united, I want to know, are we the Methodists we think we are?  No.  Perhaps the only Methodist was the man for whom the original pejorative was invented, John Wesley.  In his wake, we are only pale imitations of a perfection no one will ever attain.  Try as we might, Methodists are a peculiar people devoted to a heretical Anglican divine. Methodism is the bastard child of the English Reformation. Henry VIII divorce from Catherine of Aragon gave the world many things; one of which was the dilution of English Catholicism into a divided Anglicanism. The violence of the English Civil War and subsequent conflicts throughout the British isles left a lasting mark on the family of John Wesley. In Wesley’s DNA were dissenters, non-jurors, and others who fought with Oliver Cromwell. The virulent and violent forms of Calvinist Protestantism which took hold in some Anglican traditions were prominent in his family. It would be up to his father to accept the reign of William and Mary and supremacy of the Crown over the Church of England. His father’s decision, one that represented years of struggle and loss of life on both sides of his family, was not made lightly. It made Wesley’s journey to Oxford and career as a priest possible.

As Wesley and his brother Charles inherited their family’s legacy of involvement in the English Civil War, his commitment to the Church of England takes on a greater significance. This wasn’t a man following in his father’s ministerial footsteps. Wesley’s calling to enter the ministry of the Church of England was part and parcel of the Restoration itself. The Restoration of the monarchy and Protestantism to the throne created the conditions for England to become a world power. Wesley’s Anglicanism, even his conversion, is part of the England’s larger Restoration. Why is this historical excursus important? Methodism isn’t an afterthought It’s the next step in restoring and renewing the England he’s inherited. Restoration and renewal are Wesley’s methods for healing a country torn by sectarian tensions. With his death, the method becomes a means to an end. The method is disconnected from the larger vision of restoration. When John Wesley dies, so does Methodism.

So who are we? Will the real United Methodists please stand up? We’re not “United”. We call ourselves “Methodists” but who knows what that means anymore. Ask a hundred United Methodists and you’ll get a hundred answers. Before we go selling a bunch of churches and get even angrier at each other, let’s figure out what the sign out front really means.