Last week, I began looking at the question of what constitutes the basis of unity for The United Methodist Church (and by extension, other denominations as well). I examined whether theology could serve as a useful basis for unity and concluded it couldn’t. This week, I’d like to examine another answer which serves better than theology but ends up coming up a little short itself; that answer is history.
As a church historian, let me be the first to affirm that denominations arise out of particular historical contexts and that their present shapes are the result of historical processes that have operated on them since their formation. The United Methodist Church has a historical past that includes John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Philip Otterbein, Jacob Albrecht, the circuit riders, various schisms over race and holiness, Matthew Simpson, the Central Jurisdiction, commitment to temperance, and a whole host of other characters and movements. Some of the pieces of our past we may be more proud of (John Wesley’s opposition to slavery, perhaps), and some of them we may be less proud of (the racism of creating a segregated Central Jurisdiction). Some of them may resonate with us more (Charles Wesley’s hymns), and some of them may resonate with us less (who is Matthew Simpson, anyway?). But to be a United Methodist is to share, in some way, this past or heritage.
There’s a difference, though, between saying denominations are historical creatures and saying history is a sufficient basis for denominational unity. To see why, imagine two college reunions. At the first, the alum goes and has a great time. She or he enjoys seeing old friends, catching up, and reliving the glory days of their time together. The party goes long into the night. At the second college reunion, the alum goes, but doesn’t have a good time. He or she talks to friends from college, but realize after exchanging a few stories about the past that he or she no longer have anything in common with these people other than those stories about the past. They feel uncomfortable and leave soon.
That’s the same way history works for denominations. In some cases, it can really make you happy with and proud of your identity as a member of a group. In other cases, it just emphasizes the differences between you and your supposed group-mates, and you leave anyway. What makes the difference between the two cases? First, you need to identify enough with that past for it to mean something to you. If you didn’t like your college experience, then you won’t even go to the reunion. If the past doesn’t mean anything to the people in the pews or they don’t know it, then it’s not going to further denominational unity.
The key, though, to both having the past mean something to people and to having it be a source of unity (like in the good college reunion) is that the past can’t just be the past. It must be connected to the present. Unless we recognize who we were in college as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find we have nothing in common with people at a reunion. Unless we recognize who we were as a denomination in the past as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find our history as just boring stories about dead people who lived long ago.
So history in and of itself is an insufficient grounds for denominational unity. It doesn’t work to say, “We’re a denomination because we were a denomination in the past.” Inertia is a great force in church life, and so the answer of “we’ve always done it that way in the past” will carry you a certain distance, but it doesn’t ultimately make for vitality or the ability to move forward.
History can, however, be used as a tool to aid in the creation of denominational identity in two ways. First, examining our past can be a good source of ideas when we’re casting around to figure out what exactly it is that constitutes denominational identity. Second, telling ourselves stories about our shared past can reinforce that sense of common identity once we’ve identified what it is. But we have to choose that identity in the here and now. It isn’t automatically given to us by history, and the effective telling of history to create denominational unity requires a preexisting notion of common identity. Thus, history may end up being an effective vehicle for conveying unity. But history must be used intentionally to create unity. Relying on unreflective notions of “how it’s always been” just isn’t good enough.