Christian unity, and in particular the unity of a global United Methodist church, will emerge through relationships that are unknown and probably unimagined because the Spirit blows where it will.
In a previous blog I warned against a tendency to try to achieve unity through political and economic structures that may obscure real differences in the understanding of what it means to be a Christian. One might add that liturgical forms can be equally superficial since a common language can mask real differences in meaning - particularly across the difference between what Taylor calls a porous and a buffered self.
Two other approaches to unity are equally problematic. The first looks for a common core of theological affirmations that define United Methodism and around which all Methodists might be expected to gather. The United Methodist 1996 General Conference (mistakenly) attributed to Wesley the quote, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity," to sum up a spirit as absent in our Conferences as the correct attribution of the quote is to our Methodist history. Identifying essentials turns out to be as difficult in UM history as demonstrating any degree of real charity and love is in our political encounters. We read our history and Wesleyan heritage differently in different parts of the UM church. That is a tribute to the richness of both, but also tends away from agreement on essentials.
Also, our typically Methodist approach to identifying essentials is genealogical. That genealogical approach is itself a characteristically modern way of seeking to identify the unifying experiences of a society or culture. It is quite different from those approaches found in non-modern societies. (For who is to say that they are "pre-modern?”) In such societies the unifying essentials are not understood to exist as historically distant beliefs and rituals, now measured by evolutionary (or devolutionary) change. They are understood as foundations laid in the past, but continually present at no historical distance whatsoever in sacred experience. Genealogy isn't necessary when your deep past is also present.
For a modern person, the term "anachronistic" is virtually a curse. For non-modern persons, it may well represent the purest form of spiritual insight.
It is common in the modern and post-modern West to read Wesley as a man of his time whose views have been rightly adapted to emerging cultural situations and which (the post-modern view) are but one part of one of many possible narratives. What bishop today, for example, takes seriously Wesley's sharp criticism of the American founding of the American Methodist episcopacy? But, as I have personally experienced in teaching outside the West, there are many who read Wesley, as they do Luther and Calvin and Paul, as contemporaries. Wesley isn't a "historic" figure whose ideas have been appropriately transformed across historical distances. He is an immediate source of guidance, as is the Bible. The fact that modern people who claim him also easily dismiss aspects of his clear teaching seems strange to those to whom his words speak directly, un-buffered by historical distance.
So at the very least we need to recognize that finding a Wesleyan core around which we might unite may not itself be a unifying experience.
And what of unity outside a core of belief and practice, perhaps around some commonly agreed need to establish human justice or more broadly human flourishing? This also proves to be problematic. Beyond the theoretical difference between a buffered and porous self there exist different conceptions of what achieving full humanity means. We have already seen in UM General Conferences the stark difference between U.S. and African United Methodists regarding justice in relation to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons; a difference rooted in basically different understandings of what constitutes human fulfillment and flourishing.
So, for these reasons and those sketched in the previous blog, I want to suggest that unity will not be based on either existing commonalities in terms of a commitment to justice nor the recovery of supposedly shared historical roots.
This blog post will be continued in another installment next week.