Did anyone else notice how Andrew Thompson characterizes the "great divide" of the UMC in his most recent Reporter column?
He writes that there are "two parties" consisting of "those who want to keep the church's doctrine in conformity to Scripture and the broad catholic tradition, and those who insist the church should better reflect the pluralistic, individualistic culture of the wider American society." Now, he doesn't get specific about which "hot-button issues" he is thinking of, but I've got to ask about a few of his word choices.
First: Andrew sees only two "parties" in the UMC. However, in my experience, there are WAY more that two perspectives on every issue, and assuming an either/or outlook just contributes to the myth of divisiveness that so many people are working to overcome. As much as we might want the world to be neatly divided into conservative/liberal, red/blue, or whatever/whichever, in reality life is much more complex, and most of us are okay with that.
Second: Andrew assumes that it is impossible to come up with multiple interpretations of Scripture and tradition. He seems to believe that, if there is disagreement, it must mean that one perspective seeks "conformity" to Scripture/tradition and one does not. However, I have found that it is quite common for equally faithful Christians to study scripture, pray, think, and discuss; and nonetheless end up with different beliefs. Furthermore, it is possible to believe in a way that is grounded in Scripture and tradition, and also the real life experience of living in a diverse, complex, global society.
The column really isn't about divisiveness. His main idea is that we can't let the impending divisiveness of General Conference distract us from other, very important issues. I agree (though I do not agree with his take on those issues per se). But it strikes me that in his act of naming the divisiveness, he does the very thing he is cautioning us against. It's like walking into a room and somebody says, "Hey, do you hear that annoying buzzing noise?" And you say, "Well, not until you mentioned it - and now I can't not hear it."
What if we approached General Conference anticipating honest disagreements expressed graciously, with respect and love? What if we approached General Conference knowing that there would be a wide array of beliefs and ideas being expressed, and we could be okay with that? I read last week (don't remember where) that there is room in the church for disagreement, but not division. I think that is an important distinction to make.
General Conference doesn't have to be divisive, and the decision to make it not be so starts now as the UMC prepares. It starts with one person deciding not to buy into the divisiveness myth, and grows outward from there. It starts with one delegation saying, "Not this year," and setting a hopeful tone that will trickle over into the delegations sitting around them. It starts with one delegate relinquishing their fear and asking another delegate with whom they know they disagree about something to have a cup of coffee and talk about their favorite hobbies or sports or something.
We are not united by our beliefs - we are united by the grace of God. And that's where we will find a future with hope.