The eventual loss of a single word in our identity is a blessing for some, but a tragedy for all.
Wait. Which kind are you?
Whenever I meet a Presbyterian, I’m careful to ask: Presbyterian Church USA? Presbyterian Church of America? Which are you?
Whenever I meet a Lutheran, I’m careful to ask: Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? Which are you?
Whenever I meet a Baptist…well, you have to ask. Southern? American? Freewill? More than a dozen others…like the old joke.
Whenever I meet an Anglican, I’m careful to ask: Anglican Church of North America? The Episcopal Church? Church of England? Which part of the Anglican Communion are you?
When someone says they are “Orthodox“…Eastern? Russian? Greek? Or do you identify as an “Orthodox Christian” which, well, that’s a whole can of worms now, isn’t it?
These days, for all the denominations that have weathered schisms and ruptures, and those with longtime fissures in their traditions, you have to ask “which kind are you?”
But whenever I meet a Methodist, I don’t often have to ask “which kind are you?” I don’t have to ask because if they are Free Methodist or African Methodist Episcopal (Zion), then they usually identify as that from the first introduction. They have to because United Methodism is overwhelming the majority identity: United Methodism is 300% larger than any other North American body (AME, AMEZ, Nazarenes, etc.) in the World Methodist Council.
While I sometimes have to say I’m “not that type of Methodist” when it comes to social questions of our time, I’m thankful not to have to identify which type of Methodist I am.
At least, for now.
People of the “And”
Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is the Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics professor at Vancouver School of Theology and an ordained elder from the North Carolina Annual Conference. At a recent gathering of United Methodist clergy and laity in the Seattle and Tacoma (Washington, USA) areas, he had a great comment that spurred my imagination. From my scribbled notes, so not quite verbatim:
Methodists are liberal and evangelical. They seek social justice and personal piety. They live out personal and social holiness.
Look at those qualities. All those qualities have the same common word: And.
Methodists are people of the “And.”
I love that.
We are people that hold tension within a world that wants us in our market segmented columns. While the world wants us to watch the cable news, read the websites, and live in areas that reinforce our echo chambers, United Methodism wants us to be in places of diversity and difference.
We are anachronisms in a world of broken denominations by regional, ethnic, or ideological lines. We count conservative George Bush and liberal Hillary Clinton as members. We hold churches in every Blue State and Red State corner of America and a growing number in Africa and Philippines and many other regions of the world. Our breadth is our strength–and our most significant source of contention.
And we harm one another in this place of Both/And. Methodists are people who are charitable on divorce AND who require LGBTQ persons to divorce their spouses to become clergy. Methodists are people who are charitable on abortion AND who deny United Methodists the ability to advocate for reproductive choice. Methodists are people who allow LGBTQ to be church members (sometimes) AND who deny their calling to be clergy or to seek committed relationships. Being a people of Both/And is a place of great harm to women and minorities which continually needs correcting.
We sit in the difficult place of difference which leads to harm for some, considerable growth for others, and overall a place where tension leads to personal and communal transformation, for better or worse.
At least, for now.
Will 2019 change the word?
Sadly, the Either/Or World has infected United Methodism, and the kingdom values of unity in diversity are on the cusp of losing to the ghettoizing forces in our own denomination.
The Commission on A Way Forward has three models on the table (before they finally settle on one–hopefully) for what United Methodism can look like after the special conference in 2019. Two of them would lead to Methodists becoming Either/Or (progressive expulsion or different tracks models) and one of them (the local option model) would allow us to continue to be people of Both/And.
But even in the latter scenario, it’s clear that some folks tired of Both/And will leave and be part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association when the veil comes off, and they start operating as a full denomination instead of a church-within-a-church.
In doing so, we might be reaching the end of being people of the Both/And, and join the other denominations in the splintering of their theological perspective. We will be leveled the same “What kind of Methodist are you?” questions that other denominations receive.
Which I lament. I like being part of you, and you a part of me.
Byassee concluded his comment with this haunting line:
There’s a lot of generosity in the “And.”
There’s not any generosity in “Or.”
LGBTQ Methodists and some regions of United Methodism don’t often find a lot of generosity in the “and.” Being the unprotected minority perspective leads to a lot of harm and not a lot of generosity. I am in a place of privilege and I cannot say that being Either/Or is completely unacceptable for our minority perspectives who would no longer be in systems of harm.
And yet there’s more generosity and reciprocity in the “and” than in the “or” when we’ve devolved into our camps and regions. I don’t often care enough about my Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Baptist neighbors to advocate for change in how they treat LGBTQ persons or women–will I reach that same level of apathy with the “other side” of Methodism when the split comes?
I hope not. Even now as I lift up regional diversity in United Methodism, I still see Southern United Methodists as my colleagues and siblings in the faith. But looking at how I hold other denominations most of the time, I fear I will cease holding them the same when our names are different.
Which I lament. I like being a part of you, and you a part of me.
And I will miss you when we stop being people of the AND and start being people of the OR, all because of a temporary debate like racial and gender exclusion that we now see as bygone errors of the past.
It will be a tragedy if we don’t endure as people of the AND when our entire theology, experience, and ecclesiology is geared to be a Church of the AND, allowing for unity in diversity to accomplish the mission of the Church.
May we not allow the Either/Or world to prevail over a Church of the Both/And.
Or is that EITHER/OR Church where you would rather be?
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