There are two things I would like to say about the importance of United Methodist identity in a global church. Both of them are pretty obvious, I think, but still worth saying. And perhaps some people will disagree with me, which would make for a great conversation!
My teacher and mentor, Andrew Walls, used to say that all of us speak one or more languages, but none of us speaks language in general. We speak particular languages – Hindustani, Luganda, Portuguese, English. It seems to me that his observation can be used to think of the term “Christian.” For those of us who take our Christian identity with some degree of seriousness, we are not Christian in general. Rather, we have been shaped and formed by one or more Christian traditions. We are even shaped by the traditions that we are trying to get away from by entering another one: United Methodists who are former Southern Baptists, or former Roman Catholics, think about their faith in ways that are somewhat different than someone who is a “cradle to grave” United Methodist. United Methodists have a past, present and future that shapes us, and it is important for us to know in what ways we are shaped. Like the polyglot, we may have other Christian identities along with our United Methodist one, but it is important to know each one of them, if we are going to understand who we are.
But why is it important to understand our identity (even when we disagree with our denomination) in a global church? It is because when we know our own identity well, we can interact with other Christians (with other identities) all around the world with greater love, charity and respect. We can allow the other Christian to be the “other,” rather than assuming that she or he needs to be like me because, after all, we are both “Christian.” I have very good friends who are Roman Catholic (and of course there are varieties of Catholics!). I disagree with their tradition on any number of things. Nevertheless, by keeping in mind that I have been shaped and formed by the Methodist tradition, I can interact with a Roman Catholic as a sister in Christ without expecting her to be just like me, or to be just like the people I go to church with Sunday after Sunday. I can give her the space to be a Christian as she understands it, without necessarily agreeing with her on crucial issues, yet still dealing with her as someone who deserves my Christian concern and love. This is the first thing I want to say about the importance of United Methodist (or any other) identity in a global church: it helps us interact graciously with Christians of other traditions.
The second thing I want to say is that all of us have multiple identities that we carry around, or that we utilize. I am a son, a husband, a brother, a father, a teacher, a junior colleague, a senior colleague, a fellow church member, a neighbor, a stranger – the list goes on and on and on. In different contexts, different identities are prominent. As I am passing through passport control at an airport overseas, the immigration officer does not care whether I’m a United Methodist or not. All he cares about is whether my papers and documents are in order. And I prefer things to be that way.
My point is that while United Methodist identity is important in a global church, in certain contexts that might not be the most important or relevant identity. Sometimes the fact that I am a Christian – of whatever tradition – is more important than the particular tradition itself. Growing up in North India, where Christians form maybe 2% of the population, in almost all public contexts our particular type of Christianity did not matter – what mattered was that we were fellow believers of a small, minority religious group. If Christians were attacked, we did not care what kind of Christians they were – all that concerned us was that someone in our religious community was facing danger. It was only when Christians gathered together by ourselves that we talked about our particular traditions. Then, indeed, we recognized the differences between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and mainline Protestant traditions. This did not break the unity of our fellowship – it simply qualified and informed that unity.
Our identity as United Methodists is important in a global church, but there are times when it is not the most important identity for us. Perhaps the story of Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10 can help us in this respect. Martha was caught up in her identity as hostess – which of course was very important. But in this instance, it was not the most important. In this particular case, Mary had chosen “the better part,” her identity as a disciple of Jesus, who said to the poor flustered Martha, “it will not be taken from her.”