Steven Rankin has recently written his own response to the Uniting Methodist movement.*

In his response, Rankin laments that the Uniting Methodists have located themselves as the moderates in relation to others who are cast as “polarizers.”

Rankin rejects this picture of the current situation:

Not a single traditionalist, conservative (pick your label) I know desires disunity or wants to exclude anyone. Not a single one! But if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission. If unity matters, then beliefs matter, as do boundaries. This point is logically inescapable.

Rankin goes on to relate a story about a conversation with ten fellow clergy members that produced very little in the way of common ground:

After about two hours’ discussion, the only point we could agree on was this on the first Easter morning, something happened. We could not agree that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. Just something.

For Rankin, these issues are not simply academic. As he recounts, he himself was cast as a polarizing figure during the time when he was being considered for the position of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Let me begin by agreeing with Rankin on a few points. First, there is no doubt that the United Methodist tradition has broadly failed in the area of theological catechism, and I agree with Steve that we need more robust agreements on creedal issues. Second, I have known Steve for some time. He was a mentor of myine during college, and I still value his friendship. I find his self narrative in his post to be entirely on point. He has been a bridge builder in the denomination, and it is unfortunate that members of the Church judged him so unfairly as they did during the time when he was being considered for Bishop.

This said, while reading his post, I found that he did repeat some of the tropes that have been unfortunately polarizing in our current context.

Take, for instance, his claim that: “if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission.” No doubt this is true. But what is this claim doing in a response to the Uniting Methodist movement? Have the Uniting Methodists suggested that United Methodists should be able “to believe virtually anything?” I have reviewed their vision statement, and I don’t find anything like that there. I know several people who are active in the Uniting Methodists movement, and none of them that I know hold such a position.

Unfortunately, this is a trope that I find all too commonly in contemporary discourse from conservatives. I’ll call it the “argument from disagreement.” To combat those who value unity over one or the other particular stance on the ethics of homosexuality, the conservative speaker responds that there really is no unity to defend. We just don’t really agree on anything.

I find this line of argument to be deeply troubling, not only because it is b, based on a premise that is overstated if not outright false, but because in order to defend it, many conservatives are pushed to overlook some of the best parts of their Wesleyan inheritance.

While reading Rankin’s story about the ten clergy gathered in discussion I found myself wanting to ask: did anyone among those ten clergy members disagree that we have a theologically based obligation to care for the poor and oppressed? I am bound to think that there would have been none who disagreed on this, even if they articulated this theological obligation in different ways. You see, one of the best parts of Wesleyanism is that it is consistent in refusing to look away from our social obligations, and its insistence that those obligations are properly theological.

One thing that I have always appreciated about Wesleyan evangelicals is that (unlike some of their Calvinist brethren) they have never shied away from the social dimension of the Gospel. Yet, in the context of the argument from disagreement, their theological position on social justice in inevitably marginalized or obscured to make the point. The effect is to make Wesleyan evangelicalism much more like non-Wesleyan evangelicalism, and to make it match all the more closely with the polarization of evangelicalism that we see in American politics. One of the losses I feel most profoundly in our current crisis is the way that I have witnessed the Gospel narrowed in efforts to make the case that we disagree about everything.

My point here is not to claim that our theologically grounded social obligations are necessarily sufficient to hold us together. Rather, I am using the fact that conservatives tend to obscure this theological common ground to point out a way in which we are allowing polarization on homosexuality to overwhelm everything else.

In the end, we should not make the mistake of looking away from what we are really doing. The issue causing our schism is not theological pluralism, or the reality of the resurrection, or the authority of the Bible. If we were splitting on the basis of understandings of Biblical authority Billy Abraham and Rob Renfroe would be on opposing sides. If we were splitting on the basis of the reality of the resurrection, innumerable “progressives” in the current conflict would suddenly come to appear to be “conservatives.”

We disagree about ONE issue. We disagree about the ethics of homosexuality. Perhaps it is because that is so obviously an insufficient basis for breaking the Church that some feel the need to act as if we were disagreeing on other issues.

 

*Full disclosure: I have historically supported positions similar to those of the Uniting Methodists, and am sympathetic to the movement. That said, I am in no way associated with Uniting Methodists, and am frankly doubtful that there is hope of unity in the United Methodist Church. I suspect that the question at this point is only how much damage we will do to the body of Christ in the process of our division.
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