As I explained in the first part of this post, United Methodist unity will not be based on either existing commonalities of commitment to justice or historical roots. Rather, I would suggest, it will be based on a commitment to an emerging understanding of the work of the Spirit that doesn't privilege any Methodist community or presuppose the direction in which the Spirit blows us. In short it will be a unity based on the presupposition that God desires unity for God's people, but has not yet revealed the shape of that unity.
Is that a justifiable theological presupposition? Is it a practical possibility?
The second question is easier to answer than the first. One of the most universally observed human phenomena is the way in which new languages emerge out of the encounter of different cultures and language groups. (It is observable, but it is only by being universally observed that it becomes the basis of any unifying discourse.) Through dialogue - often simple but growing in depth and complexity - people with different worldviews and cultural experiences find a common language that allows them to articulate their differences and similarities and in particular name the latter with more and more precision.
English happens to exhibit a remarkable flexibility in this regard, both borrowing and loaning words and expressions with shocking promiscuity. But the history of any language demonstrates the degree to which it has been the result of mutual transformations that make it better and better able to account for the wide variety of human experiences of its speakers and communicate in the widest possible public forum.
I believe that dialogue, call it “holy conferencing” if you will, is capable of generating an emerging language able to express a not-yet-discovered unity of Methodist experience.
However, if at a practical level, dialogue can create a common language for the experience of being United Methodist, is such an approach to seeking unity theologically justified?
I suggest that Christian unity, and specifically Methodist unity, is not something scandalously lost after the age of the apostles or Wesley. Instead unity is something that is inevitably emergent because the essential encounter with the Christ is finding him in the crossing of cultural and experiential boundaries. The New Testament is in fact a record of disunity among the followers of Christ. They are moving toward unity but always, impelled by their own personal encounters with Christ, reaching into difference-creating realms of human experience. The apostles could never be unified because Christ himself, in their own record of faith, compelled them to break any tenuous uniformity of belief and practice and discover his Spirit in places where those who name him as savior compose their experience with different beliefs and reiterate those beliefs in different practices.
There is also a deeper theological rationale for a commitment to present diversity accompanied by a dialogue toward an emergent unity. God has created a universe whose future is open because (at the basic earthly level) God's creatures are free. The presumption that unity can be achieved at this or that General Conference through this or that legislative process and these or those unifying beliefs and practices is a presumption against God's intent that humans be both free and that this freedom extend as far as the human imagination can cast itself into the future.
For freedom in the Biblical witness creates diversity, and this freedom, which diversifies rather than unifying, must sometimes be forced upon a humanity willing to enslave itself for the sake of unity and its consequent promise of security and power (see Genesis 11). God will not let us drag the unity we find only in God into the idolatrous structures that we create. We cannot live at Sinai or Jerusalem any more than we can live in Babel or Egypt, for each finally enslaves whether our intentions are holy or mundane.
In short, it is not God's will that we be unified except in our love one for the other. Rather, we should be ever seeking unity. A perpetual dialogue appears to be what God has in mind when we read across the scripture toward an end in which the peoples of the earth unceasingly bring their varied gifts to God's Holy City. And that dialogue is not between partners fixed in their language and positions and negotiating a middle ground, but rather between partners themselves being transformed and diversified by the process of "going to all nations to make disciples."
Of course my assertions in the paragraphs above must themselves be mere beginning points in dialogue, in this case a dialogue around a Bible we all accept, in some way, as foundational to our experience of Christ. Worship might be another such starting point.
I do not believe that global United Methodism is either possible or desirable. But United Methodists should seek through loving dialogue to learn an ever renewed and renewing language of Christian experience. That process will lead us toward, but never closer to, the Holy City where in God's presence alone exists our unity; a unity seen fleetingly at moments, but never grasped, and never seen again unless we turn away to speak with our brothers and sisters in Christ.