Methodism ‘a big tent’ from its beginnings

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United Methodists have choices. No hooks of inevitability are dragging us off in the direction of division. We have free will. And, showered moment by moment with God’s grace, we need to remember that we are responsible and accountable for the choices we make.

It is equally important to remember that United Methodists also live out their lives and make use of their free will in a much larger context than this moment and recent years. The traditions that came together in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church have stories stretching back several generations. The first of the constituent denominations was founded in 1784 — before the new republic called the United States of America had its present Constitution. United Methodists and their predecessors have been facing struggles and challenges for over 230 years.

I mention both of these things — our free will and our history — because we are not trapped by fate and we are not without resources for dealing with the stresses and conflicts facing us as a church right now. We have many examples of experiences together that stand as negative warnings and positive lessons from which we can draw insights and wisdom to guide us.

From the beginning, Methodists have been varied in ways of thinking, ways of believing, and ways of living. John Wesley not only called individuals together into the Methodist Movement — he amalgamated pre-existing groups of people seeking after holiness into the Methodists he helped organize and lead. The people and small groups he brought under his pastoral oversight often had opinions and beliefs that did not line up with those promoted by John Wesley himself. These differences caused no small amount of friction, at times.

Likewise, during the history of American Methodism, there are many examples (especially during the first half-century of the Methodist Episcopal Church) of members — and even preachers — with irregular beliefs. Sometimes preachers caused great concern when they deviated in their understandings of basic doctrines. Reading through annual conference journals from the early 1800s, for instance, reveals occasions when preachers were taken aside by their companions in the ministry to correct errors as basic as the claim that the Trinity is an association of three gods! Indeed, what is striking from those early decades of the Methodists in America is how patient the conferences were in dealing with doctrinal error. Efforts generally were focused upon loving persuasion with disciplinary action being taken as a much-regretted last resort.

Many theologies

In areas of theological interpretation — theology understood as emanating  from doctrine and, thus, being a rung down in significance from points of doctrine themselves — there has always been wide variety in claims and understandings. In part, this is because of the diverse traditions that have contributed to the (now) United Methodist family.

From the Evangelical United Brethren side of the denomination’s family tree, for instance, we have roots that stretch into German Reformed and German Pietist traditions. We have “peace church” perspectives that draw upon our past familial connections with Mennonites. We have Calvinistic perspectives drawn from both inside and outside of the formal relationships built up in the union of 1968.

To be honest, we must speak of the many theologies of United Methodism united under “one big tent” when we came together almost half a century ago. Those varieties of theology have been with us and continue with us. Indeed, they have continued to develop and grow in distinct ways within The United Methodist Church.

There have also been long-standing differences over ecclesiological matters (questions about how the church should be structured and governed). The three traditions that came together in the 1939 church union (the Methodist Episcopal Church; Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and the Methodist Protestant Church) had very different notions of the role of the superintendency, for instance.

Methodist Protestants, who had separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1830s over issues of slavery and the episcopacy, only grudgingly agreed to accept having bishops at all. In the Methodist Episcopal Church, there was a more “functional” understanding of the office of bishop (you were a bishop so long as you met the qualifications for being a bishop and could perform the duties expected of someone holding the office) — they did the things a bishop does and were, therefore, bishops. However, in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, there was much more of a sense of a change in the substance of the person that made a bishop — they were a bishop who therefore did the things of a bishop.

The union of 1968 added even more variety to the notion of what the church’s overseers should be like — drawing a closer sense of connection to specific geographic areas and heightened notions of bishops as pastors to the whole of the faithful under their oversight. What is fascinating when one talks with United Methodists drawn from these component traditions of who we are is that the varieties of understandings of superintendency are all still with us. They co-exist (sometimes peacefully and sometimes causing conflict) alongside each other in our midst.

Spirit that joins United Methodists

Indeed, claims that “a United Methodist looks like this” (believes like this, does this, etc.) tend to be very weak. Generalizations are seldom without striking exceptions. When pressed to define what a United Methodist is, the effort is almost certain to fail if one tries to do so in terms of agreement on uniform church structures and specific theological outlooks.

And yet, there is a way of being United Methodist that I think applies to most. I see it in the spirit of most members of the church. There is a sense of cooperative relationship with God. United Methodists tend not to see people as objects upon whom God acts; but as persons whom God loves, guides and helps to grow. United Methodists tend to believe, as John Wesley did, that salvation is an invitation (and hope of God) for all.

Over the history of the traditions that make up our church, there have been struggles for power and struggles for justice that have threatened the unity of the denomination in nearly every generation. Sometimes Methodists have split from one another. Most often, generation by generation, they have not.

A look at our past can help us in our present and our future. One lesson I think is especially important to remember is that the threat of coming apart has often been a characteristic of our life together — and most of the time we have stayed together (or even returned to one another). What will be your choice now? What will be our choice together?

Messer is associate ecumenical staff officer for theology and dialogue with the Council of Bishops Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. He has also taught history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Boston University and Yale University.

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