In a previous post I noted McClendon & Smith’s work on the nature of convictions. Convictions are the beliefs that are so important to us that they define our identity. If we give up or change these convictions, we become significantly different people. In another post I discussed their claim that convictions also define at least some communities. While some communities have their identity rooted in geography, economics, genetics, or demography, the identity of others is importantly formed by a set of convictions.
What about the United Methodist Church? Can we say that the UMC is a convictional community? On the surface, it looks like we are. As Christians, our liturgy shares in conviction bearing/producing documents and materials. The creeds and hymns we find in our United Methodist Hymnal, the Bible itself – these are important places to look for our convictions. As United Methodist Christians, we also appear to have convictions. We can again look to our hymnal (the Wesley hymns are particularly rich sources for identifying Methodist convictions) and our Book of Discipline. In the Discipline we find the Articles of Religion and the Confession (from our EUB heritage).
On the other hand, in the generations where liberal theology has been dominant in our tradition, some of our meta-convictions have pushed us in the direction of being a non-convictional (or minimally convictional) community. The normative doctrinal pluralism of our original United Methodist doctrinal statement and the non (or even anti-) convictional nature of our seminaries point us away from the idea that we are or should be a convictional community. This has been an ongoing argument in the church since the 1968 merger, with groups like Good News and The Confessing Movement characterized as pushing against the mainstream by claiming we are a convictional community.
Dropping my attempt at objectivity for a moment, the notion that the UMC is or could be a non-convictional community seems ludicrous. The question is not whether we are a convictional community but what those convictions are and the way they will be expressed in the church.
Inasmuch as convictions are a species of belief, we can speak of there being (generally) two kinds of belief. There are beliefs about the way the world is and beliefs about what we should do in the world. Borrowing some language from John Searle’s philosophy, we might describe the former as having a “belief to world direction of fit” (trying to represent the world rightly), the latter as having a “world to belief direction of fit” (trying to make the world right). That at least some of our convictions have an outward view means that convictions have “real world” consequences.
At least some of our current trajectories toward disunity lie in convictional differences. The presenting issue these days revolves around the issue of homosexuality, but draws on a network of convictions including those dealing with hermeneutics (the authority and interpretation of scripture), anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. We are, as a proposed resolution at the last General Conference declared, “not of one mind” on the subject of homosexuality. Or, put in the terms used here, we do not have a shared set of convictions on the subject. Our convictional differences lie in both types. We have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world connects with a set about what we are to do, that results in the consequent conviction that “full inclusion” is the only appropriate action. We also have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world is rather different, connecting with an again rather different set of convictions about what we are to do, resulting in the consequent conviction that the practice of any form of non-heterosexual marital sexuality is to be avoided.
If we had a congregational or highly individualistic conviction set, the church could just settle into a fully “local option,” with each church and each pastor doing as they saw fit. Unfortunately, the United Methodist conviction set still (largely) contains convictions that mitigate against such individualism. We are the church together. We are all one church. Our theology of ministry (centered on the concept of itineracy) treats all clergy as functionally alike and therefore interchangeable.
The easiest way forward is for one side to give in and submit to the other, either willingly or under coercion. This is the way teleological communities (organizations) work, after all. Our current Discipline puts most of the pressure on those who advocate “full inclusion.” The Discipline explicitly declares that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” that same sex weddings are not to be celebrated by our clergy or in our churches, and the “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” are not to be ordained. These institutionalized convictions, inasmuch as they become less shared, are seen as purely coercive, rather than persuasive. Though these rules are still on the books, the past couple of years have seen them increasingly ignored in large swathes of the church.
Given where we are now, I do not know the way forward. I and others are loath to go the way of coercion. The willingness to talk about “amicable separation” is at least partly due to the desire to avoid coercion. I agree with McClendon and Smith when they note:
“If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect not want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly given up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard.”
Thinking in terms of the Golden Rule, I would not like it if I were coerced to give up my convictions or to act contrary to my convictions. I would feel like my integrity was being violated. For this reason, I would rather our church not be an institution characterized by constant trials of dissidents or by numerous people being forced to give up their convictions.
Yet we are a convictional community as well. Just as I am against the idea of coercion, I am also convinced that a convictionally fragmented (or minimized) community will be a weaker and less effective presence in the world, less faithful to God and less able to speak a clear word to the world.
So where do we go? I will continue to explore these themes in future posts.