Weight-bearing Walls Revisited
Many of you know that my husband, John, is not a professing Christian – he has not claimed the Christian faith for himself. As you might expect, that makes for much deep, meaningful and always lively discussion in our household.
John was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a result has always had difficulty understanding why we United Methodists continue to argue over the wide range of issues that absorb our attention every four years at General Conference. Around this time surprising elements seem to enter our conversation in direct proportion to the volume of General Conference literature that inundates our mailbox.
This week we received a newspaper mailing from Mainstream United Methodists which prompted a no longer new (but always awkward) question from John: “Since there are so many different ways for people to live out their Christian faith, if the United Methodist Church’s doctrines don’t fit a person’s way of living out their faith, or if there are parts of being a United Methodist that violate a person’s conscience, why do they stay United Methodists? Why don’t they become something else?”
John asks this question on a fairly regular basis. I never seem to have an adequate answer.
But what always intrigues me about his question is that he recognizes that United Methodists have doctrines – foundational things that bind us together with Christians across the world and throughout the ages, as well as things that define us as a community of Christians with our own unique place in the body of Christ. If you didn’t already know, those things are our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith as well as John Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
Interestingly, the “Methodist Quadrilateral” isn’t actually included in those foundational things, as many would like to think. The Quadrilateral is about method, not doctrine. It’s about the process not the content. It is not contained in our constitution. It is not protected by any restrictive rules. Unlike our United Methodist doctrine, the Quadrilateral can be changed or even eliminated from the Book of Discipline altogether if that is the desire of the General Conference.
As I was thinking about John’s recognition of the role of doctrine, the metaphor of weight-bearing walls returned to my mind. Now here is something that can bear the weight. Here is the very thing that has born the weight of 2000 years of Christians continually seeking to live into the kingdom of God unfolding in their midst.
The problem is we United Methodists are in the midst of a 40+ year identity crisis. Our identity has become muddied by an emphasis on process rather than content, by thinking that the most important thing is how you come to your conclusions, not what your conclusions actually are. As a result, we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking we are a pluralist church – or at least “doctrinally diverse” – when in actuality we are, at least according to our constitution, confessional.
But I suppose that we really are a confessional church is a moot point if nobody realizes it or if few people even know what our doctrines are, or if those doctrines have been systematically ignored or set aside.
Over fifteen years ago, Billy Abraham asked some questions that are still pertinent today:
- Can United Methodists identify the content of their doctrines and their doctrinal standards?
- Does United Methodism really accept its own doctrines?
- Does it take them seriously in its work and ministry?
- Does it know how to teach them across generations?
- Does it know how to interpret them and relate them to new situations?
- Does it have ways of ensuring that the teachers of the tradition, most especially the presbyters, are really committed to the doctrinal standards of the church?
- Does it have ways of ensuring that its overseers and guardians of the tradition, namely, its bishops, both own the tradition and hold themselves and the church as a whole accountable to these traditions?*
As I head for Tampa, I have an uneasy feeling that none of the decisions we will be asked to make actually addresses what lies at the heart of our struggle as a denomination – the identity crises that stems from doctrinal confusion and chaos. There is an unspoken divide between those who would like to abandon the classical faith of the church and those who want to keep it front and center. We seem to have lost our doctrinal and spiritual focus and have allowed the culture to set the agenda and norms for the church.
I believe Billy Abraham was correct all those years ago when he asserted that:
The church cannot endure without a body of systematic and coherent doctrine. This was not a problem Wesley faced two centuries ago. His challenge was to take the doctrine the church already possessed in her canonical traditions and make it accessible to the masses of his day. Hence he did not make doctrine a high priority in his efforts to renew the church of his day. Two hundred years later, the situation is radically reversed. We have become so doctrinally indifferent and illiterate that the church is starved of intellectual content…It is the recovery of doctrine that in part makes one acutely aware of how crucial continuing intellectual engagement is in the life of the church. We have to find our own way to deploy the doctrines of the faith and to offer the kind of interpretive investigation that will be relevant to our own times. We have to try to solve the problems and questions that lie buried in the tradition; we have to deal with a host of objections that occur to insiders and outsiders; and we have to make our own contributions to the life of the Christian mind. This continuing work is not done in a doctrinal vacuum. It is done precisely in and through the owning of the doctrines of the faith in our own space and time.*
The issues of this General Conference will come and go as they always do – some will resurface, others may not, but nothing of substance will change if we don’t do exactly as Abraham suggests – own the doctrines of our faith in our own space and time.
*Billy Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 50-51, 104-105