As the United Methodist General Conference approaches, the various plans being put forward regarding human sexuality make it appear that the decisive factor will be which theological view is finally adopted as determinative. And while I believe theological conversations are essential in a discernment process, I do not believe they are the pivot on which the future of the UMC turns.
The pivot is not a theological position, it is a value — namely, whether unity is a higher value than schism. To say it another way, if we have the will to stay together, we can find a way to do so. If we lack that will, we will find a way to divide.
Francis Asbury recognized this in 1792 when he urged the eight-year-old Methodist Episcopal Church in America to carefully consider the dangers of divisions and how to “cure” themselves of the temptation to promote such. [Happily, Abingdon Press has recently republished Asbury’s book, The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions.]
Asbury knew, as do we, that any theological position is exercised by the will of the person or group that holds it. Whatever the will is, a theological position can be found to justify it. History shows that the Church is always able to find theological language to do what it wants to do.
The Church has been able to hold together deep disagreements throughout its history — because it wanted to. At the same time, separations have happened when the will to stay together was lost. In both cases, theological language attended the decision and the resulting ecclesial systems which emerged.
Of course the discernment of the ultimate value is always connected to conscience and conviction (e.g. Luther’s, “Here I stand, I can do no other”), and these elements are intertwined with theology. But in the end, the final action is forged in the crucible of a decision relative to the scale of values regarding the preference of unity or schism in a given situation.
If the delegates at General Conference believe unity is a higher value than schism, then we can anticipate some plan for remaining together. If not, we will see some plan for separation. In either case, theological language will be used to justify the ideological and institutional manifestation. But however it is worded, the preference for unity or schism will reflect the deeper and final influence of will.
So, in the end, the pivotal question at General Conference will be, “What do you want? Unity or schism?” and the old Chinese proverb about the bird in our hand will come true once again: is the bird alive or dead? “It is as you will.”