Over the past few weeks, I've been doing some reflection on the concept of Christian unity, following the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (and now a troubling Balt-Wash Annual Conference as well). You can read the first of those reflections here, as well as a second and third.
Just to summarize, I looked at three different ways of understanding unity, based on three (well, four, but two of them together) different texts:
The Pentecost story, in contrast to the story of Babel, reminds us that true Christian unity is not monolithic or institutional, but rather charismatic and multilingual. It is based not on structure or top-down enforcement but rather on the Spirit-gifted ability to hear each other in all of our differences.
The Christ hymn from Paul's letter to the church in Philippi shows us that unity is based in the self-emptying love of Jesus, which reveals rather than conceals what true divinity looks like. This passage cautions against trying to achieve unity with power politics and instead challenges us to step out of centers of power and into places of suffering and hurt.
And Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17 reminds us that Christian unity is a mystical unity with God through Jesus and the Spirit, rather than a worldly program of organizational merging or institutional togetherness.
Which all sounds very nice. But the thing is that I'm not just making stuff up here. I've seen it done.
Or rather, I've seen it happen, a gift of the Spirit, the presence of the self-emptying Christ, the mystic union that God bring about.
I've seen communities, churches, small groups, big groups, gathered together in ways that transcend differences while affirming the amazing diversity needful for the health of the body.
I've seen it, I've witnessed it, in a converted apartment in the mountains of Morocco, in a converted house in the city of Jerusalem, in living rooms and small university chapels and big auditoriums.
And yes, I've seen it happen in many United Methodist congregations, where my gifts and my calling have been nurtured, encouraged, strengthened, and affirmed.
It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. A true gift.
There are a few common characteristics that I've noticed about these sorts of communities. I think I'll save that for another reflection, though, because I don't want this to be too utilitarian -- I just want to say, yes, this is possible; yes, there is beauty and wonder to be found in this weird tradition we are a part of; yes, God does call us to unity.
But none of that -- read, none of that -- really has anything to do with the question of whether there is such a thing as a global institution called 'The United Methodist Church.' Of course, I wouldn't have had some of those experiences if it hadn't been for the institution, and I'm grateful for that -- but that doesn't mean that they wouldn't have been happening. The organization doesn't get to take credit for the work of the Spirit. Doesn't mean that that institution is evil or bad. Just means that the UMC is not the main point, and we ought not to forget that.
At General Conference in 2012, I heard so many speakers stand at microphones and proudly or fearfully declare, "The world is watching what we do here today!"
The world wasn't. The world isn't. The world is going about its business, and it's our job to be out there amidst it, being salt and light. To the extent that a denominational structure supports that job, great. To the extent that it doesn't, it's beside the point.
I think that the UMC, and people like myself who occupy some sort of role within it, often forget how relatively unimportant, how really irrelevant, our institutional mucking about is. It pays to be reminded.
The "United" in United Methodist Church is not an impressive statement of unity, nor a deep commitment to ecumenical togetherness. It's just part of the name of one of our predecessor denominations, the Evangelical United Brethren. They got to keep "United," and the Methodist Church folks got to keep "Methodist," and that supposedly would make everybody happy. Which is nice, and cute, and has zero-nothing-nilch to do with actual Christian unity. So please stop saying "Keep the 'united' in United Methodist," unless you're really passionate about your EUB roots. In fact, the Methodists in the U.S. have never been so great at organizational unity, as pointed out by Christopher Evans in this HuffPost article. We've always had a bit of a tendency toward schism (otherwise we'd all still be Anglicans, who would all still be Roman Catholic, who would still be Orthodox, who would still look to the Jerusalem church for leadership....)
(As an aside, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" isn't our motto -- it's just some slogan that a communications team came up with to try to fancy up our church advertising. Same with "Rethink Church." Are both of those ad slogans horribly ironic? Yes. Do they represent things I believe are important? Yes. Do they actually express anything we've decided on or committed ourselves to as a body? No.)
Why do I mention these things? Because there's something deeply self-involved about our obsession with this kind of sloganeering and sound-byte-ing. Because none of these things have anything to do with the sort of Spirit-possessed, self-emptying, mystically communing body that the Church is actually supposed to be. They're smoke and mirrors, and they're distracting us from the real thing.
In Sanctorum Communio, Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- who would be executed by the Nazis, but not until after he'd broken with the broad consensus of his own German church by refusing to support Hitler -- wrote the following: "The decisive
passages in the New Testament do not say: one theology and one rite, one
opinion on all matters public and private, and one
kind of conduct. Instead they say: one body and one spirit, one Lord, one
faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all."
That's the unity we're called to.
I hope the United Methodist Church is around to see its ultimate fulfillment. But if not, I doubt we'll even notice.
We'll be too busy feasting and singing to care.