Last week in OpinionJournal.com, Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote about contrasting understandings of church unity held by the Orthodox (her own tradition) and the Catholics. The former understand unity to be rooted in a unity of faith: believers today believe what the early church believed. Catholics, on the other hand, see unity rooted in the institution of the church. Though they’d see an important role for ancient shared faith, what really matters is proper connection to Rome and the Bishop of Rome.
Which kind of unity characterizes the United Methodist Church? I think part of our recent conflict stems from these two views competing against each other. Though the conflict is usually seen as the “liberals” vs. the “conservatives” (and on many issues, that conflict is very real), there is also a conflict between both these groups and the “moderates” who say something like, “Quit fighting over doctrine. Let’s just be united!” Since both “moderates” and “liberals” tend to view doctrine as less important than “conservatives” do, the bulk of this conflict is between the “conservatives” and “moderates.” This is one reason why I think it is silly to think that the UMC will split into two pieces if it does split. The fault lines are too numerous for that.
If one identifying factor of UM “moderates” is their understanding of unity as institutional, I think it’s clear they are the strongest group – numerically, at least – in the church today. There power was shown in the recent General Conference resolution for unity. I have my doubts that an institutional view of unity will last long in the UMC since we lack the authoritarian structure of the Catholics (and their’s may be falling apart also). We’ll see.