The current conversations flying around the web in the United Methodist Church reminded me of a post I wrote last year. I pulled it out and gave it a bit of an update…
Last year I defended my thesis for my PhD at Durham University in England. It’s an event the British call a ‘viva’ and it’s a nerve-wracking several hours spent fielding what seem like endless questions from two examiners. As is required, neither of my examiners had ever seen my work before and my supervisor, David Wilkinson, was not allowed to be present. It was quite a solitary experience, but at the same time, in an intriguing kind of way, not.
Immediately before the time of reckoning, David and I shared a coffee and then headed over to the Cathedral for a short time of quiet and prayer. As we sat in that amazing environment, David began casually, but eloquently, to remind me of the history of Durham University. Durham has been a seat of learning for over 1000 years beginning with the Venerable Bede, whose shrine was right behind us as we sat. The tradition of scholarship has continued in an unbroken line ever since, with each new scholar meeting with more experienced scholars to discuss their work. Even though he knew I was nervous and just a bit intimidated by the process, David emphasized that I should enjoy the viva, recognizing that what I was going to experience was much bigger than my thesis. The viva, as stressful as it may feel, was the entrance into a long tradition of scholarship, the doorway into a community stretching back over 1000 years.
After a brief time of prayer, we parted ways and I walked to Abbey House to meet my examiners. During the hours that followed, though I knew it was up to me alone to defend my work, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t such a solitary experience. Even more to my surprise was the realization, about midway through, that I was actually enjoying myself; it was invigorating.
The memory of that experience, and more specifically of my conversation with David beforehand, has returned to me frequently – especially in the days since the United Methodist Council of Bishops met in North Carolina. It’s been a struggle not become absorbed in the difficulties facing the United Methodist Church. I’ve had to remind myself over and over that as Methodist Christians, we draw upon the insights of John Wesley (and Charles too), which is a wonderful thing. But that’s not who we follow. We follow Jesus Christ. Our tradition didn’t begin in the 18th century; it began in the first. Our creed isn’t the misnamed ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral,’ it’s the Nicene.
Just as my viva experience was bigger than my own thesis, we Methodist Christians are part of something much larger than our own history, much more foundational than any structure we might devise for our denomination, and deeper, more steadfast and enduring than any passing cultural norm could ever be. We are part of a magnificent Christian tapestry, woven from the threads of Scripture and a tradition stretching back over 2000 years. Our Methodist strands augment that tapestry, but not in the sense of adding something new or different. Those threads augment the tapestry by adding complementary colors to the already existing pattern. Some people describe it as following Jesus in the spirit of the Wesleys. In my family we call it being a Christian with a Wesleyan accent.
I have no doubt that as people who follow Jesus in the spirit of the Wesleys, we will survive our current challenges. What that will actually look like – I don’t know. But however things unfold, if we are faithful, what results will not happen because we will have created something new, but because we will have rediscovered the grand tapestry of Christian faith that is richer and more vibrant than our few threads alone.