What Form Of Unity, Exactly?
“A new form of unity” is the buzzword in United Methodist circles. For a church less than a year away from discerning what A Way Forward looks like, “unity” is on many people’s minds.
Interestingly, there seem to be varied definitions of what “unity” even means. And when you drill down to the practical effects of those different definitions, we get stark contrasts in what unity looks like.
Unity is not Uniformity
The United Methodist Church is not a uniform church.
- We do not all do worship in the same way: unlike our mothership of the Episcopal Church, we don’t just use Rite 1 or Rite 2. We do not follow John Wesley’s standard service, especially the largest Megachurches who don’t even use our official signage. Even individual churches offer multiple worship styles, contextualizing the message to different constituencies.
- At the upper levels, many of our polity statements are encompassing of multiple viewpoints, and we are not Sola Scriptura or Biblical Literalists in our doctrine.
- Our Covenant is not uniform, held accountable not by a Magisterium, but by individual annual (regional) conferences. We do not all uphold the Discipline through multiple actions or inactions.
Unity does not mean Uniformity.
So…what kind of Unity are we discussing, again?
When Unity Means Diversity
The supported plan for The United Methodist Church’s way forward is the One Church plan. For it, unity does not mean uniformity; it means unity with diversity. What it does is extend the missional flexibility to one other polity position of the church: human sexuality.
We don’t know a lot of details. But we know we live into this already.
- United Methodist churches can already adapt their worship services and program offerings to their constituencies. A Tongan service in California will look different than a Native American service in Oklahoma, both under the same UM banner.
- Central Conferences can already adapt entire sections of the Book of Discipline to their context (indeed, they have to: some regions of Africa have only translated the 2008 Discipline into French).
So the One Church plan, though flawed, affirms Unity in The United Methodist Church for what it already is: Diversity of Expression, United in Mission.
It is less a way forward than an official affirmation of what is already present–which is a step forward for some areas of United Methodism, and less so for others.
When Unity Means Schism
According to conservatives, the unity sought by the OneChurch plan is actually schism: hardline conservatives will not be able to endure being in a denomination that affirms the diversity that already exists right under their noses.
A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the ‘local option’ around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.
I’m still unsure how a policy which allows for regional and individual freedom causes all the above. Clergy do not have to offer marriage services to LGBTQ persons or Republicans, and entire Annual Conferences can choose standards of ordination. Nothing is forced!
But I digress from the point: “unity” to the WCA means schism because there is no such thing as the Uniformity to which they seek.
When Unity Means Expulsion
Most disturbing, in contrast to the varied definitions of unity above, the counterplan (the “Traditionalist” plan) would heighten punishments for LGBTQ-inclusive actions and individuals.
And yet, this plan is called “a new form of unity.” Yes, really!
According to Bishop Scott Jones of Texas, unity means expulsion of progressives to outsider status in The United Methodist Church. If the Traditionalist plan passes, Bishop Jones defines unity in this way (screenshot above):
A new form of unity…seeks to bless progressive conferences as they form a new denomination that can be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons. It provides for a similar kind of unity that the UMC has with the AME, CME, and AMEZ denominations today but envisions closer cooperation on mission.
We hit on this type of autonomous affiliated conferences when we examined them previously. But in short, unity in this form means that progressives would be banished from United Methodism and forced to form their separate-but-unequal denomination, leaving the conservatives with everything that generations of Methodists built.
Two of the forms of Unity above are not sustainable. Both Expulsion and Schism models rely on Girardian scapegoat theory: they always need a minority to blame for their troubles.
There is a point where there is so much group violence that unanimity (and thus peace and the avoidance of the collapse of the group) can only be restored when all become fixated on someone who can be held responsible for the collapse of unity and order within the group and then expelled, permitting the establishment of a new social unity over against the expelled one…they believe in the culpability of the rejected one (or group), and continue to bolster up this belief by forging prohibitions, myths, and rituals.
United Methodism right now is a textbook example of Girardian scapegoat theory: a majority culture of Traditionalists taking out their organizational angst on a minority group of Progressives. But after the Progressives are cleaved away, after the hand says it has no need of the feet, the leadership will–by necessity–turn to someone else within their group to fixate their organizational angst onto.
We know this is true by looking at one of the inspirations for the Wesleyan Covenant Association: the Anglican Church of North America. After they broke from The Episcopal Church over LGBTQ inclusion, one of the first things one of their regions did was outlaw the ordination of women. And now the ACNA won’t elect female bishops. They went from persecuting one group to another, and a similar thing will happen to a church without progressives (and to that progressive uniformity too, incidentally).
The Unity We Seek
The ideal form of unity–because uniformity is not ideal nor missional or biblical–is “diversity without enmity” meaning that the missional diversity of the church does not challenge the way we look at one another and hold one another.
We have about six weeks to go to see if the OneChurch model is closer to this definition or one of the more error-prone ones above. Let us pray for discernment in the meantime.
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