Unity, uniformity and the global UMC

May 12th, 2016

General Conference is a quadrennial gathering of the global United Methodist Church. But by definition, this global gathering is intensely local. Local dialects, languages, costumes, greetings and worship practices take center stage. This convocation begs the question: What, if anything, does a global UMC mean for a local congregation? I posed that question to a handful of young United Methodist clergy with whom I recently met.

“I bring in different worship styles from other countries to our local church,” Sara Rettig, a pastor from Appalachia serving in the Rocky Mountain conference explained. “I make sure they are incorporated in my congregation. We talk about how our way of worshipping isn’t the only way.”

Other young clergy shook their heads. “A lot of time we don’t think of ourselves as a global church. We’re just busy trying to make things happen in our own setting. How can we focus on bringing in more global aspects to our local church instead of just catering to our own needs?”

Many churches find a way to highlight the global church on World Communion Sunday. Greetings and prayers drawn from other languages are a good way to highlight our unity in diversity. But is a once a year shift in perspective enough to create a true sense of community?

Other churches engage in annual or bi-annual mission trips to connect with sister churches across international borders. Always enlightening and uplifting, these opportunities, however, can reinforce a sense of “us” and “them.” We have the resources; they have the needs. We have the answers; they have the deficits. Is that what we envisioned when we set out to create a global denomination?

Sara’s next thought pressed the group: “What does it mean to have different theologies, and be an open church where all of us can be who we are and still be part of a connection?”

Good question. It made me wonder if that’s even allowed in the UMC. We have it, of course, but do we actually acknowledge it or welcome it?

As one young clergy leader pointed out, “The UMC tends to prize uniformity over unity.” That would seem to undermine Sara’s point of inherent diversity in a global church. But maybe the pressure for uniformity boils down to just a few select issues.

“We have one Book of Discipline that assumes we all look at issues in the same way,” said Sara’s husband, Major, also serving in the Rocky Mountain Conference. “For instance, take human sexuality. In some parts of Africa, the primary concern is over polygamy. In the U.S. and Europe, we’re up in arms over homosexuality. If we’re really a global church, how come our Book of Discipline doesn’t reflect that?”

“True,” noted Dustin Burrow, serving in the New Mexico Annual Conference. “How can one Book of Discipline even cover places as disparate as Eastern Europe, the American Southwest, and the African continent?”

The dance between unity and uniformity, the global and the local isn’t new for Peoples of the Book. Think of it: we have four different gospels that give four fairly different accounts of the life of Jesus. Two of them don’t even recount a birth story. The two that do supply radically different details. That same pattern continues all the way through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Not to mention the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It contains two different creation stories, two exoduses from Egypt and a plethora of names of God. Even so, throughout the testaments, you can still detect unifying themes of creation, covenant, sin, forgiveness and redemption. Then there’s the matter of the Trinity itself — God in three persons.

If the Bible itself conveys unity without requiring uniformity, maybe there’s hope for us!

Especially if we were to take a page from Jesus and his tribe. Judaism, from ancient to modern-day times, intentionally cultivates a diversity of voices and viewpoints by which to understand God and God’s will. Books like the Mishnah and Talmud even record these voices in conversation and are studied to this day.

My point is that enforced uniformity across a global denomination like the UMC is actually a disservice. It erases the very things we can learn from each other — the varying ways we read Scripture, do mission, understand the world and even our own selves.

Unity in the midst of diversity is not only biblical, it’s Wesleyan. John Wesley famously wrote, “If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more; give me your hand.”

Our unity as a global denomination can become a source of inspiration, curiosity and growth. Not a condemnation of differences. Or a striving to be exactly the same. But rather an expression of God’s own unity in diversity. Let’s see what that would mean for local churches scattered across the globe! 

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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