Lay Itinerancy

When last I wrote about unity in The United Methodist Church, I suggested that connectionalism, or a web of relationships between pastors and members across churches, was the true source of denominational unity.  If one accepts that answer, then the question for those who want to promote denominational unity becomes how one can foster true connectionalism.

There are a number of possible answers here, all worth pursuing.  Certainly, the church already has in place a number of systems that encourage people to work with and therefore get to know pastors or members from churches other than one’s own.  These range from Annual and other Conferences to ministry projects to denominational interest groups and beyond.  The internet is already an important way of promoting connections and will certainly increase in the future.

I’d like to suggest an additional possibility, though.  One of the ways connectionalism was fostered in the early Methodist church, both in England and America, was through pastoral itinerancy.  Itinerancy means moving around.  In the early days of Methodism, preachers would rotate from place to place on a yearly or even weekly basis.  This rotation allowed them to get to know people in various locales, carry news between locations, and building connections across geographic space.  The circuit riders would change their scheduled rotations frequently, ensuring that a single preacher could end up with a broad geographic range of connections, as is evidenced by the surviving correspondences of the early preachers.  Furthermore, they would meet with each other yearly if not quarterly, building connections with one another.  Thus, in early Methodism, itinerancy was at the functional heart of itinerancy.

The UMC still theoretically has itinerancy for its ministers.  Ministers can expect to be moved between churches, though the average frequency of such moves has fallen from every year to every seventh year.  Furthermore, the number of ministers who are appointed to have charge of more than one church has decreased dramatically to only a minority of pastors.  Therefore, ministers are not itinerant in the same ways they once were.  I’m not saying that’s bad or we should go back to the old way; I’m just saying that ministerial itinerancy can’t play the same role in fostering connectionalism it once did.

If ministers are unable to foster connectionalism through itinerancy, then how are we to foster connectionalism?  One possibility is for laity to take up a form of itinerancy.  Ministers may be unable to move frequently between churches, but lay members are not tied down to a local church in the same way.  Sure, many lay members have weekly responsibilities at church: teaching Sunday school, serving as greeter, etc.  But these aren’t their paid employment, and laity usually have more flexibility than a pastor has.

Hence, I would like to challenge United Methodist laity to consider choosing to intentionally worship at another United Methodist church on occasion, say once every month or two.  The purpose in going to another UMC congregation is to learn about them, form relationships, extend the sense of connectionalism between congregations, and create the opportunity for collaborative ministry.  It’s important that such visits be distinguished from church shopping.  The idea is not for the lay itinerant to look for another church, but rather to visit other churches for the sake of developing connections between them and their home congregation.  I think it’s important that lay members be rooted in a congregation so that they have something to connect other churches to, so I don’t recommend itinerating every week.  Nevertheless, I think occasional, intentional visits to other UMC churches would do a good deal to help us feel connected as a denomination.

It requires some courage to do this.  Breaking established patterns and getting to know new people and communities always does.  Nevertheless, I believe that such a form of lay itinerancy could be a real and really important form of ministry.  Ministry always involves risks and takes courage.  What courageous lay people will respond to this call to ministry?

Postmodern interlude: Choose-your-own-adventure history

I’m interrupting (because that’s what one does in postmodernism) my thread of posts on United Methodist unity to relate an idea from a conversation I had with my girlfriend Allie.

We were talking about my dissertation, and I was asking her if she thought it was okay that my chapters overlapped somewhat in their content.  She responded that she thought it was and that connections between chapters helped readers form a web of understanding.

This concept of a web of understanding got combined with a comment I made about how I intended to provide references to other chapters when there was overlap.  The result was the idea of writing a history in the form of a choose-your-own adventure story.  The more we talked about it, the more I was really intrigued by this idea, especially as a postmodern form for a book of history.  I’m not always all in to postmodernism, but there are times when I think it unleashes creativity or provokes thought by deconstructing or dismissing convention.  I believe a choose-your-own adventure history could be one of those times.

You all remember choose-your-own-adventure books from growing up, don’t you?  You’d be reading along and then you’d come to a page where you had to make a choice about what you wanted the characters in the story to do.  If you chose one option, then you’d turn to a certain page.  If you chose another option, then you’d turn to a different page.  By making different choices, you could end up reading a number of different stories that finished with several different endings.  Sometimes alternate choices could still converge later on down the road; sometimes they didn’t.

The idea for a choose-your-own-adventure history as Allie and I developed it would work in a similar way.  You’d start with some historical person or event, say Otto von Bismark.  The history would give you several pages of information on Otto von Bismark and then present you with a choice: Do you want to learn more about Bismark’s role in building the German state, or do you want to learn more about his role in World War I?  Depending on which choice you made, you would then turn to the appropriate page, read about that subject, and then be presented with an additional choice about where you wanted the narrative thread to go next.

Normally, we think of histories as being linear stories about a series of events in the past.  Historians must make choices about how to tell the story and how to construct the narrative arc of their books.  By writing a history as a choose-your-own adventure book, the author would deconstruct the standard set narrative arc of a history book, giving the reader greater freedom to create their own narrative thread based on their own choices.  Of course, the reader wouldn’t have complete freedom, but the text would invite the reader into a much more active role in shaping and interpreting the material.

All this is very postmodern.  One could even up the postmodern ante, though.  While it would certainly be possible to write a choose-your-own-adventure history where the different threads led to different conclusions or, if you were skilled enough, even to the same conclusion, it would also be possible to write a book with no conclusion, where every portion of the book referred the reader to some other portion in an endless web of reference.

The term web is not coincidental.  I think such a form for a history book is as similar as possible to putting a website into book form.  Each choice at the end of a section is like a choice between different links one could click on.  This structure for a history is also like an encyclopedia, where there are additional suggested articles at the end of most entries.  The challenge for writing a history like this is to construct the various pieces so that they could still add up to a coherent narrative.  You can click on various pages of a website or read a series of encyclopedia articles, but most of the time, there’s no sense of development or continuous story.

As much as I’m really intrigued by this form of history-telling, I’m not going to try it with my dissertation.  Creativity is great, but there are limits to the types of creativity a dissertation committee is looking for.  They want to know that you can meet the standards of the discipline, which, for history, means being able to tell a traditional historical narrative.  Nevertheless, I think it’s an idea worth pursuing at some point.  Who knows – perhaps some postmodern historian who is reading this might like to purse this idea?  I’ve no links for you to click on depending on whether you do or don’t, but the choice is still yours.

Connectionalism as basis for United Methodist unity

For the last several weeks, I’ve been taking a rather long detour from what had been my topic for much of the summer, the sources of unity in The United Methodist Church, to talk about a related but still somewhat tangential topic: the aggregate model of unity I’ve introduced.  Today, I’m finally going to connect that topic thread back into my discussion of The United Methodist Church in specific ways.

I would like to propose one more possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church, one with long historical roots, one which can encompass the other sources of unity I’ve mentioned, and one which I think holds the most hope for the future: connectionalism.

What is connectionalism?  It’s a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church.  According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority.  It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity.  When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.

At the beginning of Methodism, connectionalism meant connection to John Wesley.  After Wesley, though, there was no one person who defined connectionalism.  Even Francis Asbury, who had a central role in shaping Methodism in America, saw the connection of Methodism as being between the preachers and each other, not between the preachers and him.  Thus, connectionalism has become not a hub and spokes model of relationship, but a network.

For those of you who read last week’s post, this talk of network should sound familiar.  I claimed that the aggregate model of unity is a network model of unity.  Therefore, connectionalism can be thought of as an instance of the aggregate model of unity.  Connectionalism takes a whole bunch of smaller social groups, be they congregations, Annual Conferences, Jurisdictions, caucuses, ministry networks, or other groups, and ties them all together into a denomination through a network of relationships.

The test for connectionalism is always two-fold.  First, are these relationships strong enough to hold when tensions come?  Can we maintain our relationships with one another, even when we disagree or feel hurt or wronged?  Second, are we willing to extend our sense of connection beyond just those with whom we have a personal relationship into second-, third- or even more degrees of connection?  Are we willing to recognize ourselves as in connection with not just those to whom we are directly connected, but also those people to whom our connections are connected (and their connections, too, and so on)?

The first of these challenges is a perpetual one.  Since sanctification seems to be a gift given to few, we can expect that church people will remain people, which means that they’ll occasionally disagree or hurt each other or fear each other, and such instances will test their relationships.  The second challenge becomes increasingly difficult, however, as the church grows in membership, expands into new geographical areas, and lives in an individualistic culture.  When there are too many people to know personally, even at one or two degrees of remove, and when distance (not to mention many of the other challenges of modern life) make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships, our sense of connection to others in the denomination suffers.  When we are content to be individuals independent of community, we care less that our connections are not what they could be.

There’s not much we can do about the first beyond praying that God will continue to give us sanctifying grace and then trying to cooperate with what is given.  There may, however, be ways in which we can try to overcome the third and second challenges.  Can new theologies re-emphasize community and connection?  Can new technologies facilitate those connections?  If United Methodists want to remain united, these are questions worth asking ourselves.

Networks and bridge-builders in the making of unity

For the last two weeks, I’ve been talking about something I’ve called the aggregate model of unity: a model of unity that depends not upon some characteristic shared by all as the basis of unity, but rather sees unity as being built up through a bunch of overlapping social circles.  Today, I want to talk about the role of networks and bridge-builders in this model of unity.

The diagram of this model I’ve presented before is below:

Overlapping circles

Here, the overlapping smaller circles are social groups (or other relevant, relational groups), and the heavy black circle is the organizational boundary of the overall group.

There’s another diagram which could be drawn, though.  It would look something like this:


This diagram looks not like a bunch of circles but rather a network, a series of connected points.  Each point is a different social group or relevant, relational group that makes up part of the overall group.  Hence, the aggregate model of unity is also a networked model of unity.  Not every point in the network is connected to every other point, but to be part of the network, each point must be connected to some other point, and preferably to several other points.

What are these connections?  They’re the same thing as the overlaps in the circle diagram: people who are part of more than one group.  These individuals, whom we might call go-betweens, cross-cultural agents, or simply bridge-builders, are what hold the various points of the network together.  They are what provide the unity in this model.

To be a true bridge-builder, though, a person must do more than just have membership in two different groups.  They must work to connect these groups to each other in some way, whether that be by elaborating shared values, projects, language, goals, or just some sense of affinity.  Establishing such connections requires a variety of skills and characteristics on behalf of the bridge-builder: trust from both groups, an aptitude for understanding each group, the ability to translate between groups, and a knack for building relationships.

Bridge-builders then are crucial to having unity within larger societal groups, be they The United Methodist Church, the United States of America, or some other group.  Unfortunately, they also seem to be in short supply nowadays.  We hear more and more about the polarization of the church and American political society.  In the church, liberal and evangelical groups have distinct and usually non-overlapping memberships.  In politics, the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican no longer overlap, as they used to do.

Without any overlap, without any bridge-builders, there is no sense of unity.  We become a polarized people.  We are left to fight about the money and power involved in the formal structures that hold us together, be that denominational structures or governmental structures, without any sense that this money and power could be used in ways which can benefit all.

If we want to be able to hold together and work together as a larger group, we desperately need people who can be bridge-builders, who can act as go-betweens between different groups.  We need them in the church, and we need them in the broader society.  Let us pray that there will be some who will answer this call.

Relationships and unity

Last week, in my on-going exploration of unity in The United Methodist Church (and, by extension, contemporary society more broadly), I introduced a model of unity based not on some shared characteristic that applied to all in a group, but rather a bunch of overlapping characteristics.  I called this model unity through relationship and networks, though it might also be called the aggregate model of unity.

This week, I want to say a little bit more about the role of relationships is promoting and sustaining unity.  While this role holds true for unity in general, it will set up what I want to talk about next week, which is the role of networks in the aggregate model of unity, a topic which depends on recognizing the relational nature of all unity.

The picture I showed last week for how the aggregate model of unity works looked like this:

Overlapping circles

As I talked about them last week, the smaller circles represented shared characteristics.  Yet it is perhaps more appropriate to think of them as social circles or social groups.  Such groups may be (and often are) defined by shared characteristics.  Yet merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity.  For instance, “innie” and “outie” bellybuttons can be shared characteristics, but do not usually form the basis for social unity (though I realize that somewhere out there, probably on the Internet, there may be an “Innie Bellybutton Club” that is based around just this thing).  While this is a somewhat flippant example, the point remains that unity is not merely a function of having some shared characteristic.

That’s because unity is a relational quality.  United describes the nature of people’s relationships with each other, and it is ultimately relationships was form the basis of unity, not shared characteristics.  People are thrown together by sharing some characteristic (whether it’s rooting for the same sports team, attending the same church or school, working at the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or something else), and that shared aspect of their lives may be enough for them to develop some sort of relationship (classmate, coworker, neighbor, etc.)  Nevertheless, one can have a relationship with someone without it being particularly characterized by unity.  How many people work at or live in places where they feel little attachment to those around them or, worse, find themselves at odds with those around them?

Hence, shared characteristics can serve as the basis of unity only in so far as they can create substantive similarities that lead people to really relate with one another in a positive way.  These relationships then add up to community.  Thus, shared characteristics can create communities, but they are (as all communities are) imagined or constructed, not given by the mere fact of sameness.  It’s the relationships that ultimately make the community, not the common characteristics.

Fortunately, finding communities or social groups united through relationships by some characteristic they consider salient isn’t hard to do.  Such groups are all over in the church and the world.  In The United Methodist church, there are congregations, conferences, and caucuses.  In the world, there are clubs and organizations, friend groups, fan clubs, neighborhoods, etc.  Not all may give each of these groups the same degree of salience, but usually there are some groups people feel an affinity toward.  Yet all of these groups, to the extent that they are salient, are so because those who are members of them have taken a shared characteristic and turned it into the basis for real, positive relationships, which are the context for unity.

Unity without sameness?

In my past several blog posts, I’ve been examining various possible sources of unity for The United Methodist Church.  One assumption behind these posts so far has been that it may be possible to find something(s) that ties together all United Methodists and that unity in the denomination depends upon finding such thing(s).  I’ve certainly suggested that there may be more than one thing which unites everybody (e.g., polity, hymnody, and a sense of the world as our parish), but the quest so far has been for something that everybody can agree upon.

That makes sense.  United almost always has the connotation of sameness is some way.  My next suggestion for source of denominational unity, however, calls that idea of united by sameness into question.  It’s a major departure, so I’m going to spend two or three posts exploring it.  It’s also an idea I think can have much wider application than The United Methodist Church, so there will be a lot fewer Methodist-specific references.

The idea of unity I would like to explore can still be thought of not as united by sameness, but unity through relationships and networks.  This model of unity actually presupposes that there is nothing that’s going to apply to everyone, instead looking for overlapping things that, when you add them all up, include everyone.  To make myself clearer, let’s look at a couple of diagrams.

The first diagram is a diagram of the unity by sameness model.  It’s pretty simple:


It’s just a circle.  The outline of those who are united and the outline of those who share a certain characteristic coincide.  The diagram for the unity through relationship or network is a bit more complicated, though.  It looks something like this:

Overlapping circles

Here the heavy black line is the group of people who are united in a certain organization.  The thinner black lines are groups of people who share certain characteristics.  None of these circles coincide with the heavy black circle.  None cover the entirety of that circle.  All of the thin circles overlap with some other circle, but there are pairs of circles which don’t overlap with each other.  Nevertheless, by adding all of the thin circles together, all of the area inside the heavy circle is covered.  Note, though, that the thin circles include not just area in the heavy black circle, but area outside of it as well.

I think this is a truer-to-life model of how unity works.  There is some functional way in which the heavy black circle is drawn (polity, in the case of The United Methodist Church), but most of the uniting factors that hold us together are like the thin circles – they’re things we have in common with a subset of the group as a whole as well as others outside of the group.  But there’s nothing that we have in common with the group as a whole (except the polity which defines the heavy black circle).  Only by adding up a series of uniting factors are we able to include the group as a whole.

This model depends crucially upon relationships and networks, and it’s to that aspect of the model I will turn next week.

“The world is our parish” as basis for United Methodist unity

One of John Wesley’s famous lines is “I look on all the world as my parish.”  A lot of Methodists like this phrase, but does it contain a potential source of United Methodist unity?  I’d like to argue that it does.  I think a “world as our parish” attitude has the potential to conceptually unite a lot of currently disparate United Methodist energies.  Such an approach is not without its dangers and depends importantly on a robust commitment to holism, but has, I think, potential.

Having the attitude that “the world is our parish” denotes a certain understanding of the church and its relationship to the world that I think is characteristic of Methodism (and many other denominations as well).  It denotes an understanding that the purpose of the church is not just to care for its own members but also to reach out beyond itself to engage with the world, to minister to the world, to be in mission to the world.

Currently in American Christendom, there are two understandings of how the church reaches out to be in mission to the world.  One is a conversionary understanding in which the church’s job is to try to convert individuals out of the world and into the church.  The other is a social justice understanding in which the church’s job is to try to combat the unjust structures of the world.  All too often, there is a bifurcation of the two, and they are seen as mutually exclusive and competing understandings of how to minister to the world.  Such a view is often present within United Methodism itself and reflects yet another dimension of the conflict between conservative and religious voices in the denomination.

Yet such a breach between these two forms of ministry to the world has not always existed.  Indeed, it’s really only a product of the last 100-125 years.  Before that, Methodism had a long history of trying to reform both individuals and society.  John Wesley was certainly no slouch in preaching individual conversion, but also tackled systematic injustices like poverty and the slave trade.  He wasn’t Marx in his analysis, but he did have an awareness of and concern for systemic problems with human society.  Such a combination of a drive for individual and societal reform continued through Methodist history until the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the turn of the 20th century began to drive these two options apart.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to reclaim such a unity in the concept of ministry to the world which is our parish, and thus to reclaim some unity in our denomination.  To do so, however, depends upon a robust understanding of the holism of the church’s mission.  What is holism?  It’s thinking about think as wholes, not as a collection of divisible parts.  An emphasis on holism is also part of the what-comes-next era, so the intellectual and cultural resources are out there to support such an emphasis.

If we seek to undertake holistic ministry to the world our parish, we will seek to present a whole gospel to whole people in the whole creation.  This means that seeking religious and moral transformation is important.  To say it’s not and that economic and political injustice is all that matters is to practice a materialist reduction that goes against the spirit of religion, which emphasizes that matters of the spirit matter.  Yet we can’t stop at seeking individual religious and moral transformation, for that would also ignore the wholeness of people, who are also economic, political, sexual, and physical beings with associated needs and concerns in these areas.  Our ministry to the world must therefore address these areas as well.  Furthermore, because whole people are part of a whole world, our efforts in these areas must not be solely individual but also systemic in nature.  Finally, because the whole world is not just human, but natural as well, our ministry to the world must also include ministry to the created, natural world, the essential context of all human life.

My guess is that right now there are a lot of people doing street evangelism who wouldn’t want to see their work as flowing from the same impetus as people protesting the School of Americas, and vice versa.  Yet in order to stay together as a denomination, we must find ways in which we can think of these two aspects of the church’s mission in the world as part of the same understanding that the world is our parish.  Since mission in and to the world is one of central reasons for the church’s existence, we need something to unite the denomination in its mission, just as singing can unite us in our worship.  I hope that agreeing that the world is our parish can be an important part of that uniting bond.

Singing as basis for United Methodist unity

This week’s possibility for source of unity of United Methodism is singing.  Whereas I’ve pointed out problems with the three previous sources of unity I’ve examined (theology, history, and polity), I would like to suggest that singing is a potentially promising source of United Methodist unity (though not without its own problems as well).

It’s also more distinctively United Methodist than the other three areas I’ve looked at.  Of course, I’m not saying that only United Methodists sing.  Obviously, other denominations have fine traditions of singing, especially the Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ/Christian Churches, with their well-developed tradition of unaccompanied part singing.  Nevertheless, while not uniquely Methodist, I would like to suggest that singing is distinctively Methodist.

Methodists have long been known as “a singing people”, and I believe that designation remains apt today.  Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was also one of the most prolific hymn writers ever.  His brother John also composed and translated hymns.  In America, hymn-singing was an important part of the tradition of camp meetings, religious worship and revival services common in the nineteenth century.  The current United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) is the most successful hymnal ever published.  While certainly not all Methodists can sing or like singing, the denomination was and is a tuneful one as a whole.

Of course, singing is not an entirely uncomplicated source of unity.  Even if everyone agrees that Methodists should be singing together, there remains the question of what to sing, and here there have been and are some significant disagreements.  There are, of course, the famous worship wars of the past couple of decades between those who like the old, traditional hymns and those who prefer contemporary worship songs.  There’s the question of the adequate inclusion of black gospel and spiritual songs in denominational hymnals, not to mention the issue of Spanish-language songs and songs from other ethnic groups.  It’s also often the case, as the supervisory committee for the UMH found, that the list of best-loved hymns and the list of most-hated hymns have some overlap.  People take issue with hymns for a variety of theological, musical, and personal-preference reasons.  In addition, there’s the question of revisions to the words of hymns.  So, while United Methodism may be united in agreement over the importance of singing our faith, there is disagreement over what exactly to sing.

The question then becomes whether we are able to overcome some of that disagreement on what to sing and still sing together for the sake of having our voices in harmony.  Can we still lift every voice and sing together, even when the owners of some of those voices dislike what’s being sung?  Are we willing to sing a few songs we don’t like (or don’t know) along with some that we do, so that everyone can sing together and everyone can find something they like?  Or will every song that’s not on our own personal list sound discordant to us?  These are important questions for us to consider as a denomination.

I would like to believe that despite the potential for disagreement over particular songs, singing does still have to potential to unite us as a denomination.  Not only is singing a shared value, but the act of singing embodies that unity toward which we should strive as a denomination.  Furthermore, singing together is a fundamental component of worship, which is one of the primary functions of the church.  Thus, if we can sing together, we’ve gone a long way towards being able to worship together in unity and thus toward being the church.  While none of us individually may have a thousand tongues, collectively we as a denomination have several million tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise.  Let us strive to use them in chorus.

Polity as basis for United Methodist unity?

This week’s contender for possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church (or other denominations, with the appropriate caveats made) is polity.  Polity means the rules and structures that define the formal organization of the church.  It includes things like membership vows, definitions of ordained ministry (and the rules for becoming and remaining an ordained minister), General Conference (the supreme legislative and executive body of The United Methodist Church), the General Boards and their relations to other parts of the church, Annual Conferences, ministerial pension funds, property ownership and oversight, pastor-parish relations committee, and a whole host of other organizational apparatuses.

On a first glance, polity is certainly part of what constitutes the unity of The United Methodist Church.  Historian Richard Heitzenrater (and others) argues that what it truly meant to be Methodist in the early days was to be in connection (or connexion, as the British would spell it) with John Wesley.  Similarly, to be United Methodist nowadays means to be a member, minister, or ministry of The United Methodist Church, a formal organization with its own set of laws and regulations governing how the church functions.  People can play with the boundaries of those laws or disobey those laws at times, but one isn’t United Methodist unless one buys into the organization to a certain extent.  If a church completely disregards the Book of Discipline, never sends delegates to an Annual Conference, doesn’t pay apportionments, and is in no way linked to the church hierarchy, it’s not United Methodist; it’s an independent, non-denominational church.

So polity is definitely part of what unites United Methodists.  In fact, polity is such an important uniting force that it also highlights the forces for disunity.  Methodists can argue with Presbyterians and feel that, as fellow Christians or even fellow Protestants, they have a stake in keeping those arguments going and not just walking out.  But, at the end of the day, there’s always the option that, if the argument gets too much to deal with, Methodists (or Presbyterians) can take their ball (or, rather, their pension fund) and go home.  Yes, that might be a defeat of Christian unity, but it’s not going to cause massive administrative problems in local churches.

United Methodists cannot, however, when arguing with each other, just take their pension fund and go home because it’s the same pension fund!  Because polity governs things like money and power but is also something that unites denominations in a fairly robust way, disagreements over other issues quickly get translated into disagreements over polity, and these disagreements matter because they affect things like who gets to be a minister, which ministries get money, and who can become a member of a church.  It affects the day-to-day operations of churches in real, tangible ways.  Sometimes polity is strong enough to survive these types of conflicts, and churches work through their differences; sometimes it’s not, and churches split.

This tendency for conflicts from other areas of the church to become conflicts about polity means, however, that polity cannot be the sole source of denominational unity.  If all we have in common is common pools of money and common structures of power, then all we will do is fight about money and power.  There’s already a good deal of that going on in the church (see the comment from a couple of posts ago about people fighting like weasels at General Conference), and we don’t need more of it.  Fighting about things like money and power means that the church is focused internally on itself and not focused externally and is focused on earthly things and not heavenly things.

When the church is not focused externally, then it can’t be in mission and ministry to the world, which is a good portion of the church’s reason for existence.  When the church is stuck thinking solely about earthly and not heavenly things, then it can’t be an effective worshiping community, which is most of the rest of the church’s reason for existence.  And if the church isn’t in mission and isn’t a worshiping community, then it has effectively stopped to be the church, no matter what the name on the incorporation papers say.

Therefore, to do ministry together and to worship communally, which are the reasons for the church’s existence, there must be something more holding the church together than just polity.  In the next two weeks, I’ll look at some ideas as to what else might provide that basis of unity.

History as basis for United Methodist unity?

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.