The Significance of Visible Unity

November 3rd, 2017

This article is the first in a series by the author entitled "Why I am Committed to the Unity of the United Methodist Church."

As the work of the UMC’s Commission on the Way Forward moves to an increasingly crucial stage and I reflect on my own involvement in the Commission, the inescapable question that I need to face is: Why am I committed to the continuing institutional unity of the UMC, even when the institutional form will be different from what it is at present?

The recent launch of the Uniting Methodists as a network seeking to promote such a continuing institutional unity provided a further impetus to my own reflection. Over the next weeks, as I have time, I plan to post four articles. The first provides my positive motivation for working to maintain the unity of the UMC while recognizing that any way forward must involve institutional transformation. The second will look at some objections to a unified UMC which includes people holding to contradictory views on LGBTQ inclusion. The third and fourth will focus on the Wesleyan theological and ethical center which should determine the boundaries of a unified UMC.

Visible Unity is a Theological Imperative

I have argued elsewhere that the promotion of the visible unity of the church is a theological imperative within a Wesleyan context. For Wesley, love for God and love for our fellow human beings in general, and in particular for our siblings in Christ, is the defining characteristic of the visible church. The church is to be the embodiment of God’s love, with members having a reciprocal love for and delight in each other. It is this that makes separation, in Wesley’s thinking, both extremely serious and desperately tragic. As he writes in his sermon “On Schism”:

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together, and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from our brethren. The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is therefore contrary to all those commands of God wherein brotherly love is enjoined:  

While some would want to contrast the unity of the church with its holiness, this is impossible from a Wesleyan perspective; for Wesley love is the essence of holiness. In his Instructions for Children he defined holiness as “The love of God and of all Mankind for God’s sake”. Thus the unity and the holiness of church are inseparably united. Where we recognize that the people with whom we disagree are siblings in Christ, who love God and their neighbors and are seeking live as faithful Christians, there is a theological imperative to seek to maintain a visible — and thus a form of institutional — unity with them.

Visible Unity is a Missional Imperative

For Wesley, the motivation, foundation and goal of God’s work in the world is love. In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” he dreamed of a day when:

All is peace, “quietness, and assurance for ever.” Here is no din of arms, no “confused noise,” no “garments rolled in blood.” “Destructions are come to a perpetual end.” Wars are ceased from the earth. Neither are there any intestine jars remaining; no brother rising up against brother; no country or city divided against itself, and tearing out its own bowels. Civil discord is at an end for evermore, and none is left either to destroy or hurt his neighbour. Here is no oppression to “make” even “the wise man mad;” no extortion to “grind the face of the poor;” no robbery or wrong; no rapine or injustice; for all are “content with such things as they possess.” Thus “righteousness and peace have kissed each other;”(Ps. 85:10) they have “taken root and filled the land;” “righteousness flourishing out of the earth;” and “peace looking down from heaven.”

And with righteousness or justice, mercy is also found. The earth is no longer full of cruel habitations. … Were there any provocation, there is none that now knoweth to return evil for evil; but indeed there is none that doeth evil, no, not one; for all are harmless as doves. And being filled with peace and joy in believing, and united in one body, by one Spirit, they all love as brethren, they are all of one heart and of one soul. “Neither saith any of them, that aught of the things which he possesseth is his own.” There is none among them that lacketh: for every man loveth his neighbour as himself. And all walk by one rule: “Whatever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do unto them.”

It follows, that no unkind word can ever be heard among them, no strife of tongues, no contention of any kind, no railing or evil-speaking, but every one “opens his mouth with wisdom, and in his tongue there is the law of kindness.” Equally incapable are they of fraud or guile: their love is without dissimulation: Their words are always the just expression of their thoughts, opening a window into their breast, that whosoever desires may look into their hearts, and see that only love and God are there.

The visible church is the place where this love is already taking form and is thus called to be a demonstration, in world characterized by discord and conflicts, of the transforming power of God’s love. Its unity in contrast to the divisions and strife is a sign of the reality of God’s love and an integral component of its mission in the world. The church’s proclamation of the love of God rings hollow when its life is characterized by divisions, conflicts and separation.

Unity and the Transnational Character of the UMC

A significant if not a defining feature of the United Methodist Church is that it is a transnational church. This transnational character is a witness to the reality that the body of Christ includes and unites people from different cultures, languages and nations through their common loyalty to their crucified Lord. In a world caught in the tensions between the forces of economic globalization and resurgent nationalism, this institutional embodiment of the transnational character of the body of Christ is of crucial theological and missional significance.

For example, the nexus of the forces of globalization and nationalism are manifested in mass migration. People seeking to escape the poverty, ecological degradation and war that are integrally related to globalization are met by the forces of resurgent (ethnic) nationalism. The UMC is present in countries from which people are migrating, countries through which they travel and the countries they are seeking to reach. The UMC as a transnational church has a particular privilege and responsibility to embody the love of God in this context.

Being a transnational church, howeve,r brings with it major challenges as annual conferences live and minister in very different socio-cultural spaces and times. Such diversity is both an opportunity and a challenge to the calling to embody the love of God. Different socio-cultural places and times provide diverse opportunities for discovering what it means to embody God’s love, and being part of a transnational church provides a unique opportunity to learn from each other. For example, the work of the UMC in working for reconciliation between Russians and Ukrainians in the wake of civil war and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia is an important contribution to our communal learning of what it means to embody the Love of God. Significant examples of responses to discrimination and marginalization can be found in the ministry of the small, under-resourced, eastern and central European Methodists to and with the Roma people, an ethnic group that has experienced centuries of discrimination, exploitation and oppression. The UMC Zimbabwe has been embodying the love of God in a context of economic chaos, dictatorial government and mass emigration. In Congo, the UMC has been engaged ministry to people traumatized by a civil war in which millions were killed and injured and hundreds of thousands raped. The UMC in the Czech Republic and in Denmark provide important examples of mission and evangelism in deeply secular societies. There are numerous other examples.

Being one church in different socio-cultural spaces and times also creates tensions and disagreements as our differences act as an opportunity to embody God’s love but also limit, and at times obscure, our perceptions of what that love requires. What some regard as an imperative of divine love is not perceived to be an imperative by others; for some it might be perceived to be contrary to the divine love. Being part of a transnational church provides a unique opportunity to listen to the critical and contradictory opinions of others as we seek together to discover what it means to embody the love of God. This is not an easy way; it is not a broad way. It is a difficult way, a way of taking up one’s cross and seeking in love to hear the voice of the other and, more importantly, to hear the voice of Spirit of God through the voice of the other.

Unity in a Connectional Church

The United Methodism Church is a transnational connection, a multidimensional network relating congregations and conferences across the globe by providing mutual support, accountability and responsibility in mission. It is together that we participate in God’s mission in the world. For European Methodists, who are small minority churches, this transnational connection is of vital significance in difficult and, at times, hostile contexts. The connectionalism manifests, however, in numerous other contexts. It is the work of UMCOR in coordinating disaster relief. It is support for hospitals, schools and universities in Africa. It is the mission work in new countries which is often supported by congregations with very different theological perspectives. The UMC has been a significant agent of God’s healing and transforming work in the world because it is a united, transnational, connectional church. Being part of a connection also brings responsibility. What happens in one part of the connection impacts — for better or for worse — what happens in other parts of the connection. Division and separation will have a detrimental impact on the work The UMC presently does as a connection.

Visible Unity as an Anticipation of a Future Hope 

One possible way of viewing the visible unity of the church is suggested by Ephesians 2, in which the unity of the church is described in a variety of architectural metaphors. (For this perspective I am indebted to a sermon preached by my wife Caroline Schröder Field in the Basler Münster.)[1] It is the breaking down of the wall of partition and the building of a temple on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, a temple where Christ is the cornerstone or keystone of the temple. While many translators favor the translation cornerstone, the translation keystone offers a fruitful way of looking at the visible unity of the church.

The keystone is the central stone in an arch or vault which holds the structure together. When vaults and arches were built in ancient and medieval times, the stones were held in place by wooden scaffolding. Each stone was cemented to its neighbors by mortar. Once everything was in place, the keystone was placed in the middle. The effect of the keystone is to so relate the different stones together that they mutually bear the weight of each other. Once the keystone is in place, the scaffolding can be removed and the arch or vault stands on its own. The keystone is thus the unifying factor that holds the whole construction together.

While we cannot be certain whether Ephesians is referring to a keystone or a cornerstone, the translation keystone is supported by the earlier reference to the removal of the wall of partition. When, in an ancient building, a partition wall was taken down it had to be replaced by an arch to hold up the roof, and such an arch required a keystone. Christ can thus be understood as the keystone that unites Jews and Gentiles in one temple. This union of Jew and Gentile in the church was not the end of divisions; rather it created new contexts in which there have been and still are new divisions. So in these contexts, new arches need to be built with Christ as the keystone.

Inspired by this image, the pursuit of the visible unity of the church is the task of building new arches or even new vaults that unite divided groups. The church is then like a medieval cathedral with many arches and vaults in which Christ is the keystone. While ultimately it is Christ who becomes the point of unity (and in an important sense this is always our hope for the future), our task is to participate in the construction work carried out by the Spirit that prepares the way for Christ coming as the keystone who will unite us. In this image, the institutions of the church are like the scaffolding that holds the stones together in anticipation of the coming of Christ. While such scaffolding is not the ultimate unity brought by Christ, it anticipates and points to that ultimate unity. Until the return of Christ the church is a building site with all its messiness, but our task is to build in such a way that our institutional structures are anticipations of and directed towards the final unity of the church. To be committed to the visible unity of The UMC is not to give ultimate significance to the structures of The UMC but to seek to build in such a way that The UMC anticipates and points to the ultimate unity in Christ.

Unity and Human Fallibility

To conclude this first installment: I am committed to the unity of the UMC because I aware of my own fallibility. No matter how much I am convinced that my ideas, even those about the unity of church, I recognize that I might be wrong. I need the help of my siblings in Christ, particularly those who disagree with me, to correct me, to point out the weaknesses in my arguments and to propose ways in which my thinking can be lead into greater conformity to the revelation of God in Christ.

[1] You can find the original sermon “Der Schlussstein” (in German) here.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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