A time for humility in the UMC

June 22nd, 2016

I don't know what is going to become of the United Methodist Church, and this, it seems to me, is a divine summons to humility.

I did not expect the delegates at General Conference to follow the bishops' leadership in their motion to delay voting on matters related to human sexuality. It seemed to me, as I watched the live feed intermittently and Twitter unhealthily and obsessively from Boston, that a majority of folks from both sides were chomping at the bit to vote and let the chips fall where they would.

Then the delegates voted to follow the bishops' proposal. The topics most volatile in the UMC would not be voted on in 2016.

Very surprised, I thought I felt the wave of tension palpably subside. It seemed the whole conference was able to exhale, and I exhaled with it. My surprise didn't end there. I discovered next that I was relieved by this unexpected development: My exhale was a sigh of relief. This realization precipitated reflection on the fact that I had been living in a fatalist frame in which the UMC seemed destined to implode, and probably sooner than later.

I am reminded of my seminary professor Reinhard Hütter, who came of age in a West Germany divided by the Berlin Wall. He and his friends did not expect to live far into adulthood; they expected the nuclear war to begin on their front porch. That the wall, rather than the bombs, fell provoked him to reflect on the mystery of divine providence.

Not that the UMC is out of the woods, and not to say that we won't implode or split or otherwise disintegrate in the coming years. The New England Conference UMC's adopted 'Action of Non-Conformity', like similar decisions of other conferences, is a reminder of our brittle unity, if the UMC can indeed be called 'United'. We have many progressives for whom obedience to the current Book of Discipline is impossible as a matter of conscience, many traditionalists for whom a Discipline with relaxed sexual standards is itself unconscionable, and many in the center (is this the largest group?) and on both sides for whom a non-functioning Book of Discipline, and a polity to which some bishops themselves are disobedient, is a persistent and sad absurdity.

In this context, and past the surprises of GC 2016, I suggest that our present moment's frailties summon us to humility before God and one another. The temptation for both sides is to be strident and self-righteous. Humility, on the other hand, if it can become visible, will, like love, be known by its fruits. The wellsprings of love, as Kierkegaard says, are hidden, but love's hidden life is recognized by its fruits. (See Works of Love.)

So it is with humility.

The 12th century scholar and mystic Hugh of St. Victor has vital insight here. It is very possible for us to be right about a matter of doctrine and, simultaneously, inwardly rotten with pride. This is a temptation for "progressives" as much as for "traditionalists" — both sides are arguing for a binding vision of Christian orthodoxy with a corresponding vision of righteousness. In our present moment, wherever we fall on the UM theological spectrum, Hugh's wisdom offers a beneficial antidote to some among our besetting temptations. This quotation is longer than is usually germane for keeping blog readers' attention. We are impatient and read with consumerist habits. Yet Hugh's words enjoin and invite us to slow down, attend with mind and heart, and be re-formed by the Wisdom that is in Christ. Without further ado:

"There are, however, some who, through the inward peace that has been given them, at first grow much in contemplation; but, when they see their more artless brethren busy with earthly concerns, they despise them as inferior to themselves and, though they themselves are barren of good works, yet they are not afraid to pass judgment on good works in others. In this way those who fail to continue in humility, being severely shaken by the winds of pride, fall from the peak of contemplation and, thus being cast down, they are exposed to sundry errors, and distracted from their peace in various ways.

"Clearly the beginning of these errors is that they will not humbly recognize their weakness, but are unthinkingly puffed up over the gift they have received from God. For in the eyes of people who take such an exaggerated view of their own merits, the actions of others are bound to appear vile, nor could it happen that they should presume to judge another's life, were they not first inflated in themselves.

"Once this error has gained entrance to the soul, therefore, it spreads its poisons wide and, creeping secretly and mingling itself with all the movements of the soul, it changes its inclinations, destroys its purposes, twists its thoughts, corrupts its desires, and brings to it unnecessary cares. And, because a person puffed up has learnt to think thus highly of himself, he disdains to bring his own actions before the bar of reason, and the less he thinks there is within himself that merits blame, the readier he is to hunt down someone else. Yet this pride cloaks itself at first under the semblance of good zeal, and it persuades the deluded heart that he who acquiesces in another's fault is no perfect lover of righteousness, and that he undoubtedly so acquiesces, who neglects to rebuke an offender while he can."

- Hugh of St. Victor, Noah's Ark I.III.10, in Hugh of Saint-Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings

What is the outward fruit of humility which I hope inward humility will manifest? I don't know. I suppose I hope we're able to find ways to love one another, come what may. Recently I was able to be at Rio Texas Annual Conference in sunny Corpus Christi, Texas, and saw a lot of dear brothers and sisters in Christ that I look up to or have grown up with, and even one or two who heard me preach before going to seminary or embarking on the adventure of lay leadership in the church themselves. It is very painful to imagine all of the people in the churches that raised me splitting into different denominations. But I don't know what to hope for institutionally. I have no doctrinal solutions that work for everyone.

But still, I think, humility is key.

Humility enters into the saving love of Jesus Christ. Pride, however righteously manifesting, crucifies.


Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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