I’ve been pondering that question lately: What holds us together as a church? What binds us together as a denomination, as The United Methodist Church?
Sadly, the more I think about it, the more stumped I find myself. Certainly, we have a common name. We are all United Methodists. That’s something, at least. (Though, I do note a growing trend of UM churches removing the words “United Methodist” from their placards. So, then again, maybe not.)
But, beyond that, what is there? Theology and doctrine? Unfortunately, that seems to be the last thing we as UM churches have in common. Mind you, maybe there’s more to church than theology and doctrine. Diversity has its advantages.
Still, what we believe does matter. And more and more these days it’s hard to find two UM churches that share the exact same set of beliefs. What’s the point of being a denomination if I can’t go to a church across town and hear roughly the same theology, beliefs and values?
In fact, as I think about it, really the only thing we UM’s have in common is our polity. We are all bound by the same Book of Discipline. And, by and large, this does seem to hold us together at some level. The bishop does have significant authority over each annual conference and can hold each church accountable through pastoral appointment and by means of the “trust” clause.
That is, if a church steps too far out of bounds of standing polity, the pastor can be removed and the doors can be locked because by the “Book” everything is held in trust of the larger UMC. Which is fine. It’s what we all agreed to at the beginning. This is the price of admission to be a UM church.
Still, it makes me wonder: If that’s all that holds us together, how long will we last? If there isn’t anything deeper than a “trust” clause that’s keeping a particular church from leaving, what’s the point? What real meaning was there behind the “United Methodist” on the sign out front? Likely, if polity is all that binds them to us, they probably left in heart and soul a long time ago.
Mind you, I know, our bishops and conference leaders are working hard to cast a unifying vision and mission that will move us forward together. I’m just not sure how effective that can be when we don’t all share the same “givens,” the same values and beliefs. We seem to be a church of 10,000 doors because we share 10,000 different visions of heaven.
So how do you remedy that? How do you bind a church like that together in a way that is meaningful and inspiring? What vision do you cast for something so diverse and wide-ranging? What can hold us together as a denomination beyond mere polity?