What is distinctive about the United Methodist Church? What is United Methodist identity?
In other words, what makes United Methodists United Methodists?
This is the question our Confirmation class pondered the last couple weeks. How would you respond?
(Or, for my non-UMC readers, how would you answer the question for your denomination or religion or organization with which you are affiliated?)
The first time we asked the Confirmands this, their answers ranged, it seems to me, from surprising to impressive to, frankly, a little scary. They wrote:
- Broke off from the Anglican church.
- Anyone can take communion.
- Only grape juice used for communion, no wine.
- Started by John & Charles Wesley at Oxford in England.
- The Wesley Quadrilateral of how to think about faith: through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
As you can see, they mentioned some history, some worship practices, some social commentary, and some theology (which I’d also argue is in large part anthropology, but that’s probably a post for another day). Each item elicited more conversation.
Talking about gambling means talking about how state-run lottos prey on the poor as well as being good stewards of our money.
Talking about open communion means admitting none of us fully understands the sacrament but are all in need of God’s amazing grace.
Talking about using grape juice means talking about Methodist’s history of supporting Alcoholics Anonymous and – going back to open communion – wanting all present to be able to partake.
Talking about the Wesley brothers and how the Methodist movement got started means talking about reappropriating a slur into a badge of honor. It also means tracing our faith heritage back through the ages: UMC => Methodist Church & Evangelical United Brethren => Church of England => Roman Catholic Church => early followers of the Way => Jesus => Hebrews. Can you accurately place each of those pieces of church history on a timeline? Our Confirmands can.
Talking about how we come to believe what it is that we believe – using the Quadrilateral – means admitting to the human condition. We all read and think through those lenses, but the UMC is nearly unique in naming that reality.
As you might have surmised by now, it was a robust, wide-ranging conversation. But there was one other item a youth put on the board; one other way that they see United Methodist Church’s identity. Can you guess what it was?
- Against gay rights.
It’s like having a mirror held up to your face and being forced to see what others see, regardless of how you view yourself. Like I said, a little scary. And certainly uncomfortable. Think about it: this is what our 7th and 8th graders think it means to be United Methodist. Is this what we want 7th and 8th graders to think? Is this the legacy we want to leave them?
Of course we talked about the complex nature of the United Methodist Church and gay rights. Doing so requires talking about the confusingly bifurcated Social Principles statements on human sexuality. It means talking about General Conference and how there is a decades-old movement to change the language to be fully welcoming and affirming of our gay sisters and brothers. It means talking about the most recent General Conference in 2012 when a proposal to just change the language to (paraphrasing here) “We United Methodists disagree about human sexuality and about how the church should and should not respond to LGBT sisters and brothers.” While that is so clearly the actual truth of our current reality, even that simple, honest change couldn’t pass.
All of that led to a terrific chat about ways to respond to this situation:
- Get fed up with super slow progress on accepting the LGBT community and leave to another church that is welcoming and affirming. Or leave church altogether.
- Stay in the UMC and ignore the issue, hoping it will go away or get resolved without me.
- Stay in the UMC and work for change.
We said all three of those responses are happening right now. The last of which leads to others staying in the church working to keep the language the same. For which of those four response will Woodridge UMC be known?
While it is quite disconcerting to look into the mirror that is our youth’s perceptions of our denomination, it is also a gift. It is an opportunity, an invitation even, for self-reflection. What is the state of the church we are handing over to the next generation? Are we living God’s call on our lives – as individuals, as families, and as a denomination – to transform the world with the Holy Spirit? If not, how will we improve it?
I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.