I’ve been following the conversations about unity during and since The United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The appeal to unity is powerful and appealing. And it is at one level effective because calling for unity is, well, unifying. I am in favor of unity. I want United Methodism to be unified, desperately. I also have a growing concern that appeals to unity in our current moment are often superficial and act as a kind of opiate to numb us to reality. We should be actively working toward unity. But we should not do so in ways that are vague, distract us from reality, and fail to either bring about meaningful unity or address the reasons we are currently divided. Here are two more specific thoughts I’ve had about unity that I’ve been chewing on since General Conference:
1. It is interesting that the value of unity is often used as a rationale for not enforcing the Discipline. One of the basic purposes of polity is to make unity possible. If you took away the presenting issues related to profound disagreements about human sexuality, I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition. I suspect that the appeal to unity as a rationale for not upholding the Discipline virtually guarantees disunity.
2. I find that appeals to unity are typically vague and lack any concrete precision when they are connected to the deep disagreements we currently have about human sexuality. Consider same sex marriage: A group of United Methodists believes that there can be no such thing as Christian marriage that is composed of two people of the same gender. Another group of United Methodists believes that not only are such marriages possible, but that it is harmful to deny people access to same gender marriages. A third group is frustrated by the inflexibility of these two groups. The appeal to unity most often comes from people in this third group. But I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God. As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like. The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention, this is not going to change.
In moments of crisis, United Methodists often fall back on an appeal to unity. The appeal to unity feels good because we are fighting for the church. The litmus test for the value of an appeal to unity should be this: Does it address the reasons we are divided and offer a concrete solution that can bring about actual unity? Leaders within United Methodism need to consider whether appeals to unity that cannot pass this basic test may actually be doing more harm than good in our current moment.