My fellow West Virginian United Methodist, Rev. Scott Sears, has a post in response to some of my ongoing discussions. This is a friendly discussion, and one we have both agreed to exactly because we both love our Church. I have written on unity before, but I wanted to speak to some of the issues Rev. Sears has raised.
First, in Wesley’s sermon, “On the Catholic Spirit,” We must go further into the full sermon to understand what Fr. John meant about thinking and loving. Our father in the faith was not, and stood firmly against, speculative latitudinarianism:
For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.
To this end, we must be united where it matters — the core Christian doctrines with Wesleyan distinctives, i.e., the Trinity and blood atonement + free grace and holiness. When you look around, do you find a great unity present in The United Methodist Church?
Do most of us use the same language? Righteousness or justice? Sin or injustice? Holiness. Jesus. God. Trinity? Do we have the same mission of transformation of the world? Yes, on paper, but our visions are at times radically different. The difference begins not with practice, but in the vision.
Unlike those in the free church tradition, Wesleyans have a connexionalism doctrine practically employed. We are not merely a group of individuals, or congregations, that have “liberty of conscience” (i.e., Baptists). Rather, we are a connexion that is a collective society. We are responsible one to another with our prayers, presence, service and witness:
Connectionalism means that we do not see ourselves operating as independent congregations (or pastors). We are engaged in common work. The local church is the most significant arena for making disciples (cf. Book of Discipline, Par. 120), but the local church is fundamentally connected to the whole Church’s mission and ministry. Common cause is essential– in doctrine, discipline and spirit.
Connectionalism is therefore the foundation of the entire Methodist conception of the Church. Our Book of Discipline refers to the connection as a “vital web of interactive relationships” (Par. 132) and describes each local congregation as “a connectional society of persons who have been baptized, have professed their faith in Christ, and have assumed the vows of membership in the United Methodist Church” (Par. 203). It is only because each of those congregations exists as part of a broader connection that the entire United Methodist Church can make a common witness to the world. (Andrew Thompson)
This connexionalism is why I, as a United Methodist, can be connected to Scott, or Bishop Lowry, or others — not because I am a member of a congregation that has joined an association, but because I am a member of The United Methodist Church. My vows were not to my local congregation, but to Christ through The United Methodist Church. The vows of the clergy are not to the congregation, but to be pastors the world over. And Bishops? Not to one group of people, but as a Bishop of the whole Church.
Methodists employ the idea of covenant when they speak of their connection. We are called into the covenant relationship of the connection. That’s the case for all members of the United Methodist Church– both laity and clergy. Our Discipline explains this feature of the Church: “United Methodists throughout the world are bound together in a connectional covenant in which we support and hold each other accountable for faithful discipleship and mission” (CF., Par. 125 – AT, above).
Let me add that the connexion is clearly envisioned in our Book of Discipline, even more in our vows.
219 – Faithful discipleship includes the obligation to participate in the corporate life of the congregation with fellow members of the body of Christ. A member is bound in sacred covenant to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members. A Christian is called to speak the truth in love, always ready to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
So, when you have entire boards of ordained ministry intentionally breaking the Book of Discipline, when you have a retired bishop and a host of (American) clergy intentionally breaking the Book of Discipline, it strains and pushes a dissolution of unity. This is not a mere disagreement, or various groups working for change, but about violating our connexion because the covenant is intentionally violated. Rev. Sears is correct, Christians do fail to live up to their membership vows, if not Christian duty — however, there is a vast chasm between failing to live up and intentionally disobeying. In this intent, we find the seeds of discord. I note that in the Book of Discipline, there is a requirement for United Methodists to help those who are failing to live up to their baptismal covenant.
Let me further add, especially in light of a continued reflection, something on unity with Christ. In Revelation, as I had mentioned, Jesus had threatened to remove the lampstand (make them no longer an independent part of the Church Universal) from a city-church. This doesn’t mean that they would no longer be Christian, but that God would send something different because they had failed to maintain their love of Jesus. What was this first love?
It was their earlier works.
I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors.
Love of Jesus means to test those who call themselves our leaders, and finding that they are not, remove them. Because this promotes unity. Love is to witness about the same Jesus as preached via apostolic teaching. This promotes unity, when we are preaching and teaching the same thing. It is not that those Christians would be separated one from another, or from the Church Universal, but that their particular church would cease to exist. There is never disunity with Jesus cause by another, yet only by our actions.
But, as shown above, our connexionalism can be rent asunder by the actions of others within the connexion and yet we still have Jesus. As Rev. Sears noted, Fr. John believed in this principle, when he suggested his Methodists should avoid corrupt priests, except to receive the sacrament. In the end, this was this corruption that directly led to the creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church — when bishops and priests refused to live up to their vows and God did something quantifiably new — us.
In the end, I am united with Bishop Talbert because of Jesus, but I do not think we have a connexion.Let me affirm once more, my version of unity is based on the Wesleyan understanding of connexionalism. We are not a free church denomination, but historically rooted via Wesley to the larger understanding of what it means to be a Church. I am not a free churcher exactly because I believe the connexional system is biblically warranted, required by Tradition (which is a form of connexionalism) and is a gift of God preventing abuse. At General Conference, the delegates will need to decide if the connexion, and thus unity, still exists for us in The United Methodist Church — or how to maintain what we have and recover our first works. Only then can we proceed to have a real conversation about those things truly causing us problems.
Let me close by pointing to Bishop Mike Lowry, who writes on unity:
We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity b unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value. Please allow me to stress this last. We should pray for and work towards unity. Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value! No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless. It will not. It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!
Yes, unity is threatened right now; however, I long for the day where we can threaten unity against the world.