As reflections from General Conference 2016 pour in, there’s several that come my way that I think merit a wider audience and discussion that this blog offers. Here’s a reflection from a United Methodist theologically-educated layperson on what unity could mean in a more ecclesiologically-coherant UMC:
One in Christ Jesus: Thoughts on Unity and Ecclesiological (In)Coherence in The UMC
By Dr. Kyle Tau
A Failure of Ecclesiology
I am a big believer in unity. The recent commission proposed by the bishops of The UMC and adopted by the 2016 General Conference gives me great hope that our church will take this opportunity to creatively rethink what unity might look like for the people called Methodists moving forward. Yet I find so much of the rhetoric of unity that has come out of and has surrounded this General Conference to be incoherent. I certainly hold fast to the unity of the Church in the living Christ. There is indeed one hope, one faith and one baptism, one God and father of all. But I am not convinced that this means that there should always be one pension fund, one budget, and one binding legislative body for everything and everybody. I believe there are ways that we can keep the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” without a flat organizational oneness.
The long and short of it is that hoping to discover and ground our unity through a dysfunctional global parliamentary body is a sore substitute for a functioning ecclesiology. As a people that began gathering in voluntary societies and who became a church almost by accident, we have never worked out a fully articulated ecclesiology, including an articulation of the pastoral and theological leadership role of the episcopacy. The action of the General Conference to seek direct leadership from the bishops offers us an opportunity to address these issues.
In light of the many issues that will need to be addressed if something like unity is going to be achieved for The UMC (many of which are helpfully addressed by the General Secretary of GBGM Thomas Kemper here and Dr. Darryl Stephens here), it is perhaps fortuitous that along with approving the bishops’ commission the General Conference also approved a church-wide study of ecclesiology in The UMC that will produce a teaching document much like our documents on baptism and the Eucharist (read the legislation here). Such a document is much needed in order to bring clarity to this discussion of church unity.
Unity and The Iron Cage
Famed sociologist Max Weber once argued that modern life would increasingly swallow more and more aspects of human existence into systems of bureaucratic management such that our social relationships would function like an “iron cage.” As I watched the proceedings of General Conference 2016, I couldn’t help but feel as if we in The UMC have imprisoned ourselves in just such an iron cage. As anxiety regarding a rumored plan to split ramped up on the Tuesday morning of plenary meetings, a presiding bishop prayed that God would “bind us together in chains.” The metaphor of imprisonment to describe church unity was less than comforting for me (as it was for many) and suggests to me that too often we have subordinated true ecclesiological unity (unity in mission, proclamation, and the task of disciple making) to organizational maintenance. In the name of organizational maintenance we have remained locked in an “iron cage” of dysfunctional and abusive relationships with seemingly no way out.
This demonstrates a myopic vision regarding the basis of Christian unity and our fundamental understanding of the Church. Some of this, as I have alluded to, is also reflected in incomplete and unhelpful contemporary understandings of the episcopacy, overtly hierarchical and juridical in some traditions, largely bureaucratic and managerial in our own tradition. The fundamental incoherence in the conversations around what constitutes unity (and therefore what counts as “schism” on the flipside) is this: we have substituted bureaucratic, juridical, and procedural functionality for ecclesiology. We have sought to bind a large, diverse, global and at times deeply divided body together through acts of legislative coercion that are papered over with biblical allusions to “covenant” and platitudes about “oneness.” Yet our collective willingness to inflict untold harm on countless persons while resorting to punitive measures against what has remained a sizable minority within the body reveals that we are operating more on the model of contractual relations than we are a covenant of grace.
A Differentiated Unity?
I am hopeful that the desire of the bishops to discern a way for “a variety of expressions to co-exist in one church,” together with the ecclesiological study document, will inspire new theological reflections on just what this “oneness” means. It is evident that some creative new vision for what constitutes our unity, both theologically and structurally, will be an absolute necessity out of the commission. I am sincerely hopeful that such a new way will not hamstring itself from the outset with a managerial and ultimately non-theological understanding of what it means to be one in Christ. I hope that the bishops and this commission can imagine a way forward that can bring coherence not only to this particular denomination, but that might also further a truly global, pan-Methodist unity animated by cooperation in core mission functions and a mutual recognition of pastoral and episcopal ministries.
I do not know precisely what, for instance, a unified affiliation of semi-autonomous governing bodies would look like structurally. There may be a way for The United Methodist Church to remain a single operating institutional body moving forward, and certainly if this is possible it is to be hoped for. Yet, we are deluding ourselves if we allow such a goal to represent the end all, be all of Methodist ecclesiological unity. In fact, if we were freed of trying to bind one another legislatively, we might just find more unity in Christ than we have in our present state.
In seeking ways to express differentiation within a new, broader unity, might we be surprised to find resurrection rather than death on the other side? Hope of new life rather than fear of “schism”? I hope the commission will boldly explore what the possibilities might be for a more differentiated polity that seeks a theological and missional grounding for our unity in Christ (a true catholicity), rather than keeping us locked in the continual iron cage death match that has become of our General Conference gatherings. The work that is to come will be hard and long and I will be in prayer for the Council of Bishops and the commission as it seeks new possibilities moving forward.
~ Dr. Kyle R. Tau
Kyle is a certified candidate for ordination in the North Georgia Conference, recently completed his PhD in Theological Studies at Emory University, and he is a United Methodist clergy spouse. He and his wife (Rev. Kate Floyd) have one daughter and a son on the way.