The elections and subsequent assignments involve a lengthy process that has grown more and more complicated in the 200+ years Methodism has been in the United States.
And the vast majority of newly-elected bishops had some version of George W. Bush’s “I’m a uniter, not a divider” as their rallying cry. In other words, our bishops-to-be and bishops-that-are seek to unite all the disparate theological, ethnic, and political voices that make up our denomination.
(Just once, wouldn’t it be fun for an episcopal candidate to proclaim boldly, “I’m a divider, not a uniter!”? That one might get my vote.)
But all the bishop-speak has me thinking: what, exactly, is the source of our unity? People who are unified must coalesce around something; so what is that something for United Methodists?
I can think of three levels.
1. At the lowest level there is institutional survival. Most of us in the connection have heard the dire statistical trends with the promise that if we don’t do things differently, there will be no United Methodists left in 50 years. (I will be 100 by then and probably won’t much care.)
Well, survival is never a particularly compelling vision to use in uniting people together. And after all, Christianity has endured the departure of a number of groups through the century — anyone been to a Millerite Church recently? — and survived well enough.
2. At the middle level there is the mission. As a denomination, it’s “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” As mission statements go, that’s a strong one. I’m partial to our congregation’s “inviting all people a living relationship with Jesus Christ” but in terms of an entire denomination, ours is pretty good.
The problems arise when we try to define what is a disciple? United Methodists living in Northern California would define that very differently from those living in Mississippi. One group might emphasize serving in soup kitches while others define displipleship in terms of bible memorization.
And there is even greater disparity in our understandings of what the transformation of the world looks like. Some UMs might describe that as the Romney-Ryan tax plan. Others would focus on a more equal distribution of income. Still others define it as eradicating pornography and abortion while another group believes a transformed world means Christians involved in persistent and effective acts of charity.
So while we have a strong mission statement, United Methodists can’t find unity around it because they bring their own definitions to it.
3. Instead, the highest level source of our unity is, as Paul says in I Corinthians 1:23: Christ and him crucified.
Not a left-wing Jesus who wants us to stop eating meat and whose theology bears an uncanny resemblance to the platform of the Democratic party.
Not a right-wing Jesus who we use as a weapon against our opponents and whose words we twist out of context to reinforce our worst prejudices.
But a hanging, bleeding, and ultimately risen Jesus whose words and actions provoke, confound, and save us.
Lift him up, declare the decisiveness of his story in human history, and unity — real unity with its glorious mix of racial, ethnic, and political diversity — might just happen.
Because Methodist unity, you see, is never the goal. It’s the result. The result of preaching Christ and him crucified.