Wednesday, February 9, 2022

High conflict and the need for new Methodist narratives

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I recently read Amanda Ripley's book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Got Out. It was an interesting and informative read. She defines high conflict as "a conflict that becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off. Typically an us-versus-them conflict."

The applicability of that definition and other concepts throughout the book to The United Methodist Church were clear. The UMC, especially its American branch, has been trapped in an increasingly high conflict over the past several decades, a conflict that has turned into an all-encompassing, two-sided battle for control of the denomination and claim to the title of true Methodism.

The high conflict within United Methodism seems to be heading toward some sort of separation within the denomination, though uncertainties abound about how and when exactly that separation will happen, especially given obstacles to holding a globally inclusive General Conference. Given an impending separation, some of Ripley's ideas about escaping high conflict are less relevant.

But one idea still stood out to me. Ripley writes about how one of the attractions of high conflict is that it provides a clear narrative that provides a sense of identity and purpose in the world. When that is true, she writes, many people will not want to let go of high conflict "if it means they will have to let go of an apocalyptic narrative than has become part of their identity." To escape from high conflict requires "develop[ing] other, competing identities."

The conflict within the UMC has been extremely important to many United Methodist's sense of identity and narrative about (American) Christianity, both those on the Traditionalist and Progressive sides. Identifying oneself as a Traditionalist or as a Progressive (and therefore not the other side) has been an important part of many United Methodists' self-understanding in recent decades.

Moreover, both sides of the conflict have a sense of how this conflict plays into larger narratives about the trajectory of (American) Christianity, narratives with apocalyptic elements of good vs. evil and a promised ultimate triumph for one's own side.

For Traditionalists, it is a story about evil Progressives abandoning the faith, but the Traditionalists will triumph in the end through numerical growth because they have held to the true faith, while Progressives dwindle and die out because of their apostacy.

For Progressives, it is a story about evil Traditionalists perpetuating oppression against LGBTQ+ persons, but Progressives will triumph in the end because the arc of the universe will bend towards justice and inclusion, vindicating their views and relegating the views of Traditionalists to the dustbin of history.

The animating power of these identities and these narratives mean that we should be wary of assuming that a separation will bring an end to the high conflict in The United Methodist Church. It is entirely possible for the two different groups within the church to become separate denominations but still be consumed by competition and conflict with one another.

For example, the separation between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South did not end conflict between the two groups but rather intensified conflict in border regions where congregations of or sympathizers with both traditions were present. A similar fate is possible for The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church.

For the eventual Global Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church to leave behind high conflict with one another will require both of them to develop new senses of identity that are not predicated on defining themselves in opposition to one another. They will both need some sense of purpose in the world that is not directly a function of continuing their historic conflict.

Those behind the Global United Methodist Church has put forth a variety of reflections and statements about what they see as the purpose of their new denomination. Most of those have to do with spreading revival and true Christianity. The focus on revival is good. Depending on how true Christianity is defined and who it is defined against, the potential still exists there for continued high conflict.

Those who intend to remain within the UMC have recently recognized the importance of such work crafting new identities and narratives. The bishops' "A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church" and the #BeUMC campaign are both products of that realization. A two-page document and a social media hashtag don't constitute a fully articulated vision for the denomination post-separation, but the recognition of the need for new identities and new narratives is a step in the right direction.

Two of Ripley's five strategies for leaving behind high conflict are "reduce the binary" and "complicate the [existing] narrative." If the UMC and its successors are to get beyond our current high conflict, we must generate new stories about Methodism that supersede current simplified, binary views of Methodism as a theater for conflict.

1 comment:

  1. Have we ever known historical analysis to resolve a conflict? As long as we view our plans and edicts and organizational architecture as self-important, we deceive ourselves. The initiative is with God, always has been. There are abounding examples where conflict intensifies because of God's (mysterious, invisible) ways. We should trim the sails of our vanity.