Listening Across Differences, Searching for a Core

This article is featured in the Where Will You Serve? (May/June/July 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

In my sermon at the beginning of the special session of the General Conference I made reference to an extraordinary Ted Talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” This Ted Talk has been viewed by seventeen million people. The simple and yet profound thesis in her talk is that we have different stories. We need to share them, and we also need to honor the differences, recognizing the harm in imagining that ours is the only story.

In the weeks after our conference in St. Louis, there is not one response but many. I note a few:

Harm—the testimony of many LGBTQ persons and their allies that the words of our church have done and continue to do harm to them and to those on the periphery of our church who feel excluded from God’s welcome.

Conscience—the struggles of many of our members about how to remain in a church that is identified with our present language about homosexuality.

Fatigue—the sense of many conservatives and progressives that this is a recurring experience, which in their minds is an unnecessary expenditure of time, energy, and resources.

Anxiety—the experience of some leaders in central conferences who see this as a primarily U.S. and Western European matter, and whose concern is about disruption of mission partnerships.

Differentiation—the strategy of many local churches that are re-branding themselves with a counter-narrative to the General Conference, through either banners or full-page newspaper ads or sermons.

Resistance—the actions of many that are in direct contrast to the polity of the church, for the purpose of social change, and the responses of those who monitor them.

Reorientation—the hope of many that the church will now give its attention to other matters of concern, among them poverty, local church vitality, climate change, and racism.

These are some, but not all, of our stories. We are clearly in a place of struggle, as a 55-45 or 53-47 church. There are strong opinions and passions embedded in these differing stories.

My continuing question is to discern whether there a sufficiently common narrative to keep us in communion with each other. This kind of communion would be the fulfillment of the epiclesis: that the Holy Spirit would “make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world”?

"Embracing the Wideness" by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. Order here:

For me, there is the clear New Testament teaching about unity, which is also at the heart of my calling as a bishop. I refer to passages like John 17, I Corinthians 12–14 and Ephesians 4, and my consecration promise to seek the unity of the church. But underneath this call for unity are very real differences, and a question: are our differences so profound that they prohibit us from being in communion or connection with each other?

A great deal of work has been and is being done to achieve some kind of space between us or separation or division. I take these conversations to be the work of faithful people. And yet I remain called and encouraged by many to more clearly name what we do have in common. Or, to say it differently, if we were to begin again and construct a church from the ground up, what would be the essentials or the core of our life together?

My list of core practices—and our heritage is one of practical divinity—would look something like this:

  • The Scriptures
  • Apostles' and Nicene Creed
  • The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith
  • Wesley’s view of Prevenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying Grace
  • The General Rules
  • The Wesley Hymns (for example, “And Can It Be” and “A Charge to Keep” and “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”)
  • Small Group Accountability and Support (Class and Band Meetings)
  • Services of Baptism and Eucharist
  • Works of Piety, Mercy, and Justice
  • Recognition of Orders of Clergy across differently defined expressions of Methodism
  • A shared Methodist/Wesleyan history, even with our divisions and yes, our failures
  • Shared Mission Work
  • Shared Services
  • A connectional way of life that includes forms of 1) superintendency for the purpose of accountability to the mission 2) itinerancy for the purpose of multiplication, and 3) conferencing for the purpose of inspiration, support and governance
  • An assumption that theology has practical (moral) implications and that the law is fulfilled through love
  • A desire to share our faith in healthy and positive ways
  • A desire to experience the Holy Spirit in our lives
  •  A posture of “convicted humility”

We are in a season of ambiguity and chaos; some of this is the reality of a global and democratic church, and some is a factor of profoundly different readings of what happened in St. Louis. Is this a problem? Or instead, is there a danger in a single story?

The adaptive work in this season might be to simply live our way into a new form of church, which was and remains within the Mission, Vision and Scope of the Way Forward. If we are to truly move beyond the present impasse, a mature practice of the faith that honors our differences and that is truly open to the narratives of each other will be essential.

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