Today's post is part of a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. Today's post is written by Dr. Elaine Robinson, Professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology.
United Methodism is at a crossroads. After fifty years as a denomination, we now face the possibility of schism. By the time the 2020 General Conference convenes, the church may be in the process of reforming along lines drawn in the sand over human sexuality.
While I am among those who hope for a solution that might retain our unity, history reminds us that our predecessor denominations experienced schism over a host of issues: slavery and racism; women’s ordination; the authority of bishops; the rights of laity. While the “Trust Clause” in the Book of Discipline complicates separation in ways not present to earlier generations, the reality of human beings holding different opinions on the polity of the institutional church differs little from the nineteenth century. We seek unity, but misinterpret it as sameness.
Moreover, the global nature of United Methodism adds to the complexity of maintaining unity in the midst of diversity. It is this dimension which I intend to emphasize here. Maturing in the capacity to engage in cultural difference with respect and acceptance appears as one of the significant challenges for today’s United Methodists. We want to be a global denomination, but we do not know how to live well in the midst of cultural differences. We do not know how to live well in the midst of differing opinions (especially when scripture is used to justify each position). My hope for United Methodism is that we might grow in our intercultural capacity and compassion, as unanimity of thought and expression cannot be realized this side of the new creation.
Theologically, we must grant the assumption that “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Our human reasoning and understanding is subject to our fallen nature, what we sometimes call, “corrupt reason.” Assuming that we know absolutely the will of God always risks the hubris of the human nature asserting itself over the humble way of Christ.
In the nineteenth century, there were those who absolutely knew that God authorized slavery; they even found it inscribed in the scriptures. Whether some of these early Methodists knew they were using biblical passages as self-justification, we can only wonder. Nevertheless, the certainty of their position led to the separation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South from the Methodist Episcopal Church, mirroring divisions existing in the society. In retrospect, the church understands the complicity of its corruption in upholding slavery and, later, racist structures such as the Central Jurisdiction. If we fail to recognize that our human nature does, can, and will err in its institutional expressions, our hubris can lead us to place human justifications above the way of Christ.
Here we find our first complexity in being a global denomination: the uncertainty of human reason and discernment. As Christians, taking on the “mind of Christ,” learning to discern the depths of the gospel is a lifelong process. We Methodists know this process as sanctification or growing in love of God and neighbor.
When we add cultural diversity to the caution exercised with human reasoning, our ability to find unity is further complicated. The vast majority of United Methodists would claim to “love everyone” and posit our sameness before God. Such understandings are important to our faith development, but insufficient to engage the irreducible diversity created and sustained by God. “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” too often serves as a veneer of cultural domination, in which churches claim to be open, but only to those who will assimilate into the existing cultural norms, rather than recognizing the mutual transformation that inevitably occurs when we open ourselves to those who are not culturally similar to us.
Within the context of the United States, diversification of our congregations is both problematic and increasingly necessary, as the reign of God is not segregated. When we add the global complexity, the United Methodist Church struggles to live together in a way that reflects both unity and diversity. Indeed, unity without the capacity to accept diverse cultural expressions must inevitably fail, as one culture will become normative or considered the “right” way to live. Cultural difference becomes a tool for upholding our way of life, rather than a means of living more deeply into the Gospel.
Perhaps a couple examples can illuminate this point. Predominantly white congregations in the United States often claim that all are welcome. Yet, when pressed to allow for diverse leadership or worship styles, they often refuse to adapt as if Jesus himself ordained the pipe organ and sitting quietly in the pews. Conservatives in the UMC appeal to African delegates to uphold the church’s norm around homosexuality, but turn a blind eye to ongoing practices of polygamy among church members in Africa. Progressives promote liberal understandings of inclusion, but reject African cultural norms as less developed. Most significantly, proposals to restructure the global denomination would appear to have less to do with allowing indigenous development of the church’s mission and more to do with the United States losing majority power (and financial as well as cultural control of the denomination). Caution must be exercised, of course, as not all motivations are self-interested. However, the Gospel provides cautionary warnings into the ways human beings often justify cultural and even religious norms in the name of God.
In response to this dilemma there are few easy answers, given that human beings will always fall short of the fullness of God’s grace and glory. Nonetheless, the more we, as a denomination, develop intercultural capacities, the better equipped we will be to live together and to discern the humble way of Christ.
Human beings are always a “work in progress,” not only spiritually, but intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Intercultural competence is never achieved by declaring that “we love everyone in the name of Christ.” Instead, growing in intercultural capacity is a developmental process like any other. We move along a spectrum from insisting on our own cultural norms to embodying the capacity to accept and adapt to cultural differences in healthy and respectful ways.
The United Methodist Church needs to take seriously the question of how we develop such intercultural understanding and compassion in clergy and laity across the global denomination. Human beings can and do live in various cultures, even multiple cultures simultaneously. Jesus Christ modeled healthy cross-cultural engagement, and called his disciples to grow in this capacity for the sake of God’s mission in the world. In a world so deeply divided by self-interest and narrow cultural perspectives, a UMC capable of deep, cross-cultural listening and understanding could provide an opening for the power of Gospel to weave us together as a denomination. Transforming the world begins with our own transformation into an interculturally capable denomination.