A Radical Unity

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

I believe that we are radically united. I know that this is hard to swallow given what we have just experienced in St. Louis. At General Conference 2019, words were spoken and actions taken that cannot be unsaid or undone. The language of truth and love was weaponized and deployed on behalf of important causes but with tragic consequences: the wounding (again) of sisters and brothers who are LGBTQIA+ or affirming, the vilification of sisters and brothers from Africa and Russia. In the aftermath of February 2019, some United Methodists are heading for the exits, gracious or not; others are being pushed out the door. With all eyes now looking to the Judicial Council or to General Conference 2020, it is important to remember a strange truth—we are radically united.

The word radical comes from the Latin radix, which means roots. We define an action as radical if it goes beneath the surface. A change is radical when it digs down to the radix, the root. Roots grow underground and for that reason they are hard to see. Our unity is radical because its source lies deep beneath the surface. In other words, our common ground is underground. I relearned this lesson in Rome.

In 2017, I visited Rome as part of a delegation of Methodists and Catholics that met with Pope Francis for a celebration of fifty years of ecumenical dialogue. Before our audience, we visited the Scavi, a network of catacombs beneath the Vatican. These catacombs were discovered by accident in the mid-twentieth century during a building project, and include what is believed to be the true grave of Peter. In a small grotto by this grave, in sight of Peter’s jawbone, our delegation paused for a moment to pray the Lord’s Prayer. In that dark, cramped room, beneath the weight of marble, gold, and centuries of conflicted histories, I witnessed a small miracle. I saw more than Catholics or Methodists, bishops or theologians. I saw Christians calling on our Father, begging for our daily bread, and confessing our sins. Prayer opened my eyes to see again an important truth: We are radically one.

What does the vision that I saw at the Scavi have to do with the way forward for The United Methodist Church? What does Rome have to do with St. Louis?

First, the way forward is certain. Our point of departure is already fixed. The bones lying in that ancient tomb belong to our Peter. Methodists are built on that rock. We did not spring Athena-like from the brow of John Wesley. The gloriously crooked history that we share with Roman Catholics is our story: our Mary, our Augustine, our Francis, our Borgia popes, our crusaders, our inquisitors. Our point of arrival is also fixed. In heaven, there are no traditional, progressive, or centrist churches. In the new creation, there is only one people of God out of every tribe, tongue, nation and denomination washed clean in the blood of the lamb. Over the centuries, the line connecting these two points has become broken; it has curved, diverged, and converged, but those two points remain fixed. I do not know what will happen to The United Methodist Church over the next few years, but—spoiler alert—I know where the line goes and how the story ends: one church.

Second, the way forward is long. When I think about my experience in the grotto under the Vatican, I think of the fifty years of work that it took us to get there. Our ecumenical journey has been richly blessed and fruitful, and yet we still have profound differences. Catholics have a Pope who teaches with infallible authority; they do not allow us to share the Lord’s Supper; they do not ordain women; in fact, they do not recognize my ordination. Even in areas where we have achieved remarkable consensus, such as on the doctrine of justification, differences remain. It may come as a shock to United Methodists, but Catholics still practice indulgences. If Methodists and Catholics can walk together in spite of these differences and difficulties, I believe that United Methodists can find a way to walk with each other, provided we take the long view. Our debates over human sexuality will be settled, but it will take time, perhaps even a long, long time. The attitude required for this kind of long journey is what the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, calls paciencia ardiente. Armed with “burning patience” I can keep walking without giving in to presumption or despair.

Third, the way forward goes downward. When I returned to North Carolina from St. Louis, I felt frustrated and confused. I saw a United Methodist Church that looked less like a fruit bearing tree and more like a stump. However, when I remember what I saw beneath the Vatican, I hope. Yes, the words and actions at General Conference cut deep. Our divisions are painfully visible, but they do not go down to the roots. There is more to the United Methodist Church than what I saw on the conference floor or on the concourse of the convention center. On the surface, our unity depends on the Book of Discipline. At their best, the structures of governance and organization contained in this book serve our unity by making it visible and attractive. Bad polity and dirty politics can wound our unity, but they cannot destroy it because our unity has deep roots. In the words of Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots” (Isa 11:1 CEB). Our common ground is underground because we were buried with Christ in baptism. No action of General Conference can change that.

Call me out of touch, but I still believe. Even now, we are radically united. What I saw in St. Louis was not pretty. Then again, Jesus never promised that the body of Christ that is the church would ever win a beauty contest. What Jesus promised is that the church built on the rock of Peter would not fail. Despite everything we flawed children of Adam continue to do to God’s church, it stands. Thanks be to God!

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