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A Fractured Denomination

A Fractured Denomination

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In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin writes:

The promise of this era, in cultural terms just as in economic terms, is the promise of diversity and choice. The danger of this era, in cultural just as is in economic terms, is the danger of polarization and division. And the work of maximizing the promise while minimizing the danger—of enabling more of our fellow citizens to live out their own American dreams without losing the essential unifying power of a commonly held American Dream—is a foremost challenge for our politics in the coming years” (183).

In reflecting on this in relation to The UMC, it seems our promise is to allow for as much differentiation as possible in a global and democratic church. This becomes necessary whether you exist in Monrovia, Liberia, and Birmingham, Alabama, in Portland, Oregon, and in Manila, Philippines. At a congregational level, we allow for this differentiation: A church can choose to highlight or hide the name “United Methodist;” it can baptize infants in one parent households, perform marriages for couples where one person has been previously married, contribute to mission work that is ecumenical or non-denominational, shape worship around the lectionary or not and the list goes on. We call this, in Levin’s language, “diversity and choice.”

Our danger is, of course, that we become more diffuse and fragmented, less clear about purpose, increasingly unable to account for the reasons that we might continue to be united. The seeds of this are present in our differentiation, when such differentiation is not articulated in missional, pastoral or theological ways. Roughly half of our clergy are trained in schools and traditions outside our denomination—some free church, some pan-Wesleyan, some reformed, some liberal mainline. The default rationale is often proximity and geography, but the end result is more diffusion and fragmentation. The fragmentation may also be the result of our legislative and judicial processes, which themselves have at their core a need to describe one’s own position as right/just and the other as wrong/unjust, and the resulting media coverage (within and beyond the denomination) that is binary in its form. Binary communication creates polarization and division, in ecclesial and political culture. 

So how do we "maximize the promise while minimizing the danger”?

It helps to begin by stating the urgency. The work of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward has been very clear that we are in an unprecedented place, in Bishop Bruce Ough’s words. It is unlikely that the status quo will remain in place. Of course, there is a need for change. But much good can also be lost. This was a part of my argument in my chapter in the book Finding our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church.

It also helps to note the ways in which the church is a reflection of the larger culture. Many of the skills we have learned, ones that deconstruct, divide, and stereotype, are easily transferred from participation in culture to leadership in the church. This occurs in advocacy and renewal groups, but the COB and General Agencies are not immune from this.

So how do we create a different culture? Or, in Levin’s language, how do we focus less attention on “dominating our core cultural institutions and more on building thriving subcultures” (165)?

"Maximizing the promise while minimizing the danger” requires the building of trust, intimacy and respect among leaders. What would motivate us to do this work?

Perhaps it is in the enabling of our fellow citizens (members) to live out their own American dreams (discipleship) without losing the essential unifying power (connection) of a commonly held American Dream (a United Methodist Church).

A part of our future must be a re-focusing on what it means to be a disciple, and that is, in itself, grounded in knowing the life and teachings of Jesus. We cannot assume this. It is likely true that our decline is due to the increase and now loss of a large constituency of nominal constituents.

The essential unifying power is simply the assembly of all of the activities that we do together—ecumenical agreements, educational processes and institutions, prophetic statements, communication plans, mission initiatives, discipleship resources, publications—and the relationships among those who do this work. These activities are in fact astonishing, and many gifted persons devote much of their lives to them. And, yet, they are at risk in the fracturing of the republic (denomination). They assume that we are a denomination. We cannot assume continuity. Nothing in our culture (national, global, ecclesial) undergirds continuity. We are in a disruptive moment—this is true in the U.S., in Europe, in the Philippines and in Africa.

A part of the motivation for doing the work of maximizing promise while minimizing danger is the preservation (and, yes, reformation) of the “unifying power” of our institutions. While institutions are often criticized, many (including the most vulnerable) flourish because of the resources provided by institutions—for example, equitable compensation, the national plans, theological education in central conferences, ministerial education fund and the list could go on.

Our “foremost challenge” is in naming the positive good at the heart of our Dream—we believe that followers of Jesus, in the Wesleyan tradition in general, but in The United Methodist Church more particularly, can work together to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We do this in many different ways—this is diversity and choice. But we must do the work in a much clearer and collaborative way. And we must recognize that polarization and division—where we are, if we are honest, often most at home, within our own tribe—are the greatest threats to our continued common life.

The temptation might be to dominate the cultural (ecclesial, denominational) conversation, as a kind of will-to-power. We are so evenly divided, however, that this is not politically pragmatic, even if it were a morally worthy strategy. And finally we aspire to something more, and this aspiration is our own cooperation with the prayer of Jesus that we might be one, so that the world might believe (John 17).

~For Reflection: How, then, might we, as leaders, build thriving subcultures in our teams, boards and cabinets, in our spheres of influence and leadership, in delegations from the annual conferences, and together, toward a future that is less fractured and more united, and in alignment with God’s dream for the people called Methodist?