Yesterday I mentioned a concept of a “conviction” as developed by James M. Smith and Jim McClendon. They say of convictions:
A conviction [is] a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.
That little phrase “or community” is important. Just as people can be significantly defined by their convictions, so can communities.
Now, it need not be the case that a community is defined by its convictions. The street I live on with my family is a rather cohesive neighborhood. The residents meet together a couple of times a year to enjoy each other’s company and talk about mutual interests. Here we are, about 30 houses in a city of about 80,000. This community is not, however, a convictional community. We are, at most, a locational, community: we live in the same area. We probably share some convictions – maybe even many – but since those convictions play no central role in our community, we’re not even aware of convictional commonalities that may exist.
Can we think of the United Methodist Church as a convictional community? As United Methodists, we (mostly?) share convictions that connectionalism, itinerant ministry, and grace are all good things, that infants are proper subjects for baptism, and that Methodist life is bound by important institutions beyond the local church. As United Methodist Christians, we also share convictions with the broader (and historic) Christian community.
For some time after the 1968 merger that brought the United Methodist Church into being, there was some doubt about how we could be a convictional community. In that era, up until the new doctrinal statement produced by the 1988 General Conference, we lived under normative doctrinal pluralism (in this context, I’m counting doctrine as a kind of conviction). It was not merely that Methodists across the connection had a variety of convictions (descriptive doctrinal pluralism), but that it was thought this variety was a good thing, something we ought to cherish. Though normative doctrinal pluralism has been (mostly) sidelined in the official language of the Book of Discipline, it remains a common ethos of those raised in that era or discipled by those from that generation.
If my claims in yesterday’s post are correct, the United Methodist Church, like other communities, will have a range of convictions. While all these convictions are important in the institution’s self-definition (that’s the nature of convictions, after all), some are more important than others. As they are confronted with challenges, some will be relinquished, some transformed, some strengthened or weakened.
This kind of change is inevitable. The challenge is that the United Methodist Church is a large, international organization. Most of the convictional challenges we face, though common from place to place, are faced locally. Changes in convictional content or status in one region will likely differ from changes in other regions. Over time, these changes bring about what we might call “disunity.” One does not have to have been around the United Methodist Church many years to recognize the irony of the common typo, the Untied Methodist Church. As the church prepares for the next General Conference (2016 in Portland), voices urging unity compete with those calling for separation (amicable or not). These voices are a natural consequence of an increase in convictional pluralism/difference.
One option, traditional in recent Methodism, is to decry doctrine (convictions, in this case) as necessarily divisive. If we want unity, we must set doctrine and conviction aside in favor of love and unity. My claim is that even if it were possible for United Methodists qua United Methodists, to cease being a convictional community, it is not possible for United Methodists qua Christians, to cease being convictional. As to the former possibility, I am doubtful that United Methodism to cease being a convictional community either way.
If we cannot help but be a convictional community, where does that leave us? I’ll take that up in the next post in the series.